I love horror stories – in theory. Like in thumbnail form, interrupted by commercials on a muted TV during the day with at least four hours between final credits and sun-down.
It’s not entirely my fault. Fear and self-doubt are kind of constants with me. Boost either one, I’m hyperventilating under the covers (because if even a toe is exposed, THEY’LL GET YOU!). I know it’s ridiculous, but it feels true. I guess I’m “highly impressionable” when it comes to horror. Example? The Original Star Trek episode “The Man Trap” had me leaping from my door to my bed at night throughout junior high lest the suction-cup-fingered, salt-sucking, shape-changer “get me.” The first time I tried to read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I freaked out and threw the book under the bathroom vanity, where it remained for over three years before I forced myself to retrieve and read it. Great book, but human malice, even fictionalized, really disturbs me. In high school I wept uncontrollably through The Shining and spontaneously burst into traumatized tears again years later when I glimpsed a tiny fraction of The Shining embedded in the movie Twister – it’s what’s playing on the drive-in theater screen as the “finger of God” level five tornado rip the scene and screen apart. Tornadoes, straight-forwardly threatening and therefore not scary. Fathers carving up their families? Simply terrifying.
But strip away the tension and gore, I love the genre. Horror is rich in extreme characters and story lines and plot twists. There’s little I enjoy more than a good horror-story re-cap. As a kid, I did a lot of eavesdropping on the bus or quizzing friends to get the gist what horror movies or shows were out. My husband often indulges me by re-telling the stories he knows I’ll otherwise avoid. He doesn’t seem to view my shying from horror as a weakness. But I do.
In film school, I stupidly decided to “push” myself instead of focusing on my strengths. I shot a horror short film about a woman finding a dead body in her trunk only to realize she’d opened the wrong car…and the killer was still there! It wasn’t very good, or subtle, and since what little horror experience I do have was viewed on “mute,” I didn’t realize until my classmates burst out laughing that I’d chosen the very distinctive score from Halloween, so it played like a parody. The smart play would have been to pretend it was always a comedy, but I’m a terrible liar. Instead, I accepted that horror was not my strength and chose a dramatic scene with an element of horror for a directing class. Because practice makes improvement at least, right?
Stupid, stupid, stupid me…
It didn’t help that without time to audition I went begging for actors, so the guys I cast had less than no respect for me and sort of resented the time-commitment. The scene was one guy intimidating the other with status, which turns as the other offers a bodily threat of imminent, extreme harm while the dialog remains pleasant-sounding. I loved the writing – tense, packed with subtext, rich language – plenty of room for an actor to play, I thought. But my guys were grumps and I was beginning to think the whole thing was a wash when one got annoyed enough to do exactly what I’d been trying to get him to do.
Except he did it to me.
Right in my face, a foot or more taller than me and something like fifty pounds bigger than I am (and all muscle in his case – ah, actors). I don’t think his anger was real. I’d pushed him and he was pushing me back. But he could tear my arms from their sockets, and for a good 30 seconds, he made me believe he might. He stirred all the fear I could ask for, and he knew it, and he smirked about it.
As if scaring me instead of effectively performing with his scene partner proved he’s a better actor than I am a director.
Well, obviously he’s a better actor than I was a director, especially then! The scene was for a class, and it was only my second directing effort EVER. While he was supporting himself as professional actor and had been for a couple years already. So when that merry Andrews had the gall to ask me if I was scared, I barked, “Who cares? It’s easy to scare me! Anyone can scare me! Salt-sucking, shape-changers on Star Trek scare me. I’m not in the scene, dumb-ass!”
Okay, I didn’t really say “dumb-ass” at the time. Sometimes I think I’d really like to be one of those fearsome forces on a set who can do things like call big guys dumb-ass and reign them in with a blood-congealing glance, but that’s not me. Thumper’s parental mantra “if you can’t say something nice—” rings like tinnitus in my ears. But I did say the other parts, and he kind of listened and we finished rehearsing.