Walking on Thin Ice
It was almost 10pm and John Lennon was tired but happy. He’d just received the news that Double Fantasy had gone gold, and a mix for the next single, Walking on Thin Ice, was just about complete. John’s wife, Yoko Ono, had written the song on which the former Beatle would play guitar and he was proud of his wife’s work.
With the mix finished, the couple left the Record Plant. On the way out, John mentioned he was hungry. “Shall we stop at Wolf’s for a hamburger?” he asked as they walked out towards the waiting limousine.
Instead, John and Yoko decided to first head back to their apartment in the Dakota building to see their son, Sean, before his bedtime, figuring they could eat once he was safely tucked up in bed. In the car, John took the tape of Walking on Thin Ice out of his pocket and began to absent-mindedly flip the tape over and over in his hands. He was happy the single would be Yoko’s instead of his and he was keen for people to hear it.
Yoko leaned in against her husband. It had been a long day, which began with a cover shoot for Rolling Stone magazine with Annie Leibowitz (John had insisted that his wife also appear on the cover) and culminated with a late visit to the Record Plant to listen to the forthcoming single.
In between, John had given an interview to the RKO national radio network, speaking with great enthusiasm about turning a page in his life with regard to his career and family:
“I’m ready to start all over again and get this thing going,” he’d enthused. “Who knows what’s going to happen next?”
As the car pulled up to the Dakota building, the driver announced that they’d have to park on the Main Street rather than pull into the courtyard, due to a car blocking the driveway. This wasn’t a problem to the couple, they were used to autograph hunters that would undoubtedly be waiting on the sidewalk of 72nd street; John was always happy to oblige when a fan nervously approached, clutching a record or scrap of paper, in the hope of spending a moment in his company.
Dakota Building doorman, Jose Perdomo, spotted John and Yoko stepping onto the sidewalk and head for the side door to the building. He also noticed a man, partially obscured by shadow watching the couple from the driveway as they passed. John briefly locked eyes with the man. There was a flicker of recognition from earlier in the day when he’d signed something for him, maybe a record.
As he passed the man, John felt for the tape in his pocket and took it out. He was looking forward to hearing the song again, but not until he’d put Sean to bed; he wanted to do that first.
Five shots briefly lit up the driveway. John staggered toward the door with four bullets lodged in his back; the fifth shattering a window of the Dakota. Yoko, half-crazed with panic, helped her husband up the four steps and into the foyer where, John, bleeding heavily from his wounds announced, “I’m shot!” before collapsing. As he fell, the tape recording of Walking on Thin Ice clattered along the stone floor, stopping several feet away.
Outside, Perdomo, hearing the gunshots, raced into the driveway. Standing calmly with a revolver at his feet was Mark Chapman.
“Do you know what you’ve done?!” Perdomo screamed.
“Yes,” Chapman replied. “I just shot John Lennon.”
The murder of John Lennon on the night of December 8th, 1980 was met with widespread horror, utter disbelief and global mourning. But the ramifications of his premature death meant that, ironically, artistic expression paid the heaviest price. In particular, the horror movie – always a target for conservatives and censors – suffered cuts, censure or outright banning altogether (particularly in the UK) in an almost puritanical purge of violence in movies.
While this didn’t stop the horror movie dead in its tracks – in fact, production of mainstream horror doubled in 1980 compared with the previous year’s output – the MPAA’s crusade used Lennon’s death, in the most abhorrent fashion, as a stick with which to beat the movie industry’s undesirables.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Mary Whitehouse, the self-appointed guardian of the nation’s morality, along with national newspaper, the Daily Mail – always willing to encourage any sense of middle-class outrage, or stoke feelings of moral panic – began a long campaign against the perceived ‘video nasty’: a crusade that led to the Department of Public Prosecutions releasing a list of 72 movies violating the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.
H is for Horrific
Of course, movie violence was not a recent trend. Horror movies had long harnessed the power to shock with violence, real or perceived. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Alan’s murder at the hands of somnambulist killer, Cesare, is viewed in shadow – more allusion than visceral implied rather than exhibited. Fast forward a decade, however, and the camera doesn’t flinch as the Monster hurls little Maria to her death in Frankenstein.
The establishment of the Motion Picture Production (or Hays) Code, which soon heralded compulsory certification for all films, reigned in any hope of even rudimentarily explicit material appearing on celluloid. In the UK, the British Board for Film Classification (BBFC) nearly killed the import of overseas horror altogether with the installation of the H (for Horrific) certification.
By the 1960s, major cultural shifts brought about a realism in cinema reflective of the world around it, as filmmakers sought to tell stories that held a mirror up to the stark realities of the human experience rather than simply proffering a medium for mindless escapism. Horror cinema was at the forefront of this new wave. No longer were the monsters confined to gothic castles, fanged, or wolfen, or swathed in bandages. The monsters were much closer to home and they could easily be any one of us.
In part two, we’ll look at the genesis of the modern slasher, beginning with Psycho and Peeping Tom. Read it here.