As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.
Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.
The first two:
Grease 2 (1982)
My Dad was one of the early adopters of satellite-based television. He arranged for a monstrous steel radar dish to be installed on our property, and if you hand-cranked it to the right spot on the sky, you could intercept the same signals that television studios used to beam their content down to cable companies. So, for a fixed up-front price, you could have permanent access to all the premium stuff that other people paid 40 or 60 bucks a month to get. The satellite we spent most of our time locked onto was G1. If memory serves, it had two different versions of The Disney Channel, and a copy of each version with a three-hour delay. Same for HBO.
By coincidence, just after we got the receiver up and running, HBO and Showtime got the rights to broadcast "Grease 2", since the theatrical run was finished. With four copies of every provider all over the sky, that meant us kids could watch "Grease 2", commercial free ... over and over ... all day long ... for weeks.
SO WE DID.
We once tried to count how many times we'd each seen it. My own total was around 40.
To adults, the plot and the music was a dull rehash of the original "Grease" and other movies. But not to us kids. All the movie tropes were brand-new. The musical format itself was new. "Grease 2" had a chrome-and-gasoline 50's aesthetic that was like an alien world, plus easy-to-follow rock'n'roll music, a kid-friendly plot, and flashy dancing. It also had strutting peacock Nogerelli and brassy self-possessed Paulette and her gang, making a kind of status-quo for gender roles that the more introverted main characters - Stephanie and Michael - cautiously navigated. It would be a stretch to say we found ourselves in the characters, but we did get a whole lot of material to work with, packed into one 90-minute lesson, repeated dozens of times.
If I had to distill what I got from that movie, 30+ years later, I'd say it was a sense of Americana. In the world of "Grease 2", being American meant being bold and loud and persistent, and being willing to fight but reluctant to actually hurt anyone ... and being ready to sing and dance if you felt like it.
Many years later I saw the original "Grease", and found it boring as heck.
The Re-animator (1985)
When I was a little kid, I had no taste for horror movies. My imagination was far too intense. If I saw something disturbing on a movie screen it would instantly appear in my mind and start smashing furniture and dishes, and would not leave for days, or weeks, or in the case of "The Re-animator" ... for years.
I was invited to a friend's house for a sleepover. My friend and his Dad were into cheesy horror movies, and decided to rent this one. They both laughed uproariously at the rubber puppets and the fake blood, but I hadn't learned to see it that way. There's a scene in the movie where the mad scientist throws a cat against a wall, killing it and mangling it badly, then gathers the bloody corpse up and puts it on his table. Then he injects it with a sinister greenish fluid, and it begins to writhe in undead agony, making pitiful mewling sounds.
I loved cats. I had two fuzzy cats at home that I was very close to. That image went straight to the bottom of my imagination and anchored itself there. I was so upset I wanted to go home. I cried until they called my parents, who came to pick me up. Everyone was very understanding - it was a scary movie, and I hadn't been ready for it, and it was an honest mistake between parents. I was free to hang out again with my friend any time, but I was so embarrassed by my own reaction that I couldn't face him. I had been a total wimp. Everyone else could move on, but I couldn't.
We lived in a two-story house. Everyone slept upstairs in a couple of bedrooms except for me, down on the first floor in my own room. After that night I would very often wake up, at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, with the image of a cat writhing in pain echoing in my head, or of myself as the cat. I would stumble out of bed in the dark and creep into the downstairs living room. Sometimes a cat would be there - Fred or Sasha - and I would pet it and try to reassure myself that it was safe, and I was safe. Sometimes I would imagine an insane man rising up from behind the furniture, or stepping out from the shadows. His eyes were wide and he was grinning like a skeleton, and he had a glowing green syringe raised in one hand, ready to stab me.
The living room was a big space with only a few shadows and corners, so I felt less nervous there, but what I really wanted was to be closer to my parents, so I lingered at the doorway for a while to build up my courage, then ran stiffly across the open floor to the foot of the stairs. As soon as I took off, the fear would begin rising up my spine. When I made it across I would spin around and sit in the corner on the first step, with my back flat on the wall, and look everywhere in the room at once, until I was certain again that the mad scientist hadn't emerged to stalk me.
Then I had to repeat that process on the stairs. I knew that if I started to run, I would freak out too much and not be able to calm myself when I got to the top. Plus there was a chance I would wake everyone else up with my stomping. So I crept slowly upward a few steps at a time, breathing shallowly, straining my ears for any sign of pursuit during the seconds that I had to turn my back to find the next step. The image of the madman was constant in my mind, and so intense I was almost hallucinating him standing at the foot of the stairs, glaring up at me, ready to lunge forward if I turned my back for a little too long.
In my mind, getting from my bedroom to the top of the stairs took all night. In reality it was probably five minutes or less.
When I made it to the top of the stairs, there was an open patch of carpet with a wall heater, and my parents' door nearby. Close enough to my parents to hear my Dad snoring, I could relax a little. I didn't want to wake them up because they would just order me back downstairs. I fetched my sleeping bag from a cabinet down the hall and unrolled it in front of the heater, and that's where my parents would find me in the morning. This didn't just happen once or twice. It happened a lot.
I began to imagine the mad scientist in many places. In closets; in the forest out on the road; sneaking around the hallways at school. I realized that I could easily drive myself crazy with this. So I made the conscious decision to make the mad scientist "live" in one place. If he was always there, then he couldn't be hiding anywhere else. But to get this idea to stick, I knew I had to choose a place that he would "prefer" to live -- or I wouldn't believe he was there.
I had the most trouble with the stairs in my house. The stairs was a confined space that you couldn't navigate while looking behind you, or you would trip and fall. So I decided that the mad scientist lived at the foot of the stairs. I began to relax. He wasn't in this closet, or in these woods - he was at home, on the stairs, waiting. I was safe. That is, ... I was safe everywhere but the stairs.
And that is why, for the rest of my life up to now, I tend to run up stairs, or at least take them two at a time. I cannot wait to be done with stairs.
Another thing this incident taught me, was how to stubbornly countermand my own fear response. If I collapsed into a gibbering heap, there was no way I'd make it to the safety of my parents' door. I became quite skilled at letting the chemicals of fear wash into me, build up like a wave, then wash back out again leaving me unmoved. It was my own personal "litany against fear" training. It has altered my life in ways I'm sure I can't unravel.
In my late teens my taste for horror films changed dramatically and I started to find them fascinating ... even hilarious. Now I look forward eagerly to the two or three "good" horror movies that come out each year.