Thursday, February 25, 2010

Night of the Living Dead!

I just finished writing about saying NO to volunteering at school when I got a phone call from my son’s high school theater teacher. At my son’s school, each February, for one week, they have what’s called Mini-Course week.

Last year, Kyle went to Death Valley and spent the week communing with nature. I spent the week worrying about rattlesnake bites and scorpion invasions.

This year, he opted to stay around Marin and participate in a movie-viewing course.

Today, they watched Night of the Living Dead.

Because of my sordid relationship to the horror genre, I was asked to come to class and speak about horror films, specifically, how horror films changed in the late 1960s.

At 9:30 this morning I found myself sitting in a theater watching Night of the Living Dead on a big screen. I was so excited. I don’t think I had seen this film on a big screen since I originally saw it in 1968!

It is such a classic. For $114,000, George Romero changed a genre.

I was much more excited than the kids. I’m not sure they found the film scary in the least. When it was originally released, kids were literally terrified. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Parents used to drop off their adolescent kids at the movies to watch horror films on Saturday afternoons. But this film came as a real surprise. Children were left silent and shaking in darkened theaters. It ended up making millions of dollars and still gets a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

It was clear to me today that horror films really do reflect the times.

Sitting in the darkened theater, I realized that I had a real contextual understanding of this film. 1968 was a pivotal year. The beginning of the year saw the Tet Offensive, and Walter Cronkite (the most trusted man in America) said in one of his broadcasts that perhaps the Vietnam War was not winnable. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Riots hit most major cities, and then Bobby Kennedy was killed. The summer of 1968 everything was upside down. By the time of the Democratic convention in Chicago, the world as we knew it was gone forever.

I remember all of this and more. I remember earthquake drills. But something much more significant, I remember Nuclear Attack drills. Yes! Once a year at my elementary school a booming bell would ring signaling an impending dismissal. We had to practice walking home quickly and orderly. I’m not sure about the logic in this, but it was taking control of an untenable situation—so the administrators created the drill.

The threats of my youth, beginning with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of JFK seem so much different than the threats my children fear. But are they?

When 9/11 happened both my kids were school-aged. Will was in kindergarten and stayed home that awful day. Kyle was in third grade and determined to be with his friends for this critical event. I let him go. The school happened to butt up against my backyard, so I let him go. I knew that I had to or I would scare him more than he already was. I let him go because it was the right thing to do.

The threats we face today seem insurmountable. But then again, in 1968 they must have felt the same way.

History helps us see the present more clearly. We hope we learn from our mistakes. But I also thought, sitting in that darkened theater watching flesh eating “ghouls,” that perhaps the only thing that has really changed in our world is the pacing of a horror film. No one has patience any more to wait in suspense for things that go bump in the night. I just fervently hope that we have the patience to act responsibly in a world spinning out of control.

I went to high school today and I learned that the more things change, the more they really stay the same!

What are the scariest movies you have seen? Have any movies shaped the way you see the world? Where were you in 1968?


  1. "History helps us see the present more clearly." So very true. This is a little off topic, but do you think this is one reason why so many of us blog? To memorialize our moments, to record a history from which to learn, a lens through which to view the precious and precarious present moment?

  2. I cherish your friendship and hope this doesn't taint it, but I have to admit I hate scary movies....There, I've said it. It's out there for the whole world to see.

    The closest I can come to explaining why, besides the fact that I'm just a big fat chicken, is that I am very aware of the things that can go bump in the night already. I don't want a movie to show me new and exciting ways to be scared. This makes me especially terrified of movies that are set in 'normal' surroundings - a living room in the evening, a dark basement full of junk, a car on a deserted back road - these are all places I LIVE and I want to feel safe there.

    So my daughter screens them all for me and tells me which are tame enough for me to see. (not many...)

    Oh, and it makes me feel young, suddenly, to say that in 1968 I was a two year old, living in the middle of the midwest. We did have tornado drills several times a year once I did start school. I think they still do them in the midwest, as a matter of fact. Even that scared the pudding out of me, the reminder that at any moment we could be swept away in a sporadic tornado.

    I'm such a chicken...

    Judy in New York

  3. As a former high school history teacher, I love this connection between history and horror cinema - one I never thought to make before.

    To me the scariest movies are the suspenseful ones. Slasher movies are easier for me to handle - although I haven't seen one in years - than the ones that seem terrifyingly realistic. Scenes from Silence of the Lambs still haunt me 15 years after having seen it.

  4. Silence of the Lambs and Exorcist are two of the scariest movies I have ever seen. My father's film, Rosemary's Baby is way creepy, too.

    Aidan, I wish I started 'blogging' when my kids were little. I don't think we had the technology yet but I would have a record of all the moments. It goes so fast, in such a blur, I hope I can remember it all!

    Judy: I must admit I don't love horror films either. Do you find that hard to believe. I hate slasher film. Like Kristen I don't find them scary at all. IF you don't listen to the sound then they are just stupid.

  5. Kristen it is really interesting to watch Night of the Living Dead in respect to what was going on in the late 1960s. I don't know if Romero intended to make a film about 'revolution' but it came from him, from a time of tumultous unrest.

  6. I was in Missouri in 1968, fifth grade...I was a little neo-con child with a bumper sticker on my bedroom door that said "America, Love It or Leave It." I'm happy to say I outgrew that nonsense and am now what my dad calls, scathingly, "an East Coast liberal." Your day at school sounds like a blast! Great post.

  7. Stupidly, I watched Rosemary's Baby for the first time while pregnant with my older daughter. Dumb move! What kind of idiot does that?

    The Exorcist scared the daylights out of me. I didn't sleep for weeks. I also thought The Thing was frightening...but it also had funny parts in it, which I appreciated. Still love that movie.

    You are right about time and context--I remember my mother talking about how scary the movie Psycho was, but when I finally watched it (in high school), I thought, "Meh."

  8. I recently watched Jaws with my two children. While I was curled up in a ball on the couch clutching a pillow in my arms screaming, they were on their i-phones texting (I guess that's why I call them the i-drones). Back in the day, no one dared to move a muscle in the theater, increasing tension in their necks from fright! Oh how the times have changed!!
    -Bob Loblaw

  9. Pregnancy and Rosemary's Baby definitely don't mix. I had the worst nightmares because of my Dad's film before my second was born.

    But I still named my kid after my Dad!