By Wendy C. Ortiz
The first time my daughter was scared by an image in a movie she was nearly two. It was a short IMAX film featuring animated dinosaurs in a Chicago museum. Perhaps we were a little cavalier about the whole thing—it was 4-D, which meant the seats trembled and puffs of cold air emitted from seemingly nowhere to heighten the experience.
Then suddenly an animated T-Rex face filled the screen, its jaws snapping in front of our 3-D glasses. My daughter burst into tears. My partner and I hustled her out of the theater.
That day, and even a year later, she cultivates a love-hate relationship with T-Rex—wanting to replay the scene from that day when she cried, asking to dress as a T-Rex for Halloween this year. Now nearly three, she’s found a way to cope with something that once filled her with fear, and has made me consider my own relationship to fear and my love of being scared.
My fascination with horror may have begun when I walked past the hanging clown face lamp in my childhood bedroom and made the walk down the dark hallway to the living room, where, by the flickering light of the television, I could see my mother, reclined on one of the couches, watching “Movies ’til Dawn” in the dark.
“Movies ’til Dawn” did not always feature particularly scary movies but a sinister vapor seemed to float off the television and envelop me, especially if the movies were in black and white. For years I would associate these movies with the genre given after the title of the show, always in parentheses, in the TV Guide we consulted regularly: (Thriller).
My mother inherited her own penchant for thrillers and horror from my grandmother. I spent many summer days at my grandmother’s home in East Los Angeles cross-legged on her couch watching television shows like “In Search Of” with Leonard Nimoy and “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.” My Mexican grandmother had been raised as a Catholic, eventually taking a swerve into Pentecostal territories in her adulthood. She was full of dark and enchanting stories of the power of Satan in our world and what I had to do to avoid him. She spoke of nightmares she had, and the one where the black-hooded figure that levitated down the sidewalk always stuck with me. When the figure sneezed, she said, “God bless you.” This creature retorted, “That’s not what I’m looking for” and floated down the sidewalk away from her. She read her Spanish bible daily in an old black leather armchair. JesÃºs Cristo were the only words that came out crisp and intelligible to me as she read in her quiet monotone.
She introduced me to psalms and stories from the bible, but of course, there were some stories that stuck more than others. There was a natural bridge between the book of Revelation, with its freakish, many-headed creatures, and its moon and sea of blood, with the paranormal and mysterious presences featured in our regular television viewing: lake monsters, mysterious hoof-prints not belonging to any known animal species, and the murderous and possessed among us humans.
It didn’t occur to me that other children were shielded from such imagery. I watched “The Exorcist” at six years old, and my friend who was staying overnight hid under the covers of the pull-out bed in the TV room at the part where Regan, the possessed child, undergoes grueling medical tests. My friend fell asleep under the protective covers while I continued watching, using my hands as a shield when scenes became too intense. Luckily, it was the much edited television version, and not the uncut original, which I viewed, ecstatic, in a movie theater many years later in Seattle. Oh, that spiderwalk. Sublime in its ability to disturb, an image I still cringe at—then want to watch again.
In my parents’ house there was no bible, but there was an amalgamation of true crime books (my father’s) and grocery-store purchased horror and thrillers (my mother’s). The images on the covers—embossed skulls, illustrated blood stains, imposing residences with windows that looked like eyes and a mouth, presumably haunted—these were what I picked up to thumb through most often.
It wasn’t until I was twelve, visiting friends who’d moved from the San Fernando Valley to the just-starting-to-explode population of Palmdale, that I realized not every kid’s parents approved of these images. After a bicycle ride to a primitive little cemetery we found off an empty road where my two younger companions and I walked among the graves and told spooky stories to one another, I learned that this was possibly not “normal” behavior. My friends’ father asked us, in a certain tone, to not visit that cemetery again, and looked me straight in the eye when he said it, putting a mantle of responsibility for such abnormal behavior on my shoulders.
For most of my life I’ve been comfortable with what is dark, seeking it out, replaying it, until it has worn its terror grooves into my brain. It was not until my daughter came along that I started to think differently of it, question it, even decide not to partake—as much as I used to, anyway. In some ways I’ve seen my daughter as an antidote to the darkness I feel lives in my very tissue. This perspective, though, wishes away any potential darkness she might inherit or choose on her own.
The truth is, I don’t wish for my daughter to carry this torch of horror-love into her future. When I think of my own love of horror, I see the shadows of many scary life circumstances that made me feel at home in scary places. Alcoholic parents, a religious zealot grandmother, teachers who are sexual predators, men who will pull over when they see you at a bus stop and offer you a ride—horror movies were like a prelude, a distorted preparation for what life might bring. Horror feels familiar and even comfortable in my psyche. These are not the circumstances I envision for the little girl I’m raising.
It’s true that my daughter will find her own way, decide what she finds titillating and exciting. I like to imagine that I will be able to nurture whatever passions she strikes up with the world. And if she contains a seed with the love of horror, we can be conscious about germinating that seed, letting that grow even as we contain it, give it context and meaning in ways my family never did with me.
Meanwhile, I wait for the return of some of my favorite television shows—American Horror Story, Hannibal. I’ll continue to monitor the content of what my daughter watches on television and reads in the books we buy and bring home from the library.
Still, while I wait for next season’s terror-filled nights, I can trim back the overgrown ivy of my own love of horror, the inlaid stones of an imaginary cemetery under my feet, and keep that love—dark, howling, wild—contained.
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