Adrenaline And Then Some
There’s something to be said for adrenaline. With good reason, it absolutely gets our attention although I can’t honestly say I remember the first time I felt that rush. It might have been when I was two years old, being wheeled into surgery to have my tonsils removed; I can still smell the ether but I have no memory of an adrenaline rush. Our “adrenaline memory” is very often associated with “the first time” of any number of things. Falling out of a tree. Riding a roller coaster, or water skiing, or a first commercial airline flight. The second, or third time you’ve been on Space Mountain, a thrill may still exist but it’s unlikely adrenaline will be coursing through your system. Whatever your first, latest, or worst memory of the trigger that sent adrenaline charging through your body, we can all relate.
The adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, get us ready almost instantaneously for what’s about to happen. Under stress, we experience increasing rates of blood circulation, breathing, and carbohydrate metabolism. It’s the body’s way of preparing our muscles for exertion or, from a medical and scientific view, the rush helps us cope with the likelihood that we’re about to have the ever-living shit scared out of us. That’s my analysis, anyway. Aside from a recent driving experience—coming around a curve on Iverson Road and finding a deer in my lane—my adrenaline rushes these days are more likely to be associated with films and, on occasion, television.
I was sitting here thinking about horror and science fiction films that have done more than simply provide me with solid entertainment. That thought-process took me back to my childhood, and memories of films that provided me with what I assume today was an adrenaline rush. Take Psycho, for example. If there was an age restriction it must have been 11, since I walked into a theater and saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho on the ‘big screen’ at age 12. The surprises were many, and almost all of them breathtaking—the knife, the shower scene, Norman Bates’ mother—all designed to take your breath away; and there was plenty of blood to cover more than the shower floor, even in glorious black and white.
Before Psycho, and in the many years since, there have been other films that pushed the adrenaline through my system. Numerous science fiction films I saw as a child convinced me that Martians and other invaders were coming to take over the planet. Invaders from Mars (1953) had Martians controlling us by implanting a crystal in the necks of we puny little humans. For months the film made me wonder about that field behind our house. Shot in color (and with decent special effects for the day), the aliens’ costumes looked suspiciously like there was a very common zipper up the back. Nevertheless, in the days after seeing the film I found myself (on more than one occasion) checking my father’s neck to see if he’d been implanted with one of the aliens’ controlling crystals. Truth be told, my father had plenty of issues, but a Martian implant was not one of them.
This Island Earth (1955) offered more interplanetary adventure, with human-like aliens sporting large foreheads, and the prospect that the inhabitants of their dying home planet—Metaluna—would be relocating to earth in the near future. The film offered a balanced plot line with both creepy and sympathetic characters providing needed tension and relief.
Whereas Invaders from Mars gave us a clue to the intentions of the Martians, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) made us worry about those living among us who were becoming increasingly nice, passive, and worrisome, offering no obvious clues to our fate. The more pleasant people were, the more likely their bodies had been snatched.
The last film I’ll mention from the 1950s era of sci-fi, was 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still. Michael Rennie had it all over Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but the character that brought chills to this child was Gort, the 8-10 foot tall robot. You knew when his visor went up some thing or someone was about to be toast. Robert Wise crafted a film that was so good that when I first saw the movie, it was on our small (10-12") screen television, and still, Gort scared the hell out of me.
There have been plenty of other films that have given me a bit of an adrenaline rush, like The Exorcist (1973). From the early scene of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) at the Middle-Eastern dig site, to the exorcism itself, this Protestant was happy there was a Catholic priest between me and Satan. With Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien we grasped the cold reality that “in space no one can hear you scream”. Whether it was the face-huggers, the emergence of a creature exploding out of Kane’s (Jon Hurt’s) stomach, or the fully developed alien, this film had moments to trip anyone’s anxiety trigger. There was Jaws (1975) letting us know that we were all “going to need a bigger boat”; and more scares, surprises, and terror from Silence of the Lambs (1991), Frankenstein (1931), The Birds (1963), The Thing From Another World (1951), The Omen (1976) and Poltergeist (1982). Remakes almost never achieve what the original (and usually much lower budget) films achieved since adrenaline, to whatever degree, needs one or more elements of surprise.
In 2004 I was teaching at a college in the Twin Cities and I clearly remember our first Halloween in that house in St. Paul. We not only decorated the house, but the small garden near the entrance where trick or treaters would line up to get their goodies. It was a sufficiently pleasant October evening that I decided to spend time sitting on a chair in the middle of the garden, wearing a trench coat and hat with my face covered, appearing to be some phony stuffed “corpse”. My chair was about 15 feet from the walkway. Some time during the evening a dad brought his 5 or 6 year old son trick or treating; even from a distance I could easily see the young boy was sporting a SpongeBob Squarepants t-shirt as they walked up to the house for a treat. When I saw the boy looking toward me I lifted my head slightly, and from across the garden said (in my best creepy voice) “Oh SpongeBob . . . Oh SpongeBob”. The little boy looked around, saw my ghostly-like presence, immediately turned around and ran crying down the path. For a split second I felt bad. Then I saw his father apparently getting a good laugh over the moment. Little SpongeBob came back with his dad to get his candy, but I’d like to believe that, to this day, he remembers that very special Halloween. If only for the adrenaline rush.