It was dusk outside. The sun was just reaching the horizon and every shadow on the property seemed to be stretch from its moorings and reach for us. Three scared kids, two girls and one boy, rushed from the side of the house where the grass was a little dryer than in the back yard. They rounded the corner and into the front yard where the last of the daylight was a bright gold. The air was growing chilly, their thin spring jackets not enough to prevent the onslaught of cold that accompanied the dark.
They made it into the front door just as the shadows claimed the land. Darkness pounded into the door. It was quiet inside, the kind of quiet that fills your ears like cotton. There was a stillness to the house that didn’t seem natural. A noise from the basement made the three kids jump. When it came a second time there was no mistaking that someone or something was down there.
“Go check it out,” the oldest girl, Monica, said to the boy.
“It’s your house.” Chris shot back.
“You’re the man.” Beatriz replied.
“I’m eleven,” Chris whispered. “I’m not a man. I don’t even shave.”
“You’re a pussy.” Monica crossed her arms and pushed out her hip.
Chris sighed and looked from Monica to her younger sister. He ran a hand through his dark hair and said: “We go together. I’ll stay in front, but you have to come with me.”
Chris led them through the living room and into the big, eat-in kitchen. The yellow linoleum was freshly waxed and smelled like pine. The cabinets were knotty pine and they too had been freshly waxed. The kitchen was immaculate but that meant nothing to the kids.
Their hearts pounded, their palms grew clammy, and their mouths were dry as dirt. Chris’ hand was shaking when he touched the cool doorknob, the metal seeming frigid under his overheated fingers. He paused long enough to take one more shuddering breath before twisting the knob. He pulled the door open. The ghostly image of a dead woman stared up at them. Chris saw it clear as day. He slammed the door and ran away screaming, leaving the girls to run after him. Monica yelled in terror. Beatriz wept and clung to the back of her sister’s shirt.
There was no ghost. I know because this is a true account of something that happened to me in 1986. The girls were cousins of mine, and I was staying at their house while our mothers were shopping. They left us alone like that all the time, and we always ended up scaring the hell out of each other. It was fun and exciting. It was a way for us to explain and control some of the things we couldn’t rationally understand in our prepubescent minds. I was a huge horror fan and had no shortage of movies and books to fuel my imagination. The girls went along with whatever I said and were normally so repressed by their conservative parents that the excitement was almost too much for them.
We fell in love with the idea of ghosts. Being raised Catholic it seemed like a normal concept. God was kind of like a ghost. Jesus was kind of like a ghost. Everyone who ever died was pretty much a ghost. When you died, your body went into the ground but the soul lived on. Who could say those souls didn’t come back down from heaven (or up from Hell) every once in a while. Ghosts seemed every bit as real to us as anything in the bible.
It’s an interesting paradox; my religious family insisted there were no such things as ghosts. The concept of a human spirit was too much for them, but transubstantiation, the conversion of normal bread and wine into the body of blood of Jesus, was completely acceptable. The notion of horror movies was disgusting to them, and anyone who wrote books about such things was obviously a deviant and a Satan worshiper. Of course this was enough to make me run out and buy every book I could find by Stephen King, Robert Bloch, Peter Straub, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and the likes. My first love of horror was books, but that brought me quickly to the movies.
The very first ghost story I can remember seeing is the Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a black and white movie that came out in 1947. It stars Gene Tierny, Rex Harrison, and Natalie Wood. All though not a horror movie, there is a ghost as a central character and it was constantly on TV when I was young. The ending of the movie (spoiler) has Gene Tierney, as an old woman, dying. She appears as a ghost, now together for all eternity with the ghost who courted her through the entire movie. What struck me then was her dead body just a few feet away while she’s embraced by the ghost that haunted her.
I saw that movie as a very young child, and it made me want to get scared more. I read Pet Sematary by King, Psycho by Robert Bloch, the short stories of Poe, the Exorcist and legion by Blatty. I found all the authors I would later emulate and worship, adding to them as I discovered new authors like Laymon, Ketchum, Koontz, Lee, Keene, Smith, and so many others. I loved the written word and worshiped it, delving into book after book and devouring every single word. I loved them all, but there were also so many great movies I needed to experience.
More conventional ghost movies, like the Shining (1980), The Changeling (1980), Ghost Story (1981), and Poltergeist (1982) were terrifying and kept me on the edge of my seat. I either saw these movies on cable or rented them from the local Palmer Video. These movies absolutely shaped my views on ghosts and helped build the visions and feelings of dread that would come when home alone or running through a friend’s house in the dark. Those movies, and the books associated with them, wrote the script that day at my cousin’s house when I saw the ghost in their basement.
As scary as the Shining was, and still is, the Changeling staring George C. Scott terrified me like nothing else. There was no monster, no visible ghost or special effects to make you jump. The movie is a slow, psychological masterpiece that forces the watcher to use their own imagination.
The movie begins with the main characters family getting killed in a freak car accident involving a plow truck. Later, while he is still trying to heal from the unimaginable loss, he moves into a haunted mansion. None of the events visual, although the camera angles and cuts add to the overall feeling of dread. It’s the movie’s score, however, that makes this such an unbelievably terrifying film. You feel off balance from the first scene and things only get more intense from there, scaring you with simple noises and actions so expertly it there is no denying the horrors the character is going through. These feelings stick with you long after the movie is over.
Poltergeist is another film which makes you feel anxious and uncomfortable. It centers on a typical American family living in the suburbs of any city in the 1980’s. It’s the strange things that start to happen in their new home that set them apart. The ghostly activity increases and becomes more violent through the movie, ending in a tumultuous ending that is part of cinematic history. This is a movie that makes you look suspiciously at your TV, a symbol of American life and normalcy then and now. It takes the safety of your home and turns it against you. Poltergeist took everything the American public strived for and flipped it upside down, turning dreams into nightmares.
Later on in that decade, movies like Ghost Busters, House, and Beetlejuice would take the ghost movie concept and lighten it up. Horror was king in the 80’s. The psychological, slow burn movies of the sixties and seventies were giving way to the slasher flicks like Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Nightmare on Elm Street. The one thing that wasn’t changing was the public’s hunger for horror. It seemed like a natural progression to ease the mood the little and add some comedy in with the terror. What’s better than Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd cracking jokes while fighting some ridiculous ghosts and saving the city of New York? These movies changed the way horror movies were written, directed, and acted.
Ghosts still scare me. It’s why I write what I do. My book Paranormal Reality pits a single mother against a powerful ghost. I wrote that book about five years ago and when I go back and read it I’m still scared. There are parts to it that came from my nightmares. Another book I wrote, Demonic Possession, has other images that I pulled from the darkest recesses of my imagination, pits I threw images and thoughts. I tried to kill off those horrors, but every movie and book I consume sends scraps of terror into those pits and feeds the monsters. They come out when I’m writing and live on in my books like all good ghosts should.
There is no mistaking the influence these books and movies, and hundreds more like them, influenced and changed who I am as a person. I know I’m not the only one. There isn’t an author writing today that can’t attribute some of their characters or plots to something they read or watched as a kid. As artists, we’re influenced most of all by the art of others, and the calling of our genre is too powerful a siren song to pass up.
By Christian Jensen