Anyone older than…I don’t know, 17 can tell you that certain things will remind them of certain points in their life. Hearing a song can transport you back to a particular time, maybe during a school dance, or smelling something might remind you of holidays spent with your family. Something that immediately transports me back to a very particular time in my life, one where things felt scarily uncertain, is the original 1981 classic The Evil Dead. I first saw it after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and was dealing with the fact that my body was actively turning against me, and its depiction of an average Joe fighting back against…well, some evil undead demons hit me in a way that few other movies ever have.
I’ve always loved horror. When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was a classic hidden object picture book where you had to find hidden ghosts in everyday scenes. My parents had quite a few I Spy books, and my favorite was the one that took you through a haunted mansion. I have two older brothers who were born in the late eighties, which means we had a whole host of Goosebumps titles, and I spent far too much time reading and rereading them. And during the fall? Haunted hayrides were my jam, although as a kid I was too scared to ever enter the haunted house that usually followed them (weirdly enough, I was a senior in high school when I went in my first haunted house).
So it’s kind of strange that I didn’t really get serious about exploring the horror genre until my junior year of high school. As I said, I enjoyed horror and horror adjacent media, but I had failed to watch a lot of the classics and instead mostly just watched reruns of The X Files and Supernatural. That all changed in the summer of 2010, though. By the time I’d left my sophomore year, I’d started a growth spurt and as such my weight started to spread out much more evenly. Typical stuff for a teenager. The thing is, though, that the weight loss didn’t stop when my growth spurt ended. That summer, starting around the end of June, I started to lose weight dramatically.
At first, it wasn’t something I really bothered myself by thinking too much about. I’d always been short and rather fat, so I just saw this as a plus. The thing was, though, that I just flat out did not feel good. I would drink and drink and drink whatever I could get my hands on (nonalcoholic beverages in this case, for the record), and I was still thirsty no matter what I did. It wasn’t “boy I haven’t had anything to drink since this morning” thirsty, either. It was “I feel like I’m going to pass out” thirsty. Despite this, though, I was going to the bathroom with alarming frequency (probably at least once an hour) and sleeping for twelve or thirteen hours at a time and waking up feeling like I hadn’t slept in a week.
It was both scary and not scary at the same time until I went away to summer camp in early August. At camp, everything was magnified. Every spare second I had was spent in the bathroom or napping. I drank enough water to drown a whale. And when I went back home a week later, my arms looked like twigs. My dad reacted visibly by putting his hand to his mouth. So we talked about it. I told him I thought I was diabetic. As fate would have it, one of my best friends had been diagnosed about two years prior, and he had been experiencing all the same symptoms.
I turned out to be right in that assumption.
My pancreas just decided to stop working, which meant it wasn’t producing insulin, and, long story short, that forced my body to eat itself in order to get the nutrients it thought it needed. When I tried using my dad’s test kit to check my blood sugar (he was, at the time, considered pre-disposed for type 2 diabetes), it was so high that it wouldn’t read. So we waited a few hours, with me eating absolutely nothing, and tried again, and it was in the high five-hundreds. As a frame of reference, someone with a regularly functioning pancreas will typically sit anywhere between 80–120, give or take. I was immediately rushed to the hospital and told that everything would change for me from here on out. I would become reliant on (horribly price gouged) medicine or else my body would eat itself into a coma. I’ve been living like this for almost exactly ten years as of the time of this writing.
As a teenager, I didn’t have a complete grasp of the full implications of how I was living at that point in my life, but I do now. Every time I went to sleep, there was a very real possibility that I wouldn’t wake up. Every time I ate something, I was making the condition worse without even realizing it. If I realized how close I was to seeing what’s on the other side at that point, it was only subconsciously. Some nights this keeps me awake. Some nights it doesn’t.
“But Collin, you handsomer version of Ed Sheeran, what in God’s name does all of this have to do with The Evil Dead?” I can hear you ask. Well, dear reader, after a stay in the hospital and numerous classes on how insulin works, I went home with my dad and we went to a local video rental place (REMEMBER THOSE?!), and he let me pick out a few movies—any ones I wanted. The Evil Dead immediately jumped off the shelf at me. Its simple but effective cover and the mere whispers I’d heard about it being a classic had me curious. Up to this point, I’d considered myself a fan of horror but had yet to really dive into some of the nastier and more obscure stuff we had to offer. So we rented it.
It’s no secret that this original entry was a painfully difficult movie to make. Not only was funding constantly up in the air, but the actual filming of it was physically demanding in a way few other things are, and this is clear at numerous points in the movie. The low budget is obvious in a lot of little ways, but that didn’t stop the ingenuity and independent spirit from infecting my brain in a way few other movies that I’d seen ever had. I didn’t have a full grasp on just how hard filming anything is at the time (that would come later when I spent three hours having elaborate burn makeup applied to my face for a short film that never got made during my college years), but a part of me still recognized just how flat out inventive the movie is.
So many little elements stood out to me. The stripped down, shockingly bare bones setup of a group of friends meeting their gory ends in the woods. The exceptionally fluid camera work, which has become a hallmark for the franchise (who could ever forget the absolutely brilliant “evil flying through the woods” shot?) made me sit up and pay attention, and even movies these days struggle to use their camera to the same effect. But most of all, one of the things that really drew me in was Bruce Campbell’s depiction of Ash Williams.
In this first installment, Ash Williams is basically just your average guy, with almost none of the wise-cracking, razor-sharp wit he would come to be known for in the later sequels and TV show. He’s an easy character to project yourself onto because he’s so average but likable, and I was doing just that while watching the movie for the first time. Despite the cheap effects, something about the excessive gore and almost dream-like atmosphere really hit home and let me confront my own mortality, and a lot of this is because of just how sympathetic Ash is as a character.
Something the best horror movies do is put you in the (sometimes doomed) shoes of their characters and make you experience the terror along with them, and the key to that is having a character for the audience to latch on to. It helps gives the movie stakes and makes your viewer care about what’s happening. Ash is The Evil Dead’s anchor, and as someone who had been poked and prodded in the hospital not even a day before (I had an IV sticking out of my arm all night and was woken up every two hours to test my blood sugar), Ash’s physical and, yes, mental struggles were things I could relate with. He is abused throughout the movie’s run time, and while my experience wasn’t as gruesome as Ash’s, it was still rather scary. As an example, the scene where Shelly dies, which goes on and on in comically gruesome fashion, kind of reminded me of how people kept talking and talking at me about my newly discovered condition, and it was all overwhelming. This movie and franchise all have a rabid fanbase, and a big part of that is just how easy it is to sympathize with Ash in the early installments.
I greatly appreciate how, despite the later sequels, this was an earnest if goofy attempt at making a really gory, gritty horror movie. Up to this point in cinema history, violence and trashiness on the level displayed in The Evil Dead was a rarity indeed. Honestly, I’d never seen anything like it at the time. It opened a whole new door for me. If something this intense and this brutal but also this good was hiding out there in the wild, what else was waiting for me to discover?
It should come as no surprise that my junior year was when I really started diving deep into the nastier side of horror. Movies like Martyrs, Inside, and I Saw the Devil were regular viewings for me (without my parent’s knowledge, of course—Mom, if you’re reading this, don’t watch any of those movies, you’d hate them). I was exploring every outlet I could to find the most obscure, darkest, sometimes nastiest horror I could get my hands on. I ate up these horribly bleak movies like they were candy (maybe a bad choice of words since at the time I was newly diabetic).
Since I was a teenager at the time, I just enjoyed these movies simply because of how dark and brutal they are. As an older dude now, I appreciate them for being something a bit smarter than just an outright gorefest. They’re dark reflections of our own human weakness and mortality, and they all let me confront and deal with the fact that I had been living with a condition that could have killed me or put me in a coma whenever it wanted. I am of the firm belief that a truly great horror movie will put you through a unique kind of hell, push you to the edge, then bring you back before you fall.
The Evil Dead certainly delivers that unique kind of hell. Despite how obviously low budget it is, it also holds the capacity to deliver a viewing experience unlike any other. It is stripped down, bare bones survival of human vs. pure evil, but its creative, triumphant execution has allowed it to endure and overcome its own low budget. And while I absolutely adore the franchise as a whole, including the 2013 remake and the insanely goofy TV show, the original entry will always be the most important for me. From a purely objective standpoint, it’s not the best movie in the series (not in a world where Evil Dead 2 exists), but the fact remains that without it, I don’t know if I would be the same horror fan that I am today.
My dad once asked me, “Why do you like horror? What do you look for in a horror movie?” Because I never shut up about them. I didn’t have any good answer, but I think it’s because of this one experience that came to shape how the last ten years of my life have played out and will continue to shape the rest of it. My body is always working against me thanks to my type 1 Diabetes, and if I don’t get the medicine that can help treat it, there’s a very real possibility that I will die or that it will cause permanent, long term damage to my body.
It’s something that’s honestly pretty terrifying when I think about it for too long, but The Evil Dead showed me that being scared is okay. It allowed me to confront those anxieties and fears by letting my vicariously experience Ash William’s own trials and tribulations as an average person caught up in a truly horrific situation. It also opened the doorway into the wonderful, wider world of horror—a nastier, darker side that I enjoy indulging in. I don’t know exactly what that says about me, but I do know that The Evil Dead and movies of its ilk have let me come to terms with my own anxieties and fears regarding my own mortality. It let me stare them in the face and be entertained and enthralled by them.
I guess, at the end of the day, that’s what horror is all about.