Touting Terror

A campfire song is nice, but a ghost story is better

Fear bonds people together. So do joy, lust and a number of other extreme emotions. It’s just that fear rarely receives its due. Rather, communal fear is almost always viewed as a negative community builder. Homophobia is a good example.

My father, however, must have known fear’s upside, if only instinctively, as his application could’ve used some fine-tuning. For a good scare, he would have my older brother and sister and me play a mandatory game of his own concocting: “lights-out.”

All the lights in the house would be turned out. He would hide. We were ordered to find him. Upon finding him, he would jump up screaming, scaring the bejeezus out of us. Well, mostly out of me, as I was about 5, while the siblings were in high school.

Or, when I was 8, the first night in a new house, Pop ordered me to stay up late and watch the original Night of the Living Dead. At 8, I didn’t yet know enough about the world around me to dispute his claim that the movie was based upon actual events that occurred sometime in the 1950s in upstate New York. Something to do with electricity in the ground, he explained. Anyway, movie’s over, sleep tight — in your new first-floor bedroom with the large and flimsy window.

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My father redeemed himself years later. It was the second “divorce summer,” making me 12. He, my stepmother and I sat up watching The Changeling, which remains among my Top 3 scariest movies. The movie ended with neither my stepmother nor me wanting to be left alone. But she was heading to bed. The redemption was that he delayed his conjugal bedtime to sit with me for an episode of Benny Hill so that I might decompress from the George C. Scott ghost story.

There was no redemption necessary when it came to bonding with my first friends via terror. Between games of lights-out, I could escape to Jim’s house down the street. He introduced me to the macabre delights of Vincent Price and The Wolf Man — as well as soft-core, age-appropriate, boy-on-boy action, but that’s another story altogether. When we weren’t watching horror movies, I could spend hours watching Jim assemble and lovingly paint plastic models of the creature from the black lagoon and other vintage childhood boogeymen.

My most terrifying memory with Jim was watching The Tingler, a 1959 screen gem starring Price. Why this stands out, I have no idea, particularly in that I saw Jaws in the theater with him and his mother. Price must have also made an impression on Jim. Today a San Francisco-based artist, his portfolio includes a masterful portrait of Price, but no sharks.

With my other little gay buddy, Mike, sharks were very important. We’d spend many afternoons sketching scenes of gigantic sharks tipping over swim floats to gobble up swimmers. With great detail, we’d shade the half-eaten limbs. Through the elementary school years, we so anticipated the weeks that WJLA 7’s “4 O’Clock Movie” would be dedicated to horror movies. So many bad movies to watch together….

The Creeping Flesh made a creepy impression, though I still have no idea what the hell it was about. Another terrific terror from the 1970s — at least to my prepubescent taste — was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. We still talk about the goose bumps we shared as tiny, chimney-dwelling, Fraggle Rock-esque demons dragged Kim Darby to hell.

With the advent of cable TV, we were allowed gorier fare à la HBO. Made-for-TV chills gave way to Friday the 13th chainsaws. Inspired by Jason Voorhees, Mike concocted a new game for us and a few other neighbor kids: “maniac.” It’s no wonder Mike today is a member of New York’s Dazzle Dancers. He had an early love of choreography, expressed by playing maniac. The rules were a simple variation of tag. Roaming around his suburban Springfield home, which abutted a small forest and featured a three-tiered patio and tall shrubs for hiding, it was an ideal setting for maniac. The “victims” would disperse, allowing the “maniac” to find a good hiding place. As the victims roamed around Mike’s house, adrenalin pumping at dusk, the maniac would wait to pounce once a victim wandered close. A “tag” was the equivalent of a gruesome slaughter, after which the maniac would figure on a hiding spot for the dead victim. The victim, in turn, was required to heed the maniac’s instruction on exactly how to spring forth — the choreography — in splatter-film-corpse fashion when other victims got near, preferably as they were scrambling by with the maniac at their heels.

Introducing an element of terror into tag kept us playing it long after our peers had moved on to Van Halen and “spin the bottle.”

Oddly, I have no memories of Halloween with either Mike or Jim. Maybe that’s for the best, as my last name — a peculiar variant — is shared with Ronald Clark O’Bryan. I don’t know how we may be related. What I do know, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is that Ronald was dubbed “The Candyman” for lacing Halloween “Pixie Stix” with cyanide in 1974. It seems O’Bryan first took out life-insurance policies on his children, Timothy and Elizabeth. Then on Halloween night, he saw to it that his children got tainted candy, along with three other neighborhood children, presumably to cover his tracks. But only Timothy, 8, ingested the tainted Pixie Stix, dying later that night. O’Bryan was executed by lethal injection in 1984. According to CNN, a group of Halloween-masked college students were on hand to cheer.

So, just in case there’s a “Candyman curse” running through my veins — God knows I’m fond of Pixie Stix — it’s just fine that we delighted in terror at other times of the year instead. Rather than the day itself, which gets ever further from its spooky pagan roots making a boy in a bunny suit as common as gore and ghouls, I’m just glad that I got to experience fear with friends and family. And when someone asks me to come up with a community-building experience, I’ll suggest a good game of maniac. And a round of Pixie Stix, on me.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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