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November 18, 2019

#YEG: Hell’s Basement

On monsters and memories.

Illustration Kyle Metcalf

Frankenstein’s Monster always said “fire bad,” which made him stay away from it. Little boys also know they’re not supposed to play with fire, but they’re still inexorably drawn towards its destructive power. So, when I discovered, at age 11, a gas torch in the basement workshop of my grandparents’ Capilano-area bungalow, I took up my late grandfather’s literal torch and got medieval on the G.I. Joe dolls the neighbour had given to my brother and me. (Yup, these were the Barbie-sized dolls popular in the ’60s and ’70s – worth a small fortune now … when not barbecued.)

In hindsight, it sounds like budding serial-killer behaviour (or at least horrible foresight for the collectibles market), but really it was just the morbid curiosity of seeing those stoic little faces sizzle and droop into House of Wax-style grotesqueries. And when that wasn’t enough, my younger brother Brad and I would take turns pedaling my grandmother’s neglected exercise bike as fast as possible while the other would push a Joe-head onto the wheel, cackling madly as we grinded its chiseled profile to nothing. (When the bike sold in a garage sale, I overheard the new owners asking about “that beige stuff” on the wheel …)

I lived in Sherwood Park; both parents worked in the city and Grandma often looked after me, so I spent a chunk of childhood in that subterranean sanctuary. As a toddler, I rode my Big Wheel around the cement floor until the tires broke. As a kid I built a “secret clubhouse” in the freezer room; and as a teen I was allowed to crash in the one finished room with high-school friends (hiding our post-party intoxication from Grams). My family even lived there for a year while between houses. 

It was during this period that I fell in love with movie monsters when mom and dad taped a double bill of Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. I watched ’em constantly, imagining the basement was a gothic castle and my grandfather’s mottled workbench a laboratory table. 

The fascination stuck; I got a film studies degree, wrote articles about monsters and eventually moved to Toronto to work for the world’s largest horror magazine. Grandma’s house was sold in the ’90s, she passed a few years ago, and now I stick to burning wood … in my fireplace. Yet, my monster-addled heart still beats in a jar hidden among half-used buckets of paint, cans of nails and implements of a boyhood in progress. 

Dave Alexander is the Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto-based Rue Morgue magazine, a film programmer, filmmaker and fiction writer, who recently curated a movie-poster art show called If They Came From Within: An Alternative History of Canadian Horror. Read his chapter in Hidden Horror: A Celebration of 101 Overlooked and Underappreciated Fright Flicks.

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