Horror Movies, Big Brothers and Halloween: The Power of Movies

Mike Doody, the one with the big grey beard, would have turned 57 today.

When my big brother Mike saw John Carpenter’s Halloween for the first time in 1978, what occurred at that theater was legendary. It would be retold for years. As the tale goes, the moment when Myers burst from the kitchen cupboard, my brother jumped, throwing his entire popcorn bucket all over the guy behind him. Whatever fear jolted through him, his muscle reaction was so intense, his popcorn went airborne. I’ve also heard the fellow who took the brunt of the popcorn incident was very unhappy. 

Halloween is a hell of film. My brother had never seen anything like it. Just like that, he was hooked. He became a devotee of Halloween and the horror genre. That night at the Morton Grove theater was a defining moment for him, which in turn would shape my life forever. 

Mike and I are eleven years apart, with no other siblings. An older brother with that much of an age difference is great for many reasons. As a 6-year-old, having a 17-year-old brother means he can take you cool places because he can drive. As a 17-year-old, having a 28-year-old brother means he can take you to OTHER cool places because he’s an adult. Between terrorizing my mother with squirt guns around the house, trying to outdo each other in late night jump scares and the natural shenanigans that occur during adolescence, Mike and I had plenty of bonding moments. But one thing truly brought us together. Some siblings have sports. Some have camping. My brother and I had horror films. 

In the VHS age, my brother introduced me to classics like Halloween, Phantasm, The Thing and Dawn Of The Dead – the movies that filled his teenage weekends. Our weekends were spent at theaters to see the newest crop of horror flicks. Nightmare, Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels were top of the list. Others like Phantasm II, Monster Squad, The Blob remake, Return of the Living Dead II, etc., were devoured as soon as they hit the screen. It didn’t matter if the films were good or bad. The shared experience, along with the inevitable post film discussion over Irving’s hot dogs and cheese fries, was at the heart of seeing horror movies. 

When there was nothing at the theater, we’d browse the horror aisle at video stores, hunting for more obscure titles. This is where we discovered Argento and Fulci. And when there was nothing there, we’d see what was playing on HBO or USA, discovering Night of the Creeps or Pyscho III. You can’t go through this much horror movie madness without it sticking to your insides. At this point, I was a splatter junkie. Still am. 

Years later, I would finally make the move to Hollywood to work in the industry. Even then, I would send my brother DVDs of new horror movies, most recently Trick R’ Treat, which he loved. I’d mail him rubber spiders and severed latex fingers to decorate his office. Any October he could visit, we’d hit Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. We’d do a late-night driving tour of the shooting locations from Halloween. We’d spend all night watching scary movies at my place, concluding with Michael Myers and the doomed babysitters. 

The last time I saw my brother was a year ago this October at Screamfest. Beneath, a claustrophobic thriller I co-wrote with Chris Valenziano, was premiering at the festival’s opening night. Having Mike there was a big deal for me. For years, he helped burn horror movies into my brain, and now I had taken that burning passion and actually turned it into something tangible. I had given it meaning. Not only was he partly responsible for this insanity, he was also involved with Beneath by building the film’s website. He sat two seats down from me. I couldn’t wait for him to watch my horror movie. There was no popcorn violence this time around, but he did jump at all the right places. 

Beneath would go on to win six awards at the fest, including Best Picture and Best Director. I could never have imagined our little movie having any sort of impact, but whatever magic happens, it happened. IFC Midnight would release it. Mike was a witness to all this success. I didn’t know then what a gift that would be. 

In April of this year, I saw the truest horror show of my life when I walked in the ICU at the University Of Illinois Hospital. My brother had a stroke, his midbrain damaged from an intracerebral hemorrhage. He was in a coma. I barely heard the doctor’s explanation to me, but her tone was very clear – he was not coming out of this. He had high blood pressure – the silent killer. I’ve walked through a million haunted houses with hospital gags. Only this time, the presumed rubber dummy beneath the sheets wasn’t going to leap out from the bed to scare me. Real life had become more horrible than anything I could create. 

Mike and I had spoken on the phone 24 hours earlier. As fate would have it, I was in Chicago at my childhood home going through our crap because our parents were selling the house. I had not been back to Chicago in two years. Mike and I were chatting as I dug through his LPs to make sure that he had everything he wanted, otherwise it was going in the estate sale. I asked him if he really wanted to leave behind his beloved KISS vinyl and he sadly told me he had no more room for all his shit. We were meant to see each other the next day. 

A day later I was staring at him quietly asleep as a machine assisted his breathing, a pair of tubes buried into his scalp to relieve the pressure on his brain. My brother was full of life, whether he was in boisterous revelry or being uncle grumpy. This wasn’t him. Tough decisions had to be made. The day our house sale closed, we took him off life support. You can’t make this stuff up. 

The morning of April 11, Mike Doody took his last breath, his hand in mine. During the final hours, I made sure he went out as he would want it – rocking to all the classics from his era: Zeppelin, STYX and of course, KISS. At the end, I waited to see if he would turn… one last horror tribute to the man who loved Dawn of the Dead. It’s okay if you laugh at that, he would have thought it was cool. Morbid, but cool. 

On October 1, I attended the screening of Halloween at Beyond Fest. After John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis finished their fun and insightful Q&A, the film started. The minute those first three notes on the piano started to play, I began to cry. I mean, serious uncontrollable weeping. I hoped the guy next to me wouldn’t hear. I rushed out of the theater to text my wife that I didn’t think I could watch the film. I popped back in and out but ultimately had to leave. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit through this… this 300,000 dollar, indie horror film created by some young filmmakers who were just trying to figure out how to make a scary movie. A simple little film they produced without having the intent to leave the mark on the cinematic landscape that it has. A film that, to my mind, comfortably sits on a shelf next to The Godfather or Casablanca. And the fact I can’t sit through one of my favorite horror films of all time at this moment makes total sense. 

This is the power of horror films. To me, Halloween IS my brother. Not just the celluloid it lives on, but the entire, detailed, minutia-filled life that surrounds it. It surrounds me. It surrounds all fans of the film. John Carpenter and company created something that would give meaning, definition and emotional cartilage to my brother and I. Thanks, JC. 

Horror films go beyond the screen. Those who attend events are rabid and fanatical. We embrace each other whether we agree or disagree. We endlessly dissect lore. We instantly make a friend sitting next to us during a screening. Our iTunes library is full of music by John Carpenter, Bernard Hermann and Goblin. We are truly related through our shared experiences. My brother discovered that world in 1978, and then he brought me into it. I miss him. But we’ll always have Haddonfield. 

“This article was originally published in 2014 on Retroist.net

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