Some of us were able to have an idyllic setting in a perfect town. A place with quiet, tree-lined streets peppered with picket white fences and lemonade stands. A hometown you can be proud of; one filled with supportive homes and families where there was absolutely nothing you could do to get that love taken away from you. Some of us, on the other hand, weren’t so lucky. For some of us, home is a foul word filled with dark, squirming tendrils of pain and insecurity. We look back on our lives and realize that, for the majority of our later years, we’ve been running away from this home. Years are wasted, relationships are ruined, and life is lost as we try to escape.
Some of us retreat into the darkness, finding ourselves drawn to the celluloid horrors that we were always told not to watch. We scour row after row of the faded DVD covers at Family Video to try to find our next score, and hopefully, the one that will fix what is broken inside of us. It might take a week, it might take 10 years, but there is always a film that will speak to us about home.
Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979) is one of those films. It is a film about vampires, sure, but its television-rated scares hold a deeper significance than just showing us the things that go scratch in the night. No film, horror or otherwise, has revealed more to me about the thing that has always terrified me the most. Home.
Salem’s Lot is an amalgamation of every small town in America. Every citizen knows your name, your family history, your faults, and what you had for breakfast. They can feel like a prison, one governed by a strict caste system that is almost impossible to break away from. Much like with Ben Mears, the talented young man with a penchant for storytelling, these places can haunt you and keep you incarcerated for decades to come.
Small towns have long memories and pass their horrors down ceremonially from generation to generation. – ‘Salem’s Lot
Ben was one of the lucky few who left the town, but he could never escape the shadow it left on his heart. This shadow had four walls, a roof, and a staircase with exactly 14 stairs. It was a home, but it wasn’t his home. It was the Marsten House.
Built by a madman, the Marsten House was a beacon and magnet for all things evil. It now housed the mysterious antique dealer duo of Barlow and Straker, a powerful vampire master and his loyal human minion. To Ben, the Marsten House was the source of his childhood trauma and the reason why he has been unable to ever truly leave Salem’s Lot. As a young man, he went into the house on a dare. He climbed the 14 steps and saw the hanging body of Hubie Marsten, his feet locked in place as the spirit opened its eyes and looked into his soul.
The house is who he used to be, much like your own childhood home might represent your former self. These edifices of wood and stone are time capsules that hold the life that you used to live. They sit upon a hill in your mind, overseeing everything you do; laughing at your feeble attempts to forget them. They know, down to their joists, that they are inescapable. Their walls are painted with the pain and the regrets that you have always tried to forget. For Ben, defeating his inner demons meant renting a room that looked out at the Marsten House, and confronting this darkness head-on.
The town kept its secrets, and the Marsten House brooded over it like a ruined king.- ‘Salem’s Lot
The vampires in Salem’s Lot are horrifying, true, but they are more than blood-sucking beasts from overseas. They are your memories of a town, of a home, that invade your very body and drain your life away. They are the intrusive thoughts that hypnotize you into letting them into your window, quietly destroying everything that you love and hold dear. They branch out from the very source of your pain, your home, and haunt your soul. These memories are powerful beasts, so how can you possibly overcome them and begin to truly live your life?
At some point in your life, you realize that you have to be like Ben Mears in Salem’s Lot and confront them head-on. You have to enter the front door of the home in your heart and drive a stake through the pain that you have held on to all these years. In his 1975 novel that the film was based on, Stephen King says that “If a fear cannot be articulated, it can’t be conquered”. What Ben Mears does in Salem’s Lot is sit down at a typewriter and articulate his fears. He is afraid of his home, and he must conquer the memories it contains in order to remain human. Sure, you might have to dodge those vampires for the rest of your life, but at least you learned how to fight them. And, for the first time in your life, you feel like you are strong enough to do so.
The town has a sense, not of history, but of time, and the telephone poles seem to know this. If you lay your hand against one, you can feel the vibration from the wires deep within the wood, as if souls had been imprisoned in there and were struggling to get out.- ‘Salem’s Lot
Nothing keeps a stranglehold on your heart quite like home. It has an unnatural power that can hypnotize you, pierce your flesh, and drain away the very thing that makes you human. We are all Ben Mears, in a way. We may not be successful novelists, or look quite so fetching in tight trousers, but we all have something in common. Sometimes, we have to go back to the beginning to find our way out of the darkness.
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