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The store was called Video Madness. I remember the layout as if I had stopped in there yesterday, when it’s been nearly 30 years.

The video games were to your immediate right. Directly in front of you was the comedy section, with the checkout counter directly across. However, the Mochnacz clan always headed directly to the back left corner. The holy grail: the horror section. It always struck me as off that the horror section backed up against the kids’ movies in the center aisle, but for my family it worked out perfectly because most Friday and Saturday nights, we’d leave with a couple of 80s slasher flicks AND The Care Bear Movies II – A New Generation. 

The Mochnaczes were a middle working class family.

I was the third of four kids. My parents had been separated for as long as I could remember. I guess we couldn’t afford much, because every Saturday morning, when Dad would visit after my siblings’ sports games, I would ask my Mom if we could rent movies, and my father would launch into one of his regular lectures, directed at my mother, about spending money responsibly. As a kid, I had no concept of finances, but how could something that entertained me so thoroughly really cost THAT much? Aren’t parents supposed to spend their money on things that make their kids happy? And my Dad, who didn’t live with us, clearly didn’t understand the joy of eating soft pretzel bites dipped in Cheez Whiz as I watched some parapsychologists get slaughtered by demonic dolls.

If memory serves, Puppet Master was my gateway drug—the first movie my Mom rented and let us watch. Keep in mind, it was released in 1989, so I was 7 years old. But that was a time when parents and the film industry clearly gave fewer fucks about what their children were consuming on screen. Like how my first sex ed lesson was realizing that if your parents try to fast forward through graphic sex scenes, it just makes the humping go faster.

In retrospect, I feel my mother’s willingness to expose me to such adult things at such a young age was an acknowledgement that being precocious and “mature beyond my years” was something to be cherished, not squashed. In grade school, I was already reading Dean Koontz and Stephen King. At family parties, I always found myself clamoring to sit with the adults because they were talking about adult things. I was definitely an “old soul.” I think my mom acknowledged I could handle what was on screen because I had the ability to clearly distinguish what was real and what was fantasy.

Of the four of us kids, I was the one most often left to my own devices, simply because I didn’t need much attention. I was a good student, respectful of authority, and the most trouble I’d ever gotten into as a kid was crossing a busy main street to visit my best friend after my grandmother had forbidden it. I even got off scot-free after watching Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and giving my mom a drawing of Freddy Krueger, with a speech bubble decrying “Die Bitch!”

So, could she really be causing any harm by letting me watch Jason Voorhees slaughter a few horny camp counselors? The shy, chubby kid who read books for fun wasn’t about to get any ideas about slaughtering his classmates with a machete.

Scary movies became part of my identity.

Whenever Halloween rolled around, I would devour the TV Guide to understand what movies were showing for WPIX 11’s “Shocktober.” It was a watershed moment when I finally watched the original Halloween after only catching its subpar sequel on basic cable year after year.

And I found that the Halloween franchise (and horror films in general) became essential to the bond I had with my mother. Without a doubt, when H20 was released, I couldn’t imagine seeing it with anyone but her. And in a moment taken directly from the movies, a jump scare got her so badly, the entirety of her bag of popcorn ended up in my lap. When they re-released the original for its 30th anniversary, of course we went together. And then when they decided Michael Myers and Laurie needed another showdown in 2018, we were ass in seat.

Inevitably, there was a unique sense of grief when I went to go see Halloween Kills, and she wasn’t there to see it with me, since she had died in 2019 before its release.

One of the last scary movies we watched together was The Final Girls, a clever, entertaining, and underrated tongue in cheek take on the “final girl” trope established by Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, Adrienne King as Alice Hardy, and Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson. A young woman, whose mother had recently died, is transported with her friends into the 1980s horror movie her mother had starred in, and tries to survive the ongoing attacks from a masked killer at a summer camp. They tearfully reunite over Kim Carnes’s “Bette Davis Eyes.” There’s a reason why I named one of my signature cocktails at my 40th birthday party after the song— because my wonderful mother and I are forever linked by that movie and the love for horror she nurtured in me, without knowing what she was doing.

Even now, as I navigate creating and maintaining adult friendships as a single, 40 year-old gay male, there is an immediate kinship with someone who knows and appreciates the 1990s It TV miniseries, gets excited whenever they announce another Scream sequel (and are equally outraged that Neve Campbell isn’t coming back for 6), or is willing to watch an 80s schlockfest (see Night of the Demons, Black Christmas, Critters 2, etc…) unironically.

I didn’t understand it then, but I’m pretty sure my first crush was Nick, the high school-then-college-guy who spent his weekend nights working at Video Madness, that charming indie video store where my family scoured the shelves for horror flicks. And fast forward to today, where the man of my dreams must have as great an appreciation for Alice’s nunchuck practice scene (performed my a stuntman in a horrible wig), set to Dramarama’s “Anything, Anything”, from A Nightmare On Elm Street 4 – The Dream Master, as I do. 

A majority of the movies that lived on Video Madness’s shelves have aged horribly, but it didn’t matter. They were inexplicably gory. Most of the plots are incomprehensible. But they were just fun to watch. Even now, when I find someone who is as excited about a new horror release as I am, I know they are my people.

Recently, I discovered Tubi, a free streaming service. With the proliferation of digital media, and every movie studio creating their own streaming service, some of the independently made stuff from the 80s risks being lost. But, these horror throwbacks live in infamy on Tubi. As I scroll through the thumbnails, trying to find a rare gem from those childhood weekends, I am transported back to the horror section on a Friday night.

I think about how much of who I am was influenced by those weekend Video Madness visits.

One of my go-tos for “Two Truths and a Lie” is that I once spent over $100 on an out of print copy of Clownhouse, another movie Mom introduced to us, and scared the crap out of me as a kid. I dressed up as a Camp Crystal Lake counselor for my 80s-themed 40th birthday party. When horror neophytes want to dip their toe into trying horror for the first time, I’m their guy.

It’s funny. People often assume my love of horror movies would mean I also love horror rides and haunt attractions. The opposite is true.

I hate them. I have a very clear recollection of being 17 years old, riding the jankity ride-through haunted house at the Meadowlands Fair with my younger sister and keeping my eyes shut for the entire ride. I think I may have even started crying because I immediately regretted my decision once the cart started rolling. I attempted a walk-through haunt once. I was the chaperone for a college student trip to something called “Fields of Terror.” One of the teenage employees had to usher out a “I’m Too Much of a Pussy For This Shit” emergency exit door they had set up at regular intervals of the attraction. It’s quite the dichotomy. You’ll never see me step foot into a haunted attraction ever again, but will I watch movies like Haunt, Hell Fest and Hell House, LLC – bloody, frightening, terrifying horror movies ABOUT haunted attractions? You bet your ass I will.

That’s the thing about scary movies. They are just that: movies. Although a number of them claim to be based on “real events,” a screen separates me, the viewer, from the actual horror. In my opinion, the reason why horror movies continue to be popular, and why I’ve attached my entire personality to them, is because there is something cathartic about watching others experience immeasurable terror so I don’t have to. I find Hostel and Hostel II familiarly comforting because the bad guys get it in the end. The classics—Jason, Michael, and Freddy—are comforting in their predictability because I know the villains die at the end. I’m still on the couch, living and breathing. Even if we know they will inevitably get resurrected for another cash-grab sequel, reboot, or reenvisioning. But, I’ll probably be one of the first people to buy a ticket (or at least cough up some cash to watch on streaming).

In a world that is increasingly letting the bad guys get off for horrific atrocities actually committed against their fellow man, I find solace in the fact that a masked serial killer finally gets what’s coming to him from the virginal, good girl survivor after he decided to massacre an entire sorority just because he felt like it.

As strange as it is, horror is my constant. It’s safe. Because the monsters… the monsters outside my door? They’re real. The demons and killers and monsters in my screen? They’ll always end up dispatched by the virginal final girl. The rules demand it. And in that, I find solace.

Eric Mochnacz

A wizard of pop culture. A prince of snark. A delightful addition to any dinner party.

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