My parents loved going to the movies. It was like their church. They particularly enjoyed horror movies. This love of voluntarily terrifying oneself was passed along to my brother and I because we were taken to most of those movies as children. I suppose it would be called a “parenting fail” these days, but we loved it. There was nothing better than sitting on swings in the playground at the foot of a forty-foot drive-in theatre screen, stuffing our faces with hot dogs, popcorn and Milk Duds, and watching Dracula get a wooden stake pounded into his chest. Man, what a rush! We were too young to know or care about the effects such viewing had on our prepubescent minds. We would get the Heebie-Jeebie’s back home when we had to walk through the hall to go to the bathroom, but that was about it, until one night.
In an amazing feat of poor judgment, my father decided my brother, at thirteen years old, was ready to see the granddaddy of all horror films, The Exorcist.
I wanted to go but I was only ten. It would be three years before I was worldly enough to see possessed children vomiting into the mouths of priests. My brother left the house that night eager and rosy-cheeked, and returned gaunt and pale. I asked him how the movie was but he just walked by me silently. My mom asked my dad what was wrong with him. He said, “Ah, don’t worry about it. Kids are resilient.”
After a week or so, he had returned to normal and started talking again. Our parents went to a party and left us alone. We decided to play hide-and-seek. He went upstairs to count and I hid behind our enormous Magnavox television set. And not just behind the TV, but behind thick curtains behind the TV. Of course, the TV was on. It was always on.
In the days before flat screens, TV’s were monstrous things with pressboard panels at the back riddled with ventilation holes heat belched out of like dragon’s breath. Well, it turned out to be the best hiding place I had ever chosen because my brother couldn’t find me for at least an hour. He actually looked behind the TV but didn’t find me because he didn’t look behind the curtain behind the TV, and because I was such a waif of a child (his nickname for me then was “Pale and Frail”) and I was making myself flat like an Egyptian hieroglyph behind the curtain.
After an hour or so, exasperated, he finally decided to pull back the curtain. When he saw me, I was a sweaty wreck, badly dehydrated and on the verge of heat exhaustion. The excitement of being discovered made me laugh. It seemed perfectly innocent to me, but to him, still reeling psychologically from The Exorcist, I looked and sounded like a small, demented demon. To my surprise, he screamed. But it wasn’t just any scream, it was one of those primal screams only accessible when the mind is pushed to some heretofore unexplored extremity. He turned and ran, still screaming.
Now, the right thing to do would have been to go to him and reassure him that I was still his little brother – but where’s the fun in that? Every mean thing he had ever said or done to me (and there were plenty) rushed through my mind.
“An opportunity like this might never come again,” I thought. “We’ll see who the pale and frail one is!”
I chased him around the house screaming maniacally and scratching his back until he locked himself in the bathroom and begged me to leave him alone.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you revenge doesn’t feel good. It was awesome. For the rest of the week, I glared at him until he asked our parents to make me stop. I was heady with my newfound sense of power. However, I was about to be introduced to another kind of power – karma.
A few days later, in yet another astounding demonstration of irresponsibility, my parents decided it would be a good idea to let both of us watch The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery.
Though already quite the horror aficionado for a ten-year old, I found this movie particularly disturbing, for two reasons – she looked remarkably like my mother, and I was used to watching Elizabeth Montgomery play the sweet and perky Samantha in the TV show Bewitched.
I lay in bed that night wide awake, unable to stop hearing a song in the movie, sung eerily by children –
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty-one.
Man, oh man. Sleep was completely out of the question. I was afraid to blink. I lay there for hours until exhaustion finally overtook me. I awoke in the middle of the night staring at the wall. I rolled over to get more comfortable and momentarily opened my eyes. When I closed my eyes again, I realized I had just seen the silhouette of a woman standing by my bed, the edges of her hair and nightgown illuminated by pale moonlight from the window.
“Holy Mother of God,” I thought, “Lizzie Borden is in my room.”
I was too scared to open my eyes again. I hadn’t looked at her long enough to see her hands but I was certain an axe dripping with blood was in one of them, an axe she was about to give me forty-two whacks with. I turned to the wall again, hoping she might leave if she thought I was sleeping. She didn’t. I could hear her breathing. I let out one of those screams only dogs can hear and pulled my blanket over my head because, as every child knows, a blanket can withstand any attack.
“Ah, who am I kidding?” I thought, “It’s a blanket! It can’t stop an axe!” My mind raced, “I’m a goner! And still so young! How did she get out of the TV? I wonder if she got my parents yet. Oh, just whack me already and get it over with, Lizzie! Whack away! Why are you just standing there? God, if you care about me at all, make her leave!”
I started reciting every prayer I knew – “getting right with God” as they say – when a hand touched my shoulder. I screamed. Then Lizzie screamed! I screamed again. She screamed again, too. I started to scream a third time, then thought, “Wait a minute. Why is Lizzie screaming? Axe murderesses don’t scream!”
I reached for the light on my bedside table and pulled the chain. It was my mom. Seems my dear mumsy had chosen that night, of all nights, to stand by her little boy’s bed and watch him sleep. It should have been a tender moment, but it was the longest, most horrifying minute of my life, before or since.
Once her heartrate slowed down and I realized I wasn’t going to be chopped up, we both had a good laugh about it. My dad did, too, as I slept between them in their bed that night, and the next night, and for the next two weeks.