Tales from the Video Store: The Babysitter DiariesColumns,Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Welcome to TALES FROM THE VIDEO STORE, where FANGORIA unspools their experiences in the eerie age of VHS. We’ll traverse our memories as if they were shelves filled with video insanity, and we invite you to join us in revisiting analog nightmares…
There’s an old phrase that I’m sure you may be familiar with: “When there’s smoke, there’s fire.” And much like the relationship between smoke and fire, there’s a relationship between restriction and curiosity. But when that subsequent curiosity revolves around the horror genre, most burgeoning horror fans have had a way to circumvent that restriction: the babysitter.
Now, I’m not saying all babysitters have been catalysts to the minds of the horror hound. After all, there’s enough horror stories to be told about bad babysitters to set the foundation for an entire subgenre. Yet, to some horror fans, the babysitter was more than just the guardian when your parents weren’t home: they were partners-in-crime, bound by the secret mutual love of the macabre.
Despite my occasional run-ins with horror while growing up, my parents were never too keen on the genre themselves. My father was much more of an action and comedy guy; the closest he’d get to horror on any given day was YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Meanwhile, my mother was essentially a ratings watchdog at the time, although anything “too mature” that she’d be willing watch alongside was fair game. Problem was that not many R-rated horror flicks were in her wheelhouse, so before I was on the verge of my teens, I had to be creative.
While visiting friends was always a good excuse to pop through a terrifying VHS tape, they never really provided the full experience. There’s just something essentially different between watching a movie in a dark basement before going out to play and watching a flick in the dead of night. And barring the chance of a sleepover (or if my friend wasn’t particularly a horror nut), that meant my nighttime horror experiences came at the expense of the babysitter.
For the sake of anonymity, let’s call my most regular babysitter “Millie.” You see, “Millie” was a teenager in the house next door, and to this writer, she was essentially the coolest person I knew at the time. She always had an advantage over the other babysitters: she’d drive us to the video store, had no qualms on ordering pizza and would teach us any of the various improve games her mind could unravel. But above all else, she was an intense horror fan; frequently, “Millie”, my siblings and I would re-arrange the house to make our own amateur haunted attractions when the season had arrived.
And being an intense horror fan, this meant “Millie” would encourage the shared experience of seeing new fright fare together, as long as we kept mum about the whole thing. And she always offered an out: we’d only be watching the horror movies around our standard bed time, so if you didn’t want to be scared, you could call it a night right then and there. However, I wasn’t one to call it quits over some movie, so I’d take my spot on the couch, bracing myself for a night of popcorn and terror.
Through these times watching these movies with “Millie,” there are three experiences that still stick out in my murky memories. The first of which, incidentally, was my first ever John Carpenter film, yet now is considered one of the most divisive entries in his oeuvre: VAMPIRES. This was also one of the few times I ever had to defend my right to watch it as well; even “Millie” had heard the gore would be too perverse for my pre-pubescent eyes. Yet my reassuring sentiment (as well as my likely stubbornness) convinced “Millie” that I had likely seen worse, especially from the less-than-daunting VHS cover.
And to be completely honest, I can still remember the disappointment I had to this day that the film wasn’t as “extreme” as anticipated. In a way, the motel massacre scene had spoiled my overimaginative brain: while I appreciated the graphic gore, the opening of the film had readied me for a movie of badass vampire hunters hunting equally badass vampires. Instead, I got my first real taste of subversive cinema, and while I liked the film as a whole, the gore and fun was never topped from after that first act.
The second memory I had was quite clear; with my horror-resistant sister at a sleepover, my brother and I convinced “Millie” to take us to the video store to pick up something scary. So after stopping by her house to pick up car keys (and in turn, marking my first exposure to a controversial game called GRAND THEFT AUTO II), we hit the road for our most local VHS dispensary, Merchant Square Video. And with the best pizza place in town, Benito’s, being next door to MSV, we knew we had plenty of time to browse for some next level lunacy while our inevitable dinner was cooking.
Ironically enough, we ended up not renting a horror movie after all. While looking through the VHS covers like a studious librarian, one exceptionally colorful tape caught my eye: TALES FROM THE CRYPT. Essentially a collection of 3 first season episodes, I had instantly become obsessed with the skeletal figure on the cover as well as the cartoonish design of the box. And luckily “Millie” was all for the rental; the fact it wasn’t an R-rated horror movie was further coverage of her own ass if my parents were to come home early.
So equipped with pizza and our TALES FROM THE CRYPT VHS, we settled in and got ready for a 2+ hour introduction to “binge-watching.” After the first episode, “The Man Who Was Death,” my perpetually tired brother retired to his bedroom, and “Millie” and I soldiered on to the next episodes. And while I remember very clearly the pride I felt finishing the tape (mere minutes before my parents returned, mind you), I remember the image of the psychopathic Santa from “…And All Through The House” making it very hard to sleep that night. All I knew was that TALES FROM THE CRYPT had piqued my demented interests, and it wasn’t long before I attempted to track down the series episode by episode.
The last defining experience I had thanks to “Millie” was a movie I’ve since revisited and have now labeled as “not very good at all.” Yet “Millie,” being the horror fan that she is, pitched it to my young ears as if it was the scariest movie ever made. And beyond that, it’s acceptable to show a young kid because it was something called “an anthology,” which was sold to me as if the story would change if it’d become too scary. In retrospect, “Millie” could definitely be kind of a provocative dick, and for that, she’ll always have my respect.
The movie in question was called CAMPFIRE TALES (1997), and while the VHS cover didn’t say much, “Millie” wasn’t fond of the post-SCREAM slasher boom so anything new that wasn’t a slasher was good enough. And while I can now recognize that the film is burdened with many flaws, the younger version of myself believed the hype. I remember vividly being on the edge of my seat throughout, while also feeling a bit scandalized by the amount of nudity in the movie, too.
In a way, I owe my taste in horror largely to “Millie,” as in a way, she’d used her time with my family to introduce me to the likes of John Carpenter, TALES FROM THE CRYPT and anthology filmmaking. Unfortunately, I lost touch with “Millie” shortly after my family moved towns, although a recent chance meeting has shown that she’s done well for herself ever since. But even after all these years, I know that horror fan must still be in her somewhere, so to “Millie” and all the badass babysitters like her, FANGORIA salutes you.