Even as a very young child, I had a morbid sensibility. This may have had something to do with my granddad on my father’s side; his idea of a good bedtime story for me and my sister at ages three and six (respectively) was The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Grandpa read with great flair, building up the tension of the story to a hair-raising degree. I loved every minute of it.
My cousins Mark and Amy (on my mom’s side of the family) were also expert storytellers, most notably ghost stories. I’d get Mark in trouble by begging him to tell me a spooky story and then have nightmares after the fact. I loved every minute of it, even the nightmares. My guilt over getting Cousin Mark in trouble was never strong enough to stop me from repeating the process. I had great persuasive powers as Mark never refused to tell me a scary story. Er . . . sorry, Cousin Mark! Amy, for some reason, never got in trouble for telling me tales like The Hookman, Squish-Thump, Bloody Mary, or the Scythe Killer. Go figure.
I subsidized my desire to be frightened with Creature Features (hosted by Moona Lisa) on Saturday afternoons with a variety of movies like Them, The Mole People, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, The Tingler, and many more. Sure, some were really cheesy, but at the time they scared the heck out of me. And . . . I loved every minute of it. Then Dan Curtis released Dark Shadows and I wallowed in the gothic and supernatural world of Collinwood and vampire Barnabas Collins. In retrospect the show is even cheesier than The Mole People, with a pace slower than the advance of a glacier, but at the time it gave me nightmares. Of course, I’d always go back for more.
The library was a place of wonder. I found the non-fiction section almost immediately, needing to know all there was to know about natural disasters, carnivorous animals and reptiles, poisonous plants and insects, witches, werewolves, and . . . vampires. I was probably one of very few eight year olds who not only knew who Vlad “Dracul” Tepes was, but how one would go about impaling someone the old-fashioned way. Not particularly useful information at that age, but it did help me craft some pretty grisly ghost stories for slumber parties.
I don’t remember where I first came across my paperback copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Probably a yard sale or a used bookstore. I do remember the cover very clearly: Dracula in profile against a dark background, white hair, flowing off his forehead a la Franz Liszt, skin tinted gray, pointed ears, gaze turned towards the reader and fangs showing in a wicked smile. The picture captured my imagination and the fact it was about a vampire? I had to have it. Read it, then re-read it (my beloved paperback eventually disintegrated from age and multiple readings and I’ve never been able to find a replacement with that particular cover art). Pretty heavy stuff for a kid, all that sexual subtext, and I didn’t really understand it at the time. Didn’t matter, I was in it for the neck biting and the blood sucking and . . . er . . . look, I thought it was all about the scary stuff, okay?
And then I saw my first Hammer horror film. Specifically Horror of Dracula with Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee (swoon) as Dracula.
I was still pre-pubescent at the time, but only by a few months and . . . oh my. I mean, yes, he was fifty-three and I was thirteen. But I knew it could work. I would make it work!
Suddenly I had an inkling of what all the sexual subtext was about in the book as I developed my first real crush (okay, technically my first was Roddy McDowell as Cornelius in Planet of the Apes, but I just don’t think it should count). Crush? Hah. It was a deep and abiding love that lasted into my relatively late teens. I read the TV Guide cover to cover to see if he was in anything from week to week. If I found a movie blurb with his name, I cut it out and put it in a cigar box. I would sit in my bedroom with the lights off, rocking in my rocking chair and listening to scary music while imagining myself being stalked by Dracula/Christopher Lee. The fantasies never went too far because I still didn’t have much of a clue as far as the mechanics of sex and all that, but they were rich enough to keep me completely engrossed in my own little world for hours on end.
And this was all before I saw Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers with Christopher Lee as Rochefort. No one has ever done more for an eye-patch and a rapier in the history of . . . well . . . history.
But I digress.
Because of my first exposure to the uber-sexy menace that embodied Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Dracula, I was hooked. I watched every horror movie that aired (we had no new-fangled video machines or DVD players back in the Dark Ages), my appreciation for the genre growing beyond my muted adolescent lust for Mr. Lee.
Zombies eventually surpassed vampires as my monster of choice. I don’t think even Christopher Lee could make a zombie sexy (although I would have been willing to give him the chance to prove me wrong back in the day), but they still work for me on a viscerally scary level that other creatures of the night just don’t conjure any more. Zombies are still capable of giving me nightmares . . . and I love every minute of it.
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