In March last year I posted this rambling piece, in which I professed an unexpectedly deep love for Mad Men and Dexter, given my generally shallow knowledge of non-comedy related television. A year on and – five rapid-fire seasons of Lost aside - little has changed. Mad Men is still the best damn show since Twin Peaks - casting a spell over every magazine and style supplement in the western world despite reportedly low audience figures. Meanwhile, I remain compelled to watch Dexter going about his grisly business, even though every single episode reduces me to a nervous, quivering mess.
The reason for this is simple; I do not, if you’ll pardon the phrase, like having the willies put up me. Not, as is known, that there is anything wrong with that, but still the act of being unnecessarily scared is not something I seek.
I have no problem doing things that are scary if there is something to be gained. I have asked pretty girls to dance, learned to drive a car, hitched for lifts on dark country roads; all things that set the heart racing to differing degrees. Several years combating vertigo also saw me jump from an aeroplane, off a very high bridge and – with the aid of an insane French hang-glider enthusiast – off a 2000 metre mountain top. Still, with a skewed logic informing this madness it was something I felt able to justify on pseudo-scientific grounds. In short, there was a point.
What I cannot embrace is the idea of deliberately terrifying yourself for fun; fear as an end goal rather than something unpleasant to be endured. In practice this has added to my own deep uncool, meaning as it has a lifetime avoiding fairground rides, theme parks, non-vertigo related extreme sports and – most of all - the entire oeuvre of horror cinema.
I should clarify that when I say horror I mean all films designed to make you go “arrrrrrgggh!”; whether in surprise, fear or genuine revulsion. I include 1980s schlock-horror (your Freddies and Jasons as nicely deconstructed by the Scream franchise), splatter, gore, vampires, anything with zombies ( living, dead and/or undead), anything with a one word title and basic premise of ‘coming to get her’ (Jaws, Saw, Poltergeist, Deliverance, Predator, Piranha, Swarm, Anaconda, Arachnophobia… erm … Snakes on a Plane etc) and all films about brutally violent psychopaths, murderers and serial killers. Especially ones with saws and knives…
It’s possible that this is an enduring legacy of watching two of the very best of these films too young. I distinctly remember being terrified by Jaws aged seven as well as my horror as I watched the Alien alone in the dark at midnight on my tenth birthday, slowly realising that this space adventure was not much like Star Wars at all. From then on I understood that I had enough of an imagination to terrify myself without adding to it with warped visions of Hollywood directors.
I dabbled here and there to try and keep in with the cool kids. Consequently I have seen the likes of Chucky, Aliens (to impress a girl), an Evil Dead (more comedy than horror I was surprised to find), Scream (ditto), Silence of the Lambs (but not Hannibal after I accidentally saw the brain eating bit), Jacob’s Ladder, Starship Troopers and The Blair Witch Project (its power lessened by adverts provided every five minutes by Channel 7). Whilst these filled some pop culture gaps (and the better the film the harder it is to say no - I’ll gladly put myself through anything creepy David Lynch has to offer) they mostly reaffirmed that for me enjoyment and fear are not good bedfellows.
All of which I found myself considering recently, half-way through my fourth season of Dexter, after spending yet another 50 minutes pale, sick to the stomach, worried half to death, hoping - praying – that Dexter Morgan’s murderous dark passenger would stay hidden away for another episode. ’Look out Dexter... no, don’t kill her... oh, you... no... but someone will see... oh... but what if someone finds that and... Dexter (in my best Joyce Grenfell voice) oh Dexter... don’t do that...’ It was only as the credits rolled, when anticipation had no more grip over me and with a pavlovian slackening of the tightness in my stomach that I realised the folly in watching a show about a serial killer... and hoping no one gets killed.
So whilst Mad Men may be the coolest show around, and Lost is the one that appeals to my post-Lynchian need for interpretation and clue-gathering, I feel I should salute the cast and crew of Dexter for being the only ones ever who could get me to endure and enjoy at the same time. I may be watching from behind hands and cushions - immobilised by anticipation of the worst, like one of Dexter’s victims cellophaned onto his butcher’s table – but at least, for once, for now, I am watching.