This week’s question, courtesy of reader Kerry Philben: What age-inappropriate (or not) movie did you see as a child that scared the shit out of you at the time, but now seems ridiculous? For me, it was, shamefully, Ernest Scared Stupid, age 6. For my boyfriend, it was the Halloween episode of The Facts Of Life.
I can’t beat the comedy value of being scared stupid by Earnest Scared Stupid, Kerry. Honestly, the two things I most remember being scared by as a kid were at least a little scary: The original Star Trek was, to a little kid, a mixture of pretty colors, neat discordant music, and pants-pissing terror, as characters died all the time, usually with little warning and little reason, and in horrible ways. One minute there’s a shiny tin can full of joking people flying through space, and the next, creepy pounding music is playing while shirtless, sweaty William Shatner tries to kill someone in an arena, or some dude changes a poor redshirt into a little Styrofoam shape and smooshes him. These days, the whole show mostly reads like camp to me, but back then, I got to the point where I had to leave the room when the theme started playing. My family was also one of the many who saw the deceptive ads for Gremlins and thought it was a playful, kid-friendly, Muppety comedy instead of a bleak, dark, satirical comedy featuring murderous, giggling monsters. My grandmother took me and my little sister to that one. We had to leave the theater at one point because we were so petrified, but because grandma couldn’t get our money back, we doggedly went back and shuddered through the rest of it. Kids just don’t have a sense of humor about grisly murder.
No offense to my fellow A.V. Clubbers, but I think I win this one. I was a latchkey kid, and when I was very, very young—maybe 6 or 7—I saw an episode of Sesame Street in which, I recall distinctly even though I can find no evidence of it through Google, a gypsy cursed Oscar The Grouch with a human nose.
Now, to this day, I cannot explain why I found this so profoundly terrifying and disturbing. Apparently it completely upended my entire post-toddler Weltanschauung. But whatever the reason, the sight of Oscar with a human nose upset me so much that I actually left the house and sat alone on the front porch until my parents got home from work, because I didn’t even want to be in the building with the television that had brought me such a horrific vision. I can remember clear as day how much it scared me, even if I have no idea why.
I was at a friend’s house when I was, I think, in 3rd or 4th grade, and we were in his living room playing around on the computer—Number Munchers or the like. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied his siblings watching some really odd movie about a clown who terrorized people by coming at them from their shower drain, which at the time tapped into two of my biggest fears: 1) Clowns. 2) Evil monsters coming at me from places I don’t normally look at with much interest. The movie was It, of course, but that one shower scene was seared into my brain. I went home and took my nightly shower while staring at the drain. Staring. The entire time. (The logistics elude me, but I’m sure they’d boggle anyone’s mind.) Also, I kept up this little ritual for approximately three years—that’s more than a thousand showers of soap in my eyes. And yet if you’ve never seen It, I cannot emphasize enough how corny a flick it is.
If you were in elementary school in the early ’80s, Poltergeist probably inspired much playground talk. There’s a scene where a guy pulls his face off! Maggoty chicken! Crazy skeletons! Some creepy clown doll that comes to life! My horror-movie wussiness began at a young age, and all this talk filled me with terror. I, of course, avoided the movie like the plague, but ended up seeing part of it when a babysitter watched it. Thankfully, he tipped me off before the face-ripping scene so I could scurry away, but the shot that precedes that scene was burned into my memory: the guy sitting in a chair, eating chips. The face-ripping scene, as I imagined it, was horrifying—but anyone who’s seen Poltergeist knows it’s comically fake, as I learned years later. I actually love Poltergeist now. When it was re-released theatrically for one night a couple of years ago, I scrapped my plans for the evening so I could go see it. My wife and I cackled during the scene that scarred my young psyche. But that scene where JoBeth Williams—who’s surprisingly hot in Poltergeist—finds her kitchen chairs stacked all weird? Still freaky.
I can’t say for sure if this movie seems ridiculous today, because there’s no way in hell I’d watch it again to find out, but an accidental viewing of Arachnophobia at a childhood friend’s house instilled a deep, deep fear of spiders (and all creepy-crawlies, really, but spiders are the big one) that persists to this day. Like, to the point that I can’t even look at a picture of a spider without curling up in a ball and whimpering. (Hence I’m scared to go to IMDB to check to see what year the movie came out, because I’m pretty sure the movie poster has a picture of a spider on it.) I’ve had many people tell me it’s a stupid, stupid movie, but that seems irrelevant at this point, when I’ve descended so far into my own phobia. (Please, please don’t include a picture from the movie here, as I won’t be able to look at the site until it’s gone.)
Most of my childhood fears sprang from my fundamentalist upbringing. I’ll never forget a slide show I saw during a church revival that featured a cloud of cigarette smoke… smoking a cigarette. The sickly, amorphous thing starred in my nightmares for years. As far as movies go, though, what undid me at age 8 was A Thief In The Night, the original “left behind” movie. (It even spawned the campfire classic “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” with its endearingly gimmicky coda: “You’ve been left behind / you’ve been left be—.”) If you’ve seen it, you probably remember the opening sequence featuring the half-empty bed and the abandoned electric razor buzzing in the sink. Ignore the ’70s production values, if you would, and place yourself in a church basement with concrete-block walls and an uncomfortably low ceiling, with a 16mm projector whirring away and everyone sitting in sober, assenting silence. I was indelibly stained by the sight of the three-stroke identification tattoo that the reassuring leaders of UNITE, the one-world government, require each citizen to have carved onto their hands. Evil had never seemed so technocratic; it oozed from television screens and radios, it lived in the airwaves. But then I’ve always been prone to oversensitivity about distant disasters. As a child, I was led from a planetarium sobbing after we got a preview of the sun exploding billions of years from now.
I remain a huge, hopeless, incurable wimp when it comes to horror movies, but it all started when I was about 8 and saw part of The Fog at a sleepover. At the time, I was mostly just interested in drawing pictures of various Washington Redskins and talking about the Fun Bunch. (The friend whose sleepover it was was, incongruously in Pennsylvania, a big ’Skins fan.) But one night, this friend’s older brother was laid out on the couch watching the late movie on TV, which happened to be John Carpenter’s 1980 movie about, well, fog. I know John Carpenter means a lot of very specific things to a lot of people here, but I don’t really know what they are. (How little I know about horror movies is second only to how little I know about comic books in terms of A.V. Club heresy.) What I remember about it, though, next to all the slow, creeping images of fog rolling in, was that it was first time I ever came up against the very idea of “scary movies.” I remember being: 1) scared, 2) very scared, 3) confounded as to why people would want to be scared enough to make such a movie and/or watch it, and 4) not so much scared as steeped in dread and regret for having stared oblivion in the face, before I even really knew what oblivion was.
Return To Oz is rated PG, so when I saw it for the first time on (possibly) the Disney Channel or (more likely, because my siblings and I watched it constantly) HBO when I was 7 or 8, it wasn’t technically age-inappropriate, but it was the movie that scared me the most as a child. Coincidentally, it was then, and remains now, one of my favorite movies. Everything in that movie (the insane asylum at the beginning, the deadly desert that turns people into sand, the Gnome King and his rock spies, the Wheelers, the hall full of decapitated heads, the terrible way the witch’s original head booms, “Dooorooothy Gaaale!”) filled me with complete terror, so naturally I wanted to watch it over and over. But the part that frightened me the most as a child was when Jack, the makeshift scarecrow that pathetically calls Dorothy “mom,” loses his Jack-O-Lantern head as Dorothy and her friends are flying away from the witch. “Help me, mom!” he wails as his head falls through the foggy sky. The thought of his stick body going on and living, possibly forever, without a head was profoundly creepy to me then. In fact, it’s still really creepy to me now.
Return To Oz is awesome; I actually like it more than the Garland original. Incredibly creepy, definitely. (Baum said one of the reasons he wrote the Oz books was to create modern fairy tales without “monsters” to scare kids. But if you view his series from the right perspective, it’s unsettling as hell—the same unlogical logic of Lewis Carroll, plus dark shit that doesn’t even realize it’s dark, like the Tin Woodsman chopping off all his own limbs.)
When I was a kid, everything scared me, even age-appropriate stuff. There was this episode of Punky Brewster with an Indian ghost and vampire kids and giant spiders… Brr. But a lot of adult stuff freaked me out too, and while some of them lived up to the hype (Nightmare On Elm Street, and especially Prince Of Darkness, which was actually somehow scarier than I was expecting), some of them didn’t. The original Friday The 13th really, really didn’t. I love the series, in the same way you love a blanket that’s mostly stains, holes, and a smell like cold meds, but it certainly isn’t scary. I didn’t find that out for myself until I actually got up the courage to rent the first movie. I’d just gotten out of college (yeah, I know, shut up), and it was the middle of the summer. Blockbuster was a couple miles’ walk away, and I had no car, so by the time I got home, it was mid-afternoon, and I was pumped up and tired at the same time. I had the shades drawn to make the room cooler, and I had this maybe five-second-long block of doubt. Like, “Am I really going to do this? I’m sure it’s safe and all, it’s just a movie, but I spent years freaking out because I saw maybe 15 minutes of it all told, and that was probably just trailers, and yet this film still somehow haunted me to the point where it took an act of courage just to pick up the DVD box.” But I sucked it up and settled in.
Movies have a certain density. Like, you’ll have a certain amount of actual thrills, and then there’s the between-stuff; with the best of them, the between-stuff is actually pretty thrilling in its own right, but it’s okay if there’s a little dead time if the good parts are good enough. Friday The 13th is maybe 10 percent good part. And that’s being generous. It’s hard to be scared by a movie where you can actually hear the director thinking, “Okay, I think I can stretch this out for another five if we just pretend something’s gonna happen.” (That said, it and all its sequels are wonderful movies to get drunk by.)
This will shock readers, but as a child, I was terrified of everything: my shadow, inflation, the explosive taste of Diet Dr. Pepper, the whole kit and caboodle. I was particularly terrified by nuclear war, fire, and the prospect of spending eternity in the flames of hell, a fear exacerbated by a curious childhood predilection for watching evangelists, especially of the fire-and-brimstone, “repent or suffer the torment of the damned” variety. As an 8-year old, I was convinced that a Communist takeover of the free world was inevitable. I remember being seriously freaked the fuck out by the commercials for Red Dawn and Amerika. Hell, I remember being freaked out by the mere spelling of Amerika. Something about spelling our country’s name with a k seemed inconceivably evil to me. On a somewhat unrelated note, I also remember being borderline-traumatized by the first Saturday Night Live sketch I ever saw, an early-’80s bit about a family that does the whole “I’ve got your nose” routine so hard that they end up gushing blood from their noses. My memory is a little fuzzy so I’m not entirely sure that this sketch actually existed. Maybe it was some weird dream, but it’s stayed with me these many years.
I couldn’t really think of a good answer for this question, because I don’t remember being traumatized too much by movies and TV as a kid. I even think the child-molestation episode of Diff’rent Strokes (starring Gordon Jump!) actually made me laugh more than it made me think I was going to be touched inappropriately by a guy who owns a bicycle-repair shop. (“Pose like Tarzan, Dudley!”) But I do remember being pretty scared of the threat of nuclear war as a kid, particularly by a TV movie I never even saw… The Day After, a made-for-TV joint released in 1983. It’s about the after-effects of a nuclear strike on small-town Kansas (or so I understand it). I remember seeing clips of some people being vaporized, but then, more importantly, other people surviving the best they could after a strike. Them what were killed—them were the lucky ones.
I was excited to see this question: Mine is from The Facts Of Life, too! I hardly remember the show and couldn’t even name all of the characters, but it made two lasting impressions: 1) I learned that you should never order the most expensive item on a menu while on a date, because the dude will expect you to put out. I repeated this to myself over and over as one of the cardinal rules of dating. “Do not forget this when you are older!” (I believe this episode also included someone stuffing her bra and accidentally dipping her fake boobs into her soup, and that the menu item in question was lobster, but I haven’t looked it up.) 2) It’s not just the first time I was scared by some dumb movie or show, but is probably my earliest memory of being scared at all. By scared, I mean mind-blowingly terrified. All I remembered until this question came up, though, was that it involved this moment where one of them turns around slowly in a chair. Her hair was standing on end, there a mirror involved, and she had been literally scared to death. I’ve searched for this over the years, but found it only today: It’s from a 1987 episode (making me 6) called “Seven Little Indians,” in which everyone is killed in a dream of a dream. Pretty deep for The Facts Of Life. Well, I have rewatched it, and it’s totally ridiculous, as expected: Blair was “moussed” to death, and no one in the show seems all that upset. The rest of the details from my 6-year-old memory are intact. Here it is, at 7:15.
These responses have been great so far, but I can top them in at least one respect: My formative scary-movie trauma was pre-natal. My mother often talks about seeing William Friedkin’s The Exorcist late in the third trimester, and how unnerved she was by the combination of the movie’s cutting-edge shock effects and me kicking away vigorously, as if clamoring desperately for the exit. (The womb is not the proper place to hear “Tubular Bells” for the first time.) Later in childhood, my parents plopped me and my little sister in front of the broadcast version of it before either of us were ready to process the head-twisting, pea-soup-spewing conventions of demon possession. Even though the scariest moments were probably lopped off—no crucifix-fucking, that’s for sure—and we watched most of the movie through webbed fingers, I had nightmares for a week, and my sister had them for a full month. It would go down as the worst TV-related parenting decision in the Tobias household, at least until they plopped us in front of the broadcast version of The Blue Lagoon to teach us about the birds and the bees.
Now that I’m finally experiencing the awesomeness that is Battlestar Galactica on DVD, I’ve realized that my greatest fear in life isn’t tall buildings, dying alone, or clowns—it’s an invasion of scary beings that look like people. I’m pretty sure this phobia was burned into me by V, a miniseries that aired on NBC when I was 6. V is about an alien race that comes to Earth in a fleet of terrifyingly large flying saucers. They initially pretend to be our human-looking friends, but end up being lizard-faced motherfuckers who can shoot their tongues out 50 feet and strangle you. Honestly, how in the world did this ever end up on network television? That’s some troublesome shit. I just watched some clips of V on YouTube, and it looks cheap and cheesy in the way all early-’80s TV looks cheap and cheesy, so it probably only scared 6-year-olds like me. But now that those 6-year-olds are in their early 30s, good luck trying to enlist us to fight when the alien invasion inevitably happens. V created a generation of alien-fearing cowards.
I don’t know about “scared,” but I was so unsettled by a viewing of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory at a church supper when I was 6 that I couldn’t eat my dinner. (And then I wasn’t allowed to have any dessert, which at the time struck me as preposterous, but now totally makes sense.) I didn’t really become aware of horror movies until a year or two later, when I started seeing commercials on TV for It’s Alive, with its slowly rotating cradle and hideous claw. (“The Davises have had a baby…”) Some time shortly thereafter, an unthinking babysitter recounted the entire plot of Halloween to me—to be fair, I was 9 years old at the time and too clever for my own good, so I probably asked her to do it—and from then on, I was able to concoct some mental images to go with the horror-movie commercials that I’d hear on the radio while I was in bed at night. By age 10, I was routinely sleeping with my head under the covers so the slashers and monsters couldn’t get me. I think I was 16 before I worked up the courage to see an actual horror film, and once I did, the experience was demystified. But for about 8 years, I was pretty skittish.
Was I the only one terrified by Ghostbusters? I was 4 when the movie came out, and I swear I somehow saw it not too long after. Oddly, the only thing that really freaked me out was the monster-dog-thing that busts out of the closet at Rick Moranis’ party. I had a fairly typical childhood hesitancy toward closets for a while after that, especially people tossing their coats into them.
I was a fairly jaded kid—the kind of little bastard who would mutter, “That looks so fake” at scary movies, and tell haunted-house employees that I could see their sneakers—so I didn’t really scare easily. I got stressed and anxious, yes: I was plagued by ulcers in elementary school, and I got my first gray hair when I was 6, but these had more to do with me worrying about things way beyond my control, like my parents’ divorce and Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (which I was convinced, no doubt due to too many viewings of Real Genius, was already secretly in place, and that one day a laser might emerge out of the clear blue sky to vaporize our house).
But while I couldn’t get enough of horror-anthology shows like Tales From The Darkside and the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone, I remained more or less nightmare-free for most of my formative years. (Although, like Josh, I was abnormally concerned with nuclear war, thanks mostly to the final scenes of that Twilight Zone episode “A Little Peace And Quiet.”) However, to this day, I still have a slight phobia of portraits, and it’s all thanks to an episode of Too Close For Comfort I saw at the tender age of 4. (I wrote about this in a blog post last year, so apologies for repeating myself.) I’m convinced the staff over there had some borderline sociopaths; how else to explain the storyline where obviously but not overtly gay neighbor Monroe (played by bag-of-stereotypes Jim J. Bullock) was raped by two women in the back of a van? Clearly, one of the writers grew up torturing small animals or something.
But as disturbing as that chapter was, the one that, I’m ashamed to report, still gives me nightmares is “A Portrait Of Henry,” a play on Oscar Wilde’s Picture Of Dorian Gray wherein Ted Knight’s character is haunted by a self-portrait that suddenly begins aging horribly, all because he refuses to apologize for hurting Monroe. While seeing Ted Knight’s painted face turn increasingly haggard was disturbing enough of an image, the real shit-your-little-pants scare came when that painting suddenly started glaring at Knight with thick, down-turned eyebrows and then—horror of horrors—cracked open its mouth and started yelling at him. For many years after, I lived in quiet fear of all portraits, be they the Big Bird poster in my bedroom (which I eventually asked my mom to take down, without explaining why) or even an autographed photo of Dallas Sidekicks forward Tatu grinning over a frosty mug of root beer. (He’s going to throw that root beer away and come after me!) Eventually I got over it, but every now and then I’ll have a dream where a photo suddenly gets angry with me, and I’ll wake up terrified. I’d like to find those Too Close For Comfort writers and kick their asses.
I’ll second Kyle’s Poltergeist fear; that movie kept me awake for a week after I saw it on television, on a sunny Saturday afternoon no less. I still think it’s scary, though I can’t say the same of the Little House On The Prairie episode “The Monster Of Walnut Grove.” It’s a Halloween episode, and though I watched the series repeatedly growing up, the details of the plot elude me. All I know is that it involved a headless horseman who turns out to be a practical joke… or does he? The episode has surreal dream sequences, scary music, and a slow-motion sequence involving a mannequin’s head that, frankly, is still a little spooky to my eyes.