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I’m seven years old and I can’t sleep; a woman’s screams are lifting from the vents in my bedroom floor.
Gingerly, I make my way downstairs, and to my relief, the shrieks aren’t coming from my mother. On our two-foot-deep television, my oldest brother is watching a teenaged girl try to evade a man in a striped sweater. Beneath a fedora, the man’s face is a mess of sores the likes of which I’ve never seen (and shouldn’t be seeing at an age as tender as his skin). My brother, with his back to me, has no idea I’m in the room. Fright-stricken, I tiptoe back to my bedroom. There, I live out the first of many nightmares in which Freddy Krueger fillets me. My pledge is obvious: to stay as far away from horror movies as I can.
That year, 1995, my parents separate, and something comes over me. I watch Stephen King’s It, John Carpenter’s Halloween, and Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia. Fear sticks to me like blood on bedsheets, but I can’t get enough. Remorseful for disrupting our familial foundation – and eager to please us – my father permits my brothers and me to rent whatever R-rated movies we want. Every other Sunday, when I return from a weekend at his house, I beg my mother to allow us the same liberty: “ … but Dad lets us watch them. I’m not scared!” Irritated, she shuts me down. It’s just as well. She knows Pet Sematary chilled me dry.
Soon after my parents’ divorce, my oldest brother takes up partying. He hoards heaps of garbage under his bed, and he nearly sets the house on fire. He racks up more than $900 in long-distance phone calls to his internet girlfriend. After watching An American Werewolf in London, he torments my middle brother and me. As we settle into our sleeping bags on the floor of my dad’s studio apartment, he tells us to stay awake: “Dad’s going to turn into a werewolf and eat you up.” For all I know, he could be right. Everything else is changing.
My mother, dealing with insufficient child support and the emotional instability of my middle brother, whose Tourette's syndrome is being expressed as rage attacks, can’t cope. She kicks my oldest brother out of the house, a decision that will haunt her for decades. He moves in with a friend, and then with my dad. Eight years old and presumably also affected by the divorce (though I didn’t know it), I’m placed in therapy. My therapist belittles me with puppet-show tactics. She employs a matted stuffed sheep named Lamb Chops. Lamb Chops speaks to me like I’m four years old, and all I can think of is my father barking at the moon and biting this thing’s head off.
By the time my middle brother is in his second year of high school, his anxiety is so aggressive he has to drop out. Having the short end of the custody stick, my father doesn’t know how to help, nor does he understand the breadth of the issue. His interactions with us become surface-level: How are things? Good. You’re going through a hard time. I know. Keep your chin up.
Over the next few years, we fall into a routine, filling periods of awkward silence with my father by frequenting the Video Zone and, unsurprisingly, all is well again – at least for a few hours. My brothers and I pace the horror section, marvelling at the gruesome artwork. My dad places a hand on my shoulder, and a buzzing sound bridges the gap between us as I zip my fingernail across Jack Frost’s holographic cover.
Slashers slash. Zombies bite. Creatures ooze and demons rise. I stay awake at night, scared to the core but hungry for more. After we finish Halloween 4 and he flicks off the TV, I ask my father a seemingly harmless question: “Why did you and Mom have to split up?” For the first time in my life, I witness my father cry.
Soon enough, my oldest brother moves out and is no longer present at my father’s when we visit. But the horror films continue, as do the resulting discussions when we occasionally speak on the phone. There’s a disconnect, with eight years between us and him now living three hours away, and a near-decade passes in which he isn’t prevalent in my life. But when we see each other – me being a teenager at this point, and more versed in horror culture than ever – we talk horror movies and books and it’s like he’s never left.
Shortly before my father left my mother, they got into a fight. I tiptoed downstairs, much like I would a few weeks later to discover A Nightmare on Elm Street. My oldest brother must’ve been out with his friends, because it was in his wall that my dad punched a hole, breaking his hand in the process. And it’s in his room that I saw my first Stephen King book, sitting on a ledge dividing the walls. There, Carrie White was inked in more blood than I thought possible to exist in all life on Earth. A smattering of drywall dust speckled her prom dress.
It’s been 25 years since my parents separated, and I like to think the men in my family are closer than ever – but, like Patrick Bateman’s convincing demeanour, what’s on the surface doesn’t always mirror what’s beneath. We still can’t express ourselves as deeply as we’d like. Formal pleasantries are still a barrier, particularly for my father. We’ve made breakthroughs, though, and sometimes I’m convinced we don’t need to verbally acknowledge our affection. Sometimes, just being together is enough. Gifting one another cheap-thrill novels over the holidays is enough. As rare as it is, sitting down to watch a scary movie with my father is enough. Saying “I love you” to him but also meaning “Everything worked out fine in the end. Don’t beat yourself up” is enough. Sharing a passion for buckets of blood – rivaled only by buckets of popcorn – is enough, even if it brings us together as haphazardly as Leatherface’s needlework. And, when the credits roll, I think that’s enough for me.
Chris Campeau lives in Ottawa.