I don't remember much about the first movie that scared me out of my wits except that it was set in a circus where it was perpetually night and an evil-looking man had found a way to turn a perfectly respectable blonde into a gorilla.
You always knew when it was about to happen: the music would swell ominously and the camera would focus on her hands, which grew dark, then hairy, then horribly gnarled. I watched the whole movie with nonchalance; it wasn't until my family and I started home that I began to look at my hands suspiciously. Yes, no, yes -- there was no doubt about it, they were considerably darker than they had been an hour ago. I folded them in terror, wonderng if I would make it home before my parents noticed what had happened.
That night I dreamt of a terribly fierce-looking ape rampaging through the countryside in a blue nightgown. I knew that nightgown, it happened to be my favorite and I knew that this was no coincidence -- I was that gorilla, le gorille, c'est moi . Life was to go considerably downhill after that: spot checks every couple of hours during the night to see if hair was growing at a particularly alarming rate, bookmarkers in the dictionary to make sure I wouldn't turn by mistake to the page where the drawing of the gorilla lurked.
It was no way to live. When the fear finally faded, I realized something had to be done about which movies I watched if I were to survive my childhood. At the time, I assumed that I would outgrow such faintheartedness; it was one of those sweetly optimistic assumptions, so common with youth.
For a time, I could take horror movies in stride as long as they were of the badly dubbed Japanese genre, with monsters that looked as if they were made out of Play-Doh and titles like "Godson of Godzilla Meets Werewolf of Tokyo." Similarly with vampires -- movies set in dark drafty castles in nonexistent countries came wrapped in a safe warm cloak of unreality and could be watched with impunity.
As I grew older, the movies I preferred tended to have subtitles and existential quandaries or involve Bogart or men in top hats dancing to Gershwin. Horror movies or those crammed to the gills with violent mayhem were considered tacky at the time, something for the low-rent crowd. Missing chainsaw murders and other assorted massacres was not likely to interfere with your ability to keep up with a good cocktail-party conversation or render you speechless at dinner. I thought my overwrought imagination had finally been given a break. I relaxed.
The times grew more violent and so did the movies. Suddenly it wasn't just the low-budget movies that equated entertainment with the revving up of the heartbeat to Red Alert and the tensing of muscles to the first stages of hysteria. It was the billion-dollar epics with famous stars and famous directors that were handing out the gore, winning reviews that talked about the intensity of their searing commitment to realism or whatever. The murders were bloodier, the rapes more graphic, the beatings more brutal, the social pressure to watch this nonsense even greater.
I knew I was not alone in my aversion to these kinds of movies, that there were other women and men who hated them, but it just didn't seem to be the sort of issue that brought people out of the closet. There was, after all, a certain machismo attached to being able to watch blithely the sight of 18 men rearranging one another's anatomy in slow motion, reducing each other to pate a la Peckinpah . I was embarrassed by my inability to find this entertaining, and I tried for a time to stick it out. It didn't work.
Still, with the merely violent movies you could at least invoke a pacifist sensibility, talk self-righteously of the fact that there was quite enough of that sort of thing happening out on the streets without celebrating it on the silver screen, sip your white wine, frown and get away with it on political grounds.
It was more difficult, however, to come up with an excuse for avoiding the new breed of horror movies. Friends sneered at my squeamishness, and I decided perhaps it was time to get over my qualms. The first one I tried was called "Count Yorga, Vampire," and I figured it would be a snap; I figured I could handle the drafty castle and candelabra set. Unfortunately this film was set not in Transylvania but southern California, all the victims were tanned and tawny, and at the end, the monster was alive and well and looking for new towns to terrorize. While southern California was not exactly my idea of reality, it was close enough. I bought a night light.
Clearly it was time to develop a few specific gore-watching techniques if I was to have a fighting chance of maintaining social contact with my more bloodthirsty friends.
For the movies where the gore is more intermittent than unrelenting, it is possible to watch a good portion of the action and still miss the parts designed to reduce the viewer to the consistency of rice pudding. After all, when the blinding light comes out of the closet in "Poltergeist," it's not hard to figure that the next thing you see isn't going to be a shoe tree.
Interlaced fingers held before the eyes in as casual a manner as possible work rather well in this sort of situation, allowing one to peer through the small openings but permitting a certain agility in closing them up again should the situation warrant. Sure, it's a little obvious, but it's way ahead of the watching-the-movie-through-the-sleeve-of-one's-coat approach, known to be adopted by the more desperate.
The best method is to sit behind the tallest person possible and hope that he doesn't flinch, or fall asleep, or start necking with the person next to him, thereby inadvertently exposing the screen to view. A more subtle but more dangerous approach is to pick a corner of the screen where nothing much seems to be happening and fixate on it, steadfastly ignoring the commotion that fills the rest of the field.
This approach can have unfortunate results, however, if some random piece of gore strays into sight; all you have to do is permit one unavoidable little yelp to escape, followed by an involuntary start and you may find the more faithless of your friends lurching away and sharing armrests with total strangers, pretending to be with them, not with you.
A fail-safe method is simply to close your eyes while pretending to look at the screen: This technique, however, is best practiced only when leaning forward, shoulders hunched, as if you were fascinated by the movie, not blind to it. Sitting up straight may lead to gales of laughter from friends who have noticed you in profile.
Some movies, however, defy all techniques. "Alien" was the worst of the lot. All I know about it is the soundtrack, since it was pretty clear even before the man-gives-birth-to-monster scene that this was not one of those films where it would be easy to keep one cut ahead of the really horrible moments. I kept my eyes trained on the popcorn patterns on the floor and thought of England.
"It's only a movie," I repeat at such troubling moments, while trying to avoid leaping out of my seat. "It's only a movie." But since the whole point of trying to scare you half to death is to convince you otherwise, it doesn't work. Who needs this? Who wants to be shown fear in a handful of celluloid? Doesn't ordinary life provide the average individual with more than enough anxiety, nervousness and general horror? Why go looking for trouble?
"Adrenalin," says the friend who most often drags me to this sort of thing. "Kicks. It makes you scream, it makes you jump, it's a jolt." It seems to me that the same effect could be achieved by sticking one's finger into a light socket, although I've resigned myself to a being in a minority on this point. Short of staying at home, it seems, there's only one option open: strap myself into my seat and hope for the best.
May Godzilla be my copilot.