Posted on April 30, 2019
by Steve Janowick

The machine was tired and well worn.  One of the first incarnations from the mid 70’s.  The eject button facing was missing so I had to compromise the pad of my 12-year old index finger a bit just to open the damn thing.  I grabbed the tape from the shelf, removed it from its box then inserted it into the housing as quietly as possible. I closed it and pushed rewind.  The motor took a breath and finally got rolling and I watched as one side of the VHS tape spooled from the other, each revolution taking the movie closer to its beginning.  My grin as sinister as my intentions.

I waited.

Upstairs I could hear her stirring around, having a perfectly quaint tea party with her dolls.  Pageantry and make believe and good, clean, happy thoughts abound.

But not for long.

I cranked the volume up as high as it would go-and hit play.  Those first few low, dark notes blasted from the television speakers.  There was a split second of stillness and quiet from upstairs as her brain was registering what she was hearing.  I heard her take in that first gasping breath of shock, and the exhale produced a blood curdling scream that could be heard three neighborhoods over.  And the very next second it sounded, and felt, like a small earthquake from above. Dolls flying, tables upended, my sister tripping over herself-heels, knees and palms pounding the floorboards.

In her mind that music was sheer terror.  It was an audible cue to awaken the visual nightmares resting dormant in her mind.  Surely, any second now, two ominous twin girls standing in the corner wearing little blue dresses and wickedly innocent expressions were going to ask her to play with them.  Or maybe a decrepit old lady with rotting skin and a menacing laugh was approaching with outstretched arms to take her and pull her into hell. Or an ax-wielding madman spurned by the demons in his head was dragging himself closer and closer toward her-to kill her-the same way he killed Mr. Hallorann!

And my little sister didn’t run down the steps.  She hurdled down, skipping two and three at a time, looking more like Florence Griffith Joyner in the ‘88 Olympics than a petite 9-year old little girl.

Why, because she was scared out of her ever-loving mind.  Horror cinema from the 70’s tended to have that effect on kids.  The auteurs of the genre were master storytellers first and foremost.  At least the good ones were. The way Rocky was a love story about boxing, horror films from the 70’s were complex dramas with elements of the macabre or supernatural woven in.  Complete, relatable stories with fully-realized narrative arcs and deep, rich characters to get emotionally invested in. So, when the dark elements came in the viewer was already engulfed.  Totally empathetic. Able to relate. And that’s filmmaking 101 stuff right there. Human behavior 101 stuff. Get the audience on board emotionally then you can knock ‘em dead with the horror.  Throw in an eerie soundtrack composed by actual…uhh…composers and you have yourself a total sensory mind-screw.

No predictable jump scares needed.  No trite, unrealistic, blue screen effects.  No flashy editing techniques. Just viscerally horrific stories about the dark side of humanity-that was what you got most of the time in the horror genre circa the 70’s.

Will there ever be another Shining or Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby?  The thinking person’s horror movie?  The optimist in me hopes so. But the realist in me knows that the minds and tastes of audiences have changed concurrently with the technology.  Our attention spans are shorter. Our choices greater. Our patience low. And our cynicism deep.

The way we process stimuli today is just…well…different.

She landed on the bottom step and tumbled to a stop.  Eyes like saucers. Panting. Out of breath. I managed to get my forearms up before the barrage of blows actually hit my face.  She was crying and frightened and upset. And after two seconds of joy in the realization that my stunt had worked and I scared her one good, I felt absolutely horrible.  I pulled her in, hugged her and calmed her down. I was her big brother, after all. I may have had the urge to pick on her from time to time, but I loved her, and my instinct to protect her superseded all.

So, after all was right between us, we grabbed a couple of pillows, our favorite snacks, laid on the orange, shag carpet in front of the big, wood-trimmed, Magnavox TV console with the rabbit ears and watched The Shining together for the hundred and forty seventh time, having fun being scared and knowing full well that our nights would surely be sleepless ones.

Oh, the joys of being a kid in the 70’s/80’s…

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