Fear Is the Most Fun Thing in My Dumb World
Ira Landau, a friend of mine who is 19 months old as of this writing, has recently gone all a ga-ga for anything Star-Wars-related. I mean this literally.
In particular, Young Master Landau admires "Lew-Gar" (his name for Luke Skywalker), the hero of the original "Go-Gars" (his term for the entirety of the George Lucas juggernaut). More intriguingly, Ira is fixated on Darth Vader - or, in his particular toddler dialect, "Dar-Gar."
Ira is both magnetically drawn to and repulsed by "Dar-Gar." His second-grader neighbor, Phineas, owns a highly-detailed plastic Darth Vader figure that stands about a foot high with a cloth cape and red light saber that extends and retracts. As Ira's four-year-old brother Simon will attest, it's totally cool.
In the past few weeks, Ira has asked Phineas repeatedly to go get the "Dar-Gar" so he can check it out. Once Phineas returns with the toy, Ira looks at it - close and hard - and then seizes up in terror, bursts into tears and runs away, yelling "No Dar-Gar! No Dar-Gar!"
I know where that kid is coming from.
During the peak phases of my own development reflected in Ira's story - almost two, almost kindergarten age and around seven - fear struck my own little empire, permanently and profoundly. I grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York in the 1970s. That was the right time and place to be scared.
Don't let your contemporary pals in the now hyper-cozy Carroll Gardens or grotesquely hep Williamsburg fool you: '70s New York City - falsely represented by other self-deluded transplants as nothing more than "boy-did-YOU-miss-out" video clips of CBGB's and Studio 54 - was a collapsing cesspool of mange, angel dust, wild social discord and sudden violence behind every pre-pooper-scooper-law shit heap (which meant every-goddamn-where).
Today's creeps who so loudly and proudly belch out lamentations for the Vile Isle's surrealistically savage past, invariably, never walked to elementary school with "mugger money" - an extra buck to stave off the more punishing instincts of whomever required a donation-by-fists-and/or-switchblade on a particular day.
I did. And, no, it didn't always work. Not that I'm complaining about my upbringing. No, I am, in fact, bitching, whining, bellyaching and begging for questionably deserved sympathy about my upbringing.
Regardless, my mechanism to cope with all this fear was (and remains) more fear.
Relatives tell me that the pop-culture characters I embraced most passionately at a freakishly early age were Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. They thought this was cute; it gave my mother a moment of pause.
See, when Moms McP was hauling me around New York in utero, she was a petite woman with wide blue eyes and a blonde pixie haircut. It was 1968. Inevitably, she says, at least one passerby per day commented on her resemblance to Mia Farrow in the movie hit of the year, Rosemary's Baby.
Moms was not amused.
And then, a few thousand diapers later, I started going through red Crayolas quicker than any other color in the 64-pack because of all the vampire activity and werewolf feedings in my drawings. Moms tried not to fret. Too much.
Once I discovered that our religion featured a horned, clawed, fanged, hoof-footed guy that could make Drac, Frank and Wolfy howl in cosmic horror, though, there was no hope.
Poor Moms McP
The facts, as reported somewhere in Catechism, go something like this: in the time before earth, St. Michael the Archangel led an army of heavenly warriors against Lucifer in a battle for the dominion of Paradise.
Lucifer - whose name means "bearer of light" -was once God's favorite, but after he rounded up a cabal of treasonous celestial beings and attempted a coup, somebody had to put this particular light out. And fast.
St. Michael then bested Lucifer with a terrible, swift sword and drove him and his diabolocial minions into the Lake of Fire, where they underwent some severe KNB-FX-style makeovers and have since passed the eons tormenting the damned and waging war against the goody-two-wings upstairs, one human soul at a time.
Before he permanently ousted the devil, though, St. Michael stood on his head. I don't mean that he turned upside down; I mean he loomed over a defeated Lucifer and planted one of his mighty archangel feet on the side of Old Nick's noggin to more effectively hold him at sword-point.
That was the exact scene depicted on a plaque hung on my bedroom wall. Initially, I was under the impression that Baby Jesus slipped me this memento in heaven before I was born. Sometime around kindergarten I noticed the black-winged figure being used as a rug by St. Michael and asked what the deal was.
Pops McP shot me straight. He hipped me to the Fall of Satan. He also told me that while he was fighting as a Green Beret in Vietnam, he'd pray to St. Michael to help him return home safely. In gratitude, then, Pops named me after the figure he turned to for peace of mind to survive the hellfire of war.
I appreciated my father's explanation. I also became completely terrified of my St. Michael plaque - which only made me love it even more than when I merely thought it was a gift from the Infant Savior that followed me into this world amidst the delivery room mess of screaming and placenta.
Again, I cite my being in the right time and place to be scared, especially in the singular manner which I sought out with the most fervor. I turned five in 1973. This was the year of The Exorcist and, subsequently, Ground Zero for the half-decade of Exorcist rip-offs to come.
The devil was as real as the dirt to me. As such, I couldn't contemplate what might drive any rational person - especially people I knew and liked and cared about - to see The Exorcist (let alone Abby or Ruby or Messiah of Evil or The Tempter or Kung Fu Exorcist or Voodoo Black Exorcist or House of Exorcism or, scarier still, The Devil in the House of Exorcism). And yet I so couldn't contemplate this idea that it was pretty much all I could contemplate. Alone. In bed. All night. Just begging Virgin Mary to hurry up and deliver me to daybreak.
My own private satanic panic melded well with my angst over the aforementioned Gotham atrocities of the day. And so I threw my shivery self deeper and heavier into the forms of horror that I could gratefully endure.
Again, Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man ruled, plus now their ranks were swelled by King Kong, The Mummy, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Phantom of the Opera and Ro-Man, the gorilla-with-a-diving-helmet from Robot Monster (1953) and others.
It wasn't a conscious decision on my part. I didn't, at age 6, decide that I could graft friendly faces onto my anxiety over living among fire-bombers and random rapists in this life while facing the prospect of a scorching eternity at the razor-sharp talons of the Father of Lies in the next. The monster parade was simply what I was drawn too. And I loved it. And I still do. But it really did scare me.
A typical McPadden outing to any amusement park, for example, consisted of my pleading to be taken into any and all haunted-house-style attractions. Upon I entrance I would then clamp my eyes shut and stick my fingers in my ears. Afterward, I'd lie about it, either claiming it was awesome or not scary enough.
I also once cajoled Pops into taking me to see the British spookery anthology From Beyond the Grave. He kept warning that it would "scare the hell out of me" and right up to our approaching the box office, I kept bluffing. As he neared the cashier, my wee heart pounded and, once I caught sight of the From Beyond the Grave poster (a cadre of ghouls gathered about a tombstone), I folded.
"So, uh, Dad," I said, "you sure there's nothing else you might want to see?"
He capitulated with a smirk and we caught the Gene Wilder comedy Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother instead. The next day I told all the kids in school that I saw From Beyond the Grave anyway, even though the movie I was describing had Marty Feldman in it.
This con worked for a while.
Then, somehow, I found out about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Here was this… thing that featured nothing but people torturing and slaughtering other people - people like me, who didn't stand a chance against a lumber-shortening device. I was flabbergasted en route to flailing into a whole new dimension in panic.
The human butcher thing - a la Hansel and Gretel - was bad enough. I now knew that I occupied a planet where individuals would seek out and pay for depictions of this living nightmare as entertainment.
So appalled was I that I rode my bike to the College Theater, where The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was playing. I stared in rapt meditation at the poster, memorizing its every square inch and trying not to explode in fright over its query, "Who will survive and what will be left of them?"
When the movie let out, I was startled by a mom with her, like, 10-year-old daughter. They came traipsing into the afternoon sun as though they'd just seen one of Disney's wacky-dad Dean Jones showcases. "You want pizza?" the mother asked. "Yeah," the girl answered.
I was revolted and dismayed. Then I wanted pizza. Then I was revolted and dismayed again as never before.
What kind of woman … what kind of people … what kind of world is this?!?!?
The only thing I could think to do was to try and capture this wickedness in some kind of container and keep it safely at bay. So began the scrapbook obsession of my youth.
Armed with scissors and spiral-bound volumes of cardboard pages covered by contact paper, I tore into the movie sections of the New York Post and Daily News each Friday. For years, I clipped out any ad for a horror movie that I didn't think would get me in trouble for having (e.g.-Satans' Cheerleaders, Cannibal Girls) and slapped them inside my books. For safety purposes, I kept the scrapbooks in the basement, where I'd be less inclined to think about their contents as I was trying to sleep.
So horror was it for me. And it remains so. I hate to be scared and yet I seek it out in its every form, every chance I can. And, ultimately, I tapped into a terror-verse fraught with infinitely more opportunities for giddy dread, chaotic agony, self-flagellation and convulsive freak-outs: in 1975, I found a copy of Playboy buried in our bathroom hamper.
My life has traveled in one long, fast, continuous straight line from that moment on … downward.
- Mike McPadden