Double Features and the Magic of Horror Cinema | Part 1

Manor Vellum
6 min readJul 7, 2023

By Harper Smith

I don’t remember the names of most of my early childhood friends. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t have many. My childhood was spent sitting on the playground grass, reading Stephen King and Clive Barker novels much too young, while the other kids focused on sports, break dancing, or tagging up buildings in my area. I had such a fractured childhood, full of pain and depression, that any escapism I could find was what I would focus on. Being “cool” never meant a single thing to me, no, because I’d rather revisit my friends in Derry, Median, or any other place I could lose myself inside my books.

That worked for the most part since horror is the greatest way to ask myself questions about life and endure alongside each story’s protagonist. While I adored getting lost within my books (I STILL do), there was another experience that reached into my soul and brought me such fulfillment that, readers, I get emotional even writing this because it’s still magical to me: the theatrical experience of watching a horror film on the big screen. Throughout my life, I have never known something to be so fulfilling as those memories were, something I’ve tried to pass down to my own children.

Photograph: Christopher Lee/Bloomberg

I spent so many nights after school, rushing to my local theater, spending every free weekend in the cinema, every vacation day buying popcorn, a large Mr. Pibb, and a Snickers bar, and making sure I was seated before a single trailer started playing. If you asked me to recall my 25 favorite memories in life, I can guarantee you that 20 of them will be witnessing my favorite horror films in theaters. And yes, those memories are made even better by the realization that (though my lack of ever being able to do a single thing in moderation has hindered me in life — a reason I try to stay sober these days), the always-wanting-more-and-more part of my personality led to my obsession with not only going to the movies but to my love for all things double feature.

There is still something wonderfully fulfilling about going to the movies and making a day out of it. My wife and I love to get a sitter for our kids, grab a nice lunch, and spend the day at the cinema, watching two, three, or maybe even four movies, breaking only for meals and conversation in between.

That experience is something I’ve always enjoyed. Looking back at my childhood, it was full of times going to the theater to see whichever horror film was playing, tacked alongside a film that had zero business with it…something I still laugh at while recollecting. So, readers, I thought I’d recount a few special double feature moments, all of which acted as ways to lose my younger self in the most therapeutic medium around: MOVIES. The first two memories are doozies.

Child’s Play

Child’s Play | Die Hard (1988)

For many reasons, 1988 was one of the worst years of my life. I have written about them in the past, so I’ll save the details, but the CliffsNotes version is that I was abused as a kid and my only escape from my abuser was spending all day during summer break in the theater next door to where I lived in Arizona at the time. This was long before the events of Columbine and cracking down on enforcing film ratings, so as long as you had a note from your parent, the ratings never played a part in deciding if a kid could watch the films playing. I spent every day, lost in any and every film playing, with the theatrical experience acting as a conduit to survival. My favorite part was seeing two films that had such different approaches; watching Child’s Play and Die Hard back-to-back was just that experience.

I grew up poor and raised by a single parent for the most part, so it wasn’t hard to find solace in Child’s Play’s Andy Barclay, a kid who just wanted a friend and got more than he bargained for. The juxtaposition between that film’s building tension, getting tighter and tighter until Chucky’s initial “YOU STUPID BIT*%!” outburst, played so differently than Die Hard’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink being thrown at you, something I remember loving the hell out of as a kid. I loved how I could lose myself in Child’s Play, feeling a deep kinship with the kid who, for the most part, seemed exactly like myself at that age, followed by a hero in John McLane, a hero I so desperately needed at that time in my life.

Alien³

Alien³ | Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

Alien³ will always mean a lot to me for many reasons, most of them having to do with my own feelings of isolation and feeling like I’m somewhere I’ve never belonged. Ripley’s struggle to survive on that prison planet, while also dealing with the alien inside of her, is something that spoke to a young me with my own feelings of having something in me that never quite felt right. Growing up, the term non-binary was one I never knew, so my lifelong feelings of never being able to identify with anything around me always made me feel alien, like I was trapped in a box that I never asked to be trapped in. Seeing that film on the big screen was such a big moment for me, something I will forever remember as one of my favorite memories in life and one that was made even more memorable when I stayed for the second film, which I was most definitely not a fan of. Ferngully: The Last Rainforest was meant to tackle issues like pollution and nature and did what they set out to, I guess, but after having such a profound experience just before, I found my 11-year-old self spending the entire running time dissecting what I had just seen in Alien³ rather than caring about the smog demon trying to ruin the day of the cute fireflies. 🩸

About

Harper Smith is a film journalist and composer, hailing from the Central Valley of California. For over a decade now, they have annoyed readers of many sites and magazines with an overabundance of Halloween 4 love and personal essays. Follow them on X @HarperisjustOK and visit their website Rainydaysforghosts.bandcamp.com.

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