I still own an old paperback copy of Carlos Clarens' Illustrated History of Horror Films. (According to Amazon, it's still in print, with "Science Fiction" added to the title.) I read it when I was in seventh or eighth grade, right around the time Karloff died. I'd like to write about both Clarens and Karloff in more depth some time, but for now the image that floats to the surface is one of the book's stills, a shot of Jason sword-fighting a skeleton in Jason and the Argonauts (1963--and how lucky was I to have been seven years old when it was released?); the caption simply reads, SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF. And while the intent is to indicate the sense of wonder such images conjure, for me it was all about the shocking disconnect between what I knew as I watched a horror film and what I could not help but feel: electrifying fear, a soul-deep shiver that forced me to wince, to look away, to flee. Scary movies erased all comfort, all cozy certainty. At such moments, I was abandoned by everything in and around me that could reassure. A truly instinctual response.
I've written about this fear before, and will probably do so again, but as the years passed I began to suffer from a different fear: that I had lost the ability to suspend disbelief, at least in terms of the breathless terror movie images could once so easily churn up. And I'm not sure when the fear waned to the point that I noticed it had done so; but I know it happened late, well into adulthood (even though a dry whispering voice tells me in uneasily reassuring tones that It isn't done with me yet; but more on that later). All I'm certain of is that I began to have to will myself into that feeling, give myself reasons to be very afraid. And that marked the beginning of the end; once I had intellectualized fear, I snarled the primal throughline, maybe for good and all, into an oxymoronic knot I'd never unravel. All I was left with was the memory of fear, and for someone attracted to horror films, that's like showing a picture of a steak to a hungry man. I already needed my imagination to be afraid of a movie; how was I going to imagine that I was afraid? A dead end, boos and ghouls.
Again, my only consolation was that the feeling had lasted so long. I can still recall, with embarrassment but also queasy joy, how deeply afraid I was in 1979--at age twenty-three!--watching Alien. My sister--three years older than me but even more firmly strapped into the electric chair of movie fear--and a friend of hers went with me, at my insistence. I remember when things got really ugly, I glanced over, worried I had asked her to take on too much--I still recalled my sister walking out of a movie theater in Miami midway through A Clockwork Orange. But silly me: Kubrick's movie is not scary, simply morally nauseating. Neatly done, of course, but not much fun.After all, she was the one who only four years earlier had orchestrated her Summer of Jaws, seeing it over and over with any poor innocent who hadn't gone yet--including a younger cousin whose eye I believe is still twitching a bit. (And let's not forget that Alien has been called "Jaws in outer space.") She looked back at me, as Ripley (the dogged Sigourney Weaver, who stuck with the character through an alarming number of sequels) and the crew of the Nostromo* recovered as best they could from the sight of Kane's (John Hurt) exploding chest; I saw the shine in my sister's eyes, the grin/grimace of suspended disbelief in the service of giddy terror. Everything was fine. Afterwards, we laughed and shook ourselves like people coming off a roller-coaster ride. What fun, ho ho. But she wouldn't drive us home until we'd popped the trunk to make sure nothing lurked, and checked in the back seat--and under the seats--lest, well, you never know. And even though you do know, you allow your intellect to take a break, at least until you peer into the glove compartment.
As I hinted at earlier, the loss of such terrors has recently not seemed absolute. Maybe it's the jump-cuts, shadows, and ongoing ominous hum of the Japanese horror films I've been watching. Maybe I'm getting old enough to remind myself that one should respect the dark. Maybe it's because I continue to see movies with people--my children and spouse--who still twist and shout when It arrives onscreen. Because there I was with my twelve-year-old watching The X-Files on DVD the other night, and Mulder and Scully were in an underground mining facility, the tunnels lined with filing cabinets--puzzling evidence, elided once again--and of course the light fails and they separate; and Scully is alone in the dark when a gaggle of little Somethings scurries by, bulbous heads bobbing, while violin strings are plucked atonally and she stands saucer-eyed. I had no choice but to stiffen and draw back a little; and what an unwholesome relief to be reminded that I still had It in me.
*By the way, the connections between Joseph Conrad's novel of the same name and Alien can be intricate, if a bit frayed at the edges.