My First Fright featuring Michael Wehunt

Usually, I avoid stuff that gives me nightmares; I’m funny like that. I don’t get much sleep as it is (father of two little ones) and when I do, I prefer to sleep soundly, my dreams free of terrifying imagery.

Michael Wehunt apparently doesn’t value his sleep. He watches movies that give him nightmares and keeps going back for more! But perhaps that unbridled enthusiasm for the macabre helped lead to his success as a writer?

Wehunt is an Atlanta-based author. His debut collection, Greener Pastures, was shortlisted for the Crawford Award and a Shirley Jackson Award finalist. His short fiction has appeared in publications like Shock Totem, Innsmouth Magazine and, yes, Cemetery Dance.

(Interview conducted by John Brhel)

CEMETERY DANCE: What is your “first fright”?

MICHAEL WEHUNT: I have to give a rather predictable answer here and say the 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. I was six or seven when I saw it, and it’s probably 50% of the reason I fell in love with horror as a child. Any other answer would be dishonest because this really was my first fright; and not only did it give me my first nightmare, it gave me the only nightmare I’ve ever had, to this very day.

Great pick. That movie is creepy as hell. So, wait a minute, the ONLY nightmare you’ve ever had? Really? What happens in the nightmare?

I should add the disclaimer that I rarely remember my dreams at all. For all I know, I have my sanity stripped away by horrific nightmares night after night and I have no sense of them. But yes, it was the only time any dream of mine, as far as I’m aware, has had the elements of a nightmare. It’s the only dream that has ever produced fear in me.

In the dream, I was in an old mansion that was half-rotted, being chased by vampires. As I recall, they were dressed all in white to go along with their bloodless white skin (probably influenced by Danny in his pajamas at Mark’s window in the film). The house had many floors, and I’d run up the stairs, jump over a hole where the floor had fallen in, then up to the next floor, because the stairs were always at the other side of the room. The vampires got closer to me on each level, and the hole in the floor got bigger and harder to jump over as I ascended. Finally, inevitably, I reached the top floor, the hole was too wide to jump across, and I woke up.

If the movie inspired such a horrible nightmare, why did you enjoy it?

It did scare me, and I think I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since. I’m not sure if the Salem’s Lot movie was my very first experience with the horror genre—I read King’s novel Carrie when I was seven and watched The Exorcist at the same age—but it was at least part of what clicked for me at a very young age. I remember being fascinated and unable to stop thinking about that nightmare or what had caused it.

It only got worse, by which I mean better. I used to peek through the curtains at night and pretend there was the silhouette of a person out on the street, staring at my window. Then I would imagine it had vanished and was now standing behind me, right next to my bed, looking down at me. I’d close my eyes, lie down and let the anticipation build before finally opening my eyes…to find nothing there. And while there would be no nightmare or real fear, I still happily gave myself the chills. My interest in being scared was rooted, in a way, in my inability to be scared, even so young. I wanted to see a ghost (and still do). Those early years feel very atavistic and primitive to me when I look back. Like I was seeking the uncanny in the everyday.

Later, I had an enormous Freddy Krueger poster over my bed, but by that point a sort of pop culture, knowing element had taken over my interest in horror. Which was enjoyable, but it would take a while before I got back to that fundamental, mysterious dark that had initially captured me.

What is your favorite scene from the movie?

It’s been so long since I’ve seen it, so I’ll choose the scene that has lingered most for me (and many others): Danny outside of Mark’s window. That was the greatest thing I’d ever seen, at least until I saw The Exorcist a little while later, and Pazuzu’s face spliced into the film took top honor.

What was so scary about that scene?

I think being a kid myself (as I was when I read the novel, too) connected me with Mark. One thing King has always done well is the sense that evil is more powerful toward children because they believe more deeply in the supernatural. So for Mark, looking at his dead friend hovering outside his second-story window, the reality is accepted far more easily and it’s all the more palpable.

Specifically regarding the scene in the film, it was just so well done (for a ’70s TV movie, at least). There’s a coldness to it, a grim inevitability of death, that gives the vampire legend a more relatable and much scarier tint. The mist, the lighting, the way Danny had changed…I’m tempted to cheat and watch the clip on YouTube, but I’m making myself rely on memory here.

It is a well-shot scene, eerie. Do you think Salem’s Lot informed your sensibilities as a writer in some way?

In a direct way, no, the movie didn’t really seep into me, though who knows how far back in my mind the writer in me reaches. That scene and a few others really were eerie and subtly shot. But in a general way, absolutely. It was my first time being drunk on fright, which is something I’ve been searching for ever since, to some degree. I read my first Stephen King book—Carrie—not long after that, which would put horror in my veins. I never quite became a horror junkie as a kid. I devoured King, which led me to (Peter) Straub, whose work was way over my young head, and I watched as many horror movies as I could. But in my mid-teens or so, I drifted away from the genre. But it never left the veins. I couldn’t shake it, and when I decided to finally try writing many, many years later, it was horror I turned to. I never stopped to think if this was the kind of writer I would “become,” and so far I’m glad I didn’t.

What exactly does “drunk on fright” mean?

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the phrase “drunk on fright” when describing my very young self, but even at the age of seven or so, I already knew I enjoyed being scared. It brought a rush—goosebumps on my arms, a chill down my back, all those delicious sensations. At the risk of making myself seem…well, not normal, I sought it out, hence the fantasies I’d play out in bed at night. What I didn’t know then was how little things would scare me the rest of my childhood and on into adulthood. So I’ve been looking for that feeling ever since, for so long that it’s a part of who I am.

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