The Horror Show: Sue Carter on sleepovers, un-ironic humour, and why she’ll never watch The Human Centipede

“My rating system gives bonus points for camp and melodrama”

Sue Carter is editor-in-chief of Quill & Quire, Canada’s magazine of publishing news and reviews. She is a regular writer for the Toronto Star and former arts editor at This Magazine and Halifax’s alt-weekly The Coast. She has taught at Toronto’s Centennial College and appeared onstage at Word On The Street, the Toronto International Festival of Authors, and elsewhere. In today’s guest post, she talks about her first experience with horror movies and the commingled pleasures of fear and laughter.

When I was ten, I was invited to a sleepover that went completely off the rails when the birthday girl’s dad popped a copy of the 1980 horror film The Changeling, starring George C. Scott as a composer who moves into a mansion haunted by a murdered child, into the VCR. I’m not sure what he was thinking leaving us alone in the basement with that movie. Was Jumbo Video out of Disney princesses that day?

He paid for his decision later.

We watched the entire film silently, buried deep in our respective sleeping bags. But as the final credits ran so did the tearful requests to go home. We erupted at a decibel level that only a group of ten-year-olds can hit. But quick-witted Mr. Marshall then did something very clever, which I now recognize as the act of a parent in panic. He brought down a tape recorder and made us all perform our best ghostly voices into the machine. He turned it into a contest: prizes for whoever could best replicate poor, dead Joseph Carmichael, who communicates from the otherworld through audio equipment. Soon, we were all laughing, making fart noises, and yell-whispering “Faaaaaather …” into the recorder, our initial tears forgotten.

I have always been drawn to adrenaline-cranking moments that straddle the delicate space between hysterical fright and laughter. It’s my instinctual reaction to a certain kind of stress. I love nothing more than screaming through a dusty old haunted house ride – preferably built pre-1970, like the Spook-A-Rama haunted ride at Coney Island or the the Haunted Barrel Works at Toronto’s Centre Island, where the initial scare of a skeleton leaping out at you is quickly defused by its visible puppet strings and glued-on wig. But I’d rather stick my hand in a bowl full of grape eyes than go on one of those tours featuring axe-wielding live actors, like the “extreme haunt” in Tennessee that offers people $20,000 to survive being physically and psychologically tormented for up to eight hours.

The same goes for movies. Although Saw apparently has a creepy puppet (named Billy, maybe?), which I should love, I will never watch any of that torture-porn franchise. I have read every interview and oral history about the Human Centipede, but I refuse to watch any of the films.

I need a promise of relief and comfort. A palette that embraces colours beyond prison-cell grey and dried blood. Humour that isn’t obviously self-aware or seemingly written by a group of bros hoping to make a tagline stick.

I embrace that release every time I watch Michael Myers peering out from behind a neighbour’s hedge in daylight like an awkward teen with a crush. Rosemary’s nosy neighbours demonically cooing over their devil baby. The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s gaping blank stare.

My rating system gives bonus points for camp and melodrama. The sisters’ facial elasticity in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or the cursed department-store gown from In Fabric that looks great on everyone. Florence Pugh’s slow-shifting grin under the weight of her floral headdress in Midsommar made me giddy.

My desire for comfort and beauty has increased since COVID-19, while the need for fright has been pushed down. I felt agitated watching The Invisible Man, waiting for Elisabeth Moss to kick the shit out her abusive ex, and annoyed by Netflix’s Bly Manor creepy orphan children (though Henry Thomas’s British accent cracked me up).

But I have found my new happy horror place.

During the early days of the lockdown, Conan, my partner in horror, introduced me to Tommy José Stathes, a New York animation archivist who collects 16mm animated films from the 1910s to 1950s. Stathes has been running Cartoon Carnival, an online series in which he shows selections of his archive off a projector in his living room.

I purchased Stathes’s DVD Cartoon Roots: Halloween Haunts as Conan’s birthday gift, most excited about watching The Fresh Lobster again. First released in 1928, the six-minute film features Disney voice actor Billie Bletcher as a man who pays for his late-night snack choice when he is chased through the streets by a giant crustacean riding on his bed.

The film is a great-grandpa to B-schlock like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and, more recently, 2016’s Attack of the Killer Donuts, which I just watched (it’s terrible, don’t let bloody crullers and C. Thomas Howell’s appearance suck you in). The Fresh Lobster might not scare a sleepover, but it fills my need for a fun fright night.

The Horror Show: Sue Carter on sleepovers, un-ironic humour, and why she’ll never watch The Human Centipede