My Best Friend’s Exorcism is out now in paperback from Quirk Books, and author and horror fan Grady Hendrix explains why, as a kid raised in South Carolina in the Eighties, he was perennially daydreaming about surviving a nuclear war, and avoiding attacks from crazy hippies.
Being a kid in the Eighties, I knew I was going to die. Not at the end of a long and productive life but at any minute, probably before I was eighteen. Like most sons, I blame my dad. He took a kind of grim pleasure in telling me that our hometown was one of the Soviet Union’s top ten targets when World War III broke out. According to him, the USSR had a significant part of its arsenal aimed right at me, every minute of the day. When I was at Little League practice, or trying to jump my off-brand BMX bike over Ramsey Ravenel’s quarter-pipe ramp, or not doing my homework, there were silos bristling with ICBMs pointed at my head.
Now that I’m older, I realise that most Soviet generals probably couldn’t even find Charleston, South Carolina on a map, but when you’re ten years old you tend to believe your parents, and older people in general, and they all believed that we would be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust at any minute. So I took it on faith. Besides, it was a seductive idea. Why bother to do my chemistry homework when I would most likely be radioactive ashes before I was old enough to vote.
Of course, we could just be invaded by the Commies, and that’s why my favourite movie was Red Dawn and my favourite book was The Anarchist Cookbook. To hell with Harry Potter. I didn’t need to know how to cast Expelliarmus, I needed to know how to make a pipe bomb for when the Soviet tanks rolled through our streets. Other kids could fantasise about Star Wars, I was busy fantasising about picking up an AK-47 and fighting my oppressors in the smoking rubble of my hometown, avenging the deaths of my entire family.
There was a certain egotism here. If a nuclear war actually broke out I probably would be an ashy shadow burned into a cement wall, not the leader of the resistance, but for a kid who felt like no one ever listened to him, being able to machine gun my enemies for a righteous cause was enough of a compelling daydream to overrule common sense. Besides, dying in a nuclear war was simply one option on the all-you-can-eat buffet of death that presented itself to me in the Eighties.
Between 1984 and 1991 the world was a very dangerous place. Once a year during elementary school, we had a special assembly in early October about all the ways we could be poisoned at Halloween by razor blades and rusty needles hidden inside caramel apples and marshmallow balls. When AIDS became a thing we were told that some of those needles were covered in HIV positive blood, which would kill us where we stood. Emergency rooms actually staffed their labs on Halloween so parents could take your candy there and get it x-rayed to make sure it didn’t contain tongue-shredding booby traps.
In the “Just Say No” Eighties, drugs could kill you if you were merely in the same room with them. At the Coastal Carolina Fair you could pay four tickets to see “Billy the Addict” a freak show exhibit whose tent stood between the Snake Woman and the Calf with Two Heads. First you’d read about Billy’s sad life of addiction and all the PCP and LSD he’d taken pretty much since birth, then you’d go into the tent and see Billy himself. He was probably about 17 years old, lying on the straw inside a cage wearing a Members Only jacket with an IV taped to his arm. His eyes were closed and occasionally he’d twitch.
We weren’t stupid enough to buy into Bill the Addict, but in fifth and sixth grades we did get a lecture about LSD that scarred most of us for life. We were told that “hippies” were cruising the malls and they were giving out lick n’stick stickers bearing images of Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. If we licked them, the LSD saturated stickers would cause us to go crazy and go home, find pregnant women, and cut out their embryos with butter knives, then sit in our front yards cradling them until the police came.
This gallery of terror doesn’t even take into account the Satanists lurking in nursery schools, the occasional national panics over clowns in white vans luring children into their clutches with candy, or the various people putting poisoned Tylenol bottles on supermarket shelves. Some of these panics were based on reality, some were total fabrications, but they were everywhere. We’ve forgotten them now, the way you forget the embarrassing, drunken wedding toast you made the night before as a form of self-preservation. To some folks, the Eighties are a punchline, or a party theme, or a karaoke night. For those of us who lived through them, we just feel lucky we came out of them alive.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism is published 11th July by Quirk Books in paperback. Read our review here.