When I was 11, my family moved from a city neighbourhood to the suburbs. My first year there I knew no one. All of the streets, houses and parks looked the same to me. With nothing to differentiate one from another, I would be stuck walking down the same street, to the same path in constant fear of getting lost on my way to the now-closed video store.
It was not until I met, and eventually joined, a group of friends in middle-school that I actually began to appreciate my neighbourhood. Suddenly, with my friends, it became more than just a confusing series of identical streets and paths, surrounded by an ominous gravel quarry and impenetrable forest. Over a couple of weeks, it became the perfect suburb, straight out of an 80’s Amblin film.
The depressing quarry became an out-of-bounds place of danger and adventure, while the forest opened up into an endless source of exploration. Whether it was subconsciously or not, much of our time was spent trying to recreate the films we loved. We may not have had our own E.T. to befriend, but we made do with what we had.
One particularly misguided attempt had us trying to capture our own Stand By Me moment by going on a long hike after school to find a dead deer we were told about by my brother. With flies buzzing about, what we found, instead of ourselves, was a perfectly intact deer’s head, separated from its body. We all walked home that night, as the sun went down, wishing we had not listened to my brother. And while our first attempt at capturing a film in our own lives, had left us feeling more than a little nauseous, that did not stop us from trying again.
The forest was our main hangout. The valleys, hills and creeks that ran through it meant there was never a shortage of places to explore. Rusting wrecks of vintage automobiles scattered randomly throughout the forest, that to this day pose mysteries as to their origin. Crumbling tree forts left by children now grown, littered the forest, each one more dangerous than the next. We contributed to those now rotting tree forts, never completing one but starting dozens.
And while we spent most of our time in the wilderness, the rest was spent in my friend Geoff’s basement. On weekends, we would be over there as soon as we woke up, playing video-games and hatching schemes. Staying up all night watching movies, and telling stories. We had great imaginations, in fact maybe too good. Our thirst for adventure got us lost more than once, and in trouble countless times.
All of this led to our suspicion that Geoff’s neighbour was some-sort of villain worthy of one of the films we loved. We saw little of him, as he drove his tinted car directly into his garage and inside from there. We would spy on him, extrapolating great details from the smallest of clues. The main floor of his house, clearly visible from the street, showed no sign of life, or even furniture.
We came to the conclusion that he was either a vampire or a serial killer–either would do. Occasionally we would play hide-and-go-seek as a ruse to sneak onto his property, standing on our toes to peek through a window before running back to the safety of Geoff’s yard. Every detail would bring us closer to figuring out what nefarious things this man was up to.
On those rare occasions when we saw him, he would be sitting on his porch, smoking a cigarette with his head down. He was a skinny man, with a pencil-thin moustache. In some ways he didn’t seem real, almost like an outlandish, childish creation, formed out of our need for a film-like adventure. As we grew older, we stopped paying as much attention to him, instead opting to reference him in an attempt to laugh at the childish stupidity we enjoyed over all those summers past.
Even when he faded from our collective interest, anytime I walked or biked past his house, I couldn’t help but stare. All of our ridiculous theories would come rushing back. The need to solve the mystery of the creep next door would come bubbling up again, even if just for a few moments. Our obsession with this man, and his house, became an inspiration to me. I wrote him into a couple of scripts and stories.
In my stories, kids would become suspicious of their neighbour and decide to investigate. Depending on the iteration of the story, he would either turn out to be a vampire, or the story would take a different, more tragic turn: the kids would discover that the man had killed himself, he was not in fact a vampire but a very disturbed man. Their adolescent need for adventure masked the obvious.
A couple of months ago, while walking past his house, I saw several police vehicles parked nearby. I did not know if they were at his house, Geoff’s or one of their neighbour’s. I forgot about the incident. As it turned out, my scripts were more accurate than I could have guessed. He may not have been a vampire, but he was troubled, and as I later learned, he had hanged himself.
Our own selfish want for adventure and filmic mystery shielded us from what was actually happening in our neighbourhood. In our heads, we were innocently investigating something we all secretly knew could not be true. In reality we were trespassing and ridiculing a man who neither needed nor deserved it.
It is with discoveries like this that I realize why filmmakers, like Gondry, Malick and Truffaut, become obsessed with their past. Using the tools available to them, they are able to recreate, re-examine and in some ways, find redemption for moments of their past that haunt them still. Sometimes it takes a re-enactment to make up for a mistake, or to reveal what they did wrong. In this case, I didn’t need a camera, it never went that far in the process before death solved the mystery of the villain next door.