Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Video Stores of My Youth Part III

"You better not never tell nobody but God.  It'd kill your mammy."-Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

"It's too late, Krueger.  I know the secret now...I take back every bit of energy I gave you."-Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, screenplay by Wes Craven) 

I can't write about the video stores of my youth from 1993-2001 without describing how they provided a safe home for difficult, painful emotions and experiences.  Alice Walker has helped me find the words.  In her great book of essays and speeches, We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For, Walker writes:

"I used to be suicidal.  I grew up in the white-supremacist, fascist South, where the life of a person of color was in danger every minute.  For many years I thought of suicide on an almost daily basis.  Other than this, and severe depression caused by the inevitable childhood traumas and initiations, I am not a person innately given to despair." (P. 59)

I would never create an analogy between my experience of growing up as a white, gay male in the East coast suburbs to Walker's experience of growing up in the white-supremacist South in the 1950s.  However, this passage resonates with me deeply.  In the halls of fascist suburban schools a young gay boy was in danger every minute, should his secret be revealed.

However, more poignant to me is Walker's mention of "the severe depression caused by the inevitable childhood traumas and initiations."  It was, mostly, the "inevitable childhood traumas and initiations," which I kept from my family and everybody around me for 27 years, that made me think of suicide on an almost daily basis for too long. 

I appreciate that Walker has described such childhood traumas and initiations as "inevitable."  One of the reasons that I've been ambivalent to write and speak about this time in my life is that, in this society where people confess to get attention, I have never wanted to come across that way.  I don't see my childhood suffering as extraordinary, as worse or deserving more attention than anybody else's.  In using the word "inevitable," Walker suggests that childhood traumas--by which I suspect she means, at least in part, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse--are ordinary.  Because of the twisted society in which we live, the chances that something traumatic will happen to a child are high.  In using the word "inevitable," Alice Walker alludes to a huge community of survivors in the world, counteracting the isolation that I felt in the years during and after the traumas happened, but before I was able to process them.  At the same time, she doesn't minimize the severity of depression and pain that ordinary traumas, and the isolation that comes with them, can cause.

I am not interested in sharing my trauma narrative, at least not in any traditional sense.  I am interested in describing why video stores had special meaning for me, why they helped get me through the most painful time in my life. 

At the time, I didn't understand that anything that happened to me in those years could be construed as traumatic.  I didn't know what to make of it.  I only knew that, beginning around 1993, I began to identify more and more strongly with the female protagonists in horror movies that I rented at Leeders Video, to where I migrated after American Video closed.

Like Laurie Strode in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), I always felt as though I was being watched.  Like Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1967), I stopped feeling able to trust the veracity of my thoughts, my feelings, and anything that happened to me.   Like the teenagers in slasher films, victim-hood seemed to be my inevitable, prescribed destiny.  Like Laura Mars, I began to think about disturbing images of sexualized violence.  When Faye Dunaway melodramatically cried "I've seen all kinds of murder.  Physical, yes.  But moral, spiritual, emotional murder!"  I knew--I felt--that I had, too, I just didn't understand how or why or when. Like Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was determined to overcome the horror but I feared that the horror existed inside of me.

Leeders Video was a cavernous, dark space.  Its walls were lined with circular, rotating podiums that were covered in brown carpet with VHS tape boxes attached to them by velcro.  In the middle of the store were shelves of videos in black hard plastic boxes or soft blue clamshell cases (like the old Disney and Warner Brothers packaging).  The clamshell cases remained from when the store was deliciously called The Video Connection in the early to mid-1980s.  The store was so densely populated with VHS tapes that you could go there 2-3 times a week for years, and always notice something you hadn't before.  The VHS boxes had stickers on them with different color and number codes.  You would memorize the code of the video you wanted, and then find the video in a labyrinth of shelves.  It was mysterious and wonderful.  The horror movies were tucked away in a dark, shadowy corner of the store, right next to the curtained off back room where they kept porn (for my *entire* youth, I was afraid to go back there!  To this day I don't know what it looked like behind that curtain).

Leeders was run by Ben and Judy, grandparents who always had a good recommendation.  Ben was gruff, Judy kind.  They were always giving free or discounted video rentals to community events, and they let me rent movies for a discount when I needed them to show clips on my short-lived public access movie review TV show (possibly the subject of another entry).  The other clerks were their kids, and other local teenagers.  I remember a guy named Keith, we used to give each other a lot of shit.  There was also a chronically pissed off/sad seeming girl with glasses whose name I don't remember.  She'd usually be watching Grease (1978, Randal Kleiser) on the video store's TV when I came in, and she'd quietly sing along.

It's fascinating to me that Ben and Judy made purchases for the video store, because some of their choices were scandalously unconventional and decidedly not suburban.  It was here that I first discovered the erotic lesbian vampire film Daughters of Darkness (1971, Harry Kumel) starring Delphine Seyrig, and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988, David DeCoteau), in which nubile sorority sisters shower together and are then stalked by an evil imp in a bowling alley.  I guess Ben and Judy bought what they thought people would want to rent.

Most importantly, Leeders was where I discovered most of the contemporary gay and horror classics that would help define me and my experiences.  To name a few: A Nightmare on Elm Street 1-5 (1984, Wes Craven, etc.), Halloween 1-5 (1978, John Carpenter, etc.), The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin), Eyes of Laura Mars (1978, Irvin Kershner), Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento), Last House on the Left (1972, Wes Craven), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper), Pink Flamingos and Polyester (1973 and 1980, John Waters), Jeffrey (1995, Christopher Ashley), Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997, Joe Mantello), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, Jim Sharman), and The Celluloid Closet (1995, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman).

This, in retrospect, is what fascinates me most about Leeders Video--and the video store in general.  In Delmar, we were trained not to speak about being gay, about having sex, about sexual violence, in life or in movies.  Multiple times I got in trouble for showing these movies to friends, or was told that I couldn't give presentations about them in school and write about them in the school newspaper.  Teachers and parents, other than my own, seemed to think that the children around me would be corrupted and traumatized by these images.  In retrospect, they (especially the teachers) were doing their job, and I don't blame them.  At the same time, I think that my showing and talking about these movies incessantly (when I knew that people found it "in-appropriate"--a word I heard all the time) might have been, partly, my way of communicating what I had seen and felt in real life.  If these people were so concerned about children seeing these images, I sometimes wonder why nobody bothered to investigate why they were so resonant for me.  I assumed that they assumed that I was just inappropriate, strange, dangerous.  Part of me liked it.  I still do.

Nobody ever said to me: "You better never tell nobody but God.  It would kill your mammy."  But lord knows I said it enough times to myself.  If people couldn't handle my speaking about the movies, lord knows what would happen to me if I spoke of my secret life.  And yet...and video stores, in these socially acceptable institutions that existed among the repressive and false propriety of suburbia, these words were spoken, these images were shared, these feelings were felt in VHS tapes.  I deposited my emotions in the movies at the video stores of my youth.  My emotions were already there.

Before I knew that my experiences were ordinary, when it seemed to me that they made me so strange, dangerous, and contagious that I would ultimately have to be destroyed, the movies let me know that somehow, somewhere, I was not alone.  The movies wouldn't have been made, wouldn't have been seen, wouldn't have been purchased by the video store, if somebody else hadn't had these experiences and felt these feelings, too.  If they didn't resonate with somebody other than me.

In his book Trauma and Human Existence,  psychologist Robert Stolorow writes: "I have long contended that a good (that is, mutative) [psychological] interpretation is a relational process, a central constituent of which is the patient's experience of having his or her feelings understood" (p. 5).  During this time, it was only when watching movies that I felt that my feelings were understood, possibly cementing my life long insistence that a relationship with a movie is, in some ways, a two-way-street. The videos understood my secrets.  The video store seemed a secret that only I understood.

Read The Video Stores of My Youth Part I

Read The Video Stores of My Youth Part II

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing openly about that which helped you to identify and know you were not alone in your life experiences.