All I really need to know about fear I learned in elementary school. Before I ever saw a horror film, I had acquired an extensive knowledge of the genre’s main visual icons. More vital than any knowledge instilled in our classroom was the information we exchanged at recess, or on the bus. Besides highly confused descriptions of sexual reproduction, the bits of knowledge most eagerly exchanged were meticulously detailed descriptions of horror films. These movies took on legendary status in inverse proportion to the number of kids who had actually seen them. The kid whose irresponsible parents unwisely took him to see The Exorcist might have been psychologically scarred for life, but among third graders he could become, for a time, a kind of schoolyard prophet. When strict parents intervened, someone’s older brother or sister would always be eager to terrify their younger siblings with lurid retellings of the most horrific moments from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or I Spit on Your Grave. The bearers of this precious knowledge provided me with a rich vocabulary of terror that has stood me well over time.
Horror is a genre founded on suspense, and much of this suspense begins outside the theater. From the commercial end, film studios have created a virtual subgenre of promotional material—from salacious posters to sensationalistic radio and television spots to tautly edited trailers—that is often more satisfying than the films it promotes. Such promotional tools, as much as they might serve the interests of capitalism, are in fact the most recent manifestation of a far older cultural tradition. In earlier centuries, before a circus, freak show, or menagerie came to town, heralds carrying broadsides and placards describing or illustrating the chief attractions would march through town, building anticipation which then spread by word of mouth. More than any other genre, the horror film is the true heir of this carnivalesque tradition, since the sense of anticipation and suspense is so clearly part of horror’s narrative structure. The tension we feel as we wait for a protagonist to find out what’s behind the door is all the more intense when the waiting begins with a trailer or poster image.
By the time I actually came to see Jaws, I was well acquainted with all of the film’s main events, told with a series of images that rivaled the most lurid frames of a 1950s horror comic. “Oh, man, how about when the woman’s skinny dipping at night! She’s all naked, right, only you can’t really see much ’cause it’s so dark; but anyway, she’s swimming and she sticks one leg up in the air and then it sinks into the water. Then that music starts, you know, da-duh, da-duh, and they show what it looks like underwater and you’re looking up, you know like you’re the shark looking up at her swimming and then you can see a little bit more of her nakedness but then they show her face, and she, like, disappears for a second, like she’s pulled under. Then it happens again and she starts screamin’. Then, oh man, she starts jerkin’ around, this way and that way, and then she slides way over until she smacks into this buoy, and then you’re like, oh man she made it, but then, no, she gets pulled off again and dragged around and then she’s, like, totally dead.” To an eager audience of children, this is not a spoiler: it’s an appetizer.
When I finally got to see the film for myself, my enjoyment of these and other foretold moments was actually enhanced by the verbal previews. Although I was an avid and attentive viewer, I have to admit there were things I might have missed had I not been fully prepared to appreciate them. My classmates astutely noted, for instance, not just that the sailing coach’s leg sinks to the bottom, but that it is cut off just above the knee, that a cloud of blood seeps from the ragged flesh where it was cut off, and, most importantly, that “it still had its sneaker on, can you believe that?” Another classmate took time to notice that, shortly before the Kittner boy is devoured, accompanied by “a huge, like, air bubble of blood,” a boy throwing sticks into the water for his dog suddenly notices that the dog is missing. Once I became a supposedly more sophisticated filmgoer, I marveled at the virtuoso dolly zoom effect that accompanies Chief Brody’s horrified realization of the shark’s attack. But without the guidance of a perceptive schoolyard critic, I might have overlooked that poignant detail of a boy calling into the sea for his lost dog.
Over the years our visual vocabulary grew. Piece by piece, our anatomy lessons added “spinning heads,” “still-beating hearts,” “guts spilling out,” “guts being eaten,” “guts on the floor,” “guts hanging from a hook,” “green puke,” “face melting off,” “eyes popping out,” “drill going into his forehead,” “arms reaching out of the grave,” “head on a stick,” and the one that confused me as much as it horrified me, “masturbating with a crucifix.” Every slight variation on the general theme of dismemberment and penetration was told in meticulous detail. Linda Blair’s head didn’t just spin around in The Exorcist, it turned slowly to the right, like she was looking away from the priest, and then turned slowly around to the sound of bones cracking and then completed the turn and snapped into place. Her puke wasn’t just green, it was green like the color of Apple Jolly Ranchers. What is most remarkable about such descriptions is how little exaggeration was involved. Children are generally known as tellers of tall tales, but when recounting scenes from horror films, they were as anatomically precise as forensic pathologists, as closely attuned to performative nuances as anthropologists in the field, and as keenly attentive to subtle variations of color, light, and shadow as art collectors.
Those who experienced such schoolyard exchanges know that there was nothing especially cruel or violent about them. Scenes of graphic violence were recounted not with sadism but with a sense of wonder. By describing such images, we were bearing witness to how strange and awful the world could be: not awful in its contemporary sense, but in the more archaic sense of awe-inspiring. By telling one another about these things, we strengthened our sense of community and kinship. Iona and Peter Opie have gathered an extensive record of what they call “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren,” noting the infinitely rich continuities and variations between the kinds of songs, rhymes, chants, and stories children have told across generations. From them we learn that, long before children were describing grotesque scenes from horror films, they were chanting lines like “Tell tale tit, / Your tongue shall be slit, / And all the dogs in the town / Shall have a little bit.” Invoking such violent imagery doesn’t beget violence: it’s when we lose the sense of community and camaraderie such imagery fosters that we become sad, angry, and, sadly, sometimes terribly violent. Behind most school shootings is a story of alienation and loneliness.
My classmates weren’t simply discussing films when they described them at recess: they were engaging in a form of storytelling as old as oral culture itself. Like the folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm and others, these narratives were structured around horrifically vivid images. Folklorists have recorded infinite cultural and ethnic variations on the meme we know as “Little Red Riding Hood,” but they all have one element in common: a catechism between a child and a disguised monster that progresses from innocent “big eyes” to suspiciously “big ears” to terribly “big teeth” that threaten to “eat you up.” The protagonist might be a little boy in one version, a girl in another; the victim might be eaten and then cut out of the wolf by a huntsman, or she might outwit the wolf and escape; the moral of the story might be that we shouldn’t stray from the path or talk to strangers, or there might not be any moral at all. Every element of the story can be changed but not the progression from eyes to ears to teeth that can eat you: these words distill what is perhaps the most fundamental experience of horror any of us ever have.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.