STANDING IN THE LOBBY of the Regal theater, after watching The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, my mother glanced over to me with disappointment and a four-word movie review: “That movie wasn’t shit.”
My mom has a strong barometer for what's really scary in scary movies, and has high standards my brother and I inherited. Watching horror movies with my mom is something I've enjoyed doing for a long time.
One of my first memories as a young child growing up just outside of Houston is being hunched down behind the seats of a movie theater as a whisper - “ch-ch-ch-ah-ah-ah” - danced on my eardrums. It happened again and again, right before the brutal murder of a summer camp counselor by a hockey-masked boogeyman named Jason.
Years later, as an adult, I mess with my mom. I grill her about why she’d take me to see a scary slasher movie at such a young age. I remind her how my hands clawed at my ears like a shell-shocked soldier during the movies' kill scenes.
“I was a young mom,” she says.
I feel guilty for joking with her like this, but my mom has a way of speaking that cuts to the root of things very quickly.
“You didn’t have to be a little bitch about it,” she strikes back.
We erupt in laughter, because the irony is that all those horror movies we've watched as a family over the years --- especially around Halloween --- are experiences that bind us. They are also movies we watched to deal with the trauma that was present in our lives.
Family Horror Movie Night
When a new scary movie releases its first trailer, my brother, his wife Audree, and I go back and forth with my mom on a text chain giving critical predictions to movies we haven’t seen.
“Hey! Did you see this one?” is usually how the text chains start.
On the eve of opening night, mom usually texts us: “Who’s taking me to the movies?" That means family movie night is upon us. It's a tradition we're paying back. As a hard-working single mom she used to take us to see the latest horror movies all the time.
When Scream hit movie theaters in 1996, I remember it was a cold night in late December. I was 16 and my brother was just 8. The horror genre had taken a hiatus in Hollywood and was now back in full force, captivating the nation. We went to the old Cinema 8 on Avenue H in Rosenberg -- just the three of us. It was a jam-packed cinema and people ... well, screamed.
We came home scared, quickly turning on the lights of a dark house, frightened someone might pop up at the window with the infamous white Scream mask on.
We giggled at our fear. It's my favorite family memory.
Twenty-five years later, my brother Mike and I are buying movie tickets, and trying to make new memories, but it’s no longer just us three. Our teenage children join us in this twisted family tradition that’s sure to survive us. I don't know why, but we get happy watching evil do its thing on a Friday night, whether on the couch with popcorn or in a dark theater.
At the end of every horror film we all look at my mom, the matriarch of our Addams Family, to get the verdict. She’s usually disappointed, and so are we.
I remember being puzzled at our inability to be scared by scary things in movies. It happened after one of the many recent disappointing horror movies we've seen in the last couple of years. My mom's recent reply? “Maybe, we’re too evil.”
We burst into a sinister laugh after she said that. It made me realize that as far as scary horror movies are concerned, they don’t make them like they used to.
Mom grew up in the Golden Age of the horror films. This was back when ambulances would park outside U.S. cinemas to nurse young patrons who’d fainted while watching The Exorcist. Movie theaters handed out barf bags in anticipation of a demon-possessed Regan turning her head 180 degrees and saying something unthinkable to her mother I would never dare write.
It takes a lot to scare my mom, she knows the true definition of scary.
She was raised on a four-acre family ranch in the Rio Grande Valley in a town called Weslaco. On a map you’ll find it at the southernmost tip of Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border. Many like her migrated from similar rural places in South Texas for better lives in the big, bad city of Houston in the 80s.
She grew up hearing scary ranch stories about La Lechuza, a shapeshifting witch with a bird-human body who sat outside of my mom’s window while my great grandmother said prayers backwards to ward off the evil thing.
When that didn’t work, my grandfather walked outside and cursed it to hell.
Mom always remembers how as a skinny teenager with hair parted straight down the middle, like Sissy Spacek in the movie Carrie, she dreaded a night walk to an outhouse where snakes wrapped themselves around her leg.
It was something out of a Friday the 13th movie. That’s why mom’s measure of “scary” is so scary.
But there might be another reason for my mom's scariness threshold, and why we like to watch scary movies so much in the first place. They help us deal with our past.
The truth is, the trauma we suffered as a family growing up sometimes kept us from being closer than we wanted to be as adults. But we’ve overcome, thanks to scary movies. Horror healed us.
There’s lots of good research out there with fancy jargon as to why people with trauma gravitate to horror movies. Summed up, it’s because horror is somewhere we know, so we return to the familiar.
We tightly grab our loved ones during the jump-scare, gotcha moments, because that’s what we did when bad things came for us in real life.
There’s a comforting chaos in horror movies and how they end, too. The protagonist faces some demonic force. Sometimes they persevere and win the day. Sometimes they lose. And sometimes there’s no solution, they just have to endure.
We’ve lived through all three endings in real life, yet we still revisit familiar horror narratives as a family in front of a screen with hot popcorn, cold Cokes, sour pickles, and sweet candy. It's something I'll always do with my mom, even if the movie turns out not to be that scary.