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.
They Just Worked On Him. The Way They’re Working On You.
No rewatch, this month. This is childhood trauma writ large, and while I have rewatched as an adult, it’s probably been a decade. Let’s see how deep we can get with the aid of memory and alcohol.
And though Dad’s come in for his share of stick in this column, this month it’s mum’s turn to sit on the naughty step. As previously noted, Dad was pretty strict when it came to movies, but was quite happy for books to do some damage. But when it came to cinematic trauma, mum had him beat all to hell. No fan of horror, she still somehow managed a couple of really spectacular failures of judgement for which I am eternally grateful - hell, one of them I am literally writing a book about - so, you know, no complaints.
Because here’s the thing. Mum may have had little tolerance for straight up blood and guts horror, but she had a blind spot a mile wide when it came to movies she considered Classics. If it was Classic, it was Culture, and if it was Culture, there was no such thing as too young. That shit was made to be absorbed.
And, you know, mostly it was fine. The deal was, bedtime became optional on the rare occasions one of mum’s predefined Classics came on telly. A real treat. Stay up late, watch the Classic. Winner.
Butch and Sundance was one. The Sting was another. Gone With The Wind. Later, Dances With Wolves made the list, at least until we picked it up on VHS.
And then there was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
And, you know,five Oscar wins, nine nominations. You can see her point. Pretty classic.
On the other hand…
I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw it. I remember it in colour, so I was definitely in double digits. I suspect it was one of those films that was split by the nine or ten o’clock news broadcast, too - an odd artifact of the olden days when if a film had a more explicit second half, ‘part one’ could be shown pre watershed and the rest afterwards.
But to me, this just shows the total inadequacy of this kind of ‘age restricted’ ratings of movies or TV. Because sure, there’s no blood, guts, swearing or nudity in the first hour of Cuckoo’s Nest. But even in that first hour, there’s a ton of disturbing-as-hell material, especially for a young mind. Leaving aside the sexual content of the conversations entirely (McMurphy is sectioned having first been jailed for sex with a minor, an act he justifies and celebrates in salacious detail in his opening scene), which may well have passed over my head on a first viewing, there is something deeply disturbing about this entire movie, and that’s there, if not from the opening shot, then certainly as soon as McMurphy joins the ward proper.
And knowing what I know now about filmmaking, there’s a shit-ton of work that went into creating that effect - lighting, choice of camera shot, the sounds, the costume, the location - it’s just one of those movies where every single element is employed in ruthless service to the atmosphere and the story.
But back then, the main thing that fucked me up was the cast.
They’re just brilliant. As a kid, I remember that terrible, indefinable sense that there was something… off about them. And that sense of offness seemed to carry with it a constant level of danger, of threat. As the group therapy sessions rolled around, and I witnessed hysteria and meltdowns, I kept expecting some explosion of violence, and spent most of the time watching in a state of flinching terror.
Because… oh shit, might as well. We’re in a freefall with honesty here, so let’s just go there. The sad truth is, as a kid, I was generally terrified of disabled people. Horrified, even. Watching footage of people with physical or mental disabilities would make me very uncomfortable, and in person encounters would fill me with a combination of acute embarrassment and fear.
I think - I think - looking back, it was largely, surprise surprise, about ignorance. Education wasn’t what it is now, and while my mum was pretty good on racial politics, and shit hot on feminism, disability just wasn’t something we talked about. And the sad, pathetic, ugly truth, is this - I was terrified that disability was catching. That it could be transmitted, by physical contact. Certainly as a young child, I held this as a moral certainty.
I never voiced this fear - truth to tell, I’ve told no-one about it prior to writing this down. This is in the nature of a confession - this is to my deep shame. And a consequence of that silence is that nobody knew, so nobody could firmly disabuse me of this notion. I don’t know how long it took me to shake this particular hang up, but it certainly lasted well into my late teens, and therefore my first few viewings of this movie.
Add into the mix a mortal terror of mental illness itself, brought about largely by two Pink Floyd albums I expect will be future columns (and talking of inappropriate exposure to art - I was low single digits when The Wall and Dark Side Of The Moon entered my life - thanks again, mum), and we’re already deep into nightmare territory.
Then we get to arbitrary authority and power.
Not being able to pinpoint my age makes this tricker, but I suspect that I was in my first year of secondary education. The trap had already been sprung, and I was well on my way to obtaining the psychological scars that still inform my behaviour to a degree I find simultaneously infuriating and kind of pathetic, but it’s possible I was only dimly beginning to realise it, when this movie first entered my life. I was likely still at that stage where I believed this was where I would be Stretched, and Taken Seriously, where I would have my Chance To Shine, and be Challenged, and was still at least a few months away from the crashing realisation that all I really was was meat in a mincer, with the degree to which I would be considered good or useful measured purely by how smoothly I allowed the shredding process to complete.
How little I resisted.
So this movie must have had all the feeling of a dreadful premonition, or prediction.
Because, check it: Arbitrary authority. Regulated movement, eating, existance, participation. Nowhere to hide. No privacy. A cold authority figure who saw you as a square peg, and would use the hammer of her authority to make you fit in that round hole.
Imagination and creativity viewed with deep suspicion, humor with outright hostility. Punishments that were vicious, medieval - and worse, would rob you of your sense of self, take away that part of you that made you really you, kill the light behind your eyes, temporarily to start with, but if you kept pushing, sure, eventually, for good.
Because nothing - nothing - is more important than conformity. It is the most rewarded trait, and the only thing that is really valued by authority. With it, all perks and baubles are yours for the asking, and without it, you have no value - worse, you are a threat, a danger, an agent of disorder straying from the One True Path.
And then, even God can’t help you. Then, you’re absolutely at the mercy of arbitrary authority and punishment. And they will just keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing, until, one way or another, you break. And the hell of it is, they really don’t care which way it goes. It’s all the same, in the end, all the square pegs mashed neatly into round holes.
Except even that’s not the bottom of it. That’s not even, quite, the worst part.
Because beneath even the electroshock ‘therapy’, the weaponization of shame to induce suicide in a sweet kid whose only crime was wanting to get laid, and the horror of the final inevitable lobotomy is this: they are doing it all for your own good.
Because Nurse Ratched, as evil as she is (and I realise there’s books to be written about the gender politics of this movie, but it’s late and I’m drunk), is utterly unaware of her own monstrosity. She is motivated by a sincere desire to help, to cure. Her driving principle is compassion. And it is that awful compassion that is her ultimate weapon, that gives her the strength, the conviction, to squeeze and crush and shatter - and, ultimately, kill.
Nothing is more dangerous than someone with authority and a moral certainty that they are Doing Good, without any recourse to such troubling notions as the desirability of difference and diversity. That, fairly precisely, is how humanity leads itself through the gates of Hell, over and over.
So, yeah, try and tell me this isn’t a fucking horror movie.