The first time I saw Halloween, the sight of Jamie Lee Curtis walking down a perfectly paved sidewalk under autumn-rouged trees gave me a sense of deja-vu. This backdrop looked like the streets of my own hometown, like a Hollywood street. A street just made for apple-cheeked kids loaded down with backpacks and baseballs, running home to their unlocked houses while retirees waved. I’ve felt this surreal recognition before in scary movies—and it’s not by accident. The directors know that their monsters are scarier against a familiar background with which their audience can identify, and scarier still when the slashing blade disrupts the serenity of apparent safety. You expect Michael Myers to lurk in a dangerous place like, say, an abandoned warehouse or parking garage. He’s more surprising when he turns up down the street from the Cleavers.
Though my sidewalks were paved and my lawns mowed, that ‘50s sort of small town wholesomeness always seemed foreign to me. Yet the suburbia favored by certain slasher films left me uneasy, half-waiting for my old elementary school or childhood home to turn up in the background of a shot. It took me until the very end of the first Scream film, months later in my classic-horror binge, to realize why. In the scene, Gale Weathers, incorrigible reporter, puts words to microphone as the camera zooms out and the end credits music rises. You can barely hear her over the soundtrack. She wants you to know something that’s been obvious but unspoken in every suburban horror flick that’s come before. Here is an idyllic community. The people who came here believed they and their children would be safe, that the terrors of the world beyond would be reduced to newspaper ink. Something horrible has happened in this American sanctum. They are safe no longer. The sanctum is destroyed.
This, I understand.
Here are some facts about my hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia. Before you ask, we are nowhere near DC but are less than an hour from the borders of both North Carolina and West Virginia. There are some serious mountains involved, emitting serious menace. There is only one high school and one middle school. We have a farmer’s market and exactly two small Whole Foods type groceries that are locally owned. My mother has not locked her car doors since before I learned the word “car.”
We are best known for being the home of Virginia Tech which, you may recall, was in 2007 the site of a massacre that claimed 32 lives. We don’t like to talk about that. I was nine. I still don’t know how to explain any of this without sounding like I’m describing the plot of a horror movie.
With the exception of a booming marijuana-trade to feed the local hippies, plus probably some meth kitchens near the county line, we are largely devoid of crime and incident. We’re the kind of place where you let your kids walk home alone from school, the kind of place that would make Halloween’s location scout drool. Except that, when we do have crime, it’s so goosebump-raising, urban-legend inducingly bad it’s a testament to human decency that we don’t have whole neighborhoods devoted to itinerant true-crime writers trying to make a buck on our tragedies. Or perhaps these crimes, like Michael Myers’ silhouette against a white picket fence, only seem more horrible because they disrupt an illusion. Because they come as a warning, that no amount of white flight and ticky-tacky barricades can protect you from humankind’s capacity to do ill.
The illusion of safety was lost to me before I even realized it existed. After the shooting, I was led through lockdown drills and, by one enthusiastic teacher, taught what to say to a man pointing a gun in my face in the hopes that it might humanize me. For years, I had a whole speech prepared, reciting the names of my parents and the things I liked to do for fun. I was old enough by then to know not to ask the adults for the shooter’s motive. I knew that they had none to give me. This was just the kind of thing that happened sometimes, and there were no satisfying answers. I don’t remember if this made it more frightening or not.
I do remember thinking that what happened at Virginia Tech was a fairly common occurrence. It was unfathomable to me that my hometown was unique or remarkable, so it was easier to believe that mass shootings were a regular occurrence and often far deadlier than our own. Sort of the way the kids in the Halloween movies must think babysitting is seriously dangerous business, on par with asbestos mining or being a Navy SEAL. This was my accepted reality for four years, until a visit to the Newseum in Washington D.C. brought me face to face with a picture of my own hometown included in a collage of major news stories. The picture was of a woman weeping. Her grief had become national news.
I’ve been interested in scary stories for pretty much forever, since reading luridly-illustrated collections of folktales and egging on narrators around campfires. So it’s not like my love of horror was birthed from my town’s tragedy. But it grew with my new sense of identification, and gave me a language for understanding those big ideas of tragedy and evil I was too young to process.
There’s something almost comforting about slasher flicks. There are rules. Even when he wants to surprise, the monster sticks to the night. He’s pretty easy to pick out in a crowd, since he’s usually tall or deformed or wearing a mask. His body count stays comfortably in the single figures, at least per movie (unless the screenwriters really went to town). And if he never seems to die, that at least proves he isn’t human, eliminating the need for the unanswerable question: why would a human being do this?
Motive is tricky. Sometimes it’s easier to believe there’s something in the land itself, something nasty rolling off the hills like fog and into the town below. Rationalizing tragedy into some kind of larger, geographical epic. My dad, who is not a suspicious man, once floated the theory that a massacre of colonists on the land that became our town might have left some residual bad vibes. This is horror language, the language of curses and retribution and, beneath that, reason. It offers up a reason for why bad things happen. You can see this in slasher too, where bad guys want revenge for horrible childhoods or where the pretty kids who transgress, according to Puritanical codes of conduct, get cut up first. Horror is a way of answering why. It’s no wonder I love it so much; real life has no such answers.
It’s funny. After being the dominant horror archetype for decades, slasher seems to have burned itself out or served its purpose. Maybe it said all it has had to say and, trope-riddled as it was, parodied itself into oblivion. Most of the slasher films to appear in theaters lately are financial flops and critical failures, sequels and remakes to better films. Attempts to give bad guys lavish backstories and up the gore seem to have missed the point.
Or maybe slasher lost its popularity because it started striking too close to home. One of the spookiest horror movies I’ve watched recently was Behind the Mask, a 2006 mockumentary about an ordinary guy planning on becoming the next slasher baddie. In dissolving the line between monstrous villain and average Joe completely, it made my skin just about crawl off my bones and out the window. It was almost a relief when the antagonist donned his titular mask and rebuilt the divide between bad guys and the rest of us. Watching the imagined prep-work of scoping out locations and gathering supplies was eerily reminiscent of news reports of shooters stockpiling ammo and recording grotesque video confessions, suggesting I wasn’t the only one to notice a parallel. Slasher flicks are fun until they start to resemble the nightly news, only on the news there are no undead monsters in sight.
Horror is, I firmly believe, modern folktale, and folktale is a type of truth. The truth here is that bad things can happen anywhere and tragedy arises without cause. Sometimes we see our hometowns on the nightly news, and sometimes in the folkloric imagery of a horror film, forty years old. And who can blame me for feeling an odd sort of homesickness for blaming it on the hills? It should be no surprise that, even in horror’s goofiest subgenre, there is something true and dark and hard to face. But I think I’m better off for facing it, and for facing where I came from, even if it’s only through the comfort and distortion of a movie screen.
Sara McCartney is from Blacksburg, VA which cannot be found on any map because it’s small as fuck (just kidding, it’s actually like the biggest town in the area). She is proud of her record collection and taste in hats. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.