Entertainment that terrified us
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Over in the Wrapped Up In Books discussion on Peter Straub's Ghost Story, one of the discussion questions has been "Did this book scare you?" The general consensus seems to be no, but maybe we're all too old to be scared by books. What pieces of entertainment have authentically frightened you?
The book that scared me the most was definitely Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, just because it was a true story and the acts in it were so random and horrific that (dum dum DUM) it could conceivably happen to you. I actually don’t enjoy being scared—I’d much rather hear the spoilers of a scary movie than see the film, so I try to avoid the horror genre. However, I did have a remarkably scary time seeing The Exorcist for the first time. It was Halloween weekend my freshman year at Georgetown University; they screen the movie each year in the big old somewhat-creepy auditorium located in the definitely imposing Healy Hall. The Exorcist is set at Georgetown, so while the movie already spooked me (it must be the Catholic in me, but devil shit freaks me out), it was extra-freaky and delicious to know that the stairs Fr. Karras died on were the ones we walked by nearly every day (called, unimaginatively enough, “The Exorcist stairs”).
I can’t recall actually having been scared by a book since I read Stephen King’s The Shining when I was 14. In that case, it was the description of the drowned woman sitting up in the bathtub that made my hair stand on end. Reading that book alone in the dark post-midnight, it was all too easy to imagine the door to my room (about four feet from our upstairs bathroom, with its normally non-haunted tub) slowwwwwly sliding open to reveal that lumpy, greenish monstrosity standing there waiting for me. Since then, though, I’ve pretty much gotten out of the habit of being frightened by books, probably because I do so much reading during my commute, and it’s much harder to imagine a gibbering, murderous corpse patiently waiting at a train station until my train pulls in so it can board and come at me. Films are a different matter, though, and I’m pretty easily thrown by horror movies. Most recently, a couple of the most chilling things I’ve seen were The Orphanage (one of my favorite films of 2007) and Baghead, two horror features that both prominently featured bag-headed baddies. People with bags on their heads (as Baghead repeatedly notes) are just plain scary; I didn’t even bother trying to sit through The Strangers.
As I mentioned in the Ghost Story discussion, it’s been a good long while since I’ve found supernatural horror particularly scary. (The Exorcist is a solid exception, but Claire already nabbed that one.) I’ll occasionally get creeped out by a horror movie, but generally I find them more unpleasant than scary. So what does scare me in the world of entertainment? Usually something that reflects the terrifying nature of real life, fraught as it is with the monstrous behavior of ordinary humans with rotting minds. A good serial-killer story will get me every time, especially one involving a killer who was never caught; that he’s-still-out-there vibe puts a real spook into me even if it’s so long ago, the perpetrator is surely dead and gone. For that reason, Alan Moore end Eddie Campbell’s dissection of the Jack the Ripper legend, From Hell, remains a sure way to leave me unnerved; I’ve probably read it a dozen times, but the chapter where the Ripper claims his final victim is still petrifying. Likewise, I got serious chills from reading Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac long before it was made into a movie, and when David Fincher finally got around to it, he nicely conveyed the paranoid fear and uncertainty of the whole story. Even Spike Lee’s Summer Of Sam, a hit-and-miss film whose killer turns out to be kind of a pathetic schnook, gave me the heebie-jeebies, because it drove home the terrifying fact that one crazy fuck with a handgun can terrorize an entire metropolis.
The movie that scared me the most growing up was, without a doubt, The Day After, the 1980s TV miniseries about the aftermath of a nuclear war. But restricting myself to more straight-up horror films, two come to mind. First is Friday The 13th, Part II, the one that first introduced Jason as the major villain—but not the theatrical version, which I’ve never seen. What I saw, around age 12 or so, was an edited-for-TV version that cut out the gore but (I assume accidentally) made the murders even more frightening by slowing down the video as Jason swung his machete, while keeping the audio at normal speed, so you could still hear the chopping and the screams. It was incredibly unnerving. The other one is the original Japanese version of The Ring, Ringu—I was completely drawn in by the slow buildup of tension and menace that leads up to the evil ghost Sadako finally climbing all the way out of the well and through the TV set. So much so that the next morning, when my wife shook my shoulder to wake me up, in my dream-fogged state I literally thought I was being attacked by Sadako, and I clawed at my wife’s face in momentary terror. Since she was already awake and alert, she easily avoided my attempt to defend myself from faceless supernatural death, and laughed about it, but we sort of stopped watching horror movies for a little while after that.
Tasha was greedy and took three scary entertainments, but I’m not going to let that stop me from seconding the love and terror for The Orphanage (a.k.a. El Orfanato), the Spanish-language film from 2007. I enjoy scary movies, but they almost never actually scare me or even make me uneasy. There’s a shot in this one, though, that made me actually expel some random scared-guy noise (from my mouth, take it easy), and I wasn’t the only one. I watched The Orphanage with a fellow manly man, and we both kinda jumped out of our seats when we first saw a little kid with a sack over his head. Also notable about The Orphanage: It’s actually a great film on its own, not just a great scary film—it’s never about “boo” scares, and there’s no axe murderer. It’s just an awesome ghost story, with plenty of real chills. Netflix it!
I love horror movies, but the ones I like best aren’t necessarily the ones that scare me in the traditional sense. It isn't hard to jolt an audience into jumping out of their seats, and a lot of horror movies this decade have been content just to engage in cheap shock tactics. So, yeah, makers of The Haunting In Connecticut, the remake of The Last House On The Left, and so on, yes, you scared me for a second. But you didn’t really unnerve me in a way that I took home later. Sure, making a face appear in a closing bathroom mirror works, but it doesn’t get at what’s really scary.
It’s widely held that one of the scariest things about George Romero’s “_______ Of The Dead” series is the lack of explanation for why the newly deceased begin rising from the grave and gnawing on their fellow men and women as if they were made out of KFC Double Downs. (Night Of The Living Dead mentions radiation from a fallen satellite, but that doesn’t explain the transfer of zombieism, or the hunger for flesh.) I’m a reasonable, mostly sane adult who’ll gladly eat up (har har) any decent zombie movie that’s plopped in front of me, but the feeling that the best of them impart—that a zombie apocalypse could happen at any time—shakes me to the core as soon as the movie’s over. Add to that the seemingly unstoppable force of the living dead (clearly I have control issues), and you’ve got a formula that’s caused me several vivid zombie-related nightmares. Thanks a lot, Mr. Romero.
From the time my parents allowed me and my sister to watch the TV edit of The Exorcist as kids, leaving both of us with terribly vivid nightmares for months afterward, I’ve been particularly vulnerable to evil kids, whether they be of the devil (The Omen), of the village (Village Of The Damned, the li’l Nazis of Michael Haneke’s new The White Balloon, of the boarding house (Orphan), of the tormented psyche (The Brood), or of the corn (Children Of The Corn). As Dan Savage once noted, all children are born as sociopaths, and it’s the parents' job to metaphorically beat it out of them; these films capture, in a primal way, how children are dangerously malleable by nature, and thus capable of channeling pure evil just as readily as innocence and joy. More generally, though, I’m particularly sensitive to movies that withhold shocks for as long as possible, and play on our fear of the unknown. To name a recent example, it took me three stops and starts just to get through a screener of the new retro-’80s horror movie The House Of The Devil, about a college student tasked with “babysitting” in a creepy old Victorian far off campus. Not much happens until the blood-soaked finale, but waiting for that shoe to drop as she wanders a house of unopened doors, darkened windows, and mysterious noises is nerve-jangling agony.
When I wrote my piece about the Friday The 13th series two years ago, I watched each of the movies late at night, after my wife and kids had gone to bed. Most of the F13 films are too silly to linger long after the closing credits, but the cumulative effect of watching the whole bunch (combined with the legitimate scare-power of the first two) had me so rattled that I got in the habit of turning on the hall lights before walking back from the living room to the bedroom. That’s something I hadn’t done since I was a little kid, but two years later, I’m still switching on lights. If I don’t, I’m certain some mask-wearing psychopath will impale me before I reach the bedroom door.
My all-time worst nightmare-inducer was 1980’s The Watcher In The Woods, whose psychological trauma I’ve mentioned before in AVQA. (That era of Disney also gave us Escape To Witch Mountain, which has a similar legacy.) The plot involved a teenage American girl (Lynn-Holly Johnson) moving to a spooky mansion inhabited by Bette Davis, who looked like a reanimated corpse. She’d lost a daughter who was Johnson’s age to some bizarre occult ritual, but it turns out the daughter wasn’t dead, just trapped in another dimension! No, it doesn’t really make sense. But a couple of scenes absolutely terrified me: Davis staring into the woods, asking no one in particular, “She’s staying… is that what you want?” and Johnson’s little sister creepily writing the name NAREK in fog on a window as if she was possessed. (The missing girl’s name was KAREN… Narek backward!) Yes, it sounds stupid now. But that shit FREAKED ME OUT as a kid. I don’t think I slept for a month.
I’ve got night terrors—well, I’m not sure if that’s exactly what it is I’ve got, but it’s a better name than anything else I’ve been able to come up with. During times of intense emotional stress, or if I’ve had too much caffeine before bed, I’ll wake up and I’ll be convinced there’s someone in the room with me. Sometimes I’ll think there’s a bomb in my bed. More often than not lately, I’ll be convinced I’m dead. It’s all silly in retrospect, but it’s really unnerving, because it’s like being crazy, like being unable to process reality the same way normal people do. So the movies that scare me the most are the ones that copy that same feeling of uncertainty. Stuff like the original Nightmare On Elm Street, New Nightmare, In The Mouth Of Madness, some David Lynch movies (“It’s him, he’s the one that’s doing it.”), scenes in Ju-On, the last segment in Black Sabbath, and so on. Basically, anything that drives me out to the middle of nowhere, and then threatens to leave me there for good.
When I was younger, I would get freaked out by the stupidest things. Scary fuckin’ commercials, for one (I don’t remember which ones, I blocked them out), and I think I saw a Lego guy who looked at me funny once and gave me a fright. So I avoided horror movies. I already mentioned in a previous AVQ&A that I accidentally saw It when I was really young, and it made me wary of taking showers for weeks, more like years. But I do remember getting really freaked out by The Matrix. Yeah, how dumb is that? It probably has something to do with the fact that I got in a car accident right after the movie—fender bender, my fault—so I was a bit shaken up. But that night, as I lay awake staring at the ceiling, I was hit with a vision of bald Keanu Reeves, covered in mucus and breaking through a womb-like shell before surveying the post-apocalyptic world around him. I kept dozing off, then shaking myself awake at the thought that… I could be next! As I type this, I realize that of all the movies in the horror genre, this one is, well, not in that genre. And I’m pretty embarrassed to have opened up. But I didn’t sleep, and the memory of that night still bothers me. I can handle horror movies to this day, but I’m always a little nervous going in, fearing that as freaked out as I got that one night, I’ll get even worse with something that’s actually scary. Someday, when that day comes, I’ll probably sleep on my couch.
Last year, I went to see The Strangers because I heard it was an above-average horror movie with a taut, pared-down narrative, intelligently done. And it was all of those things, but I was completely miserable for its 86 minutes: Those cheap scares do a number on me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m pretty much about to see zero horror movies for the rest of my life, unless they’re oldies I haven’t caught up with yet, or made by people I care about (John Carpenter, Rob Zombie, Wes Craven, Stuart Gordon, and so on) who I’m willing to endure a little misery for. I just get way too scaredy-cat and start worrying about irregular heartbeats. Yes, I know I’m a wuss, but scares just are zero fun for me.
But for a real scare, that would have to go to Lost Highway. Which completely creeped the hell out of me; I came out of the theater and was standing on a sidewalk that was absolutely deserted (even though it was about 4 on a Saturday afternoon in a busy neighborhood). I went down to the subway platform to go from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and there was no one on the platform, and all I could hear was that trademark Lynch hum from the fluorescent lights. And then I got on the train, and though there were people there, frankly, they did not seem like the kind of people you would want to talk to, or even be in the general county-wide proximity of; they were David Lynch people. So for a good 35 minutes, until I emerged in the city, I was living in Lynch’s world. I’m pretty sure nothing’ll top that.
My parents kept me away from the horror genre when I was a kid, but they didn’t pay much attention to the books I brought home from the late, great Oxford Books in Atlanta. The store had a young-adult section with a small stand of junk I couldn’t tear myself away from—the Point Horror series (in particular R.L. Stine), and another collection of books by Christopher Pike. They were as seedy as young-adult books can be (I remember asking my dad what the word “disheveled” meant, after some girl’s clothes were messed up after a make-out session), and provoked by way of the occult a kind of absolute horror I don’t think I’m capable of feeling today—the completely irrational kind born of rampant, out-of-control imagination that left me paralyzed in my bed, too afraid to stop reading or to make the long trek to my parents’ bedroom. People came back from the dead left and right, something that scared me far more than any demonic clown could do. The books were so effective that I credit my good behavior as a kid to the blind fear that the dead were watching me, waiting to rise up and teach me a lesson, or seek vengeance for some ill intention.