Confession time: at some point over the next five weeks, I’m going to watch the movie Halloween, the 1978 classic from John Carpenter that also made Jamie Lee Curtis a star. It’s part of the movie project thing I’m working on for QuarterToThree.com. I’m really, really looking forward to it, not only because of the excellent reputation of the movie itself, but for a more personal reason as well.
I’ve never actually seen it.
In fact, I’ve never seen any of the Halloween movies, or the Friday The Thirteenth movies, or any of the seemingly endless slasher films of that era. Movies that were a major part of the cultural lexicon for my peer group weren’t in my vocabulary.
This is the part where I tell why that is.
In the summer of 1979, things were pretty great for me as a kid. I was 12 years old, my widowed mother had recently remarried a wonderful guy who was an amazing father to me. My mom and my stepdad had been married for less than a year, and I guess they wanted to go out with friends and do stuff like dinner parties and whatnot as a couple to make up for lost time–which was always fine with me (as the youngest of four brothers by 13 years, I was basically something of an only child, and had always valued my “alone time” to read, watch tv, or listen to music). The problem was, my Mom was a meticulous housekeeper and I guess at some point she told my stepdad that she simply couldn’t do the active social life thing and maintain the house the way she’d like it kept. They quickly arrived at a compromise solution: Mom would hire a housekeeper to come in once a week and vacuum, dust, mop the floors in the kitchen and bathrooms and stuff like that.
They hired a girl named Mary to do that.
Mary was amazing. It was the summer before her senior year in high school, which made her five years older than I was; it might as well have been 20 years, though. She was stunningly beautiful, and that’s not my mind’s eye playing tricks on me. My friends in the neighborhood got in the habit of calling me later that summer to find out if Mary was going to be over to work. If she was, they’d just happen to coincidentally drop by to play Atari. We were 12. We were idiots.
Actually, in reality I should note that I was painfully shy. Still am, sometimes. In this case, I didn’t even feel like I was the same species as Mary. I was a scrawny doofus and she was this gorgeous girl, five years older than me who obviously had it going on in every way imaginable.
At the start of that summer, Mary would come by, usually dropped off by a friend or family member and she’d work. I’d hide out in my bedroom until it was time to dust and vacuum there, and then I’d scuttle off to somewhere else in the house where she wasn’t. Like I said, awkwardly shy.
That didn’t last long. Mary would have none of that. Maybe she felt obligated, maybe she was bored, but I like to think that it was because she was incredibly kind–on top of her other winning attributes–that Mary would seek me out. She’d corner me and ask pointed conversational questions and make me answer her. It turns out we’d attended the same grade school when I was in first grade (and she in sixth), which made me think that both our fortunes had improved some since then. (That school, Powell Terrace Elementary, was in a pretty hardscrabble neighborhood.) Eventually Mary and I got to the point where we were chatty, and before long I’d wait until she’d finished with the vacuum sweeper and then follow her around while she dusted and we’d just talk one another’s ears off. It was in this way that I learned that Mary was very funny, very smart, and sometimes painfully direct.
For instance, one afternoon, we had this conversation:
“I noticed you have Queen records next to the stereo. They yours?”
Me, feeling cool: “Yeah.”
“You know they’re gay, right?”
Me, feeling…weird and putting puzzle pieces together in my mind about pictures of Freddie Mercury I’d seen: “No they’re not!”
“Hey, I just read it in a magazine that they were, that’s all. Maybe they’re not.”
Silence. Picture me confused.
“Are you gay?”
God. That question. Someday maybe it won’t be a big deal for anyone, but I imagine it’s still a big deal now. It certainly was a taboo, big deal in 1979. If you were a scrawny kid like me, with hair too long and a voice too squeaky, you got that question–or more likely an accusation–long before knowing better that it shouldn’t even be something that is anyone’s business or any source of shame.
“No!” (Talk about awkward; I think I remember wanting to blurt out that I actually liked her in particular…but didn’t.)
“Hey, it’s cool. I mean, it’d be ok if you were. You could say so and I won’t tell.”
“Fine, sorry. I just mean though, if you have stuff you want to tell, you can trust me. Everyone needs someone they can tell stuff to.”
She actually said that last part, and I remember it verbatim. I’d learn years later that Mary probably had a tough start to life, but it got better. She was the youngest in a huge family, and likely she had older brothers and sisters she could trust and tell her secrets to. Maybe she felt like I didn’t have that, living by myself with just my parents. I’ve always thought that. I knew Mary didn’t have a father who was much in the picture. I think she knew my father had died. Maybe she wanted to see if I needed to commiserate. I wish I’d asked.
That fall my mom was thrilled to find out that Mary’s senior year class schedule allowed her get out early enough to still come over once per week and clean. I’d get home from school by 4:30 or so and Mary would usually be just finishing up, and then most times she’d have to wait for her ride to come pick her up. We’d hang out and watch TV and talk. It was amazing that dorky me was talking to this funny, smart, popular, girl who looked like a model and was a senior in high school. This was a huge deal for a seventh grader. Huge.
One afternoon I know we talked about horror movies. I had these plastic model kits that a company called Aurora made that depicted famous movie monsters. They glowed in the dark. I had Frankenstein’s monster, the wolfman, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you’ve seen the movie Super 8, the kid in that film has the same models in his bedroom. Maybe Mary had noticed them from doing the dusting. I think that’s what started the conversation. She asked if I like scary movies.
For me at that point, a scary movie was whatever they were showing on Channel 11 or Channel 30 at the time, on late night creature features. So yeah, I liked scary movies as far as I knew, and told her. She told me that she liked some of them but didn’t seem like a big fan. She said she’d seen The Exorcist and that had really bothered her. She’d snuck to the drive-in to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She didn’t think it was very scary.
Two movies she’d seen the past year made an impression on her. She’d seen Last House On The Left with a carful of friends at the Plaza Drive In (which apparently replayed that awful movie a few times per year), and had been terrified watching it. She sternly informed me that I was not to see it. She’d also gotten into St. Andrews Cinema (which I gather was near her home) with some friends to see Halloween, which she also thought was scary. That latter film I remember her telling me was a pretty good movie though, just that it got to her. She was telling me about the action of the latter film, and I remember her saying, very clearly, “I can’t think of any worse way to die than being cut up with a knife.”
Damn me for remembering that.
Eventually I think Mary’s schedule started to tighten up some, as you’d expect from a popular girl in her senior year in high school. She’d recommended a friend who took her place more and more with the housekeeping. Still, once a month Mary would find some time to come by to do the work, and I was always happy to see her. Even as a hormone-addled 13-year old in the winter and spring of 1980, I’d stopped thinking of Mary as this beautiful creature to desire, and rather more as this cool girl who I could talk to and who would listen and who didn’t make me feel like a dork. I thought of her as a friend.
That summer of 1980 her schedule got even tighter. I think she got a new job, and by May or June she had to finally tell my mom she wouldn’t be able to come by to clean anymore. Mom was bummed, and I remember us running through two or three housekeepers that summer, trying to find someone who worked as conscientiously as Mary did.
Late that same summer, I went off on my first scout camp–my first time a week away from home without other family around. It was kind of scary, and kind of exciting too. I’m not sure what, exactly, I was doing at 11:00 am on Friday, July 25th. Probably working on my canoeing merit badge. I was a terrible canoeist.
At that same time and date back home in St. Charles, Mary found herself at her home, alone except for a stranger who shouldn’t have been there named Anthony Joe LaRette. LaRette was an ex-con and sex offender. No one knew it at the time, but he was also a serial killer who may have had as many as 30 victims. That morning, he later told the cops, he’d snuck into Mary’s apartment to steal some stuff, and she’d surprised him by coming home. What actually probably happened was that Mary stayed home from work with a bad migraine, hiked up to the grocery store nearby, and LaRette spied her there. He likely followed her home, and then entered the house. He very likely tried to rape her, and Mary fought back. Larette pulled out a knife, and stabbed at her repeatedly, hitting her in the chest and all over her hands and arms as she tried to defend herself. Eventually, he likely got her still enough to cut her throat from ear to ear. He probably thought she was dead, lying in a pool of her blood on her floor, and got distracted. Summoning up all her strength, Mary jumped up, ran out her back door and across the street, trying to scream. A neighbor called 911. The ambulance and cops got there in minutes. It didn’t matter. Mary bled out and died on the neighbor’s porch.
I got back from Scout camp that Sunday. My mom knew how much I liked Mary, and so immediately sat me down and told what had happened. Her killer hadn’t yet been found, and the story was all over the news. They showed a picture of her on TV–a senior picture maybe–where she looked pretty, but the photo didn’t really do her justice. You had to see her and talk to her to get an idea of just what a stunningly beautiful force of nature Mary was.
They found her killer in a month or so. By 1982 he was on Missouri’s death row, and confessing to dozens of other murders. He was executed in 1995.
Mary was the first person I’d ever known who died at the hands of another person. I remember feeling incredibly sad at the time. I didn’t really understand it. I know I internalized a lot of it. In 1982, one of those lurid “True Detective” style magazines–the ones you used to see on certain newsstands with scantily-clad women depicted in all sorts of unsettling, garish, bondage scenes–did a full feature story on Mary. I wouldn’t have known, but someone at my mom’s office had a copy and xeroxed the article and gave it to my mother, and she screened it before passing it along for me to read. It was surprisingly thoughtful and un-embellished, mostly. I read things I already knew–that Mary was something of a jock, that Mary was one of the popular kids, that pretty much everyone who knew her shared my high opinion of her. I also read the details of her final day and death, of her flight across the street in St. Charles, streaming blood, mortally wounded. I thought about those details a lot in the years to come. I could picture it in my mind, like a movie. I would constantly think about how terrified she must have been and how awful her final moments were.
And so it was that I couldn’t help but think of Mary every time I saw a trailer on TV for a film like Happy Birthday To Me, or The Slumber Party Massacre or similar dreck. As I went through high school, friends would eagerly take in the latest Jason movie, but I’d beg off. It was too soon for me. The thoughts of my friend and the means of her passing were too vivid and real. I couldn’t handle that kind of sickening end being made light of as a plot device. While everyone else could keep the “It’s only a movie” mantra going, I’m not sure I could. It would all feel too real.
Plus, to a certain extent, it sort of felt like betrayal. I remember Mary kind of giving an involuntary shiver when she scolded me that I was not to see Last House On The Left. In fact, somehow I built up in my mind that all slasher films were that graphic and brutal and depraved. (They’re not, or so I’m led to believe.) I can remember at least once or twice I felt like I would be going against her warning to me if I went to see Sleepaway Camp or Silent Night, Deadly Night. I should also be clear–I was fine (more or less) with gore. I saw both Re-Animator and From Beyond at the theater. That same era I managed to see four David Cronenberg movies, including two of the most squirmy, uncomfortable films I’ve ever watched in Shivers and Dead Ringers.
It wasn’t the blood. It was the vividness of what Roger Ebert called “dead teenager movies” and the knives and the slashing and the screaming.
That being said, it’s been decades since I thought of that overtly. I started writing this when I realized with a shock that I hadn’t ever seen Halloween…or Friday The Thirteenth…or any other films from one of the biggest box office genres of my teenage years. I wondered why that was, and then remembered. I think that it’s likely that you avoid something for a valid reason at some point in your life when you’re young, and then you keep on avoiding it out of habit, and pretty soon it becomes an aversion where you plug other pieces of sound logic into the matrix and it’s a reflex where you may have forgotten the original trigger. That’s me and slasher films, I think. I had a valid reason to begin with, and then slasher movies continued to get more and more awful, and it got easier and easier to miss them because they were terrible movies in a terrible sub-genre. Then they gradually stopped making them, and slasher movies gave way to torture porn, and it’s the 21st century and nothing’s shocking anymore and time has done what time will do to soothe the soul.
And so here we are. I actually can’t wait to see Halloween. I know the story and know the tropes by heart already, just by being fairly culturally aware. I know I’ve missed out on the film proper, though, and that I can’t wait to watch. I’m pretty confident I’ll enjoy it a lot. I know I’ll be a sucker for the nostalgia of midwest suburbia in the late 1970′s that the movie will evoke. I’ll probably think about Mary once or twice, too…but I think having exorcised this demon by writing about it, they won’t be bad memories. Instead, I think I’ll imagine her and some random boyfriend watching it at St. Andrews Cinema, munching popcorn and having a scary good time.
I think she’d like that.
(By the way, it turns out Mary’s eldest brother, Dennis, is a writer. He wrote a very moving memoir about his kid sister that’s by turns heartbreaking, angry, and quite moving. I bought it a few days ago and it was a great read. You can find it here )