In the only photograph that I have of my mother, she is covered in blood. Her frizzy brown hair is flattened black with gore, her rosy cheeks now suffused with a redder hue. The only things spared from the Carrie-at-prom-night dousing are her brown eyes and white teeth; the former wide in terror, pupils expanding like black holes to swallow the irises, the latter bared in something that seems caught midway between a scream and a laugh, lips pulled back, teeth slightly apart. In the background, the gray trunks of trees form an out-of-focus wall. At the bottom, in the white border that surrounds the picture, are my mother’s name and the words “The Hurrah (aka Corpse Scene)” in bold, black, but unstylized letters.
The photo is a glossy thing, a rare publicity still for a shot-on-video movie that probably never looked as sharp or as clear as this picture does. I paid a greasy-haired man in a black t-shirt thirty-five bucks for it at a horror convention. When I told him it was my mom he said, “That’s fuckin’ cool. If you sign it, we can probably sell it for seventy-five. I’ll cut you in for thirty.” I paid him the thirty-five dollars and left.
Most people, even slasher movie junkies, have never heard of The Hurrah. From what I’ve been able to piece together over the years, from blog entries and write-ups in cheapie self-pubbed paperbacks about shot-on-video horror flicks and from the recollections, secondhand though they are, of my great-uncle, to say that it was made on a shoestring budget is to grossly undervalue shoestrings. One of a pile of similar fare that was made and lost during the early days of the 1980s slasher boom, when every kid with a camcorder and a bottle of Karo syrup and food coloring thought he was the next John Carpenter.
Uncle Tomas—I don’t put the “great” in front, because he’s the only uncle I’ve got left—says that my mom always wanted to be an actress. “Ever since she was a little girl. She was in all the school plays. She was a pretty thing, which helped, I guess, but that wasn’t it. Plenty of pretty girls never get to be actors, but I think your mom would have. She had something. Something in her eyes, I think. Some people, you look in their eyes, and they’re just eyes. But not your mom. Her eyes always seemed like they were about to show you something.”
I get that, from the picture. I keep it pinned up above my bed, and sometimes I stare at it, stare into the darks of those eyes, and wonder if I can see any of myself in her bloodsoaked features.
For those who do know about The Hurrah, it’s considered, maybe not a holy grail, but certainly something that you wouldn’t mind undertaking a quest for. A few people say that they’ve seen parts of it. Pirated copies, recorded onto decaying VHS tapes. From them, I learn that the production still I carry around—kept in a plastic sleeve when I’m taking it to conventions—is probably from the film’s final moments. After the killer has been dispatched, as my mom waits for the police cruisers to show up, to paint her with cherry red and popsicle blue light, provided, I’m told, by a single pair of spinning bulbs, covered by red and blue filters.
“The thing about Corpse Scene,” one guy tells me at the Guts and Garters convention in a rundown Best Western outside of Lubbock, Texas, “is that it cuts out all the filler. Gets right down to the good stuff, y’know?”
We met in the fart-smelling elevator, when he saw the photo tucked under my arm in its plastic sleeve and said, “Holy shit, is that Marybeth Conner?” We pulled up uncomfortably warm plastic lawn furniture next to the pool, and he proceeded to tell me what he knew about the movie that he insisted upon calling by its alternate title.
“I’ve never seen it,” he said, “but my friend went to a convention one time where they screened it, the whole thing. He said that it started out where most slasher movies stop. That it was all just one long corpse scene, hence the title. Just this long montage of the final girl finding the bodies of her friends stacked up like cordwood. I mean, there were kills, too. She’d stumble across another survivor and they would stick together just long enough for him or her to get dispatched in some manner as bloody as the special effects budget would allow.”
The guy was heavy and bearded and his stomach bulged against his Suspiria t-shirt, but he never tried to touch me or lure me to his hotel room, so I liked him better than most of the men I met while making the convention rounds. He said his name was Bill Teague. I told him mine was Katie, and asked if this friend of his knew where I could find a copy of the movie.
“The whole thing?” he asked, incredulous, trying to stifle a sort of scoff when he saw the expression on my face, which I appreciated. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows where you can find the whole thing, not anymore. But some people have bits of it, y’know? A five minute clip, or a sizzle reel or whatever. It’ll look like shit, like a copy of a copy, or something recorded off of a pirated channel, and it’ll cost you way more than it’s worth, but I can probably help get you a hook-up, if you want.”
Here, I thought, was the invitation up to his hotel room, or, worse, out to his car, but no, he took me to a table in a corner of the dealer’s room, where a kid who couldn’t have been more than a minute out of high school sat behind a table stacked high with VHS tapes in clamshells and cardboard boxes, hidden behind gaudy covers that made them look a hundred times more graphic than their contents could ever match.
“Trev,” Bill said. “This is Katie. You will never fucking guess who she’s related to.” And that was my introduction to Trevor Canton, who apparently sold VHS tapes to collectors online most of the time, and every now and then brought overstock out to conventions like this one.
“Show him the still, man,” Bill encouraged me, and for whatever reason I didn’t even mind being called “man.” I showed Trevor—who apparently preferred to be called Trev—the production still, and he asked if he could hold it, rather than just snatching it out of my hands, which I also appreciated, so I relented, though I usually had a pretty hard-and-fast policy against precisely that.
To my pleasure, he handled it reverently, as though he had some idea of what it meant to me, or maybe as though it meant something to him, too, and he didn’t even try to take it out of the plastic. Just held it for a few minutes, looking close, and then turned it over, saw there was nothing on the reverse side, and handed it back to me.
“I didn’t even know they’d done publicity stills for it,” he said. “Kinda seems above their pay grade, y’know? No offense.”
“So do you got any of it?” Bill asked on my behalf, because the two of them were too excited by who I was to give me the time to gather up my thoughts enough to ask myself. Trev dug around in a couple of paper grocery bags under his table—as he hauled them out to get better traction, I saw that they were filled with VHS tapes, hand-labeled with names like “Skulltaker III” and “The Lawnmower Murders.”
The thing he finally dug out had a neon green sticker like the kind people use at yard sales on the corner, with $40 printed on it in sharpie. The label said “The Hurrah, 15 min,” written in blue ballpoint pen in a shakier hand.
“I’d just give it to you,” he said, holding it out toward me in that floating way that meant he was prepared to snatch it back, “but these things aren’t free to get.”
“I understand,” I said, fishing two twenties out of my purse. Bill gave him a look that I could feel in my peripheral vision, even though I didn’t glance over to see his face. Trev took both twenties, held them in his hand as though weighing them, rubbing his fingertips across their creased fabric texture, and then handed one back.
“Friends and family discount,” he said with a lopsided smile. I smiled back and pocketed the twenty, taking the tape from out of his hand. The cheap plastic of the VHS casing felt slightly gritty, as though it had maybe once been dipped in oil and only partially cleaned. I wondered if what was on it was even my mom’s movie, or just some other horror flick, or even softcore porno, like I’d found on other homemade VHS tapes at other conventions over the years. Still, I put it in my purse and said my thank yous to Bill and Trev. Neither one asked me for anything else, which I counted as a blessing while I made the rounds of the rest of the convention, though it wasn’t until I was sitting in my ancient Plymouth in the parking lot that I completely let out the breath I had been half-holding for more than an hour.
The motel where I was staying—I never got rooms at the convention hotels; I had bad experiences with being that close—didn’t have a VCR in the room, so I had to wait until I was back at Uncle Tomas’ house to watch the tape I had bought. I put it in one of those Ziploc freezer bags when I got to the motel, and packed it into my luggage. In the night, when I woke up under the scratchy motel comforter, the black-and-white flicker of some old cops-and-robbers TV show strobing the room, I had the briefly dizzying impression that the tape was somehow burning inside the zippered outer pouch of my overnight bag. That it was glowing red-hot, visible through the exterior of my luggage.
When I blinked my eyes, the image faded away, and I thought about Uncle Tomas sometimes saying that money was “burning a hole in my pocket.” I guessed maybe this was the same thing.
Back at Uncle Tomas’s house—a rambling two-story thing built way back in the 1940s that still held various tributes to the presence of my great aunt Henrietta, who had died before I was born—I had a VCR and a little TV on a rolling stand in my bedroom, but I chose to watch the video on the TV downstairs in what Uncle Tomas called the den. It was a big, dark, wood-paneled room with a couch so old that when you sat in it you seemed to be sinking into a bed of moss, and a TV that appeared equally ancient. But the screen was bigger than the one in my room, and there was a VCR sitting on top, so I pushed in the tape that I had bought from Trev for twenty bucks and then scooted just a few feet back from the screen, sitting cross-legged on the shag carpeted floor.
For the first few seconds, the picture is just static. That angry buzzing of old TVs tuned to a dead station. Then there are multicolor zigzags, the kind that used to run across the screen when I would sit at a girlfriend’s house, huddled close to the television, trying to make out the naughty bits of the movies they showed on late-night Cinemax that her parents didn’t actually subscribe to.
My chest sinks in as I resign myself to the idea that this is all I’m going to get. Maybe a glimpse of some dead bodies or the rusty tines of a pitchfork thrusting through a blood-filled bag meant to represent a torso, but then the wavy lines resolve, and I’m looking at an image of a row of familiar gray tree trunks. The picture is shitty. There’s no resolution to the bark of the trees, just vertical bars of gray, and the darkness between them swims with pixelated blotches as the image struggles to resolve the different degrees of black. But there is no denying that these are the same trees.
This time the picture is pulled out farther, and I can see a tumbledown wooden fence between the camera and the tree line, a rutted dirt road or maybe a graveled drive running along this side of the fence. The camera pans, slow and unsteady, on a tripod at best, more likely held by hands trying desperately to stabilize it. The shot passes an old barn—the sides once painted red but now turning gray—and we see a big farmhouse, the windows and doors all lit with yellow light that eclipses any other details in the grainy footage. Someone is standing in the doorway, a woman’s figure, curves and lines, and I know, somehow, that it is my mom.
The shot cuts off, and there’s another burst of static. A clumsy edit, as some piece of the film is missing, chopped out and replaced, maybe even held together with Scotch tape. When the picture swims back into view cars are parked in the grass in front of the house, where the lights still blaze, but the camera has shifted its viewpoint. Now it is aimed toward the open front door of the barn, the blackness beyond a yawning cave mouth filled with the ghostly shadows of movement. A bunch of people who are supposed to be teenagers mill around in front of the barn doors. They are sitting on the hoods of cars, embracing, drinking beers and throwing cans on the ground. Only now does any sound rush in, besides the subdued roar of bad recording equipment. The voices of the partying teens, rendered into an incoherent garble by distance and the limitations of the medium.
I try to pick out my mother from among them, but the picture is gone too soon, replaced with a shot that seems like it would have been cut out of the final film, something that should have fallen on the editing room floor. The camera swinging and juddering through a jittery darkness, lights off in the distance, mumbling closer to hand. Then the shot blinks off and there is only a black screen, not even static, and I look down at my watch, wondering if it’s possible that it has already been fifteen minutes, but no, it has only been five, and by the time I look up the picture is back, and it’s my mom’s face filling the screen.
There’s no mistaking it, though this is the first time I’ve seen her scrubbed clean of blood and viscera. She’s beautiful. There is a tiny spray of the faintest freckles you could ever imagine strewn across the bridge of her nose and the tops of her cheeks, just below her eyes. Something nobody ever told me about. She’s looking into the camera, and even in the grainy video, I can see what my uncle was talking about, the quality that might have made her a star, had things gone differently. That waiting something in her eyes.
She’s crying, tears are cutting almost invisible paths down her cheeks. She’s saying a name. “Diane,” maybe. Or, “Dinah.” There’s a broken crack in her voice as she says it, and the camera pans away from her face, shaky again, and onto a shot of another woman—still a girl, really, or pretending to be, in jeans and a flannel shirt—hanging impaled on a hay hook on the beam of the barn. Her head is flopped to the side, she is obviously trying to make her eyes look lifeless, her neck broken, but you can see the faint pulse of blood in her neck, the slight rise and fall of her breasts, even in the grainy dark.
The image jumps again. My mother has begun her transformation into the girl I know from that single photograph. Blood slicks her white blouse to her skin, the outline of her bra visible beneath it. There is blood on the knees of her jeans, on the cuffs of her pants, on her arms up to the elbows.
Now the camera is above her, looking down, and a green light spills from the hayloft to illuminate the interior of the barn. It is strewn with corpses. They lay in half-chopped piles at my mother’s feet. Right near her there is a severed head, its blonde hair and heavy makeup rendered ghoulish somehow by the greenish glow. My mother is shouting. “Come and get me you bastard,” or something to that effect. She is looking up, toward the camera. Her hands are balled into fists, her arms held close in at her sides. She seems to be shrinking in on herself, but not as if she is being reduced. No, she is consolidating her mass. Building up power.
The dirt floor of the barn has become a mud slick of blood and fake guts. In the background corner, almost lost to the darkness, a corpse sits slumped in the seat of a tractor. Intestines made of black rubber tubing have been looped around its midsection, and a bloody sack covers its head, but even from this distance, it is clear that I’m looking at a scarecrow stuffed with straw, and not even a reasonable facsimile of an actual person.
Another figure hoves into view. Huge compared to my mother, it is little more than a shadow-shape that occludes the entire front of the picture. In its right hand, it holds something rusty and sharp. It takes a shuffling step toward my mom, and then the picture cuts again.
Now we are outside. My mother has been running, but she stops now, panting, her hands on her knees. The camera is close to her, the trees behind her a blur, the fence lost to perspective. She raises her head, looking upward toward what I can only assume is the night sky. She is covered in blood, slicked in it from head to toe. Her eyes are black holes, the pupil eating up the iris. Her teeth are bared, her mouth partly open. Is she laughing, crying, or screaming? All I know is that it’s the picture I recognize, even as the first of the red and blue strobes begin to paint the background and the picture disappears, replaced with a blizzard of static.
That’s all that is on the tape, the rest is just dead air until the VHS reaches its end and automatically starts to rewind, but as I lean back, realizing from the crick in my spine that I’ve been hunched forward to jam my face closer to the screen, I know that I haven’t completely wasted my time or my twenty bucks. Besides a few more glimpses of my mom, I’ve learned something else from the tape. Something that none of the fans, however dedicated, could ever have told me, and something that Uncle Tomas, who lived so far away, probably never even knew.
I recognize that barn.
It takes two-and-a-half days of driving—I spend the nights in the kinds of seedy roadside motels that I’ve become accustomed to while dodging the hotels at horror conventions—and I arrive there as the magic hour is coloring the sky with gold. I can see cobwebs festooned with dew in the branches of the gray trees, even though it is nearing evening and all the dew should have long since burned away.
I park the Plymouth where the kids parked their cars in the movie, with the grille pointed toward the place where the house stood all alight on top of the hill. Now, though, the house is gone, just a barren spot on the hilltop, brown with the occasional streak of black. A place where no grass grows, and where you can occasionally turn over a charred cinderblock or a bit of wood burned to charcoal if you kick at the ground hard enough.
I stand there first, surrounded by the reason why the only photo I have of my mother is a publicity still from a no-budget horror flick. I have a good imagination, so I can picture the house from the movie, its windows lit with flames now, instead of lights, as the fire that started in the basement furnace consumes the entire place in a matter of minutes. The fireman said that it went up like a tinderbox; that’s what Uncle Tomas told me later. Everyone inside was killed before they even woke up, though that hasn’t stopped my nightmares from being haunted by images of my mother’s arms, clawing at the windows, at the doors, as the flesh on her hands bubbles and runs.
I was still an infant, barely able to walk, certainly not able to remember. I had been left with a friend of the family because my mother was going to be out late at a wrap party for the film that she had just recently finished—her first real film!—and my grandparents were going along to show their support. That’s why I lived and they died, and why there were no photographs of my mother from when she was a little girl, from the school plays and the recitals that Uncle Tomas lived too far away to attend.
From the top of the hill, I walk down to the open door of the barn. I’ve been here before, but now I can only picture it as it was in the movie. Stacked with fake bodies, the floor a swamp of blood. I walk in, kneel down, and poke my fingers into the loose dirt, and sure enough, I only have to dig down a few inches before I come up with hard patches of dried corn syrup that have crystallized to red strata just beneath the fresher soil.
Outside, the sun is sinking, and shadows are deepening in the barn. There is a light on a wooden pole in what would have been the front yard, back when this was still a place that held a house, and, surprisingly, the power is still on. It flickers to life as the sun disappears, and so there’s no need for me to go fetch the flashlight out of the glove compartment, because the light shines directly into the barn door, like a spotlight on a stage, illuminating the only thing in the barn that I really need to see.
I re-watched the tape I bought from Trev probably a dozen times before I took the drive, and I noticed something, as I spooled through those same grainy 15 minutes over and over again. Just a few frames, right in the middle, just after the killer appears in front of my mother. It’s my mom, her face and hair already slicked with blood, standing in the barn and pointing toward a spot on the floor. She seems to be looking straight at me.
And sure enough, there is a lump of dirt, right in the center of the barn floor, right where my mother was pointing, that looks different from the others. Fresher, mounded higher, the earth a cleaner brown color and not the dusty grayish that the older dirt has turned. I walk over to it and dig in with my fingers, and about six inches down my nails catch against something metal, and I haul out a small lock box, the kind with a handle on top, the kind that people use to store money when they have garage sales. There’s no key, but the latch is open, and when I pull up the lid on its rusty hinges I see, with only a faint tingle of surprise, that inside there is only a single video tape, wrapped in a sheet of lined notebook paper torn out of a spiral pad.
“Katie,” it says on the paper, while the tape itself is unlabeled. That’s one thing, certainly, but there’s something more. In a dark corner of the barn is a wheeled metal cart, the kind that we used to have in school, and on it a projector that has been hotwired to a VCR. Both are plugged into a power strip, which is connected to an extension cord that is wound around the metal prongs on the side of the cart put there expressly for such a purpose.
I drag the cart out to the side of the Plymouth and point the projector toward the wall of the barn, unwinding the extension cord and finding that it reaches to the base of the wooden pole that holds the yard light with room to spare. Here, there is an electrical outlet covered by a small metal door that hinges upward, and when I plug it in, the projector whirrs to life, throwing a square of white fire up onto the side of the barn.
I unwrap the tape from its paper sheath, and slide it into the VCR, then I stand in the already-dampening grass next to the projector and I watch.
It is the entire film, running a lean sixty-two minutes, at least twenty minutes too short for the era in which it was released. The people who have told me about it over the years are right. There’s no dead weight in it. Virtually no time is spent establishing the characters, the setting, the background of the killer, who seems to be masked, though we never get a clear enough shot of his face to know for sure.
My mother does almost all of the film’s heavy lifting, and she is phenomenal. A revelation. She is Jessica Harper in Suspiria, Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, you name it. In short, she is a star. On the screen, which is the side of the barn, she is magnetic. When she appears in the frame, she lights it up in a way that puts lie to the faulty equipment, the lack of budget, everything.
What’s more, up on that wall, the film looks surprisingly good. All the shoddy parts from the fragments I saw on Trevor’s video tape are still present, but the film quality seems much better than I know it can be, recorded on a cheap camera, dubbed onto a VHS tape, thrown up onto the wall of a barn in the gathering twilight. The images seem, at times, to be hyper-clear, as though somehow the peeling paint and faded wood grain of the barn wall has lent them a greater definition. It’s impossible, but there it is.
I watch the whole thing, mesmerized, without noticing the ache and wobble in my legs. And at the end, when my mother is standing in the road on the far side of the barn, covered from head to foot in congealing blood, she turns her head, as she didn’t in the version I watched before, and her eyes meet mine. They don’t look brown anymore. They look all the way black, as if the pupils have finally completed their work.
“This wasn’t supposed to be all there was,” she says to me, and I know that her voice is directed straight at me, not at the camera, or the man behind it, or the audience. Me, her daughter, more than two decades later. Her body turns to follow her eyes, and she is walking toward me. Not toward the camera, toward me. Her feet moving across the wet grass in the picture upon the barn wall, and then, from there, stepping down onto the wet grass that lies between the barn and the projector.
“Stars burn out,” she is saying, “but nothing else is supposed to burn them. Not when they blaze this bright. You saw what I was, what I could have been. What I could still be. So much more than you.”
She’s not wrong, I think to myself. The projector is blinking rapidly now, and in its beam, she seems to move in a series of slow-motion flickers, not so much taking steps as teleporting toward me a few inches at a time. She raises her right hand. It is an imperial gesture, one that belongs to a vampiric bride in a movie from an earlier decade, not a final girl in a slasher film in the early 80s.
“I love you,” she is saying, and I mouth the words, though no breath leaves my body, “I love you too, mom.”
“I loved you from the first moment I held your little body in my arms. I never resented you. But there was supposed to be more. I was never supposed to burn up so soon, and I don’t know of any other way back.”
She has almost reached me now. The flickering of the projector has slowed to a crawl, so that in each slow-motion blink, she is half-a-foot closer to me, that red right hand hovering in the air between us, those eyes so dark and black. Uncle Tomas always told me that I had my mother’s eyes, and I knew from the picture that, at the very least, mine were brown, like hers, but whatever strange promise hers possessed, mine were vacant of, and always had been.
“Let me come inside,” she says, as her hand touches my shoulder, the blood on her fingertips cold as spring water where it soaks through my denim jacket. “We can trade places.”
At her touch, the feeling seems to flood back into my body. I notice the pain in my legs, the pressure in my bladder, and that I’ve been absently wrapping the extra length of extension cord around my right hand as I watched the film. Perhaps a kind of instinctive gesture of self-preservation, one my conscious mind may not have been capable of. Now I give it a tug, one flex of my arm, and the light from the projector goes out.
One moment my mother is standing in front of me, her hand resting cold on my shoulder, her eyes black spaces like the inside of a cigarette burn, and the next she is gone, with nothing left to mark her passing except a stain on the shoulder of my jacket, and bare, bloody footprints leading from the side of the barn across the grass to where I am standing.
I burned the video tape, in an act that may have been cruelty, or possibly just irony. I put it in a metal bucket that I found in the barn and watched the tape inside blacken and curl up. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine screams, of course I could, blackened hands grasping desperately at the rim of the bucket, but I didn’t really hear them. There was nothing to really hear. Just the hiss and pop of melting plastic. My mother burned to death in her sleep, and whatever burned in that bucket, it was asleep too, without the VCR and the projector to bring it to life, but I had absorbed enough knowledge of horror tropes from years spent at conventions to know that when you find a haunted video tape, you burn it.
I drove away and stopped at the first cheap motel that I could find, with a red neon sign that painted the entire parking lot like a Dario Argento film. I took a hot shower, my jacket balled up on a chair near the front door. I scrubbed my shoulder hard enough to leave it lobster-red, and when I got out, I swiped my palm across the steam on the mirror.
There, in the smear of clear glass, my mother was staring back at me. She was covered in blood, her frizzy brown hair slicked black with it. She looked at me with those dark eyes, bared those white teeth, and I stared back at her for a while before I turned away.
My life is not the glamorous one that my mother would have led. My body is not as perfect as hers, my face not as beautiful, my eyes not alive with such strange promise. But it is my life, and she’ll just have to make do.