In Search of Ghosts and Monsters, Part I

My earliest dream was a nightmare.

I can remember a ghost gliding down a wood-lined corridor. The ghost had a yellowish tint to it and looked like one of those old-fashioned Casper ghosts; it was like a sheet wrapped around some indefinite mass. The rest of the dream was in black & white. I say this is my earliest dream, and I think that it is. I could not have been more than three or four years old at the dreamtime of origin. How do I know this? It’s simple: I can remember large chunks of my childhood. Like Borges’s Funes, I can recall memories very far back into my childhood. Also like Funes, I can occasionally feel their crushing weight, threatening to push my present forever into my past. Dreams can be dangerous if we allow them to take over our waking life to such a degree that we can no longer tell the difference between our waking life and our dreaming life. But dreams can also feed the imagination in strange and wonderful ways.

From a very young age I have been obsessed with ghosts and the monsters that inhabit the imaginative world. In second or third grade I used to write ghost stories and stories featuring King Kong, the Wolfman, and a host of other popular monsters. My brother and I would take paper bags from the grocery store and “build” Frankenstein monsters out of them. We took large bags and attached lunch sized bags to use as the head and arms. We then colored and drew faces on them. We often played at being mad scientists using water with food coloring together with Play-Doh we made into brains. We would spend hours in the bedroom that we shared devising various experiments that would take us into the realm of horror.

My brother and I would also spend countless Saturdays watching what we called “monster movies” like Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963) and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” (1973). Our favorites were the Godzilla and King Kong movies, especially the one that had both fighting each other. We also loved anything by Hammer Films, especially if Peter Cushing was the star. Peter Cushing remains one of my favorite character actors to this day and “Frankenstein Must be Destroyed” (1969) is one of the seminal films of my childhood.

The earliest film I can remember my brother and I being scared of was a movie we called “The Tree Monster,” but is really titled “It Came from Hell” (1957). This film is about a man’s spirit that gets trapped in a tree. The tree (or the trapped spirit) then seeks to get its revenge by going after those who previously condemned it to this terrible fate. The film scared us to death. I can remember lying in my bed wide-awake and staring at the floor. I thought that at any moment the tree would begin coming up through the floor to get me. If you watch the film today it’s incredible how cheesy and lame it is. I recently watched a clip on YouTube and laughed my way through it. Still, its impact on my childhood continues to send me into shivers.

From these films we graduated to more mature horror films. Two in particular had a profound impact on us: “Burnt Offerings” (1976) starring Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, and Bette Davis, and “The Changeling” (1980) staring George C. Scott. Both films scared us shitless. The ending to “Burnt Offerings” where Karen Black turns to Oliver Reed and says “I’ve been waiting for you Ben” still scares me. I recently purchased both films on DVD so I can scare my own children in few years.

It was from these films that my brother and I went on to discover the stories of Poe. We had a small record player in our room (this was the 1970s, after all) and we used to play a recording of some of the Poe stories. “The Tell-Tale Heart” was one of the scariest stories we had experienced. The performance was exquisite and I still wish I had that recording. If the Hammer films opened a crack within the wall that kept my imagination enclosed then the stories of Edgar Allen Poe signaled a deluge bringing that wall down.

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