Fear, for all the unpleasant and sometimes embarrassing affects it has on us, tells us one major thing – we are alive! As time has gone on a reoccurring pattern has emerged with me – what I have feared becomes my object of fascination.
I grew up with a father, grandfather, uncle and other family members as wild animal trainers. Our family history was already chequered with stories of life and death struggles against some of the world’s most dangerous animals. Every time my father entered the cage and to this day, we feared and fear what might happen. Aside from this, I grew up on a travelling circus where awareness and practical survival skills come as standard for any caring parent. You are warned from an early age about keeping close to an adult, not wondering off, being wary of anyone who approached you and where not to go. Fear, in some respects, was a way of life. The circus always travels into the unknown and is open to the elements – both environmental and social.
It was doing a publicity stunt for my parents’ circus aged barely four that I apparently addressed fear. The TV show “Nationwide” filmed me going into a cage with some lion cubs sat on pedestals. I was dressed in a top hat and had small bamboo stick with some meat on the end. The presenter apparently asked me whether I was scared or not, and I replied that the experience was “not as scary as the ghost train”. We still have the photos and I was reminded of my quote for years afterwards, but I don’t have a genuine recollection of the experience or the ghost train.
However, circus memoirs have there place in another article. Before and overlapping horror stories proper, things I recall scaring me came through the children’s stories and TV programmes. The first image I recall finding fearful was the image of the Jim Henson creation, the huge ogre, Sweetums. Ogres, along with ghouls, are particularly horrid characters in folklore – in most instances they are physically repulsive and cannibalistic, inciting primal fears in most humans. If you look back at Sweetums history in Jim Henson’s Muppets, he seems to follow the path many over-used monsters have gone, from genuine menace – trying to eat Robin the frog – to a loveable self-parody. For me he was just a big toothed monstrosity with a gruff voice who towered over everyone. I associated my experiences of viewing him with dark nights when the circus was “pulling down” and the smell of diesel was in the air. What I guess what was happening was as the adults dismantled and loaded up the show, I was being distracted with a Muppet annual. Sweetums was swiftly followed and replaced by the Wicked Witch of the West in the classic 1939 adaption of “The Wizard of Oz” one Christmas. “Fly my pretties” was enough to get this five year-old to leave the comfort of his caravan and running to my mother.
My mother and others were great at reading to me at bedtime, but with the busy life of the circus this was not always possible. It was the era of the tape cassette and I went through several beloved tape recorders during my childhood. However, it was also the era before politically correct fairy tales and many still had their bite from the days when they were more adult orientated. To this day I am fascinated with folk lore, fables, myths and old fairy tales. I recall at the time there being so many scary fantasy books at school with stories about witches living in houses built atop of chicken legs, and I also remember there being education programmes like “Picture Box”, which had some pretty sinister looking stop-motion puppets acting out old folk tales. One of my earliest recollections of being scared yet intrigued by a TV show came in the form of the “Ringing Singing Tree”. This ongoing children’s saga featured a prince transformed into a bear and a wicked dwarf. For decades I thought I had dreamt it, but then saw it referenced on the “100 Scariest Moments” TV clip show.
Today I am a fan of the way Angela Carter re-told and used them as inspiration for her adult stories. However, this all stems from some of the very scary children’s stories I remember listening to as a child. There was one recording of Hansel and Gretal, for example, where the male narrator did one of nastiest and hysterical witch cackles I can remember.
I am a horror fan and have been since I was around six years old. I don’t care what my “positive thinking” friends say, I love the horror genre in its many different guises and I often feel that, like comedy, it doesn’t receive the respect it deserves. Some of our greatest classic authors have produced stories that fall under the horror or ghost story genre. Authors like Robert Louis Stephenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie and Rudyard Kipling all contributed to this genre. Certain books, like “Frankenstein”, have been studied at A level in the
As the Vincent Price classic camp horror movie, “Theatre of Blood” demonstrated Shakespeare for all his unassailable literary genius crammed many of his plays with grisly horrors. “Macbeth” is full of ghosts, witches and bloodthirsty murders. I recall being scared by an illustration of the three witches from “Macbeth” in a book or on the front cover of a magazine when I was about four years old and around the same time I saw picture in a Birmingham museum (when we were presenting a Christmas circus at Bingley Hall) depicting a very scary Lady Macbeth. “Titus Andronicus” has a catalogue of morbid killings and mutilations, not to mention cannibalism. Even “Hamlet” is haunted by a ghost and “King Lear” has madness, thunderstorms and eye gouging. Horror also has concealed under its midnight cloak some of the worst novels, plays and movies ever made, but that is just a by-product of its popularity.
My first introduction to real horror was in the discovery of a coffee table book my dad owned on horror movies. The taboo nature of the book drew my friends and me in... However, I would only get to watch the films through stealth and persistence. My parents were relatively liberal, but I think affected a little bit by the censorship and “video nasty” hysteria that dominated much of my childhood. Nevertheless, I weaned myself onto the genre one step at a time throughout my childhood. I began, like most kids, with a love for dinosaurs. This drew me to the films of Willis O’Brian and Ray Harryhausen. To my mother’s everlasting regret I discovered (or was led to) the “Godzilla Power Hour” on our little black and white TV, which ended reducing some of my outdoors activity. However, none of this particularly scared me, just excited my imagination. It was only when I discovered the more human-sized monsters that I felt real fear on the small screen.
Today I would say I am fairly desensitized to horror films. They can make me jump and the eerie fantasy sometimes enables me to suspend belief momentarily, but being very used to the genre makes it difficult for me to be actually scared of any horror picture and none leave a lasting impression on other than whether or not they were well executed. Below are a list of films and experiences connected to the films that did leave an impression as I was growing up. I hasten to add that on reflection none of the films mentioned made my favourite horror film list, but were just responsible for first delivering the chills to me...
We finished touring with the circus in a series of theatres culminating in a summer season at the Westover Ice Rink in
Bournemouth in 1983. Prior to Bournemouth I first came across Dracula. I saw the first act of the 1931 Bela Lugosi/Universal Pictures version, but aside from Dwight Frye’s insane laughter as Renfield I don’t recall being particularly frightened. Then I saw Frank Langella in the 1979 film, which interestingly enough was an adaption of the same Broadway play as the Bela Lugosi film. I tolerated everything the romantic horror threw at me save for the scene where Mina’s fangs came out. Something about the way the scene was shot left an impression on me. As it turned out none of the household (in the caravan at the time) watched the rest of the film – they had a busy day ahead, but I stayed with my parents that night, as every time I closed my eyes I saw Mina’s fangs coming out ready to bite. Please no Freudian conclusions here. The shock factor here probably came from the concept of a nice lady being friendly and then suddenly becoming something very nasty.
I was fascinated with the film, although I wouldn’t see it again for many years. In fact, my parents were now very wary about allowing me to watch any horror films. This didn’t stop me talking about it to every other adult on the show. I guess this is my nature. I am intrigued by my weaknesses. Eventually an American couple on the circus talked to me about their country’s tradition of horror movies and ended up buying me three books on the genre. One was an illustrated edition of Dracula, abridged for children, and with line drawings. Another was a beautifully illustrated A4 edition of the complete story of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. The third was a children’s book called “Werewolves and other Weird Creatures”, which I have to this day.
By the time I was 10 years old our circus travelling days were over and we were settled in the Oxfordshire countryside. By 1984 the newly created Channel 4 had been running all sorts of weird and wonderful things on television, and among these was a season of Universal monster movies. My Dad loved the old Universal and Hammer horrors and one of the highlights of the week was watching either the Universal double bill on a Saturday night or the Hammer horror season shown on BBC a few years later. I really got wrapped up in the Universal scene, as Channel 4 did their best to recreate the feeling of the era. We not only had the fun of watching a double bill, but at the end of the films they would put on the original trailers for the films scheduled for next week.
I didn’t see James Whale’s brilliant 1931 version of “Frankenstein” until the Channel 4 season. However, prior to this I already knew the proper story thanks the illustrated book I had been given. I’d also seen “The Munsters” and “The Groovy Ghoulies”. However, the only time I ever recall of being legitimately scared by “Frankenstein” was when I saw the 1984 TV play starring Robert Powell, Carrie Fisher, David Warner and John Gielgud. This was a valiant attempt to be true to the novel, but budgetary and time restrictions sadly prevented this from happening and it would take a few other much worse TV attempts that got lost in their own “creativity” and finally Kenneth Brannagh’s criminally underrated version to get close to Shelley’s vision. The whole feel of the 1984 version just seemed so cruel and savage, and the monster, played by David Warner, is perhaps the last legitimately scary depiction of the character since Christopher Lee’s grisly incarnation in “The Curse of Frankenstein”.
“Circus of Horrors”
It was little surprising that 1960’s “Circus of Horrors” would strike an uncomfortable chord with me. I could relate to the environment and it was like someone had taken our beloved “The Greatest Show on Earth” (most circus kids grew up re-watching Cecil B. DeMille’s classic over and over again) and sent it all to hell. It tells the story of a deranged plastic surgeon that gets murderously possessive over the deformed prostitutes he “cures” and populates his circus with. The make-up effects in this film were particularly good and there is a particularly shocking opening sequence that scared me for months.
“Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter”
I loved this film when I first saw it and having bought it on DVD since I still do. Before Buffy, before Blade there was Captain Kronos. It was a feature film, but intended to be seen as a pilot for a TV series that never happened. The film is full of old and new vampire folklore, even discussing the idea of there being different types of vampire which had to be killed in different ways. It used plenty of surreal imagery – the bell that bleeds and the flowers that decay when the vampire passes them – which made it feel like a dark fairy story. There are sword fights and plenty of action, which I enjoyed, but it was also genuinely scary stuff for a kid to watch. Recalling my fear of the facial deformities I had seen in “Circus of Horrors”, I hid my eyes from the scenes of dying young women drained of their youth by the film’s supernatural fiend.
“And Now the Screaming Starts”
I was in my teens by the time I began to discover Amicus, Hammer Horror’s only real British rival. “And Now the Screaming Starts” may have had a corny title, but even now it seems somewhat provocative, as if daring you to be scared. The story is about a house and family cursed for the sins of an evil ancestor a la “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Except this curse is legitimate and the ancestor even nastier. The virgin bride of the latest heir to the household is tormented by a disembodied hand and the leering bloody face of its spectral owner. These parts are disturbing enough, but it was the flashback sequence showing how the curse came about that really sent shivers down my spine.
We live in an era now, where “torture porn” flicks like “Hostel” just seem to try to outdo each other in how cruel and sadistic their villains are. Everything is about pushing the taboo envelope; reminiscent of the “video nasty” era, but this sort of exploitation is not really that horrifying. Real horror that uses cruelty as a tool does so very sparingly and it is this holding back that makes it seem so much more chilling.
“Beyond the Darkness”
This film was just plain nasty and I shouldn’t have seen it as a teenager. Nevertheless, I got hold of a copy of one of my parents’ employees at their zoo. The guy who lent to me along with numerous other dodgy B movies kept his collection in a little caravan that stank of Raffles cigarettes. This is how I saw the other side of horror. “Beyond the Darkness” is an intriguing feature, well-made but utterly disturbing. The director is known for his willingness to do literally anything in the name of exploitation. However, he seemed to have this down to something of a dubious art. To this day I enjoy thought-provoking and uncomfortable dramas – films that make you question and consider uncertainty in life. This film didn’t do that, but the raw primal feeling of uneasiness is deeply evoked through scenes as simple as someone with bad table manners.
Embracing the Darkness
I was never a goth. I love the horror genre and many of my favourite bands and music have typically dark themes. However, my tastes always have been very broad and I love variety. I have never been solely attached to any particular movement (more on that later), so the concept of dressing up like a member of the living dead and drinking absinthe as a social thing never appealed to me. This came as a shock to supporters of the extreme professional wrestling outfit I used to co-run. I performed a gothic martial arts/dance act called “Dead Souls” and managed a stable of demonic wrestlers during that time. Prior to being involved with the wrestling Dead Souls was a 35 minute act of physical theatre scheduled to appear at the Edinburgh Festival. I even began writing a novel about the supernatural background of the Dead Souls. However, when goth fans called me up or met me outside of the shows, they were surprised to hear that I didn’t dress like them. I was adamant that I left my character in the show.
Self-Defence and Fear
Today I am a self defence coach. Although I see some of the scary folk and fairy tales as useful tools to teach certain principles to children and adults alike, the subject of fear is addressed in a far less abstract way. We try to teach an understanding of fear on a dispassionate and scientific level, in order to over-ride the social conventions often associated with fear. Through my experiences with confrontation, violence and the training I have received, fear comes under two categories.
Good fear are the subconscious signals we detect in a potential antagonist. These pre-incident indicators vary from salesman type methods of deception to unbridled aggression. They are covered in such books as Gavin De Becker’s “The Gift of Fear”, Daniel Gardner’s “The Science of Fear” and Ben Sherwood’s “The Survivor’s Club”. In these instances you listen to your instincts in order to understand the unseen threat in your potential enemy. An understanding of these feelings and the signals being given out also helps combat paranoia, which as damaging to one’s sense of awareness as being switched off.
Bad fear usually addresses the chemical cocktail that hits our bodies in times of stress. First of all, by understanding the biological reasons why you get butterflies in your stomach, why you have an urgent need to use the toilet when you get scared and why your eyes will bulge when you get stressed or angry you can start becoming a bit more rational and detached in fight or flight situation. Books like Dave Grossman’s “On Combat”, “On Killing” and Joanna Burke’s “An Intimate History of Killing” spell out all of this on a very practical and tactical level. Self defence/martial arts and motivational writer, Geoff Thompson, a huge influence over a lot of my self defence training, has made fear a central theme to most of his work. As well as addressing it on a self defence level he looks at how this can be applied to everyday life. He wrote “Fear: The Friend of Exceptional People” as a manual, itself inspired by Susan Jeffers “Face the Fear and Do it Anyway”, that introduced people to his philosophy of stepping outside of your personal comfort zones. In this sense bad fear - in other words your negative psychological reaction to the body’s natural defence mechanisms - can often be used as a signal for personal growth.
I have no phobias. I only discovered recently that I am not really that mad about heights, but I can work with them once I have a plan. I fear like every other mammal on the planet on a base level – fear of violence, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of loss and so on. However, I recognise them and I face them. These are specific fears of mine just what is hardwired into most of us either as a throwback to our more primitive times or because of modern society. I love rollercoasters and big theme park or fairground rides, and I always have done. I have performed in front of audiences
When asked what I fear more than anything else, I say mindlessness. Human psychology and sociology fascinates me, but it also scares me. The way humans behave in a group and can be organized en masse chills me to the core more than anything else. Quite simply some of the worst atrocities history comes from when people switch off their sense of reason and surrender to herd instinct. Sadly some of the supposed rebellions against conformity can also end up worse than those they oppose. We’ve seen this in the form of extremist cults of all different designs.
When I look at the fictional monsters and fiends that have inspired fear in us over time, they all have a single redeeming factor that mindlessness doesn’t provide: they are irredeemably evil. Most of us live our lives thinking that the villains jump from the proverbial shadows and are devils in human form. Look the language of the press whenever the perpetrators of horrendous crimes are caught. They are described as “monsters”, “devils” and “evil”. Yet the truth is that there are plenty of people who would have liked them and plenty still who will live in denial of the crimes they have committed. We don’t want to believe that people are more complex than that. They don’t want to think that a relative of theirs could commit terrible crimes or – worse still – that given certain circumstances they might. It’s a horrible truism, but history has shown us – the world over – that good people can do some terrible things. That really scares me.