The Horror Aisle

Last October, the same as every year around this time, I did my best to gather as many horror movies as possible for Halloween season consumption. Dark as it might sound, Halloween is a full-month affair in my house, with horror movies filling every gap between football and Jon Stewart. “Horror Movie Month,” I call it (and my wife rolls her eyes and disappears to a different room for thirty days). In years past, I’ve searched cable listings to DVR every scary movie I hadn’t seen—from Hellraiser: Deader to Rock Monster to Dead and Breakfast; I’ve borrowed DVDs from friends, scouring their collections for the few films that had thus far managed to escape my wandering eye; for a few years, I used DVD mailing services (Blockbuster, then Netflix) to organize long lists of movies that would last me the full month leading to Halloween. And every year’s Horror Movie Month stock has been supplemented heavily by video-store jaunts, time spent in the horror aisle.

But last year was the first time when I had only Netflix Instant Play, the local Blockbusters mostly shuttered, my house finally equipped to handle high-speed horror (new Blu-Ray player with wireless internet, new wireless router), my former subscription to the Netflix mailing service canceled in the wake of their stupid Qwikster experiment and price increase. But whatever. Who needed physical DVDs anymore? I had instant horror movies at my fingertips! I populated my Netflix Instant Play queue with scores of fright films, one selection leading to another, one recommendation to another, and soon I’d rediscovered and added to my queue a host of horror favorites from my youth. I added Poltergeist II and Poltergeist III to the queue, movies that still remind me of long nights when I was nine years old, when the hallways in my house seemed to stretch farther and darker once my parents slid me off the couch and told me to make the lonely march upstairs to my bedroom. There on Netflix, I was suddenly high on nostalgia, adding The Unnameable and 976-Evil and Dark Side of the Moon, a full catalogue of late-‘80s B-movies that I might have originally watched at a friend’s house during a sleep-over, or maybe on USA’s “Up All Night,” or that I might never have even watched, only thought I had…but it felt good to glimpse the box-art as I scrolled through Netflix…it felt creepily and comfortingly familiar.

One film, in particular, begged to be watched: The Sleeping Car, a movie I never saw, but had always wanted to watch. The cover of the movie box was painted in the rusty brown color of dried blood, a train car in the foreground, and behind it, occupying at least half the movie box, the close-up image of a dead man’s face, eyes gone milky white, scabs and sores across his forehead, hair missing, skin seemingly melting off the cheeks and jaw. In fact, it was an image so disturbing in my youth that I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about it for twenty years. The Sleeping Car. Thank you, Netflix. I thought this October would now be the greatest Horror Movie Month ever. Look at this haul! I was elated, but I’d soon realize in the days ahead that something was…not right. Not right at all.

Though I’d seen The Sleeping Car cover dozens of times as a kid, I knew little about the film, just that it starred David Naughton of An American Werewolf in London fame. I’d imagined the story, though, every frame of the film, from first appearance of creature to final kill scene. As a kid, I’d stared at the image for five minutes straight, ten, at the old drugstore where we used to rent videos when we lived in South Carolina.

This was my first exposure to the “horror aisle,” an institution as important to my childhood as the toy or sports aisles for other kids. In those days, there were no stand-alone video rental stores (not where I lived, anyway): that old South Carolina drugstore had just one full aisle dedicated to VHS rentals, and you’d flip back and forth through hanging plastic cases—the same kind from which, years later, at Wal-Mart or Spencer’s Gifts, I would buy posters—which displayed the movie poster and some sort of number/letter combination (“A4”). You’d write down the code and take it to the clerk, who would then locate your movie in the long shelves behind the counter, or (if it was an older movie) in the “back room.” There were hundreds of these posters on display in the cases, from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Sleeping Car and X-Tro and The Blob remake. When the store needed to clear room for the poster of a new release, they simply pulled one of the old posters and made you purchase a book of movie listings and codes, complete with descriptions and star ratings, all classified by genre. The book was created by idiots, I think, with movies like The Hulk (with Bill Bixby) and Harry and the Hendersons classified as “horror” seemingly based upon passing glances at the movie boxes, the star ratings determined not by substantive reviews but by some old Southern employee with an axe to grind (Aliens receiving a one-star rating because it wasn’t suitable for children, that sort of thing). I took those one-star ratings personally, too, often refusing to believe the movie could be bad. Those critics: what did they know? They hadn’t seen the nightmares I’d imagined, the comics I’d later draw with those horror posters as inspiration. Horror movies were an underdog; I, by extension (a kid with asthma and severe allergies) was also an underdog, and sooner or later we were going to rise up and prove everyone wrong!

In any case, when The Sleeping Car poster was taken down and the movie disappeared into the “back room,” I had only the book’s listing to remind me of that chilling cover art…to remind me that it existed at all.

This was the late 1980s, early 1990s, several years away from the rise of CD-ROM encyclopedias and Microsoft Cinemania (the CD movie review database), a few more years away from the rise of the internet and Rottentomatoes and Fandango and all that. Hell, we were still a year or two away from the proliferation of the chain video store. Back at that old drugstore, I’d spend fifteen minutes, twenty, in that movie poster aisle while my mother shopped or waited for prescriptions to be filled or…whatever it is that mothers do that their children don’t really pay attention to.

But later, when Blockbuster and Hollywood Video took up residence beside the Piggly-Wiggly and the Winn-Dixie, the poster cases disappeared. These new stores dedicated entire walls to Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves VHS boxes. The more, the better. Boxes stacked on boxes. I’d be let loose into the video store while the parents shopped for groceries next door, or while they waited for the Friday night pizza to be ready. Let loose into the horror aisle to inspect and absorb the cover of Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, or Troll, or Pumpkinhead.

Here’s the thing about video boxes. Physical video boxes. Back when Blockbusters were three times as large, you could wander the whole store, from “New Releases” to “Horror” to “Action,” and every movie seemed to be a potential “best movie ever” candidate. The men aiming semi-automatic weapons, jumping through roaring fires, the charging barbarian armies with shields and spears raised high, the serial killer villains hidden in shadows, the still photos of women in distress, the airbrushed cleavage, the lists of actors and directors and producers you’d many times never heard of, the critical acclaim blurbs that were sometimes so chopped apart by ellipses that you wondered if the original quote—in context—was even laudatory ( “This movie is the…most amazing…spectacle of…the year!”). Yes, VHS boxes told blatant and unforgivable lies, sometimes showing scenes and actors we’d never actually see in the movie itself, showing painted landscapes and spaceships and explosions too grandiose and impressive to ever appear in the crummy movie. Yes, a movie box made every film look like a winner, but there was a sense of wonder and possibility when you wandered the store and saw them all together, when you held four or five movies in your hand at one time. When you had to narrow down your choice for Friday night to justonevideo.

These were the days before Google Images gave us everything we wanted at the click of a button, the days before Photoshop made everyone into a graphic designer and affordable hand-held video cameras and pre-loaded PC Moviemaker software made everyone into a filmmaker. Heck, these were the days before DVDs, before the dimensions of the box changed, before slick special editions came to rule Best Buy and Blockbuster alike, every cover sparkling prismatically and begging to be owned, not rented…These were the days when you could still be impressed by clip art, by monsters in rubber masks, creatures that were clearly puppets.

Quality has improved. Choice has improved.

Maybe I shouldn’t miss the aisles of the video store. But I do.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved fright flicks of all kinds: the standard creature features (especially the explosion of Stephen King-influenced vampire and werewolf movies of the ‘80s, starting with King’s Silver Bullet and ‘Salem’s Lot, then leading to The Lost Boys and Fright Night and The Monster Squad), the serialized slasher flick (I own the Nightmare on Elm Street DVD box set), and even haunted-house and exorcism movies (Poltergeist still creeps me out to this day). I’d stay up late on weekends and watch all of the bad, cheap sequels that the USA network pumped out for “Up All Night.” One year, I spent my allowance on blank video cassettes and—in a preview of my adulthood with DVR—searched every page of the TV Guide and recorded every horror movie aired during the month of October, three movies to a tape. I watched every horror movie I could, and the more outlandish and gruesome the movie, the more I enjoyed it. Partly, it was my attempt at being tough, the same way other kids act at theme parks, daring one another to ride Dueling Dragons one more time.

But it wasn’t just the stuff of dares and personal challenges. I also loved horror movies for their unending sequels and unkillable villains, which mirrored the monthly comic books I read. In the early ‘90s, my family moved from South Carolina to Venice, Florida, and as a friendless new-to-town middle schooler (same asthma, though, and now the allergies were worse), nothing was quite so reassuring to me as the knowledge that Freddy Krueger would never really die, and that Michael Meyers—the same villain I’d embraced back in South Carolina—would be resurrected for another go-round by the time I got to Florida. I’d walk the horror aisles of Venice’s independent rental store Video Giant, ambling up and down the horror row, comparing the VHS box covers for all five Nightmare on Elm Streets, the increasingly detailed and vile Freddy Krueger makeup (and did you hear that the new one is going to be in 3-D?). I’d compare Friday the 13th Part II to Part VIII, and oooh!, look at how Jason’s mask has acquired new slash marks, new spots of blood, new scratches as the series has progressed! Look at the cast of the Halloween movies, how only one or two actors return from one film to the next (that’s how you can tell who lives and who dies!).

Walking the aisle felt scandalous, too. I was 10 or 11, but I felt older. These movies were rated “R,” after all, and were full of blood and gore and sex and high schoolers. By 7th grade, I’d even discovered that the video stores gave away old movie posters and cardboard cut-outs, and pretty soon my bedroom was wall-papered with People Under the Stairs and Dollman and Demonic Toys and Dollman vs. the Demonic Toys. I couldn’t believe that no one else wanted this stuff.

Video Giant, in my middle school days, ran an ongoing promotion where you could rent seven movies for seven dollars and keep them all for seven days. My parents, in an ingenious plan to get me to quit whining, would give me seven dollars every Friday night and set me free in the store. I looted the horror section, renting the worst and most dreadful of the store’s stock. Club Dead? Last House on the Left? The Amityville Horror? Puppet Master? I Spit On Your Grave? If I’d read that Roger Ebert had given the movie “zero stars,” that familiar voice would whisper in my ear: underdog. The critics had something against horror. They didn’t get it.

After a while, I had all the movie covers memorized, especially those rich with rampant, undisguised exploitation. I Spit On Your Grave featured half a woman’s butt cheek, and so many other films seemed always to have at least a passing display of breast, or a flash of knife traveling downward and nearly making contact with some poor high school sweethearts, screaming and cowering. There were the Witchcraft movies, always a naked woman (nipples barely concealed by some flowing, silky garment) splayed out on a pentagram, and the Graveyard Shift vampire movies with naked bodies skillfully reduced from Porno to Harlequin by airbrushed shadows.

Most of the exploitation flicks used cheap, grainy photo covers, though, so I found myself favoring the more creative video boxes, Child’s Play and The Pit and The Fog, movie boxes with photo-realistic paintings of imaginative monsters against an empty black background: on the cover of C.H.U.D., a set of eyes peered out from beneath a dark manhole cover, and on the cover of Night of the Creeps, a zombie prom date peered in through the windows of your front door. The chilling box-art tickled your imagination, the same as the rich imagery adorning the covers of old-school science fiction novels. There was Children of the Corn, the black sickle raised against the burnt orange sky. There was Dolls, the child’s doll holding out her own eyeballs, two dark cavities burned into her skull-like face (“They walk, they talk, they kill!”). There was Creepshow, and Return of the Living Dead, and Monkey Shines. Chopping Mall, one of my personal favorite video boxes, featured a metal cyborg hand holding a shopping bag filled with severed body parts (eyeballs, a hand, a human head). House and House II: The Second Story both featured a grotesque zombie-hand moving a key ever-closer to the lock of a front door. Return to Horror High foregrounded a skeleton cheerleader frozen in mid-cheer. Every video box: it would be the scariest movie I’d ever watch, I just knew it. As soon as I saw those bald-headed green creatures climbing from the toilet on the cover of Ghoulies, I simply had to see it. And the font used for the movie title: red and jagged, words like “The Mangler” and “Grim Prairie Tales” looking almost as malevolent as the creatures and killers themselves.

So what if the low-budget horror movies themselves could not compete with the promise of the boxes? Those painted pictures of severed heads and zombie hoards were painted for a reason: the directors couldn’t afford to create those monsters, to film them. More than any other genre in the video store, in these horror films there was a remarkable disparity between the quality of the box-art and the quality of the movie’s special effects. Hell, I remember one Friday the 13th film that, in order to capitalize off the unexpected success of the franchise, had been so cheaply and quickly produced that it seemed to feature only stock footage of Jason Voorhees walking through the woods; I seriously don’t think he was ever seen in contact with his victims; they were all murdered by some knife-wielding hand which we were to assume belonged to Jason Voorhees, almost as if the movie had originally been a different slasher film entirely, with Jason spliced in last-minute. And one of the best movie covers of all time, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (brooding orange background, black silhouettes of children in Halloween costumes marching toward some unknown doom), is also the only Halloween movie to not even feature Michael Meyers! Talk about a let-down.

Still, I wandered the horror aisle. I didn’t give up.

But at some point in the mid-‘90s, just as I was moving from middle school to high school, Hollywood gave up on horror films. CGI had come to rule the multiplexes. Apocalyptic disaster movies lined the shelves—Deep Impact, Dante’s Peak, Independence Day—but it wasn’t quite as fun to look at these movie boxes. I knew the special effects were actually good. If the box-art showed the White House being blown to smithereens, I could reasonably expect the footage to appear in the film itself. Everything was possible, and the horror genre didn’t know how to capitalize. Monsters weren’t cool unless they were CGI, and no horror film had the budget for that (except maybe Matthew Broderick’s Godzilla, but that was hardly a horror movie, and hardly successful). In this dry span for a genre now shrinking into straight-to-video obscurity, horror movies started resorting to gimmick covers, 3-D box-art where we could actually see the movie creature popping out at us. Turn the video box this way, and watch Uncle Sam change from a billboard-perfect American icon into…a zombie! Turn it that way, and watch Jack Frost transform from an ordinary snowman…into a snarling ice-creature! But it felt silly. And desperate. These covers were too flashy for horror flicks. It was the bling-bling era for horror box-art, the equivalent of No Limit soldiers wearing 400-grand around their necks but still rapping about the ghetto. All of my old favorites were long-dead, and despite a few awkward attempts to revive the franchise (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers), the genre fizzled out and the box-art of the ‘80s films faded from black to gray under Florida sunshine. I took it as a cue to move on, explore the other aisles, get a girlfriend.

High school. I took the SATs. I moved from Stephen King to Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, sought out classic films I’d always avoided because the critics—the same critics who derided my favorite horror movies—had held them up as standard-bearers of the medium. I watched The Godfather, and Patton, and fell deep into a Pulp Fiction / Clerks watch and re-watch cycle.

With the release of Scream in the late ‘90s, teenage slasher flicks experienced a resurgence and became cool again; suddenly there were dozens of movies featuring popular prime-time teenagers and a few Creed songs on the soundtrack (I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty). I loved the Scream movies, rented a few of the others, but I noticed that the video boxes had changed entirely. They’d sacrificed all creativity and imagination for the sake of their stars’ head-shots. Now, walking the horror aisle at Blockbuster, you’d see twelve different movies in a row, all featuring a scary mask in the background and a vanguard of frightened faces in the foreground (semi-recognizable sort-of stars from Fox and the WB and MTV, like Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt and Busta Rhymes), some of whom were displayed on the cover because they were important characters, and some of whom were just “trick characters” who would die in the opening scene, a la Drew Barrymore.

Real stars? In horror movies? This didn’t make sense; this was the genre of killer dolls and creeping blobs; it was the underdog genre where no self-respecting celebrity would go.

Everything was changing. Soon, I couldn’t even find the old horror movies anymore, not if I wanted to. The video stores were selling off their old stock, Chopping Mall and Child’s Play 3 and Faces of Death II. They were clearing room for more new releases, and my childhood was disappearing little by little each week.

In the early 2000s, just as I was finishing up college and coming to terms with a genre beholden to teenage soap stars (a genre I’d suddenly outgrown), everything changed once again. First, there was the influence of Asian horror, where every video box seemed to include both a hot female star (Jessica Biel, Naomi Watts, Sarah Michelle Gellar) and a dark-haired ghost-skinned girl who looked like she’d been drowned in a toilet.

And then, walking the aisles at Blockbuster during the early years of my marriage, the height of the Bush presidency and the waning days of both Asian horror and Blockbuster itself, I couldn’t help but notice a pattern with the new generation of violent hack-fests taking up their tiny corner just beyond Happy Feet and Superman Returns. It became easier to spot the horror video boxes. The major studio releases—Flags of Our Fathers, Spider-Man, World Trade Center—featured vibrant blues and immaculate whites, pleasing and inspiring colors to let you know that, yes, there will be action and drama and maybe death in our movie, but damn it, in these post-9/11 years, everything is going to turn out all right at the end!

The horror films, on the other hand, took their cue from the sick, torture-driven Saw franchise, and the DVD boxes grew drab and depressing, showing only sun-bleached and blood-speckled body parts, rusty weaponry. There was Saw, yes, with its white, blood-drained foot on the cover, with its grinding saw, with its title displayed in text suitable for a Nine Inch Nails album cover; and the Saw sequels featured rotting, pulled-from-the-gums teeth and dirty grey fingers with broken fingernails, all against a crackling and scratchy white background. But there was also Hostel, with that lone industrial hook centered so prominently on its cover. And the parchment-colored box for The Hills Have Eyes, where a corpse-white arm shoved a woman’s face into the ground. And Altered, with the same blacks and sepia tones and sharp claws coming from nowhere. And Clawed. And Serum. And Rest Stop, which showed us only the bloody legs of an abused, beaten woman as she walked some dusty highway searching for help.

In those final days of the physical Blockbuster store, the final days of the literal horror aisle, I became certain that the gap had closed between the video box and the film itself…I felt certain that the mood and the imagery in these ultra-violent cinematic exercises matched the mood and the imagery of the ultra-violent video boxes. What you saw was what you’d get.

And were there really people who thought this was fun, this pain? Where were the creative wise-cracking villains with back-stories like legends, the evil monsters who came from dark depths we were too scared to ever explore? Where were the stop-motion dolls? Where were the red eyes peering from beneath the manhole cover? Had horror become synonymous with torture?

This was the final step in video boxes for horror movies, I thought. Dismembered torsos and arms and hands and fingers. It probably wasn’t possible—save for displaying an arm being physically torn from a body, the depiction of the violent act itself and not just its aftermath—to get much more gruesome. The final step, and we’d lost that sense of wonder and imagination that I’d always loved from my trips down the horror aisle. Examining the cover for The Stuff (“Are you eating it…or is it eating you?”), the entire family melting in their kitchen.

One of my favorite horror movie posters of all time is Jaws. The girl swimming out into the deep dark ocean, so vulnerable, so oblivious to the monster shooting up from down below. Spend a minute looking at the image, at the terrible detail bestowed upon the shark, its rows of teeth, its bottomless-pit of a throat. Now there’s an image that will stay with you, an image that you can’t shake, and yet there is no violence in the image itself. There is only the suggestion of violence, the suggestion of a terrifying experience to come. That’s the type of image that gets little boys thinking of the world beyond the box-art: where had the creature come from, and what further carnage would it wreak? What heroes would be assembled to take it down? That’s the type of image that gets little boys to imagine their own stories, even if they never actually rent the movie. That’s the type of image—like those brilliant Mysteries of Harris Burdick drawings that Chris Van Allsburg produced—that compels a young boy to set pen to paper.

Box-art still exists, of course, but the horror aisle is now survived only at Best Buy (and barely), and only as tiny images on the Red Box outside your local 7-Eleven. Or on the internet: on Amazon, or on the Netflix “horror” page. Digital horror aisles. More choices than I ever had at Video Giant, and much cheaper than seven-movies/seven-dollars/seven-days; now I can watch a hundred movies in a month, if I want, and there are no late fees, no penalties for failure to rewind. I should be over-joyed, right?

Yes, the old ‘80s horror films have returned as Netflix Instant Play selections, Poltergeist II and Popcorn and The Unnameable. Oh, nostalgia! When what you saw wasn’t necessarily what you got, but perhaps that was the fun of it all: the horror movie boxes inspired nightmares, but the movies themselves—unlike Saw and The Hills Have Eyes—didn’t make you feel unclean after you’d finished watching, like you’d watched a snuff film.

So last Halloween, with my queue filled to the brim, I decided that I’d start by watching The Sleeping Car. Finally. All these years later. Oh man, this was gonna be good. And what happened?

It was terrible. An idiot script. Awful acting. Special effects that should never be allowed to play on an HDTV. After twenty minutes, I shut off The Sleeping Car to watch college football. I couldn’t take it, the unraveling of the horrors I’d imagined, the bleak confirmation that my “good old days” were themselves imagination. In bits and pieces over the next few months, I finally watched the rest of the film, if only to say that I’d finally watched it, but it was mostly drudgery, the fulfillment of a task. I watched Dark Side of the Moon, too, and Lifeforce, but mostly I played Words with Friends and read magazines while the movies plodded through their obligatory ninety minutes. I wanted it to work, wanted to feel the same way I’d felt as a kid, but it wasn’t happening.

Again and again, I went back to Netflix and back to the digital horror aisle, hoping that if I added more movies I’d feel different, but the brief excitement over my childhood favorites had passed. Scrolling through the horror posters in the Netflix library, I found it increasingly difficult to discern any real pattern to the box-art. I’d see five old favorites in a row—Waxwork, Leviathan!—but then I’d encounter twenty or thirty cheap-looking straight-to-Netflix horror movies created by would-be filmmakers whose true skills are in Photoshop, not filmmaking, highly stylized box-art that didn’t care about stirring the imagination, only about convincing you that the film had a real budget and that the link should be clicked. (Type in the word “zombie” in Netflix and see what comes up. Pick two movies you’ve never heard of. Watch the first five minutes. Some of it is worse than the amateur shit you’ll find on YouTube.) Every decade is tossed together on the digital horror aisle; every level of filmmaking expertise, every size budget. Viewed together on the screen, a hundred horror movie posters blending into one giant advertisement to watch something else.

Last Halloween, I found myself scrolling through my queue for fifteen minutes, paralyzed, certain that they were all going to stink. I was afraid to watch any of my other old favorites, fearing that I’d shut them off after five minutes, too, fearing that every movie would be another Sleeping Car, a dream ruined. Despite the unlimited options, I watched fewer horror movies last October than (perhaps) I ever had before.

The old horror movie aisle required me to take a chance, and sure, I’d sometimes rent movies that I should never have watched past the two-minute mark. Sometimes I’d make poor selections. But video rental required an investment. If there was a chance the movie could be terrible, I invited over some friends and had a Mystery Science Theater night, but at least I watched it, committed. There was value to the patient act of deliberation and decision, and value to the horror movie experience itself. Now, with Netflix Instant Play, you can be reckless with your selections. Anything can be added or deleted on a whim, and so I was treating “rented” movies the same way that I treat television shows on lazy Saturday afternoons, clicking on and off after thirty seconds if I wasn’t immediately engrossed. There was a joy in those slow walks down the horror aisle, imagining the movies behind the VHS boxes, measuring Chucky against The Blob against The Exorcist. But there was no joy for me last Halloween after I clicked “add to queue” over and over again, only an over-critical edge as I’d start watching a movie (Creepshow II!) and then immediately start imagining what else—what better—could be watched.

Maybe Netflix has done nothing to the quality of the horror genre. Maybe the genre has never been worth a damn, and I was just too young to realize or to care. But Netflix has done something to the horror aisle itself. Back in the days of the video rental store, it was the wandering that mattered most, the wandering that fed the imagination, and it’s something that we’ve given up for the convenience and selection of online video libraries.

These days, I haven’t forsaken horror entirely, though I find myself wondering if I’ll ever again wander the horror aisles of another physical video store, slowly scanning the rows of video boxes featuring skeleton cheerleaders and bloody hockey masks, or if those days are truly gone forever. And I also find myself wondering if I’m crazy to lament something so silly as a horror aisle, if this is a genre or an art form that deserves nostalgia and 5,000-word essays…but if not me, who else will even acknowledge the passing of an institution that so stirred my imagination, the paintings that inspired my nightmares?