If you listen to horror podcasts like Shock Waves, there’s a question that comes up pretty often; how did you get into horror. The stories are usually similar – the person was young and their parents didn’t let them watch horror, so those movies became taboo, creating an instant connection. The exact movie that finally brought them over is always an interesting look into the person, I think, and this is what makes the question so good. If it was a Slasher flick, the person tends to be more fun with their horror, more open to laughing at kills or goofy bits. If it was something more cerebral, like Cronenberg or Hitchcock, the person tends to look for deeper meanings in their horror. You get the idea.
I didn’t have a horror awakening, not in the way I usually hear it told. My parents, who divorced when I was five, were both pretty chill with letting me watch what I wanted to watch. My dad showed me POLTERGEIST when I was seven or eight. I saw AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON around the same age, but with my mom who had seen it before. We were watching it, and when David started to change for the first time, my mom got up and said “I can’t take this. You can stay if you want” and walked out of the room. I stayed. I loved it.
My brother Devin and I would try out horror makeup we learned from DICK SMITH’S DO-IT-YOURSELF MONSTER MAKEUP HANDBOOK, so I learned how fake blood and machete wounds were made before I ever saw Jason kill a camp counselor. I also learned that I had a mild allergy to latex.
Because of these things, horror didn’t get to me. I loved ghosts and werewolves and other paranormal stuff, but it never really spooked me as a kid. Blood and gore were cool but didn’t freak me out. I watched these movies that my friend’s parents would never allow them to see, and while I liked them, they didn’t hit me the way they hit so many others. No nightmares from them. No worries that Dracula or Michael Myers would show up.
Then David Bowie showed up.
I want to say it was a weekend. It may have been summer. I’m 90% sure that the sun was out.
I was sitting in the living room rocking chair flipping through the channels on our massive 30 inch RCA TV (for you young kids, that was a big ass TV back in the day) and likely enjoying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We had recently gotten cable, well after everyone else in the country had it, and I was amazed by the amount of channels. We had gone from six stations to nearly thirty! How could I choose!
THE ADVENTURES OF PETE AND PETE weren’t on, so Nickelodeon was a bust. HBO was showing some British drama so that was out. CNN? I’m nine years old, what do I care what Ronald Reagan is doing?
Flipping and chewing. Chewing and flipping. Nothing on. Nothing good.
Then I hit it. PBS. A station we had before cable, but one I always liked, mainly because they showed THE YOUNG ONES. THE YOUNG ONES wasn’t on, though. It was something else. A play.
A play with David Bowie. I grew up with Bowie; his albums sitting around the house. His music was cool and his look always intrigued me. All the other albums around the house, the Beatles and Paul Simon, and Springsteen from my parent’s collection, Twisted Sister and Kiss from my brother’s – none of them had the same… feel as Bowie’s album art. I mean, Twisted Sister did the makeup thing too, but they looked goofy. Bowie looked cool. Like, beyond the cool of any human. We all know this, right? Bowie was just super cool.
And there he was on TV, this time without muppets or a young Jennifer Connelly. He didn’t have a crazy outfit on. Not even any makeup. Bowie was standing on stage wearing almost nothing. His body was contorted, and when he spoke, his speech was slurred and rather high pitched. Was he drunk? Was he on drugs? I had no idea.
I watched the play in silence, a mighty feat for a nine year old. I didn’t even touch my PB&J. I was transfixed by what I was seeing, though I had no idea what it was. As Bowie moved about, each step seemingly more difficult than the last, I felt something I had never felt while watching TV before… I was scared. Outside the sun was shining and the birds were chirping, but in my mind, watching that giant 30 inch screen, everything was dark. The world was filled with twisted men who had to sleep sitting up. David Bowie introduced me to John Merrick, the Elephant Man.
I told Devin about it. Being thirteen, he had already learned everything the world had to share and filled me in, “That’s a true story, idiot”. He dug into a pile of books in our shared closet and pulled out some textbook looking thing. I want to say it was a TIME LIFE book, but I could be wrong on that. He flipped through the pages and stopped, smiled, and turned the book so I could see. There he was. The real Elephant Man.
My brain literally exploded. When the paramedics came and put the pieces back together, it exploded again. How could this be a true story? How could a man look like that? Surely this had to be one of the Dick Smith’s books teaching kids how to do monster makeup, right? Monsters were only in movies. People, real people, didn’t look like that. They couldn’t. It wasn’t possible.
I rode my bike to the library and found more books showing John Merrick, who was really Joseph Merrick. I read up on him. Everything I could find. He wasn’t a monster. He was a man, a real man who was horribly deformed since birth. He spent most of his life being gawked at by the ignorant masses of 1800s England in a freak show before being taken to the London Hospital to be gawked at by doctors and socialites. Quickly, this monster turned into a man who I felt great sadness for. I rode my bike home to find that my dog had eaten the rest of my PB&J.
That night, as I lay in my bed, the top bunk of a bunk bed, my brother taunted me, “He’s going to come for you, you know? The Elephant Man goes around collecting freak kids like you”. I knew that wasn’t true, but still… it stuck with me.
That night I had a dream that David Bowie, looking like he did in the play, was chasing after me. I woke up in a fit.
For months after that, whenever I was in the shower, I was terrified to get out because I was pretty sure I would open the shower curtain and Elephant Man Bowie would be standing there. More than once my showers ended when either my mom or brother couldn’t stand me taking up the only bathroom in the apartment for so long, the banging at the door with calls for the need to urinate forced me to face my fear.
Elephant Man Bowie was never there.
I started to read more and more about people with odd disfigurements. None of them scared me. They interested me, sure, but didn’t scare me. I even rented David Lynch’s ELEPHANT MAN. I liked it, still do, but it didn’t scare me.
Still… Elephant Man Bowie… he stuck with me. His performance in that play affected me in a way that I’m pretty sure Bowie didn’t mean for it to, but then I can’t imagine he or anyone else connected to the play figured a nine year old in Queens, NY would be watching it on PBS some weekend or summer day. His work in that play, his movements and voice, made me understand why my mom had to leave the room during David’s transformation in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. It have me a new way to look at movies like FRIDAY THE 13TH and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. It taught me what I am afraid of; reality. The true strangeness of the world. The Joseph Merricks and Rocky Dennis’, people who were outcasts because of things they never had a choice in. It lead me down a path of true horror, which is still my favorite kind. Not just true events, but things that I can see happening in the real world. Movies like THE STRANGERS.
Over the years, I’ve started to get spooked out by supernatural horror; oddly, it was John Carpenter’s remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED that was the first supernatural horror to give me the willies, but that’s a story for another day. Still, nothing keeps me up at night like a realistic horror flick can.
Right around Christmas 2015, I found a copy of the play and gave it a watch for the first time in nearly thirty years. It didn’t scare me this time, I’m all grown up now and I understand now that deformities aren’t something to fear. Bowie’s great in it, though. Hell, Bowie was great at everything he did. I watched it not knowing that within a few weeks, David Bowie would leave us. As I watched everyone’s reactions to Bowie’s death, I saw people speaking of his music and how it touched them. I saw people speaking about his work in LABYRINTH or THE HUNGER or THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and how unappreciated his acting was. I searched and searched for anyone talking or writing about his portrayal of the Elephant Man, hoping that someone out there had the same reaction I did, but I couldn’t find any.
In a way, that made me happy. I had this moment, this feeling, this piece of me that would forever be connected to David Bowie that no one else on this planet had. Bowie made lots of people learn to play guitar. He helped a lot of lonely kids see that there were others like them. He personified sex for who knows how many teens and adults. As far as I know, there’s just one kid that he turned into a real horror fan, and I am forever grateful to him.