What strange compulsion compelled him, what mysterious force forced him, what sinister lure lured him to . . . The Matinee of The Damned???

Was it mere curiosity? Was it an uncontrollable urge to cringe? Had he gone Completely insane??? Or did he just want to continue receiving his PAYCHECK???

Three horror movies opening in one day! Advertised with the kind of smarmy, lurid pandering he craved. "Don't Answer the Phone" ("He'll Know You're Alone?"), "Death Ship" ("What in the living hell is on board!") and, most promising of all, "Humanoids From the Deep" ("They're not human. But they hunt human women. Not for killing. For mating.")

And all, with pure and irritating perversity, rated R by the Motion Picture Association, so as to keep them away from their best audience, kids.

He would see them all in one day. All three of them. In fact, if there were time, he might even sneak in "Eaten Alive," "Meat Cleaver Massacre" or "Dracula's Dog."

It's a rite -- a rite of summer, of school's out, heat's on, and, for movie theaters, of its's-almost-impossible-to-lose-money-on-a-horror-movie-anymore. No matter how minimal, how meager or how unhorrifying it really is. No matter how few poor souls get bludgeoned to death on the screen, through the take does seem to rise with the body count.

He wanted to be scared. He wanted to be terrorized.He wanted to be grossed out. He wanted his acidic little stomach to be Twisted into a PRETZEL!!!

True, he could have stayed home and watch television.

But -- uh-uh. He wanted a particular, manageable, distanced, formalized, ritualized kind of atrocity. Ayatollah? No, no, no! Urban distrubances? No, no, no! Bathing beauties abducted and molested by ghastly, scaly beasts from the special effects department? Yes, yes, yes!

However, things did not bode well for boding ill. "Don't Answer the Phone" turned out to be not so much a thriller as a comedy about a homicidal sex maniac -- only one of whose victims dies after answering the phone, as it happens. "We may have a mad killer-rapist prowling our streets," a radio newscaster says cheerfully. A nursie had removed her clothes in the first reel and then, rrrring! Two seconds later she was being strangled to death by a fat man wearing a stocking over his head.

Not scary. Not funny, even though so much comic relief is injected that the movie turns into a farce. The cops are portrayed as completely incompetent bunglers, but the audience is supposed to like them because they keep stopping in their tracks for mucho macho banter. They shoot an eyewitness to death and then casually note, "He was our only lead" as to the identity of the killer.

When the killer is finally shot full of holes and falls into a swimming pool, one cop snarls, "Adios, creep!"

"That was a funny movie," said one kid to another as they left the theater.

A sleeping man woke up and resumed some serious coughing.

Indefatigable Moviegoer plunged onward -- to "Humanoids From the Deep," which had to be an improvement and oh, brother, was it ever.

This one had a classic good news/bad news joke. To townspeople terrorized by marauding monsters from the briny, an attractive woman scientist announced, "We know where these things come from -- but we have no idea how many there are."

It only takes a moment for them to start crashing through the boardwalk like jolly jump-ups and making quite a mess out of the Novo County Salmon Festival.

In the '50s, nuclear testing was always blamed for unleashing lizards and gargoyles from the depths. Now of course nuclear energy has become a rather prosaic and far too tangible hazard, but the movies keep up. These ghoulish stalking fish are the result of experiments using something identified as DNA-5 to increase the size and sex drive of salmon. But a prehistoric, unevolved fish ate the salmon and the evolin' began immediately.

"What the hell are these things, anyway?" asks chunky hero Doug McClure. "Why are they attacking us?" asks someone else. "It's enough to scare the hell out of me," says McClure.

"You and me both," our moviegoer says to himself over the crunch of overpriced buttered popcorn.

The director of this picture was Barbara Peeters, and this gal knows what scares people. She has a seasoned sense of black humor as well. It took a smart cookie to compose the shot in which the legs of a roller-skating teen-age girl are suddenly grabbed by a slimy, clawed paw. Or to invade the innocuous sanctity of a children's carousel with the hideous specter of a slobbering monster.

"Humanoids" is a clever combination of "Jaws" and "Alien." The humanoids, designed by Rob Bottin, are essentially crossbreeds between the "Alien" alien and the "Creature From the Black Lagoon," a demon dear to the hearts of true horror movie lovers everywhere.

Perhaps because a woman directed it, the women in "Humanoids," especially heroine Ann Turkel (as the scientist), are not, refreshingly enough, just screaming, helpless bimbos. In fact, McClure's wife fends off two libidinous fiends by herself after they come crashing into the house where she and her child are trapped alone. Trapped, with the humanoids clawing and scraping their way inside, driven by an ecological nightmare into a mad rampage of murder and carnage!

Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum!

Incurable Moviegoer would have hopped right aboard "Death Ship" after "Humanoids," but there was no Lonely Guy's Matinee at the theater where it was playing. He would have to drive into the -- argghhhhh! -- Virginia suburbs for that one.

It hadn't always been like this.

Nothing ever had, come to think of it.

When he was a child of and in the '50s, his older brother Jim used to keep him awake nights recounting the horrors of horror movies his mother and father thought him too young to see. No real movie could have been more tantalizingly nightmare-provoking than this brother's detailed synopsis of the sci-fi thriller "Them!" in which a little girl traumatized by the sight of giant ants eating her parents could only murmur, "Them . . . them . . . them" to those who questioned her later.

When he was a little older he went with friends to the Rialto Theater to see "House of Wax" in 3-D.Nothing seemed to startle the tot audience more than when the film broke during a scary part and the wonderful nasty dream vanished momentarily from the screen. When Phyllis Kirk knocked Vincent Price's wax face off, the screaming the Rialto might have been enough to shatter marbles.

When the watershed of "Psycho" was reached in 1960, he sat down in his theater seat only to find his knees were visibly shaking before the picture even started. After the "The Exorcist," the first road sign he noticed when driving away from the theater pointed the way to a "Trauma Center." How convenient.

By then it had all turned a little ugly, but every now and then a movie would reawaken the incomparable delights of those primal childhood fears. However, no film for him would ever be able to equal "This Island, Earth," because when his father, on a rare day off, had taken to see it, he was 9 years old and the film was suddenly interrupted by a woman in the back row who began shouting hysterical expletives at the screen.

"Turn it off!" she yelled, during a scene in which the characters in the film took delivery of a triangular-screened TV set from outer space. "Turn the G--d---thing off!"

His father said not to be alarmed, that the woman was from the local state mental hospital, and that patients were routinely taken to the movies by staff members. But he never forgot those screams in the dark. He never forgot "This Island, Earth." He was hooked on horror movies FOR LIFE.

The sky grew gray as his car crept onto the eerie Beltway. Ominous clouds hung low over the crowded road. A strange silence filled the air. A strange rain began to fall. A strange dread began to overcome him as he thought about sitting through another 110 minutes of sheer, stark-raving terror. Little did he know then it would be 110 minutes of sheer, stark-raving boredom.

Thunder clapped now as he parked the car. The lights blinked in the shiny clean shopping center.Lightning zapped down vertically toward the earth, not very far away at all.

This reminded him of why he loved horror movies. Because somewhere at the heart of all of them, even the most implausible and inept ones, there usually lay a premise of essential plausibility. Yes, fish could evolve overnight into male chauvinist demons. Yes, a gorilla as big as the Ritz could climb to the top of the Empire State Building. Yes, a computer could go batty and scramble jet fighters for the little nuclear attack that wasn't.

Yes, you could be hit by lightning after parking your car in a shopping center parking lot.

Yes, the devil could possess you if you lived to close to Key Bridge.

There is no guarantee, really, that any horrible thing won't happen, no matter how impossible it may superficially appear to be. The rules could be changed tonight. We could wake up tomorrow morning and find the whole planet had dropped out from under us. Metaphorically or literally.

Was it wrong to think these things? Was it crazy? Had he gone COMPLETELY MAD? Mad! Mad! Ah, ha ha ha ha ha ha!

"This old ship seems to have a life of its own," says one of the passengers after "Death Ship" has rammed and sunk the ocean liner they were cruising on and taken them prisoner. And proceeded to bump them off one at a time in rather prankish ways. "It's like it's alive and trying to kill us!" one passenger notes, and it is said of the captain, who has gone berserk at the hands of Nazi ghosts that run the tub, "It's as if the ship had somehow taken possession of him!"'

Well, yes and no. "Death Ship" unfortunately turned out to be about as frightening as "The Love Boat." No -- less. Except for one grisly, chilling scene too horrible to describe, this one was an unintentionally funny stroll. And pity the poor actors -- George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes; it's the TV-jeebies. Strictly second-string city.

There are more horror movies than ever, but is there more horror? In most cases, no. Horror movies have of course become increasingly graphic. "Psycho" cleared the way for showing the detailed effects of stabbings. "The Night of the Living Dead" made the movies safe for the clinical details of cannibalism and dismemberment. "The Exorcist" brought full-scale gore to big-budget legitimacy. It gets harder and harder to top the previous trend-setter.

And yet the biggest scares one may remember from a lifetime of horror movie going may be quite simple and not very gory at all -- Alan Arkin suddenly leaping up at the end of "Wait Until Dark," or Kevin McCarthy kissing Dana Wynter and discovering she's been pod-ified in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," or those things that went bump in the trees in the night in "Curse of the Demon."

A couple of weeks ago, one may have sat with an East Side, New York movie audience as they watched Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" and tried desperately to be terrified by it. They wanted to shriek. They wanted to shudder. They wanted to scream BLOODY MURDER! But try as they might, they couldn't. They stalked out of the theater acting like a gypped mob. Maybe it's getting impossible to scare people more on the inside of a movie house than they are scared by the evil that lurks on the outside.

Incorrigible Moviegoer stumbled out of that third horror movie, wan as it was, feeling threatened, feeling menaced, feeling as though he could be snuffed out on a whim at any moment, or that his car might have gotten it into its mind to refuse to start, or that he had been replaced by a computer while inside the theater. So it seems even bad horror movies have a therapeutic quality. He felt the universe was hostile to him, he felt there wasn't much sense in trying to make it seem rational, he felt that most of the elements were conspiring against him.

He had gone COMPLETELY SANE.