Popcorn and a Movie: Finding hope in horror

poppcorn01One dark night, a long time ago, I sat down on the couch by myself after a very rough day, probably one of the worst in my life. I’d been handed down some news so devastating that it seemed insurmountable. My life was different from that point on. I no longer knew myself. Whatever rug I had been standing on had not only been pulled out from under my feet, but had also been rolled up, then set on fire.

I was one sad, sad young lady with a Friday night ahead, alone with my own thoughts, contemplating possible future terrors and still innocent of what real frights were yet to come. I turned on the TV for some noise. Then I stumbled across something that, surprisingly, made me feel a whole lot better.

What is it about horror movies? I’d loved scary stuff since I was a kid. Ghosts, monsters, chilling tales. Scary movies on so late on Friday nights, my sister and I,in our flame-retardant nighties, would run around the house just to stay awake so we could be freaked out by whatever film came on. There is a healthy, undeterred focus and eventual catharsis in watching a scary film. It reminds us that, no matter what we have going on, it isn’t quite so bad as the potential of gargoyles taking flight or giant rabbits ravaging the landscape.

So on that Friday night long ago, already scared and certainly lost, I tumbled into the best first aid a girl could ask for. It was TNT’s “Monstervision,” hosted by Joe Bob Briggs. The film, “The Legend of Boggy Creek.”

jbob02Joe Bob Briggs (aka John Bloom) is an author and columnist, an expert on “drive-in” movies (many of them horror flicks), and for years served as a TV host of the best, worst and funniest in scary film. A tall, dark and handsome Texan (complete with drawl), he was an all-out funny emcee, with a gift of being able to both revere and mock the movies he was featuring, all at the same time. He would preface each movie with his “drive-in totals,” that tallied everything from the number of dead bodies, stabbings, beheadings, etc., to the number of flashed, excuse me, breasts. His sarcastic commentary during commercial breaks was priceless.

He should still be on TV somewhere. Why isn’t he? I’d be watching.

lgnd01On this sad night, Joe Bob took me on a backroads trip to a haunting and vaguely hilarious drive-in movie from 1972, a time when horror films were so innocent they had a G rating! “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” a docudrama, was based on true accounts of the legendary “Fouke Monster,” a hairy bigfoot-type creature that had been raising the hair of the local folks for some time in the rural creeks and woods of southern Arkansas.

As the movie begins — complete with real boggy creek footage and the echo of swampy sounds of bullfrogs a-croak — the narrator recalls hearing a scream in the woods at the age of 7: “It scared me then; it scares me still.”

The film is quirky to be sure (see trailer), to watch it now and say it is grainy and outdated is an understatement. Still, it has its charms. Through re-creations and re-enactments using some of the locals who actually experienced alleged encounters with the monster, the film dramatizes in documentary-style a rural place haunted by a mysterious, monstrous being. Gore-free, which is rare these days full of in-your-face CGI, the movie’s strengths lie in its based-on-a true-story aspect and how much of the scare is implied but not seen, which is far more effective in my book, as the mind is left to follow its own imaginings. “Fouke is a right pleasant place to live — until the sun goes down,” the narrator warns.

The locals, handy with guns, shoot at the monster, but he eludes them, leaving behind three-toed tracks. He terrorizes farms. A kitten dies of fear. Prized “shoats” (pigs) are killed and carried off, Young ladies having a “bunkin’ party” are freaked by the monster lurking outside (it is surmised he is drawn to civilization at times because he is the only one of his kind). A young man is sent to the hospital after an encounter with the monster sends him into shock. A hunting party is put together to pursue the monster, but even the prized tracking dogs will not go after him.

A lot of this movie, with its cheesy soundtrack (there is even a dreamy theme song) and its narration that reminds me of the educational films we used to watch in grade school, is downright laughable (a hermit in the woods shot off part of his foot in a “boating accident”? Haha!), which is why Joe Bob and I were cracking up all those years ago.

But there is a lot to love here, and love itself comes across in this movie. The love of the place and its people, the love of the legend. A lot of the film simply shows the creeks and their animal occupants, and also celebrates the life of those who live simply in this rural land. As the narrator notes: “I’d almost like to hear that terrible cry again just to be reminded that there is a still little bit of wilderness left and there are still mysteries that remain unsolved and strange unexplained noises in the night.” This film, like few do, takes me back to my own roots and nights spent on creeks and strange sounds in the woods that, yes, sounded big enough to have been made by something as large, or larger, than a man.

I know it sounds weird, but that night long ago with that film gave me hope when hope was considered a lost cause. I remembered who I was and all I was from and all I loved from my youth. And I realized I could laugh again and wonder again. That’s what a movie should do — take you out of where and who you are for awhile and when it redeposits you back in reality, you are back for the better.

popped03That’s what I want to explore here in a new feature on this blog. “Popcorn and a Movie” will bring two of my favorite things together. From time to time, I will discuss a film I’m fond of, along with a recipe for what might be my favorite food — popcorn! I’d eat it every day if I could. Not only can a movie take me from despair to euphoria, popcorn does the same. Just try to be sad when you hear those kernels exploding, smell that warm aroma of corn, sit and crunch all that salty (or not, depending on tastes) goodness. It lifts the spirits quite like nothing else. It’s celebratory, self-nurturing and downright therapeutic in times of stress (or scary movies).

popcnbk01Popcorn and the movies have a long history. According to Larry Kusches “Popcorn Cookery,” (1977), popcorn wagons used to sit outside the movie theater and folks bought and brought it in. Those theatre owners who discouraged popcorn in their houses due to noise and mess lost business, so all eventually gave in and moved the wagons inside to sell the popcorn as part of their own concessions.

Movies and popcorn, for me, began with big brown grocery bags, darkly greasy on the bottom, popped at home by my mom and taken with us to the drive-in. There, wide-eyed, I would eat the salty stuff till my lips turned inside out and I was asleep on my own pillow in the backseat.

popplid01I still pop popcorn on the stove. Microwave popcorn, though consumed in mass quantities during my college and young adult years, doesn’t do anything for me anymore when I know the taste and seasoning of what I make in my deep saute pan on my stove is better than any I could get from a flat bag or an overpriced carton.

When choosing a popcorn recipe to accompany this movie, I wanted something seasonal for Halloween that seemed to match the old-school nature of Boggy Creek’s legend. Popcorn Balls! Ah, the many Halloweens we would stop by our twinkly-eyed Great Aunt Mabel’s to trick-or-treat and she, always in a clean apron over her housedress and wearing large and sparkling clip-on earrings, her silver hair roped in a braid she wore in a coil at the back of her head, would greet us with colorful treat bags bursting with a homemade popcorn ball. The sweet, buttery smell; the crunchy chewiness. Nothing like them. Where did all the sweet ladies go who could hand out popcorn balls? Innocence lost.

googdies01Or not. I’m becoming an old lady (maybe not as sweet as those of the days of yore). I’m a great aunt. I have hair that I sometimes wear in a braid, though far messier than Great Aunt Mabel’s. And I could make a popcorn ball. Bring it on back!

So I could have conjured a fancy caramel, mocha, cheese, spice, rainbow-colored popcorn ball for my recipe. But, like the simple old-fashioned nature of “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” I went with a very basic popcorn ball recipe. I do offer the option here of any “add-ins” of favorite movie candies you could try to mix in the balls for an added treat (like dark-chocolate covered espresso beans so you can stay awake to watch for the Fouke Monster).

syrp01First you make your corn. Buy good, fresh popping corn for the best results. Corn that’s been sitting around for a few years will have a tough, woody texture. Make your corn stovetop or you can get one of those microwave popcorn bowls and make the corn sans oil. Either way, you need about eight cups of popped corn that you keep warm in the oven in a large buttered bowl.

Then you make your candy syrup, the glue that brings that corn together in ball form. It takes just around 10 minutes (don’t overcook) to get the sugar, corn syrup, water, butter (I used the extra amount option) and salt to get to 250 degrees (this is where a candy thermometer is very handy).

formn01Off the heat, stir in the vanilla. Pour the mixture over the popcorn and stir it in with a wooden spoon. Working quickly with buttered hands (use buttered rubber or plastic gloves to protect from heat if you think you need the protection), form into balls. I made four LARGE balls in honor of the giant hairy monster, but the recipe would make eight smaller balls. I can see kids also helping to shape the balls, but do protect little hands from the hot candy.

I let the balls cool and set up. They were as good as any I remember. Eating their buttery sweet/salty goodness was like a trip back through time. Stored in an airtight container, they are good for three or four days.bafnl01jpg

Bigfoot’s Big Corny Butterballs
(aka Beginner’s Popcorn Balls)
Adapted from “Popcorn Cookery” by Larry Kusches
Makes 4 large or 8 regular popcorn balls

2 quarts popped corn
1 cup water
1/3 cup corn syrup
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Put popcorn in a large, 4-inch deep buttered baking pan. Keep warm in oven. Combine sugar, corn syrup, water, butter and salt in a large saucepan. Stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Cook until mixture reaches 250 degrees on a candy thermometer, stirring frequently. Remove from heat, Quickly stir in vanilla. Remove popcorn from the oven. Pour syrup mixture over popcorn, stirring to mix well. Form into balls.

Blogger’s Note: For extra salty balls, I used butter containing salt. When mixing balls, you can also add your candy of choice for an “add-in.” Please protect hands with rubber or plastic gloves (buttered) when forming balls. I recommend initially stirring syrup in with a wooden spoon when it is at its hottest. Then the balls should be formed as the syrup is cooling.

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