I can’t really call this a Traumafession—more like a… Frissonfession. The experience sent me over the moon for horror films—gooseflesh, thrills, excitement, abject giddy fear. All I can say now is, “Thank you, Jose Ferrer!”
I speak of the little-seen PBS documentary from 1983: The Horror of It All. I saw it when it was first broadcast, before I could recognize Roger Corman’s face, or Dana Andrews’ face, or Robert Bloch’s face. Just a bunch of old guys talking about old horror movies, as far as I could tell at twelve, while Ferrer’s mellifluous, dead-serious voice narrated. (At one point, he pronounces the name of the somnambulist ghoul in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with some weird Italian accuracy never intended in a German Expressionist film—something like, “Chay-sa-rray,” with a quick rolled R. I always pronounced “Cesare” like the salad.)
I made sure to videotape this sucka. And I watched it over and over again. It offered my first glimpses of The Cat and the Canary, White Zombie, The Bat Whispers, Curse of the Demon, Black Sunday, Svengali, The Body Snatcher, The Golem, and Nosferatu. I had never seen Nosferatu. Who was that bald-headed freak who could lift up like a crossing gate arm from a coffin in the hold of a ship? I literally could not bear a sustained look at Max Schreck with those rat ears and long-nailed phalanges and monolithic black overcoat; and yet I paused the tape at the moment of his appearance in the arched door frame and willed myself to stare at him poised to feed on Hutter cringing like a little child in his bed. The image broken and distorted by the paused tape made it even worse, a portent of the creepy effectiveness of fractured videotape images in faux-found-footage movies. I left it on pause and walked between my bedroom and the bathroom, quickly crossing the living room where the TV held the terrible image of Nosferatu, jerking slightly through the tape’s interference. (And because of the pauper budget of PBS, they had access to only twelfth-generation prints of the films, resulting in soft, scratched images that somehow made the indistinct monsters more terrifying.)
The documentary opened with footage of performers preparing to scare the crap out of patrons at the Haunted Mansion on Long Branch Pier in New Jersey, going through some kind of pep talk like football players before a game. And then a short montage of people in ghoul make-up lunging from the shadows of the mansion like the faces in the opening credits of Night Gallery. (The Long Branch Haunted Mansion would only exist for a few more years; it burned down in 1987.)
This was my world, and if only old men had authority over it, as it seemed by the number of them being interviewed for this program, then I would await my dotage with the enthusiasm of Ernest Thesiger.