Celebrating the 32nd Anniversary of Salem’s Lot
Somewhere between November 17th and November 24th, 1979, I was “movie-scared” for the first time.
“Movie-Scared” is a term my oldest daughter coined a couple of years ago. She wanted to describe the experience of being completely and gleefully terrified by something that shows up on screen and passes for entertainment and is at the same time clearly fictional.
“Movie-Scared” is in fact probably the best kind of being scared. It’s why horror movies should be seen in communities. Being “movie-scared” with others is like being on the same team or joining the same club. You belong to something special when you’re “movie-scared” with strangers. We’re all friends after a good scary movie.
Before then, I had been “scared-scared” (a crazed drunken man attacking our car with a baseball bat as we sat stuck in traffic when I was 8 years old), and I had been “fake-scared” plenty of times (giggling at stuff that was supposed to be scary but wasn’t, like the TV version of A Christmas Carol or a lecture about tardiness from the Vice Principal.) But after watching the CBS network from November 17th through November 24th, in 1979, I found that a restful night was increasingly difficult. It was then that I started to close my closet doors tightly and carefully locked my windows before burying my head in my pillow and attempting to sleep.
Before November 17th through the 24th, in 1979, I had been to my share of “Haunted Houses.” Old buildings transformed for a month every year from retired coffee refineries or packaging plants into staged and stale progressions of “touching brains” (shove your hand into a bowl of spaghetti on ice), or being chased by ghouls (growling 18 year-olds sporting greasy mustaches and bad make-up and easily recognizable as members of the student council), or even sprayed by “fresh blood” (squirted from hoses by red food dye that unfortunately stained my yellow Izod shirt, the collar of which I defiantly wore down despite the prevailing fashion of the day).
Those hauntings weren’t really about getting scared. In fact, those hauntings were about getting lost in extremely public ways. In 8th grade, Gregory Jones and Cindy Freedman managed to get very publically “lost” at one of these productions for a good two hours before the damn place shut down and they were shuttled out of the hidden back room by some tired ghosts who had had enough of the evening and wanted instead to join their buddies and drink wide mouth Mickeys in the back seats of their Jeeps and Camaros.
Let’s face it. I didn’t know what scared was until that second to last week of November in 1979.
I think it is finally time I that I face my demons.
It is time that I revisit the television premier of Salem’s Lot. (We are, after all, approaching its 32nd television birthday.)
Let me begin by stating that I spend my time now shuttling back and forth between academic gatherings and horror conventions. You write a scary story and you find yourself at some pretty wonderful meetings. Among horror enthusiasts, I am careful to ask each participant whom I meet which movie first got to them. What movie, I want to know, really, really crawled under their skin? With what I am certain approaches statistical significance, Salem’s Lot is mentioned more than any other film. Apparently, I am not alone in my recollected fear of those Down East vampires in small town Maine.
You should see folks’ reactions. People toss out a few selections when I first pose the question. Friday the 13th comes up often, as does The Exorcist and The Omen. But then I look these guys square in the eye – I challenge them to recall the vivid imagery of Salem’s Lot, and these badass guys in sleeveless leather vests blanch. Tough guys, guys with pit bulls and Harleys and really impressive tattoos turn white with fear-packed nostalgia. Yep, they agree. Salem’s Lot got to them. It snuck up on their psyches like a stealth terror-ninja, masquerading at first as a cheesy TV movie. After all, isn’t that Hutch (David Soul), from Starsky and Hutch, playing the tight-jeaned author who is back to investigate the half remembered demons of his youth? How scared can you be if Hutch is the protagonist?
But then that scene, that horrible scene, maybe the scariest scene in any movie ever, chills us to the bone.
In fact, everyone always mentions this same darn scene. Two kids take a short cut through the woods, the younger brother frightened of the dark and his older brother chiding him for being a sissy. A dark form rises from behind and the younger brother is gone, enveloped by the darkness that we only experience as an absence of light until later in the movie. The older boy returns home without his sibling, his parents worried, the police called.
And in a movie that has taken its time, that has built tension as it seems all good 70’s and 80’s horror is especially capable, we see, slowly, through fog and darkness, the little kid floating outside his brother’s second story window. The little kid’s eyes are green and glowing, and he looks like he is treading the air as if it is water. It almost looks fun, the way he’s just floating out there. But then his nails, preternaturally long for a boy who seems to otherwise maintain pretty good hygiene, scrape along the windowsill of the bedroom that he once shared with his brother. “Let me in,” he hisses. And his brother opens the window.
Game over, man. In my house, at the age of 14, when that still human brother opened his window for whatever that was that was floating outside his bedroom, the lights in my house were switched on. Every light in the damn house shone bright in under 5 minutes. My doors were locked and I pulled my completely un-ferocious Cockapoo close to me for protection, cursing her in a rare instance when I wished that she were in fact a Rottweiler or a German Shepherd.
And then, what heresy! A nice Jewish boy like me started wondering how to construct crosses with surgical tape and tongue suppressors. A Mezuzah around my neck made this seem a particularly poor way for my people to fight vampires, but the rules of the vampires of Salem’s Lot were absolutely clear. I was gonna need a cross.
In short, I was SCARED TO DEATH!
And it was fun.
So that, I guess, is the strangest part of it all; being terrified and wonderfully tickled all at once. Being “movie-scared”, as my daughter would say, makes you smile. With your buddies and your popcorn and your Mr. Pibb, you realize that good horror, like all good stories, is less about being scared and more about bonding together and being scared with others in the safest of settings. There is scientific literature to suggest why we humans love horror. Conjectures about the social psychology of shared experience come up often. Mirror neuron theories explain the ways that our neurons riff off of one another.
But you know what? You don’t need all that science. I just watched Salem’s Lot all over again. There was that kid at the window, and dammit if I wasn’t 14 again, a golden Mezuzah hanging in my imagined chest hairs, my buddies in memory all around me on the shag red carpet of my living room floor. I did not regret for a minute watching the movie again at the ripe age of 45. I just regretted watching it alone. After all, we’re pack animals. These ought to be shared experiences.