On genre and ageing

by Van Badham


Maggi’s Aversion to Horror Movies: A Consideration of Genre and the Transformations of Ageing

My friend Maggi claims that she first experienced genuine terror from horror movies after the birth of her first child. Reader, note; businesslike, tough-talking Maggi is a film producer, with both a prodigious film viewing habit and the direct experience of standing on a film set knowing the girl is not actually alone, the monster is not real and the orchestration of fear will not be added until post-production.

But after Dylan was born, Maggi found her parental anxiety for his ongoing protection overrode her material knowledge of cinematic illusion. She still knew the girl was a hired actor and perfectly safe from whatever rubbery creature was making a low-lit stumble down a hall – but her emotional transformation by parenthood had rendered her imaginative instincts vulnerable to the tense suggestions of music. Every girl became Dylan, every creature the symbolic potential of his harm. I learned this the day I witnessed my Maggi-the-virago retreat from her own loungeroom while her partner watched something horrific on TV. “I just can’t go there,” Maggi said, backing away, “This is just not where I am going right now.”

My mind has pondered this incident in some detail, since I began reflecting on the relationship of genre to the times it appeals in one’s life. I write this standing on a rocky shelf that overlooks the valley of my middle age ahead, old enough now to be be exploring the development of my literary tastes and proclivities with context and nuance, rather than by instinct alone. Doing so, I’ve considered not only Maggi’s aversion to horror movies, but also my father’s devotion to detective novels in the last phase of his life. Dad had always been more of a non-fiction man in his reading – the human embodiment of the Christmas gift market for Paul Barry biographies of powerful men and the kind of sports fanatic whose pleasure at watching every contest his Foxtel subscription allowed him was only enhanced by reliving the matchplay in his collection of tour diaries and sporting memoirs. But as dead’s health began its decline into the lung cancer that killed him, perhaps his need grew for stories where mysteries were solved, wrongs were righted, and worldly, often jaded, heroes at least had some sense of story resolution. Amongst the crime paperbacks in my father’s bedside drawers we also found tomes of Taoist thought and meditation – a surprising discovery of a working class man who spent his working life in betting shops and RSLs for the gaming industry, if not for a man who was dying.

As for me, not yet a parent, not yet of an age where thoughts on the onset of mortality occupy waking thoughts more than night terrors, I’ve found myself preoccupied with ghost stories, and only recently worked out why. At my age, I’ve accumulated enough of a past to be haunted by it – characters and events from my history, I’ve learned, do not stay there. When the photograph of a little girl with the face of a long-broken-up-with ex appeared on my Facebook wall, it registered with spectacular energy of a poltergeist. Entering the dusty local pub in a suburb I long ago abandoned was like a visit to a haunted house – I heard old laughter in the walls, yet I felt tears. When an OKCupid beau spoke of a best friend who I remembered from a muddy one night stand a decade earlier, it was a cool, unsteady haunting.

I am living in theses stories of severed attachments. Particularly since I met my current partner, I’ve been attuned to a sixth-sense understanding that my many pasts may materialise as apparitions, but committed, monogamous, building invisible futures, I can no more reinhabit these old domains as those now dead may regain their living flesh. Is it any wonder that my mind recalls the disembodied comb in the air in Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning Fair One” when the touch of a found-again object can return every detail to my mind the disappeared lover who gave it? Should I ever step foot again on the grounds of Glamis castle as an old self did long ago, I will conjure not only my youthful companions and self, I am sure I shall spy Henry James’ Miss Jessel and Quint at a distance, with staring reminders that ancient secrets ever persist.

This person I am now will ghost me someday – perhaps if I’m ever a parent, I’ll feel nostalgia for my interest in ghost stories, even as the monsters of horror chase me out to the hall.