Are we what nightmares are made of?

The first horror movie to scare the living daylights out of me was The Wizard of Oz. It was also the first movie I saw without the protection of parents—my older brother (nine, at the time) was given the solemn duty of getting me safe to Oz and back again (within the confines of the Memrose Theatre—probably long since bulldozed—in Norfolk, Virginia, in the ’50s.)

The tornado that opens the movie I managed uneasily, but okay; ditto the threatening trees (“I’d turn back if I were you!”) and the Wicked Witch of the West herself, keeping track of our heroes’ progress in her ominous crystal ball.

But then, when I least expected horror, and all of a sudden, there it was: winged mon
keys. Monkeys—with wings. And, weirder, all of them dressed
 like bellhops, as they plummeted
 down in droves. Why were the monkeys dressed like bellhops? More important: Why did they have wings?

How my big bro handled a six-year-old in the grip of utter panic, I don’t recall. I probably spent the rest of the movie under my seat—though I must’ve popped up long enough to see the Wicked Witch melting, at this fiendish movie’s climax. at inexplicable death unnerved me even more than the monkeys. Water can melt you? Bottom line: This movie was full of things (angry trees, flying monkeys, old ladies dissolving) that were plainly and simply wrong.

Which is one of the defining characteristics—I later learned—of horror movies: category confusion, the blurring of boundaries, binaries breaking down. Living/dead, human/non-human, sane/insane—horror movies challenge fundamental distinctions we cling to, trying to make any sense of a baffling world. And these disturbing questions were there, from the earliest days of cinema: Is Dr. Caligari a medical miracle man, or a raving loon? Is the Golem a shambling savior of the ghetto, or its worst nightmare?

The template for the horror-movie plot is simple: Man meets Monster. Chaos ensues. Order is restored, or it’s not. The threat the hapless humans meet keeps shifting, over time and space—though often enough the threat is a then-current version of the Other: from East European immigrants (in the late-Victorian Dracula) to the suspiciously friendly white liberals in the recent hit movie Get Out.

And in some of the greatest horror flicks, this confrontation—Man vs. Monster—builds to a moment of nerve-shredding recognition: that the Other we’re so terrified of meeting isn’t so “other.” In fact, in the brilliant ’50s film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the monsters look exactly like your mother or your Uncle Ira...except they aren’t Uncle Ira, in some uncanny way you can’t quite explain.

Human beings are being replaced with identical-looking pod persons. And this transformation is so suggestive, of so many dreadfully plausible scenarios (are the pod-people brain-washed Communists? Or conforming bourgeois Americans?) that the film’s producers—worried about how truly disturbing the movie was—insisted on a new, more hopeful ending. (Not to mention a new voice-over narration that climaxed with the movie’s most risible line: “I never knew the true meaning of fear...until I kissed Becky....”)

Becky fell asleep—and that’s when she was changed: She’d become a pod-person. In the film’s original ending, the protagonist flees the horror of kissing pod-Becky, ending up screaming on a busy freeway, trying to stop the unheeding cars racing by in the night: “You’re next! You’re NEXT!”

That may be the ultimate horror of frightening movies—to become that terrible thing you’re most afraid of. And maybe that’s why I was so freaked out by The Wizard of Oz. To quote the infamous summary of a newspaper’s TV listing: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”

Winner of a 2005 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Play (Spatter Pattern, Broadway Play Publishing), Bell has been a recipient of Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and NEA fellowships, and he currently teaches play- and screenwriting and a course on horror movies in the theater studies department.

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