Opening Letters

Dracula vs. Dad

bridging the father-son divide, one horror film at a time

Andrew Patrie, illustrated by Luke Benson |

I got lippy with my father once (well, more than once) in high school, and he chased me half a block through our neighborhood before tackling me onto the Thompsons’ boulevard. Breathless, I’m not sure either of us knew what was supposed to happen next, but with our hearts hammering, and my eyes bugging out of my skull like some cartoon animal, I had gained a new appreciation for the man. See, I was 6’3”, over half a foot taller than my father, and thin as the grass into which his ample Budweiser belly had pressed me. But those stumpy legs were really pistons that propelled him at a speed set to break the sound barrier, or maybe that was only my shriek of surprise as I lay there sussing shapes from clouds colonnading the sky.

These garden gnome-like physical characteristics, shaped by genetics and, further perhaps, by incalculable hours spent attendant to the verdant borders of our property, belie my father’s inherent athleticism. Before I was born, my father was an avid bowler and ballplayer. Throughout his forties, I can recall watching him, from the balcony of the YMCA, shut out opponent after opponent on the racquetball court. And at 69 his competitive spirit is hardly dormant. The man can play a ruthless game of Cricket at the dartboard or Texas Hold ’Em at the card table. Which is why, when I was younger, my father held similar aspirations for me, his only son.

As the years passed, my father continued to make time for me and my “eccentricities,” in spite of the fact that my hair was getting longer and each of the heavy metal T-shirts I wore was more alienating than the last.

However, by the time I was in second grade, I had traded my fascination with the “monsters” of the gridiron for the monsters of folklore. I didn’t go anywhere without my copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the “Illustrated Classics” edition, natch), and this included T-ball practices and subsequent games. My father was coaching our Mariners team for the Lake Hallie Optimist Club, and it was never a question about my playing. He was proud and hopeful in spite of my apparent disinterest. During one particularly important matchup, I recall reluctantly approaching the stand and grounding a single, his eyes on me. Later, in the outfield, my teammates shimmering maroon against the dusty July heat, I suddenly had had enough and walked off the field to sit in the air conditioned space of my father’s car and thumb through Dracula again. I imagine my father swallowing a bitter cocktail of embarrassment, disappointment, and some small amusement, the air between us so fragile it cracked, like taking a baseball bat to a row of Christmas ornaments.

My father is nothing if not resilient, though, and he found ways to reach out to his “estranged” son. After much haranguing, I convinced this man, who was so restless I saw him sit only to eat or sleep and even then not for very long, to take 11-year-old me to see Friday the 13th Part VI:  Jason Lives at the Gemini Drive-In. As dusk dropped and spread like black ink off a painter’s brush, the screen blazoned with menace. We sat in his conversion van, radio tuned in as the sound was better than the vintage speakers fastened to the poles beyond our windows, the cool digital blue of the clock lighting our faces from below, munching popcorn while mostly missing our mouths. I did glance at him once, to smile. I so wanted the night to never end.

As the years passed, my father continued to make time for me and my “eccentricities,” in spite of the fact that my hair was getting longer and each of the heavy metal T-shirts I wore was more alienating than the last, in spite of my own phantom jealousy of the “deeper” conversations concerning sports my father often had with my friends and could not have with me. We saw Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. We were there opening night for both Sam Raimi’s Darkman and Tom Savini’s underappreciated remake of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In many ways, the dimmed confine of a movie theater was the perfect place for our relationship to convalesce. My father and I have never been wont to hug it out or talk it out, and once the lights went low, the curtains drew back, and the Dolby digital thundered, there was no time for that anyway.

Today, I can count on my father to lend a hand around the yard that every year seems to escape my grasp, offer his ear when I read poetry somewhere, and even wrap an arm around my shoulder and chuckle at some semi-politically incorrect joke. It seems this jolly garden gnome has learned the greatest attribute of being a father: provide a fertile plot from which to grow and resist the urge to prune too much. And I love him for that.