Ginger Nuts of Horror
My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 30 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
You’ve Been On My Nerves For A Long Time
As it’s summer, and I am behind, this is the first of what will be (at least) a trilogy of articles dealing with the ‘family’ summer blockbusters of my childhood that generated nightmares and terror. Enjoy.
As I mentioned in the podcast that accompanies this post, I want to say I was seven or eight when I saw this movie.
I also want to say I saw it at the cinema, but I think not, sadly. I remember the movie poster vividly, but I’d have had to be younger than seven, and that summer was Temple of Doom, and the clincher is that I only have memories of seeing it on a TV screen. Looking back over 30 years, the bullshit factor is inescapable, and has enough gravitational pull to completely obliterate the unwary, so let’s stick with what I know I can know.
And I mean, there’s a surprising amount that is scary here, let’s start with that. The combine harvester sequence alone is a total heart-in-the-mouth moment - the unconscious child in the cornfield, those relentless, merciless rotating blades bearing down on him, fast enough and close enough that you imagine you can feel the force of the breeze they generate, like an industrial fan turned lethal. You look at the utter devastation they are wreaking on the heads of corn, and your mind extrapolates to the unconscious child… yeah, that’s nightmare fuel.
The filmmakers play it out to the last second, too, and when Superman finally lands and puts his hand out to stop the blade, I remember flinching, instinctively, worried that the blade might even slice through his super-flesh.
So there’s that. And, as you may have heard, there’s all the fun of the fair in the final act - a machine that can learn your weakness, no matter how strong you are - one that, incidentally, is also smart enough to gain sentience and rebel against it’s creator, robofying anyone it can get it’s circuits on. Again, you can listen to the podcast for the full skinny, but suffice it to say there’s a gross tonnage of yikes going on that’d shame many of the lesser entries in any 80’s horror franchise you’d care to name, frankly. And all wrapped up in a family friendly PG bow.
Ah, the 80’s. Be still, my panicked, arrhythmic heart.
For all of that, and more - the insane power of computing to cause the walk and don’t walk men to engage in mortal combat, say, causing gigantic pedestrian/car pileups in the progress, or to reprogram weather monitoring satellites to become weather controlling satellites, in the process creating storms biblical enough to ruin the harvest of an entire country, acid that can melt steel if it gets hot enough (yeah, okay smartarse, heat can melt steel if it gets hot enough, I was seven, shut up), creepy drunken would-be father figures threatening to totally ruin your bowling date with your friends because they’re trying to screw your mom, and so on - there’s one sequence that, for me, towers above all to become a seminal moment of childhood existential horror - the kind of trauma, not to put too fine a point on it, that lodges so deep in your psyche that you end up obsessively blogging about it 30 years later, not long after recording over 2 hours worth of podcast on the subject with people much, much smarter than you, because it turns out you still have shit to say and you’re going to make damn sure the internet hears it, like some going-to-seed- Ancient Mariner with better wifi, because it just won’t leave you alone and you’d really like to sleep tonight if at all possible, thanks, what with work in the morning and deadlines looming and this stupid heat that won’t let go, that wraps you up like a damn python and slowly, gently, squeezes the breath out of you.
And you know what it is, right? Sure, you do, if you’ve come this far.
It’s the title fight. The ultimate showdown.
Superman Vs. Superman.
We do need to talk about the setup first, though. It’s important.
And it starts with dodgy Kryptonite.
Turns out, Kryptonite has a 0.50% property that cannot be read by a mass spectrometer. Our hero/villain Gus, upon discovering this, in the throes of full on ‘eager-to-please-and-please-don’t-throw-me-in-jail’ mode with the straight up villain/villain, does what I suspect any of us would do when faced with an unreasonable boss who won’t take no for an answer but never, ever bothers checking the working: he makes some shit up.
Specifically, he substitutes the missing element with tar, a helpful suggestion he gets from looking at his cigarette package.
Insert your own ‘you know, those things’ll kill you’ gag here.
I’d misremembered this as nicotine, but I don’t think it really damages the premise - the fact that the substance comes from a product that is both harmful and addictive is the point, I would suggest.
Anyhow, they give the dodgy Kryptonite to Superman (Prior, in the process, giving one of his funniest performances in the whole movie). And, of course, nothing happens.
Before long, though, all hell has broken loose. He’s turning up late to accidents in order to flirt with someone’s mom. He’s straightening up the tower of Pisa. then he’s attacking oil tankers because a girl (a baddie girl, no less) asks him to, and he wants to kiss her, so he does.
FUBAR or what?!?
It’s played as a mix of laughs and drama, but as a kid viewer, there’s increasing unease, building to dread, throughout. For reasons I couldn’t fully have articulated, this is wrong. He’s not just not helping, he’s being mean. Superman. Mean.
Is there anything scarier than that thought?
Well, turns out, yes, kid, there is.
Now Superman is drunk, in a bar, in the afternoon. He has stubble. His suit is dark and dirty from the oil spill. He has a bottle of whiskey on the bar, and is pouring himself drinks. There’s a strong sense that he has not, in fact, even paid for the drink, and also that the other people are in the bar not because they want to be, but because he’s told them not to leave.
He empties a bowl of nuts onto the bar, then starts casually flicking them into the liquor bottles on the other side. The bottles shatter. The barman tries to protest, scared. Another bottle is smashed. Superman uses his heat ray to melt the mirror behind the bar, distorting his own reflection.
It’s hellish. It’s intolerable. It’s against all laws of God and nature.
It is horrifying.
Eventually he staggers from the bar, and the little boy he saved from the combines sees him, tries to talk to him. Superman doesn't want to hear it, and flies off - but he can’t fly away from his own super-hearing, or the voice of that child, calling out to him to snap out of it, to get better, to be well.
Because he is still loved. Because he is still needed.
It is that - that voice, that rebuke, that intonation of innocent love and hero worship - that finally leads him to the scrapyard.
It is in this place - this industrial hellscape of broken cars and twisted metal, infernal machines and pools of acid, that I will witness the most terrifying celluloid fight sequence of my childhood.
Superman Vs. Superman.
Except that’s not right. As Dark!Supes screams, in rage, in pain, in fear, and the yard clears as all the people who work there suddenly remember they forgot if they left the oven on or not, he spits not into two Supermen, but into Dark!Supes and… Clark Kent.
And my seven year old heart doesn’t just sink, it fucking craters.
See, Clark is, well, nice and all, but a loser. He’s a total clutz, a tool, a pillock, as my mum might say. I get why. My seven year old brain grasps that just fine. How do you get away with looking like Superman and still protect your identity? Well, you have to be the opposite of him. Bumbling. Weak. Shortsighted.It’s the only way it can work - the only way people can see that frame, that face, and not go ‘hey, wait a minute…!’
He has to be weak. More human than human. I get it.
But now he has to fight Superman. With his superpowers.
And he’s going to die.
It’s a mortal certainty. No human has a prayer against Superman. That’s kinda the point of Superman - the Super bit, anyway. And Clark is so painfully human.
It’s going to be a massacre.
It really is hard now to convey the sheer menace and dread this feeling gave me. I’ve always experienced narrative in an intense and immersive way - I still do, to a large degree, which is why I so rarely see a twist coming before it lands - so to be caught in a moment where I knew, for a moral certainty, that something horrifically transgressive was about to happen, without having the language or even intellect to really understand exactly what or why…
Yeah. This was a big moment.
I feel like the filmmakers knew that, too - understood exactly the impact they were having on young minds, those magnificent bastards. How else to explain how much of the beating lands on Clark, including not one but two trips to industrial car crushers, where he disappears inside clanking machinery of death? Or the moment when Dark!Supes rises from the pool of acid and spits the fluid over Clark, causing him to tear off his smouldering suit jacket? Most of all, why else have Dark!Supes snarl ‘You’ve been on my nerves a long time, Clark!’ as he batters Kent around the head with a car bumper?
Yeah, those fuckers knew what they were doing.
That last line proves it. Because I knew that. I knew part of Superman must hate and despise having to play that clown, day in, day out, enduring the scorn of the woman he loves and the callous indifference of his boss and the countless daily indignities of being Clark fucking Kent, journalist voted ‘Which one is he again?’ every single fucking year.
Of course Superman hates Clark. Of course he does. How could he not?
And all it took was one stray element - one bad for you, addictive, harmful substance, for all these uncomfortable home truths to come flooding out. For Superman to find himself locked in mortal combat with his own humanity, desperate to destroy that part of him that has to compromise and work and bow down to the world and it’s petty indignities, freeing him up to just fly round the world vandalising monuments and scoring with hot chicks.
I still remember the shock when he didn’t win. The awe, and, yes, the fear, when Clark broke from the final machine and finally found his rage, choking Dark!Supes until he faded entirely. The lump in my throat of too-many/too-much-at-once as Clark straightened afterwards, before opening his shirt and showing his glorious riot of full technicolour had returned.
Cry? I nearly puked - with relief and joy.
We need stories like this. I’m sorry, but we do. Teenage me is sneering at that and rereading The Dark Knight Returns for the eleventy billionth time, and fine, but also, fuck him. He’s a smart, often funny kid, but he’s nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is, and I’m at this point more than a little tired of his shit and it’s legacy.
He’s wrong - and with the greatest possible respect, if you agree with him, you’re wrong too. We need this story. We need to hear about darkness and redemption. We need to know that the greatest heroes have demons. Demons they wrestle with. Demons that, with the introduction of the wrong substance, can be unleashed and wreak havoc upon their world. We need to be confronted with the knowledge we already had - that part of Superman hates Clark - but also that, ultimately, it is Clark’s humanity, not Superman’s rage and power, that can offer salvation.
We need this.
I need this.
This is the first My Life In Horror I’ve written sober in… shit, I honestly don’t know. It’s not impossible it IS the first. No, wait, Gremlins. I wrote that one on a lunch break at work. Hadn’t taken a drink then. Okay, cool, so, two years then. Almost to the day. And even in that one, I sort-of lied and pretended I’d been drinking. Wow. That’s… interesting.
It was easier, that’s all. That’s what I told myself. Get a little stewed, the juices flow better, quicker. Less self censorship. More naked, unintended honesty.
And, you know, there was something to it, I think, at least to start with. Some of the most fun I’ve had has been writing this column, especially in the months where the fiction work in progress was kicking my arse in some fashion. I think the Queen one was especially good. I drank a bottle of Prosecco while writing that, and by the end things were blurry enough that I was struggling to focus on the screen. I remember bursting into tears when I was done.
As of right now, I’ve been sober for six days.
I am not - and I cannot emphasise this enough - I am not giving up drinking. Really, totally and utterly fuck that. What I am doing - what I am determined to fucking do - is get it back where it belongs, where it used to be. Where it’s a choice, not a habit. Something I can take or leave. Something fun but fundamentally unimportant.
Something I only do in company, and never alone.
And right now, that’s fucking hard. Right now, it’s the second big heat wave of the British summer of 2017, and I can think of nothing that would taste finer than the first long gulp out of that ice cold can of Punk IPA sitting in my fridge. This lemon squash doesn’t seem to be making so much as a dent on my thirst, no matter that I drink it until I slosh when I walk.
My last bout of talking therapy, following the minor wobble I had following the Trump win, taught me something I’ve long joked about but never confronted: I’m a buzz junkie. Quite a bad one. I like the edge, I like intensity, I like at the very least the simulacrum of danger. It’s behind a lot of the stuff I do well, of course - here I am, writing live for a notional audience, spilling out truths I can’t get back, sweating bullets but stone cold sober - but it’s also a part of why I like not just to drink, but to get drunk, and why I am chronically unable to get my arse to bed at anything resembling a sane time, unless I’m at a point of drop down exhaustion - which all too often, I am. As I am now, as I write this, in a slightly disconnected haze. Not unlike being drunk.
Also as I write this, I don’t know for sure where it’ll end up being published. Jim Mcleod, proprietor of Gingernuts of Horror and dear, dear friend, has announced the site is closing, due to personal and health reasons. Speculation would be both pointless and, I think, actively disrespectful to a man that I care about so deeply and owe so much, so I won’t. I shall, however, wish him well, whatever he’s wrestling with, and hope he is blessed with Superman strength and Clark love.
Also also as I write this, I don’t know what my future holds - tonight, tomorrow, this year, next year. I want to be less tired, more alert, better organised. I want to do more of the things that bring me joy, and less of the things that don’t. I want to be a better husband, father, son. It often feels like all those things are pulling in different directions, but maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe it’s all the same thing.
And maybe tonight, once I’m done typing, I’ll be able to shut this machine down, take a (very mild, over the counter) sleeping pill and book to bed, and get that mythical early night I keep promising myself.
In a world where Clark Kent can beat Superman in a bare knuckle fist fight, I guess anything is possible.
PS Well, I turned off and got to bed. Sleep was slower in coming. So it goes. The struggle continues.