Today’s question is in honors of Halloween:
What common fictional scenario always scares you?
I’ve always been terrified of swimming in video games. There’s something about floating in the inky darkness that summons up all my nastiest, most primal fears, especially in first-person games, where there’s no disconnecting your character’s viewpoint from your own. Modern games tend to make the water clear once you’re below the surface, but there’s still the moment of horror that hits as your character’s body sinks into the reflective, murky blackness, a descent into the unknown that makes my stomach lurch every time I have to dip into the water in games like Oblivion or Dishonored 2. Even worse is that paralyzing fear that I’ll go too deep, dooming myself to a desperate climb back toward the light as my breath empties and my health meter ticks away. Blame the old “Drowning” theme from Sonic The Hedgehog, maybe, which imprinted itself on me at a young age with images of a drowned, terrified hedgehog, inches away from the air bubble that could have saved his life.
Monster on the loose? Whatever. Demonic possession? Laughable. Poltergeist hijinks? Come on, now. There’s only one kind of horror movie that almost always gets to me: home invasions. Flicks like The Strangers or Hush or You’re Next get at the very real, primal terror of seeing the safety of your home systematically destroyed, and it seriously freaks me out every time. It also comes down to the perpetrators being other people, as opposed to some random supernatural force that I don’t believe exists in out world. I remember being incredibly creeped out by Sinister for the film’s first two acts, while it was still teasing the possibility that some sort of monstrous death cult was sneaking into people’s homes and filming their atrocities. But as soon as it became about yet another dickish demon with a penchant for messing with kids, I was checked out. Let’s face it; Bughuul is nothing compared to horror of our fellow humans.
It’s the Chekhov’s gun of horror films: If there’s a bed in act one, a hand will jut out from that bed and grab the protagonist’s ankle, or worse, in act two. My fear of beds, specifically what might be hiding under them, probably stems from having seen Stephen King’s Pet Sematary at far too young an age. In one of many terrifying scenes, the freshly back-from-the-grave toddler Gage hides beneath a bed then slices old man Jud’s Achilles’ heel (youch) before killing him. And even though the little girl ghost from The Sixth Sense was friendly(ish), this under-the-bed scene certainly couldn’t have helped. Beds just create too much white space that begs to be filled with something. And shouldn’t that something be malevolent and horrifying? There was a time—and who’s to say that time isn’t sometimes still now?—when I couldn’t get into my bed without jumping onto it, thus clearing a certain arm’s-length perimeter. But it’s not my fault, I tell myself. It’s the rules of narrative.
As I get older and my understanding of my own mortality gently shifts from a distant abstract fact to an intimate knowledge conveyed in every uncannily long ear hair, I’m far more capable of finding the horror in narrative devices that would have failed to make an impression just a few years ago. A few years ago I was traveling to a friend’s cabin in the middle of nowhere for the weekend. It was winter, and stupidly, I left as it was getting dark out. I ended up getting both lost and stuck in the snow, and only the timely arrival of my friends who had set out looking for me prevented me from having to trudge into the darkness with no gear or phone signal. So now I’m especially spooked by people stuck in the middle of nowhere. Movies like The Grey or Into The Wild where the protagonists are either partially or completely unprepared for dealing with an environment that can kill you just for being there give me the shivers.
When going on a long road trip, I always make sure to take a bathroom break first. That’s because movies have taught me that stopping at a remote gas station out in the middle of nowhere is the most efficient way to alert any mad slashers who might be in the area to your juicy, blood-filled presence, sealing your ultimate fate as human barbecue or a human-skin puppet or whatever diabolically creative murder methods these backwoods psychos can come up with. I’m almost positive this association comes from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which I first saw as a teenager and which provided the template for the multitude of slasher movies that would go on to use this same trope. (It even shows up in the meta-slasher The Cabin In The Woods, which should tell you something about its ubiquity.) The gas station featured in Texas Chain Saw is now a horror-themed tourist attraction where you can stay overnight and enjoy a nice brisket sandwich, which poses a real dilemma for me; I love brisket, but don’t want to become brisket.
My mom speculates it came from Disney’s Pinocchio, which I watched obsessively as a little kid, and featured an enormous whale; I feel like I had some traumatic experience staring at the famous cover of the Jaws VHS. But I have always been absolutely terrified by people helplessly bobbing around in large bodies of water. It’s a sort of vertiginous thing, leaving me to imagine the massive quantities of lightless space lurking below, as well as the possibilities of what massive things might be lurking around in there. Movies have primed me to fear sharks in a manner that no amount of science can ever correct, but I’m just as terrified of massive whales, any of those images of eyeless deep-sea phantasms, or the simple image of waves stretching to the horizon. Thus, every sea creature or “mysteries of the ocean” movie manages to creep me out—Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, Open Water, even The Abyss or seemingly positive movies about whales—as well as the more helpless moments of Titanic or Dunkirk.
I grew up watching a lot of soap operas—daytime and nightly telenovelas—and while I think I’ve learned how to fight someone in a fountain, I’m now terrified of being buried alive. Although this is the kind of plot device usually used to buy time or keep our hopes up that the hero isn’t dead, it is actually one of the worst things I can imagine. I vividly recall poor Days Of Our Lives’ Carly being put in some deathlike state, then placed in a coffin and buried, whereupon she regained consciousness. Vivian, that monster, gave her enough water to stay alive for a bit, though, and a radio to listen in on all the mourners who came to her grave site (which sounds fun, but really isn’t). From cave-ins to burials, there are countless other examples in everything from Heroes and Alfred Hitchcock’s TV work to Roger Corman films. But this scene from Kill Bill: Volume 2 left me hyperventilating.
No matter how many times it’s pulled out and used in film and TV, I get a wave of deep unease anytime someone is hiding in a closet. Chalk it up to a childhood spent burying my head under the pillow so I wouldn’t have to look at the closet door in my bedroom: At an early age, it was obvious to me that if someone was ever going to wait for me to go to bed and then murder me, they’d be hiding in the closet. It’s literally the only place a grown person could hide, in most cases. As a result, it became a pathologically worrisome place for me, a little nook of death installed in just about every room in America. So when someone in a movie or show slowly approaches a closet door, whether the audience knows someone is hiding inside or not, I start to get anxious. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn on all the lights in the apartment.
This has (fortunately, knock wood) never happened to me, but I can’t believe I’m this old and have never been stuck in an elevator. If you watch enough TV and movies, you would think this happens all the time, from sitcoms like The Mindy Project and Grace And Frankie to rom-coms like You’ve Got Mail, thrillers like Devil, and action movies like Speed. This phobia is made even worse by the fact that the Onion building has the worst elevator in all of Chicago (even the FedEx guys remark on how sucky it is), so if I’m ever going to get stuck, it’s going to be in this glorified tin can with the pastel painting of a fan that’s hung on the rear wall since the ’80s. Walking up seven flights of stairs seems like a small price to pay, but every time I find myself in that horrific elevator again, I know I’m just testing fate.