Preteen American Gothic

To say I looked up to Aimee would be an understatement. She was, to me, the epitome of the Cool Older Girl. She was only two-and-a-half years older, but she seemed light-years ahead of me. Boy-savvy and sardonic, Aimee was thriving in that mysterious world called middle school, and she was everything I hoped I would be in a few years.

Aimee and I first met when I was about nine and she was eleven or twelve, when her mother started dating my father. They eventually broke up, but for about two years Aimee and I had a very clear older sister, younger sister dynamic. She clearly found me annoying at times, but it was clear she, the youngest in her family, loved getting to be the older one for once. There was a line drawn clearly between us: Anna and I were the little kids, and she and my older brothers were the cool teens. When my dad and brothers treated me like a baby, I got angry and resentful, but when Aimee got bossy, I still paid close attention to her, because I knew I had a lot to learn.

Sometimes learning from Aimee meant putting Scotch tape on your legs because it was allegedly an exfoliant; sometimes it was folding your arms in just the right way so boys wouldn’t stare at your brand-new boobs. She read love letters from her boyfriends out loud to me (the two most important boys in her life were named “Tom” and “Tim,” and I often got them confused), and I read her teen magazines voraciously. She already wore a regular rather than training bra, could rap all of the lyrics of Gangsta’s Paradise, and spoke proudly and openly of pausing the movie during Now and Then to try to get a glimpse of Devon Sawa’s butt. (Which, of course, wasn’t actually his butt. That would have been illegal.)

Looking back, she was clearly trying very hard to impress me, but honestly, she did not need to try that hard. I don’t think I ever saw Aimee as a just another kid like me: I thought she was basically grown-up — the way my teenage brothers were — and completely fearless. She wasn’t afraid of the big roller coasters at Disneyland or Six Flags, and she’d never been scared of big dogs. It didn’t take much to scare me, and she knew it. She’d already laughed at me for being afraid of Chucky from Child’s Play. And once, Aimee, originally from the Midwest, had thought it would be funny to play me a song about “eating dead bodies” from one of her favorite Midwestern bands, some group I’d never heard of called “I.C.P.” (I remember being appalled, but not scared.) My chickenshittedness was the biggest difference between us, something I desperately hoped would change in me at some point in the next two years.

But I think my perception of her changed slightly one night, when I was ten and she was twelve. She was sleeping over at our house for the weekend, so we did what all preteens did in 1998: we went to Blockbuster Video. We picked out Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for Anna, and Aimee suggested The Goonies for me, which I hadn’t seen but had heard good things about (mostly from my old studio teacher, who had actually worked on it).

“You’ll love it, it’s a great kids’ movie. I used to watch it all the time when I was little,” said Aimee. “But I’m going to get a scary movie for me.”

“Can I watch it with you?” I said. I felt I had recently proven myself by managing to watch Scream with her and my brothers.

“No,” she said. “This is going to be something you can’t watch. It’ll be rated R, and it’ll be too scary for you.” There was a note of smugness in her voice, and I felt annoyed as I watched her walk off to the Horror section. She’d also recently told me I couldn’t read her copy of A Child Called It—which in retrospect was probably a good idea, but I was always unhappy at being told what I could and couldn’t read. Besides, the VCR was in the family room, and she and I were going to go to bed about the same time. How was she going to enforce this?

It turns out, not very well. We brought home our movies, put on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for Anna, who got bored of it and went to bed halfway through. Then Aimee announced it was time for her movie, and I made up my mind not to leave unless she and my brothers absolutely made me, or until I got scared. But Aimee, as it turns out, had not really rented a scary movie.

She had rented Ken Russell’s Gothic.

If you’ve seen a Ken Russell movie, you will know why that was a big mistake. If you’ve never seen a Ken Russell movie — well, that’s just fine, really, because honestly, I’ve never seen a full Ken Russell movie, either. But I know enough about him. His aesthetic was basically Liberace’s saying that “too much of a good thing is wonderful,” except he didn’t typically deal in good things, he mostly dealt in pain, the dark side of Catholicism, and creepy sex scenes. It’s been said that his “obsessions” were “Nazis, naked women, and the inevitable crucifixion.” From what I understand, most of his films are a lot like the weird movie you see before you die in The Ring, only two hours longer, with brighter colors and better music, and at least three more orgies.

That was not what Aimee had been expecting. She had only chosen it because of the title. “Gothic” meant something very specific to most preteens in the late ‘90s, and Aimee was probably expecting something like The Craft. She was not expecting a weird psychosexual romp through Lord Byron and Mary Shelley’s ids.

“What… is this?” She said, a look of confusion and disgust on her face as Lord Byron’s maid put on a mask and wordlessly stripped to strange synthesizer music. This wasn’t scary, and it wasn’t even risqué in that fun, giggly sleepover way. This was something she was not ready for, and probably would not ever be.

“Do you want to just put on Goonies?” I asked, quietly, and she nodded, still scowling. I ejected the tape, which we were probably less than twenty minutes into, and put in the other one. Aimee looked a little defeated, but also relieved. It had probably been a while since she’d had to bow out of something that was too much for her, but it was a feeling I knew well.

At least she got the satisfaction of being right about something: we watched Goonies at least three times before having to take it back to Blockbuster. It was a great movie for kids, and we all loved it.

Stuff I Did This Week: I did an interview with Lui Asquith for Mermaids UK, to talk about being an ally to trans and nonbinary people, mental health, differences between the UK and US, and why we need to listen to kids. They asked fascinating (and sometimes challenging) questions, and I was happy to answer! Compassion and listening really do go a long way!

I also made an appearance on the George Lucas Talk Show! It was a weird and wonderful time, we talked with Greg Proops, watched an episode of Arli$$, gave my cat an Arli$$ name, and raised money for Foodbank for NYC!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Piss Off, Dom