One of the earliest memories I have is of my father pointing to an abandoned rowboat in Dublin’s River Tolka and quite matter-of-factly stating that “a monster lives in there.” It was not hard to imagine some strange creature hiding out in that moldering wreck; the river itself, more mud than water and bestrewn with shopping carts, gulls, and rubbish, looked like something out of a horror film.
This was not the only time my father suggested a world beyond the pale, but it stands out because, rainy and miserable as the day was, I was in need of jolt of escapism. My dad’s casual observation was absolutely electrifying and it set my imagination racing: What was this monster doing in that boat down there? What did it do when it left the boat? What did it… eat?
My dad was a hardworking family man with whom I had little in common, and looking back on these uncanny observations, I like to think he recognized me for the shy, daydreaming kid that I was and found a way for us to connect through the fantasy and diversion of monsters and ghosts. These stories were more playful than anything else, but they laid the foundation for our quest to scare ourselves silly.
Together, and at the mercy of the five TV channels we had, my father and I would scour the newspaper listings to find anything horror-related that we could lay our eyes on. Doctor Who became our favorite TV show, with Tom Baker in the title role. Mischievous and downright scary at times, the Doctor filled our weekends with a mix of gothic horror and low-budget science fiction, and whatever jump scares were on offer, my father was sure to surprise me with them throughout the week.
For the burgeoning horror fan in a pre-internet world, and before video stores abounded, it is hard to understate how the hunger and the hunt for anything genre-related filled our lives with intrigue, purpose, and fun. Horror was far more elusive back then, and because of that it was also more precious, at least to me—so much so that the shining jewel of my formative years was discovering BBC2’s summer season of Saturday night horror double bills that ran from 1975 to 1983. I caught up with the programming in 1977 with the Universal Horror–laden “Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends!.” I have vivid memories of sitting down to watch Tod Browning’s Dracula with the feeling that I had bitten off more than I could chew, particularly as Dwight Frye’s Renfield began to unravel.
Thanks to the internet, I can pinpoint the exact time this formative chill crept up on me: Saturday, July 2, 1977, 11:05 p.m. That night, I made it all the way through Dracula and was able to experience the first half of Frankenstein before tiredness got the better of me. The following week, we were treated to a double bill of sequels (of sorts) with Bride of Frankenstein and The Brides of Dracula; this time I managed to stay awake for the whole show, entranced by Terence Fisher’s terrifying Brides… That summer I also met The Wolf Man, and The Mummy, and because of the occasional inclusion of American International Pictures (AIP) titles, I had my first taste of Edgar Allan Poe with The Premature Burial, The Raven, and House of Usher.
Saturday nights became a binding time for me and my father, and my passion for the these movies bled into the rest of my otherwise dreaded school days. I wasn’t particularly interested in formal education or sports and I always felt at odds with the other children around me. I was physically and verbally bullied by some of them, as well as by a few of the Christian brothers who were supposed to be teaching us, and being somewhat of an effeminate kid, I often felt isolated and misunderstood. But these movies gave me something to talk about and I found like-minded classmates who had similarly caught the horror bug. Friendships were ignited over talk of the strange sights and sounds we had witnessed over the summer. Even better, my knowledge and obsession for these films seemed to trumped everyone else’s, and that gave me an edge.
The year 1978 brought the “Monster Double Bill” season and with it came my first exposure to Romero with The Crazies; I never looked at knitting needles the same way again. The next year offered “Masters of Terror,” but it was 1980’s “Horror Double Bill” that really blew my mind. On Saturday, June 28, (my birthday), I was given the gift of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon and Freddie Francis’s The Ghoul. Night of the Demon supplied my introduction to demonology and devil-worship in horror, and prompted my lifelong love of M.R. James. And though I’m not sure I managed to stay awake for all of The Ghoul, its fog-drenched car race through the British countryside is still emblazoned on my brain, and the film set in motion my obsession with Francis’s work as both director and fabulous cinematographer.
The next week, I got to see Robert Florey’s The Beast with Five Fingers, followed by Hy Averback’s Chamber of Horrors. The former holds a special place in my heart because when I watched it with my father he would not stop imitating the severed hand creeping about. This became a shared joke between us that lasted long after the credits rolled, and though it’s a rather stiff movie, Peter Lorre’s performance is still the stuff of genius.
A few weeks later—on Saturday, July 26, 1980 to be exact—I got so scared during the title sequence of The Curse of the Werewolf (a static close-up on Oliver Reed’s wolf-man eyes darting from screen left to screen right) that I couldn’t finish the movie and entirely missed out on the Amicus anthology From Beyond the Grave that followed.
In 1981 we were presented with another dose of “Horror Double Bill,” this time introducing me to Val Lewton’s RKO classics, often paired with more contemporary (and color) fare. I Walked with a Zombie was followed by Zoltan, Hound of Dracula. The former returned me to the dreamlike visuals of Jacques Tourneur; the latter impelled my first step into the terrific dog-horror subgenre. A couple of weeks later, The Seventh Victim preceded Race with the Devil, and I hardly slept that night due to the bleakness of the second feature.
Because they were so scarce, these movies that I grew up watching never lost their allure. Any opportunity I had to see them felt like a truly special occasion, especially considering that hunting down horror with my father is one of my fondest memories of our relationship. Years later, my father, Charles McQuaid, passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s disease and I will never forget viewing his corpse and immediately picturing him slowly reaching a hand up from his coffin, Peter Lorre–style, to scare me one last time. 🩸
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