Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lessons from My Creep-o-Meter

Even though I was born just hours after author Stephen King, I have no taste for anything too creepy. In 1973, I saw two movies that sent my Creep-o-Meter into overdrive.

It was before I moved to the Left Coast. I was visiting from Wisconsin, on vacation to see my poetry editor/ love interest in San Francisco. He suggested we see the movie,
Play Misty for Me. Remembering the beautiful song Misty by Johnny Mathis, I figured it was a love story. Turned out to be the Fatal Attraction of its time, the tale of a woman fan obsessed with a DJ, played by Clint Eastwood, also in his directorial debut. The suspense and slow revelation of his stalker’s mental imbalance sucked me in and scared me in the most visceral way. I wanted to crawl under the seat or inside my date’s jacket. I never considered seeing Fatal Attraction after the indelible impression Play Misty left on me. I was deeply weirded out by this movie and cannot erase some of the scenes from my mind to this day. Some people, who have seen them both, think Misty is actually creepier than Fatal Attraction. Misty starts out seeming like the love story I expected—then the twist. I didn’t mind doing the Twist in the ‘50s, but movies that were too twisted didn’t play well for me in any decade.

Then there was
Harold and Maude. It opens with young Harold in a bloody suicide attempt--slashed wrists--then minutes later, Harold’s mom walks into another room to find he has hang himself. She remains sarcastic and unfluttered, and soon we learn the joke is on us. Harold stages all these death scenes—now we know they’re fake--in a desperate attempt to connect with dear old Mom. I almost walked out until I recognized it as a dark comedy. I was glad I stayed the course, because this cult classic endeared itself to me, living on the border of life and death and total unpredictability. It scared, then delighted me. I cannot think of this movie without reliving the hilarious scene where a priest tries to counsel Harold about of his “unholy” relationship with Maude, old enough to be his great-grandmother. He imagines out loud, in increasing verbal crescendo, the comingling of his young, firm flesh and hers—wrinkled and sagging. I apologize in advance if I hurt the feelings of any baby boomer readers, in case this hits home too closely. (I meant robbing the cradle, of course, not the wrinkles.)

I have had many personal encounters with people and things that are not as they seem, and learning to deal with these scary surprises seems to be one of the great skills we acquire as we accumulate birthdays. There are the milder forms of the unexpected—the relationships we imagine through our rose-colored glasses to be soul mate material when they are really a joke on us for not seeing every red flag the love object is waving in our face, not even attempting to be dishonest. “Oh, the lies we tell for the sake of love!” Especially to ourselves. Or so goes the opening line of a poem I wrote that amuses me still for my moment of clarity while swimming in that much self-delusion.

Back at the cinema, from these two movies emerge two distinct kinds of unpleasant surprises. Play Misty for Me is an encounter with true danger, something to be avoided at all costs and to run from the minute you see the switch from Jekyll to Hyde or you get the scent of something that gives you goose bumps. Before online dating, I sometimes tried the local singles ads. I connected with a man so smooth, I actually agreed to meet him for the first time at his home—very risky. A switch flipped inside me during one of our conversations, and I called him and backed out. I said if he wanted to meet me, it’d have to be in a public place the first time. I just wasn’t comfortable on a first encounter any other way.

When we met at a restaurant, he chose to have more than one drink, and in the middle of a sentence, his Evil Other emerged. He criticized me unmercifully for not keeping my word about coming to his house—just the warm-up for an onslaught of verbal battering. It was amazing to me that I had given him so much ammunition and personal information in our phone conversations to turn against me. He glommed onto my strong sense of integrity, knowing that the worse thing he could accuse me of is not being forthright or true to my promise. I walked out, fuming, mostly at myself for being so vulnerable, but not without having the last word, which I threw over my shoulder, “You have just proven why I made the right decision not to go anywhere near your house.”

Harold and Maude, on the other hand, represents the experience that seems a little strange at first, but something inside you knows there’s a hitch—some incongruity just sucks you in. Like Harold’s mother acting irritated with his “suicide attempts” instead of screaming or calling the paramedics. Ironically, I almost left Harold and Maude faster than my brush with the singles ads weirdo and my own potential
Looking for Mr. Goodbar. There’s another movie I avoided, knowing would be too scary for me to see—especially considering the risks I probably had no idea I was taking during my “bar phase” in my twenties.

We all have an internal alarm system that will keep us out of Harm’s Way if we choose to hear it, but sometimes it conflicts with our desire to keep an open mind—or the way too open heart, eager to find love anywhere. If you feel a chill up your spine or witness any kind of behavior that seems “off” when you really don’t know someone well, that’s the time to run, not walk to the nearest exit.

On the other hand, if something is tickling your funny bone or you can remind yourself it’s “just a movie,” maybe a touch of the creeps is a relatively cheap thrill worth the occasional indulgence. I admit it. I have an approach-avoidance conflict to the bizarre as witnessed by my love of the cult TV show,
Twin Peaks and movies like Fargo. I can take dark drama/comedy, no matter how bizarre, as long as there is a lot of comic relief. Often these flicks or shows are too crazy to be real—and somehow the humor dilutes the horror. For the same reason, I’m a fan of the “cocktail mysteries” by J.A. Konrath.

Life without a skipped heartbeat now ‘n’ then might be just a bit too boring for the generation that grew up in the era of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. And, for me,
before that, who grew up on
Shock Theatre every Saturday night. I thought I had the most liberal parents on earth in the ‘50s because they didn’t censor my viewing and allowed Marvin and “Dear” to baby-sit me for a couple hours each weekend.

Meanwhile, ready, set, go—trick or treat! May all your things that go bump in the night be imaginary, not real.

Happy Halloweird!


Beverly said...

We don't celebrate Halloween in our home. Our church sponsors a Hallelujah Night and allows all of the kids to get together for fun, games and treats--on tricks.

When my daughter was younger, people were doing crazy things to the candy--causing hospital emergency rooms to have to screen the candy. I didn't feel like going through that every year.

Joyce Mason said...

I'm glad you mentioned some of the great alternatives to traditional trick-or-treating, Beverly. It's a shame these incidents occur, and safety is #1. Thanks for sharing a way kids can still have all the fun without the worry.

Eileen Williams said...

Wow, Joyce,
You sure brought back some strong memories for me. Like you, I'm not a fan of horror movies--they creep me out, too. I never saw "Silence of the Lambs" and many other well known films for that very reason.
I did see "Play Misty for Me" when it first came out and didn't sleep for days. I walked out on "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" because I couldn't take it and knew I'd have nightmares.
It's funny, some people love being frightened by films. I guess I'm just too much of a scardy-cat. But that's just fine with me. Give me a good love story any day!

Pam Archer said...

I agree that when something feels "off" to us, we should run for cover.

We haven't celebrated halloween for many years. My kids didn't do the tick or treat thing, but we always did special harvest things.

Our church has a fall festival, this year a Hallelujah Hoedown. The kids can dress up, but they come for games, food, and the gospel message.

Heidi Caswell said...

I remember watching Harold and Maude with one of my good friends, she loved it. I wasn't so sure about some things in it.

Halloween was simpler once, a time to dress up and have fun, play games, etc. Much depends on what the day means to you.

Melodieann said...

I must confess I enjoy a good scare now and then. I loved "Play Misty for Me." What I can't understand and don't like is the current idea that the more blood, gore, and vivid renderings of people being killed and maimed, the "scarier" the movie is supposed to be. Don't they know that leaving something to the imagination is far more thrilling than having it shoved in your face? Although it was made over 50years ago - "Vertigo" is still considered one of the best mysteries ever filmed. And the original "Psycho" (not the more recent remakes) still tops every list of classic films. Can the latest slasher film make that claim?

Joyce Mason said...

I'm with you on the gore factor, Melodiann. While I like all the CSI programs, the way the crimes are shown in such graphic detail has me turning my head the other way often. Horror movies aren't my genre in general--that's one reason. I'm glad to know someone who liked Play Misty! I do appreciate a good psychological thriller. Maybe I'd do better with it now than I did in my twenties. I'm still probably too chicken to find out. :)