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03 April, 2010

Growing a MonsterKid

ARTICLE TITLE: Growing a MonsterKid

As I rush headlong towards middle-age, I find myself drawn deeper into a hobby that first took root when I was barely five years old. While I had many influences in my gradual transformation from somewhat normal toddler to thoroughly addicted MonsterKid, that transformation wouldn’t have begun, or have continued to grow, without the help of my two older sisters, and a kindly old “Uncle” whom I’ve never met.

My earliest monster memories involve one of my favorite books when I was very young: Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”. I soon moved on to watching the Saturday afternoon creature-features in my sisters’ room. They had a 13” black & white set on their dresser, a dinosaur of a television even then. Still, it did offer an alternative to the unceasing cavalcade of sporting events that dominated the living room set when our Dad was home. Though I would one day come to share his love of sports, at that age football and baseball took a poor second to lying on my sister’s bed, listening to Lugosi intone “…I am… Dracula.”

Occasionally, my sister Dee would watch these movies with me, providing me with a reassuring presence should a monster prove a little too frightening. Such an occasion marked the first Horror film I can remember watching, William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS. I can still, nearly forty years later, recall hiding my eyes every time someone on screen would put on the goggles that let them see the ghosts.

Soon, I had progressed to the point where the efforts of Castle, Corman, and the like no longer had the power to frighten me like that first viewing of 13 GHOSTS. I watched every monster movie and creature-feature I could find on TV… at least, every one I could get away with. I was also going to the matinees and “kiddie shows”, and seeing movies that had yet to reach television.

Most of these films were pretty tame stuff… the Universal B-movies of the ‘50’s, Toho’s Kaij├╗ films, the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films. Even the occasional Hammer would cross my path… though not the more salacious ones, of course. HORROR OF DRACULA and THE MUMMY we got. LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and COUNTESS DRACULA would wait for another day.

But as innocuous as these films seem, they fueled my hunger for Horror. I loved them all—Godzilla and Tarantula; Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Woman in Green. They opened my eyes to the variety of horror that was available, and like a pre-schooler first discovering the thrill of “See Spot Run.”, it led me to begin what would amount to a lifelong education in Horror and Science-Fiction.

The first of these was perhaps the most profound influence my young love of horror would find, a magazine that seemed to be written just for me: Famous Monsters of Filmland. Forrest J Ackerman had turned his life-long love of Horror, Fantasy, and Science-Fiction into a career, and in 1958 began a quarter-century long run as editor of James Warren’s new horror film magazine.

Known to his legion of fans by many names, such as Dr. Acula, FJA, 4E, or simply Forry, Ackerman was able to speak to kids at their level, almost as one of them. He didn’t talk down to us; he was, in a real sense, one of us. He understood what we wanted from Horror movies, and understood why. And his magazine had a way of connecting to kids that is still helping shape the direction of the genre.

The second source for new avenues of Horror for exploration was my oldest sister, Wanda. Around the time I turned 10, she began taking my brother, my cousin, and me to the movies. Not the ‘Kiddie Shows’ we were used to going to by ourselves; no, these were the real thing, at the local Drive-In.
Wanda Susan, ever-thrifty, would conceal the three of us in the trunk, and set us loose when she parked. If she were alone, we’d usually get to stay in the car; but if she were with a date, or one of her friends, we would be banished to the no-man’s land out in front of the vehicle. We’d toss down a blanket, set one of the speakers on the ground beside us, and settle in for a more-or-less pleasant evening of viewing.

And what made us put up with all that? Well, beyond the reality that when you’re a 10-year old boy that kinda stuff is F-U-N, there was the fact that my sister had rather liberal views on what was appropriate viewing material for us. In short, if we asked to see it, or just if she wanted to see it… well, we saw it. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE WIZARD OF GORE, BLOOD FEAST, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT… I had seen them all by my 11th summer. If there were any type of cult or exploitation film that was left out of my curriculum, then I’d be hard pressed to identify it.

If there was a graduation day for me, then it was the 11th of July, 1975… the day I stood in line for three hours, with parental approval, to see JAWS on it’s opening day. The single most frightening film I’ve ever seen; no movie, before or since, has had such a profound impact on me. So deeply was I affected that, even today, more than thirty years later, I still can’t stand the thought of swimming in the ocean… something I once loved to do.
Well, that was a lot of years ago, and yet my love of the genre continues to grow. And like anyone who has a hobby or pastime they are passionate about, I wonder where the next generation will come from, and who will nurture their love of all that’s scary.

While there’s not much I can do to substitute for my older sisters, and in many ways I doubt that would be advisable, there’s much that we, as horror fans, collectors, and vendors, can do. We can, in some small way, be Forry.
If you have a child who is interested in monster movies, encourage that interest. Get them age-appropriate Horror and Sci-Fi films to watch, and watch them together. Show them the classics, and explain just why they are ‘classic’. Help them to find appropriate books to read, and feed their interest in both Horror and reading.

We do have some handicaps to overcome that did not exist in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. One, the availability of cheap monster toys and models to fuel young imaginations. Even adjusted for inflation, the $1.49 that an Aurora Monster kit cost in the late ‘60’s doesn’t begin to approach the price of a modern, high-tech resin kit.

Also, the genre as a whole has become less kid-friendly. Now, I’m certainly not arguing that every horror film should be PG, but I think the interests of all are served with the occasional MONSTER SQUAD or MUMMY.
And unless you live in a few select locations, the days of the hosted horror show have gone the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird. The medium that eagerly fed our voracious appetites for scares has been co-opted by infomercials and late-night talk shows.

Perhaps the most difficult hurdle we have to overcome is the fact that Famous Monsters is no longer there to guide and inform young minds. While it’s true that there is no shortage of magazines devoted to the genre, most are simply not suitable for young children. Rue Morgue, Fangoria, Amazing Figure Modeler… all great magazines, and I read all of them regularly. But none are something that I would feel comfortable letting a 10-year old read. And most of the mags that are family-friendly are simply unreadable for anyone over 6.

But these are problems that can be surmounted. While cheap toys aren’t as easy to locate as they were in our childhoods, you can find ones that won’t require a second or third mortgage. While modern Horror is decidedly adult, rather than bemoaning that fact use it as an excuse to introduce a youngster to the joys of classic horror films. Though you might not be able to find a locally-produced horror host, many now make tapes or DVD’s of their programs available by mail-order. If all else fails, make up your own commentary as you watch a cheesy B-pic with a kid or two.

And perhaps it’s time for a new magazine, one that, while suitable for children, doesn’t talk down to them. A magazine that is able to entertain the adult horror fan as well as the next generation.

Perhaps it’s time for a new magazine, not one that copies what Forry did, but tries instead to pick up where he left off… and keeps the genre moving forward.

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