For years, I used to think that I was very well balanced and not affected by anything I'd seen, heard, or read, but you know what? I have been, and not in good ways. With every day that passes, I get worse too.
Let me take you back to my childhood because it's the only one which I have any experience of. I'm not a parent (unless a couple of adopted cats count), and I don't know any children. I don't even like children. I never have done, not even when I was a child myself.
The first horror movie which I can remember watching on TV was "Satan's Triangle" (1975) although I didn't really understand it. It wasn't my first experience with horror or fear anyway, I just didn't like the "scary devil man" at the end of it. At the age of 3 or 4, I was absolutely terrified by the voices of the Mysterons on Gerry Anderson's "Captain Scarlet", and there was some weird bird-creature called Raggety on "Rupert the Bear" which gave me the screaming heebies! I didn't like those things at all and preferred to watch "Rainbow" and "Pipkins". I also used to really love cartoons. All the "Merry Melodies", "Looney Toons" and "Tom and Jerry" were my thing. If I watched live action TV, it was always nearly always "Laurel and Hardy" or "The Lone Ranger". I had "The Beano", "Whizzer and Chips" and all kinds of comics as reading material, and thus, I was pretty normal for a while.
I don't remember much about the years between being 5 and 7 except for going to Infant School, catching mumps, being read to, and listening to educational radio shows about mythology. TV shows which were popular then included "Batman" and "Star Trek" reruns, "Thunderbirds", "Planet of the Apes", "The Six Million Dollar Man", and various other American shows which were also family friendly. Never a Disney fan, the only Disney I ever used to watch was "Zorro" on Saturday mornings, and I didn't even know that it was made by Disney. My toys at the time were Lego, a small platoon of Action Man (G.I. Joe) figures, Dinky and Corgi cars, and stuff like that. I'd still say that I was quite normal. I wanted every toy advertised on TV (ah, those sneaky advertisers harnessing pester power!), but I don't think I was a bad kid. I had a cat, liked animals, really liked chickens, and was quite happy. Apart from having to see an eye specialist for a rare condition I have which makes my eyes extremely sensitive to light, which led to me having to wear dark-tinted glasses which got progressively lighter as I got older, I was just like everyone else. The fact that I could and can still see in the dark almost as well as a cat is neither here nor there.
In 1976, the year of "The Omen", some other things happened which changed me forever.
1976 is, as far as I know, the hottest recorded Summer that Britain ever suffered through. The word "drought" was on everyone's lips, "I'm a water saver!" stickers were given out at school for not flushing the toilet (something I still don't do very often!), and it was so hot that you could feel the pavement melting the bottom of your trainers as you walked. I was out in the sunshine every day, wearing my special NHS sunglasses, eating Golden Wonder cheese & onion crisps and "a quarter of" whichever sweets I wanted like a good 'un.
In the midst of this hot Summer, my parents and grandmother decided that we should have a caravanning holiday in Devon. Don't judge, this was a big thing in the '70s. And so we went off to a site near the seaside. I remember buying a comic. I don't know where, but either in Paignton or Torquay was where I found "Captain Atom". I couldn't tell you which issue it was, or much about the main story except for the ending. It's the ending which is the most important part.
In the "Captain Atom" comic which I read, the final frame showed the world being destroyed by the Sun "going supernova!". As a child who had never encountered death before, who still thought that Laurel and Hardy were alive, that the howling wind down the chimney was witches flying overhead, and that little people lived inside the radio, this "supernova" thing was a matter of much concern to me. I knew nothing about outer space, the Earth, or anything about anything really.
Also during this holiday, we went to Widecombe, which is famous for the story of "Widecombe Fair". You know the song, "with Uncle Tom Cobley an' all". I ended up with a booklet about it, and on the last page was a picture of the travellers as skeletons on a skeletal mare. It freaked me out! Big time! This was death in all its glory! This was our insides! This was nasty! It was almost as terrifying to me as a picture of a jack-in-the-box called "Top Knot" who could only be killed by cutting off his one lock of hair. I'd found the latter in a book of fairytales that my mum had one day, and regretted that too.
And then there were the pixies! Oh, Jesus! Pixies were everywhere in Devon, stealing children and eating them, or whatever they did! At least that's what all the postcards and menacing "Lucky Pixie" figures would have me believe! "Don't wander off or a pixie will get you!" was something that the local shopkeepers jovially said to any little kids who were silly enough to go into their tourist trap stores.
Feeling that the Earth was going to end any second, having seen what Death looked like, and now finding out that there were demonic pixies in the world was all too much. As the saying goes, I thought and thought until I thought a hole in the ground... or until I started to have what must have been some kind of undiagnosed nervous breakdown. I remember looking at all the shiny Play People (Playmobil now) figures in a toy shop and imagined them melting. Nothing felt safe anywhere anymore, and it got to the stage where I was in tears, scared to sleep, and was absolutely terrified that my parents were going to die. I had become very aware of death and mortality!
So what's this got to do with letting little kids watch horror movies? Nothing really, except that my own history shows how impressionable kids are. You have to be very careful what you let them see or hear. Reality and fiction are too hard for children to separate no matter what adults might think about their capabilities.
I was still in a very dark place after the Summer ended. I wasn't the happy, smiling little boy that I was before, and something about darker TV shows containing death drew me to them like a bee to a flower, or a fly to dogshit. Logically, you would think that I would have stayed away from such things, so I don't know why. I'm not a psychiatrist.
Maybe I should have had some kind of intervention, medical or otherwise at this point, but instead, my parents left me to watch any TV I wanted and to stay up until the TV stations closed down. Yes, this was before 24 hour TV. We had 3 channels and "closedown" was at 10.30pm most nights. Because of my eyesight "problem", I'd sit in pole position on a footstool about two feet away from the TV set, and I watched it all! The only dreams or nightmares I ever had were of the after closedown static.
I watched the programmes meant for "Schools and Colleges", daytime TV, dramas, soaps, magazine shows, movies, quizzes, game shows, panel shows, evening TV with more adult themes, and pretty much anything but "shouty kids" programmes or the news because it was boring. I was always looking for sinister, spooky stuff, and I found it too. There were so many things that I couldn't list them all, but I do know that ITV's "Beasts" was a favourite of mine, as was a similar series called "Thriller", and the BBC's "Supernatural" series horrified me during 1977! Just hearing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor being played at the beginning was enough! Many years later I learned how to play it on an organ, but that's another story. Suffice it to say that I hardly ever watched entertainment programmes which were designed for kids. I didn't like other children, and I had nothing in common with them. Children's TV and comedies made me cringe and feel nauseous.
By the time Roald Dahl's "Tales of the Unexpected" came along in 1979, I was a truly hardened horror TV fan and TV addict. I was also listening to a lot of radio plays, reading James Herbert novels—I'd never heard of Stephen King—while the other kids were reading books about Narnia. I still thought that I was normal, but the thing is, I wasn't normal anymore. I'd killed off my childhood, and was constantly sewing seeds of depression. As I started to specialise in horror, I was doing it to fuel those original fears about my own mortality. If there was anything spooky on TV, I had to see it. If there was a magazine or book about creepy stuff, I had to have it.
Unlike other kids, I didn't feel like I could be carefree or act like I was immortal, and I was constantly looking for answers for why I wasn't. Truth is, I still am. I did know that I was a lot cleverer than other kids because things came easy to me and teachers were always telling me so. I was also very destructive, I burnt ants with a magnifying glass, I shut flies in jars and boiled them to death, and I was that "quiet one" in the classroom who hardly said a word. I found it difficult to make friends with other kids as I changed schools from Junior School to Secondary School.
By the age of 11, I was bunking off school to go back home while my parents were at work to watch TV. For some reason—I still don't have an explanation for how it started—I was hitting my parents' booze cabinet pretty regularly. I'd mix a little drop of everything together just so it wouldn't be noticed. Bell's whisky, Gordon's gin, Lamb's rum, Bacardi, Stone's ginger wine, Cinzano, Advocaat, Babycham... I had a go at them all. And these drinks made me feel normal again. I was happier, exhilerated, but never drunk.
Nobody cared that I wasn't at school. Parents weren't fined for their offspring's truancy like they are now, and I'd forge notes as and when I needed to. To say that I was at home more than I was at school would be an understatement. The school was sometimes lucky to see me a couple of times a month! I hated Secondary School. I learnt nothing there except that I was shit at team games, but I still got out of it at 16 with 8 "0" levels.
So what about the horror films?
Here's where it gets tricky because I don't know which ones I watched first. I know that I watched a lot of Universal horror movies, everything by Hammer and Amicus, all the American horror TV movies, "Jaws", "The Amityville Horror", and of course, "Salem's Lot", but these were mostly at night. I also saw "The Collector" one afternoon, and it stands out as affecting me on a "that's not fair" level whereby, in my "innocence", I wanted Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar to be together. I didn't realise that he was supposed to be mental and that he'd kidnapped her until many years later. There was an old movie one morning about a witch who has a lodger, which I've never been able to track down again, and that one really "shit-me-up"!
The thing is, I was only watching "TV friendly" horror at this point. The age of video recorders had yet to arrive, and the only movies I had seen at the cinema were "The Cat from Outer Space" (which was shit!), "Star Wars", and "Battlestar Galactica". Things like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", "The Hills Have Eyes", "Halloween", and even bigger classic titles were completely unknown to me. But as I said, by the age of 11, I was a self-medicating, depressive, truanting, little asshole.
To see why I don't think that kids should be allowed to watch horror movies or anything uncensored before their brains are ready for it, just imagine how much worse I would have been if I'd had access to the types of movies we have available today! Can you imagine what a child would make of "A Serbian Film" or "The Human Centipede"? Christ, if I'd seen those, I probably would have ended up acting them out and killing somebody!
During my time on the internet, I've often seen forum posts and blogs where people have bragged about the movies they watched as kids. It's especially true of Americans born in the late '70s and '80s who say that they were allowed to see "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and all the other slashers. Some boast about they even went into cinemas to watch them theatrically while legally underage.
The questions I always ask about this, is not only what psychological damage did seeing these movies do to the people who watched them, but why did they watch these movies in the first place? Do we all share the same sense of alienation and depression? People may say that the movies haven't affected them, but they're still watching horror movies in preference to any other today otherwise our paths would never have crossed. A lot of these people also collect weapons and own guns, not that there's any proven link between horror movies inciting violence, but statistics like that are always interesting. I know for a fact that there's something wrong with everyone who watches horror movies, especially me!
Nothing like "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Friday the 13th" was ever available to me. The cinema owner would have called the police if anyone under the required age had tried to see an "AA" or "X" movie, as they used to be known. My dad would have walloped the living shit out of me if I'd ever tried to do that too! The first horror movie I ever saw theatrically was "Dream Warriors", and that's so '80s that it barely counts as horror anyway. It's still not meant for little kids though!
"Horror Lamers", slasher fans, and the people who think of horror movies as comedies don't get it. They aren't real horror fans anyway nor do they understand the bigger implications. A lot of them are athiests with entitlement issues who think that they're immortal. They are all deluded, live happily in their "world of the invisible death", and would throw the contents of their stomach up several times over if they saw an accident in real life. If they saw a real dead body, they'd faint! Their grip of the difference between reality and fiction is even worse than a child's because they're in denial!
I was always more into the supernatural, especially supernatural movies where there was a religious presence. I wasn't brought up as a Christian apart from paying lip-service to being "Church of England" when asked, so my "religious education" and belief in the supernatural was formed through second-hand information from horror movies. Since I spent more time in front of horror movies than time at school, my whole moral system (or lack of one) is also based on horror movies.
Did I get into the occult like people think all horror fans do? Yes, too right I did, but not as a child. I collected all the paraphenalia and read all the books in my early 20s, and then realised that it was a crock of shit. I believed in ghosts, witches, and those bloody pixies before horror movies took over my life, and spooky books about folklore and legends were just extending my knowledge. The two things went hand-in-hand, but as far as I now know, witches and pixies aren't real. The jury is still out on ghosts. I believe in them, but I've never seen one. I don't believe in aliens though. Aliens are total bullshit!
People sometimes say things to me such as "You didn't turn out so bad!" and "Well, you're not a serial killer or anything!", but the reality is that, yes, I did turn out bad. I may have been to University, had lots of jobs and relationships, and I now live 4000 miles away from home, but I still suffer daily from depression, agoraphobia, vertigo, panic attacks, paranoia, and I really don't like people at all. The only things which definitely don't scare me are horror movies! After having Trigeminal Neuralgia—the worst pain known to man—for 2 years (8 years ago), I don't fear pain either. I don't like it much, but I don't fear it. Until you've ever repeatedly smashed your head against the wall because it's less painful than the pain inside your head, you don't know what pain is!
I've seen lots of dead bodies—too many—seen things done to people which would turn any sane person mad, and I've done some of the most heartless and cruel things to other people in my past which you would not believe! I've done even worse to myself. I'm bitter, have no feeling or compassion for anyone, and I'm almost a recluse! If it wasn't for the guilt which sometimes sneaks up on me like a ghost, I'd think I was a psychopath! I'm completely in contrast to my parents who were social, normal people who never watched a single horror movie in their lives. Actually, I think my mum may have seen "Ghoulies" when I had it on VHS, but nothing else.
Was I biologically determined to be a horror fan or to be this desensitised creature that now exists only for more horror movies and the internet? Or did watching horror turn me into something which I shouldn't have been? Dunno. Children have different ways of processing things, but without question, everybody who has been regularly exposed to horror movies is hardened to the violence and the scares. I say "exposed to" when I really mean "enjoyed watching", but you know it's true. I'm a very bad human being because of watching horror movies.
Still think it's a good idea to let little kids watch horror movies? I don't.
I often wish that I'd never seen a horror movie in my life and that I was still the happy little boy inside that I was 40 years ago, but horror messed me up. I can't turn back time.