Written by: Anthony J. Rapino
“What are you afraid of?” That’s what I asked my best friend Yury, outside the video store on Cropsey Avenue in Brooklyn. It was a fall day in the late 80’s, and we were around 10 years old. My younger brother Mikey was there too, but he showed no hesitation.
Yury, in his perfect Brooklyn-kid way, said, “Nothin’! What are you afraid of?”
I knew this game too. “Nothin’! You’re the one who won’t go in!”
Though no one asked, Mikey said, “I’m not afraid either!”
And that settled it. None of us were scared. So we all entered the video store. It was far from our first time in there. In fact, it was one of the main hangouts because they had a Street Fighter 2 arcade and a Slush Puppy machine. We knew the ins and outs of that place as if the narrow aisles of VHS tapes led to our own bedrooms (and how we all wished they did). Hell, we’d been in that store so often, we had memorized the placement of each video cassette. We had spent countless hours staring at the gruesome visages of the horror section, and the seductive placement of porno tapes so you couldn’t see the box images.
That is to say, we weren’t psyching ourselves up to tread the well-worn carpeting of that place. We were readying ourselves to rent a horror movie. Of course we’ve rented plenty of horror tapes in the past too, but this one was special. This one was legendary. Kids in the know spoke of it only in hushed voices, and never within an earshot of an adult, for this horror movie–it was said–came as close to softcore porno as anything we’d ever have the chance to see.
The movie was The Toxic Avenger, and we meant to view every frame of it. Beyond the constant chatter around the schoolyard, there was the intoxicating cover art. Emblazoned in front of an American flag stood the reluctant hero of the movie, all melted skin and muscular deformities. He was reminiscent of Sloth from The Goonies, which is likely one of the reasons we were so fascinated with it (of course at the time we didn’t realize The Toxic Avenger preceded The Goonies by a year). In addition, this strange character wore a decrepit tutu and carried a mop like a weapon! It was just too good to pass up, seemingly tailored for kids our age.
It was a risk, to be sure, but during those days there was always a chance the video store clerk would allow children–kids far too young by today’s standards–to rent R-rated horror movies. They drew the line at porn (we had put little Mikey up to it once, and we failed miserably), so this was as close as we were likely to get.
Inside the store, we loitered around the arcade pressing the coin return and checking for forgotten quarters. I twisted the knob to a gumball machine and glanced around as if thinking. Mikey, the fearless little brother, tromped straight up to the horror section.
Yury shot me a fearful glance, and we both followed quickly behind. Mikey was already sorting through the boxes and found the prize before we could stop him. He stuck his tongue out and ran for the counter.
This wasn’t the plan! He was the youngest of us, and if we were to have any shot at this, Yury–who looked the oldest–had to do the renting. We chased after Mikey, but the game was lost. He’d already plunked the movie down and spun to smile in our faces.
The clerk was still staring at a tube television mounted from the ceiling. He had a tape of Rambo on and seemed reluctant to help us. I tried for the tape just as he turned and said, “That all?”
Our throats closed tight; we nodded.
He lifted the movie and noticed the title. He hesitated and examined us. This was it. He was going to call our parents and tattle on us, and we’d never get to see the movie! We may even be banned!
He flipped the tape around a couple times. “Your mom and dad okay with this?”
Again, we nodded, this time with more ferocity. We looked like a pack of bobble heads.
He said, “Okay then.”
The rest is a blur. We made off with our quarry like treasure hunters with a chest of gold. We had planned the rental for a time when everyone was out, so we had to act quickly. We prepared the TV and VCR, got a few snacks, and we pressed play.
When my parents returned home with Yury’s father, they found us stricken silent, huddled around the television. The movie was nearly over. We had seen boobies, oh yes. But in the following days and nights, that’s not what I remembered most. What stuck with me, even to this day, was a particular scene where a young boy is riding his bike at night. Perhaps you know the scene. Perhaps it had a similar effect on you. The sight of the car tire rolling over the boy’s skull, crushing his head, has never left me. I think what made it so much worse was the fact that he’d put on his helmet, just as his sister asked, to keep him safe. And it did absolutely nothing.
You may think this is a cautionary tale. It’s not. I miss those days. The pure excitement of going out to rent a movie. The fear of being caught. The shock of viewing something I never could have imagined. If I could, I’d go back. Those were the moments that lead me down the dark, autumn pathway of horror fandom, and I wouldn’t change one step of that journey.