Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Thief In the Night Keeps Me Awake

Every year around Halloween time, I go to a 24-hour film fest that specializes in the horror genre. It’s called the Music Box Massacre, because it takes place in Chicago’s old Music Box Theatre. Some of the films shown are classics, The Exorcist, The Shining, Friday the 13th and Halloween for example. But the films that really stand out each year are the ones that I’ve never heard of before. Some of the best: Pieces (a chainsaw movie…), Demons 2 and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. I enjoy these films in that ironic “so-bad-it’s-good” way.

            Even though I’m there for sincere reasons, I always feel like a bit of an outsider at the Massacre. John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Ed Wood are not just household names to the folks at this event, but have attained god-like status. And, almost everybody’s physical appearance is objectively unattractive, quite unlike my handsome demeanor. But it doesn’t matter who you are or why you’re there, it’s a time to celebrate the fun of just being scared. On the big screen we see wood splinters in eyeballs, pointless boobs being chased by masked murderers, monsters drooling acid saliva that burns screaming human faces into claymation puddles of goo, and more buckets of blood and guts than you can handle. Oh, it’s a great time!

            One of the most memorable films was a horribly produced gem from the late sixties called Equinox. As washed out as a film can get, Equinox has the audience squinting from start to finish. The acting was atrocious and the stop-motion monsters were fantastically corny. Laughs never ceded for this hour and a half of campy fun.

            

Equinox was produced by Jack Harris, who also produced the classic 50s horror film, The Blob. The Blob’s associate producer was Russell Doughten, who later went on to create a series of films about the Great Tribulation and the second coming of Christ. Doughten’s A Thief in the Night was probably the first horror movie I ever saw, and actually sheds some light onto my reasons for enjoying such a horribly campy movie like Equinox.

            Harris and Doughten worked together on The Blob, proving that they had horror film chops. Even though they went in two different directions for their later films, their styles stayed the same. In Harris’ Equinox, an ear-piercing soundtrack is used to push the viewer into the highest possible state of intentional discomfort. In Thief, a very similar soundtrack is used to invoke a fear of spiritual desolation. To an 8 year old, a claymation inter-dimensional monster isn’t nearly as frightening as the thought of having your parents swept up by a Jesus in the clouds who is leaving you on a violent and godless earth to fend for yourself until the universe explodes seven years later. The former is just impossible and practically fanciful, but the real possibility of being “left behind” with no one to care for you is a truly horrifying thought in 2nd grade.

            I actually watched Thief with my mom. We watched it at church. The whole congregation was there on a dark, foggy night in the early ‘90s. While Doughten intended this movie to be a piece of evangelism to teens of the ‘70s, our congregation didn’t seem to notice. Our church was a former barn that eventually was remodeled by putting used carpeting and uncomfortable chairs in an old chicken coop. It was surrounded by a vast cornfield, and was located on the edges of one of the trashier suburbs of Chicago. It wasn’t exactly a very happy-looking place to begin with. Actually, this church and the kooky old people that attended scared me whether it was a Sunday service, a summer picnic or a Christian horror film night.

At this church, we would occasionally have these movie events where everybody would come and watch some awful thing that we could learn from. They would wheel an old TV into the front of the church, we’d turn the lights off and have a regular movie night. Before Thief, we watched some sort of Christian-produced documentary about Dungeons and Dragons. Apparently, some teenagers who happened to play this game had committed suicide and this documentary attempted to make the argument that they killed themselves because Dungeons and Dragons is satanic. After playing the game, the boys became possessed, and Satan actually made them kill themselves. Since I thought the game was nerdy even back then, I was able to ignore that particular video and draw in my sketchpad while all of the other adults grew fearful that their nieces and nephews could be at that very moment hanging out at a heathen friend’s house, playing a game that is turning them into the devil’s playthings. Oh God, they were a serious bunch, praying in tongues out loud if they ever felt the urge.

But that might be a story for another time. Tonight we were watching A Thief in the Night. My mom shouldn’t have let me see this. It was about the mark of the beast, the end of the world, the desolation that is prophesied to come within our time. The film is about 10 percent theology, and 90 percent old-school horror. It would actually make a great spot in an upcoming Music Box Massacre. It is cheesy by today’s standards, of course, horribly outdated. But to those who have weak wills, and to children, this film is truth. But in reality, it uses scare tactics to invoke a response. Unfortunately, not everyone can watch such a movie without getting completely wrapped up in it. It’s like watching The Matrix and afterwards believing that we really are in a bunch of pods.

I don’t know what to call such a phenomenon. Maybe it’s just gullibility. But I know a lot of it has to be stupidity. A lack of critical thinking is a dangerous quality in a movie-watcher.

I once heard someone say, “yeah, the groundhog saw his shadow again. So I guess we get more winter.” Which isn’t remarkable, especially not on Groundhog Day. But then a friend responded to her, “I don’t think it did actually. If you watched it, you’ll notice that its eyes never really turned in the direction of the shadow.” After hearing this, I have to assume that it has to be some sort of weird joke. But then the following response affirmed my deepest fears, “Do you think maybe it doesn’t matter if the groundhog sees its shadow? I feel like we get more winter every year.” This wasn’t said sarcastically.

There are some people in this world who have gone leaps and bounds beyond gullibility, and revel in ignorance. What I can’t figure out is how these people live past their 20’s. But these are the sorts of people who went to our church. And they loved watching these movies that didn’t have the slightest hint of fact to them, but were believed to be true regardless.

But to the few kids who were there, it wasn’t a matter of gullibility. Kids are already gullible, they don’t need any encouragement. To a kid, these movie nights were pretty scary.

By the end of A Thief in the Night, a kid will believe that if you don’t accept Jesus Christ into your heart at this very moment, the rapture could happen within seconds and you could lose your chance forever. If you lose your chance, you have to endure seven years of tribulation on earth. This means, everyone around you is not a Christian, and so everyone will want you to denounce your faith and join them. If you don’t denounce your faith, well, you go to the guillotine of course.

For whatever reason, this film pushes the idea that if you refuse to take the mark of the beast, you are immediately decapitated by guillotine. Even though I loved to draw, I really just can’t when a movie like this is on. And I can’t enjoy it, because all of the grown-ups around me are taking it as seriously as any other piece of nonsense produced by any schmuck who calls their product “Christian.” And herein was the problem. Had we all been watching Evil Dead, all of the grown-ups would have been laughing. Even though I might have been scared of the haunted house and the creepy music, I would have been assured that what we were watching wasn’t real but actually very silly. When a kid watches a scary movie and is told: “this is actually going to happen…” well, it should probably be considered abuse. I went through this nearly every week at the Church of the Good Shepherd.

This wasn’t like that little D&D docu-nonsense. Thief had a soundtrack that you couldn’t get out of your head. It heralded the end of the world not only as something that is nearing, but that has arrived at this very moment and is about to destroy you and all that you found beautiful in the world. I have to give Mr. Doughten credit. He knows what he’s doing. It would be interesting if he even considered himself a Christian when he made this, because it actually doesn’t feel like a film that Christian would make. A Christian would have done a lousier job, and it wouldn’t have been scary at all.

What I had endured that night was something called “Christploitation.” This film taught nothing of the love of Jesus, and if it did they tried to denounce it by saying that God “hates sin” and is going to pour out His wrath. This movie seeped into the psyche. It wasn’t fun at all. It made the viewer afraid for their lives, and not just on a spiritual level either.

One scene features a little girl, wandering around her house looking for her mother. Pots are boiling over as an eery, single, high note from an old organ harmonizes with a discordant piano whose tune is a trail to nowhere. The girl screams. The camera goes off in a million different crooked angles. Suddenly her mom appears from around the corner, hugs her daughter and everyone is relieved. The rapture hasn’t actually happened. Phew. But the girl then decides at that very moment that she must ask Jesus into her heart. So she does. Because, it might not be a false alarm next time… (watch below)


I can’t even count how many times I asked Jesus to come into my heart. I mean, I just had to be sure, because I didn’t want to be left behind in the rapture. At least once a day I prayed that Jesus would come into my heart. (Especially if I had gone through an experience like that poor little girl in the movie.)

When we weren’t at church, we lived in a trailer (which probably that didn’t help nurture any comfort in my young soul). I remember one day it really felt like the end. I was in my room, watching TV on my bed when I heard the trumpet. It came from outside, a low rumbling call that signaled all of the Christians to fly up into the sky. My heart stopped. I called out, “Mom?!” And I heard no response. I felt the blood fall out of my face again. I was pale. I ran around the trailer looking for my younger brothers or sister. They were nowhere to be found either. I knew what had happened. I was old enough to be counted for Christian eligibility; my siblings were too young to qualify though. They had been taken up in the rapture and I was left behind. I ran outside to look at the sky, and saw that someone had turned the hose on the side of the trailer on. I turned the corner of the trailer and saw my mom with the hose. And then I realized that the nozzle is just beneath my bedroom window. The rumbling trumpet sound I heard was my mom turning on the hose. Strange vibrations against the trailer can easily get the better of an impressionable young mind I guess.

As soon as I saw her, I turned around and went back to my room. My heart was still beating. I went back to watching TV, but I made sure to ask Jesus into my heart before sitting down again. Just for good measure.

But I still love a scary movie. Whether it's Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger or the returning Christ, there's nothing quite as fun as some good old-fashioned, cinematic horror.

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