It’s not something people usually count among their life’s milestones, but everybody who appreciates horror on any level has some good stories about the movies that really affected them. Usually it’s the ones they saw as kids, the ones that had a more formative effect.
My most memorable experiences with horror movies range from early childhood all the way to my 20’s. I find myself telling these stories to people again and again, especially as Halloween approaches. I think it’s time to record some of these for posterity.
Maybe the original Terminator doesn’t count as “horror”, but for some inexplicable reason my parents allowed me to watch this movie at age 4 and 5. You may recognize those years as the earliest ages in which children can create long-term memories.
I called it “Metal Man”, and I watched it over and over. I don’t remember being disturbed by the content at all until one night, I had a nightmare. The creepy stop-motion endoskeleton Terminator from the end of the film was driving a car. That’s the only detail I remember. After that nightmare I didn’t want to watch Metal Man anymore, at least for a few years.
Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
Last year I chose this movie for the annual Bad Horror Movie Night. It’s a perfect example not only of cheesy 80’s horror but of the ideal intersection between Freddy Krueger’s two personalities – the scary side and the funny side. It’s got buckets of gore, stop motion animation, one-liners, and synthesizer music.
But as a 7 year old, only one scene stood out: The scene where Freddy, in the dream world, inhabits the form of a marionette doll hanging from a wall. He cuts his own strings with the iconic Freddy razor glove and scurries across the room. As an almost universal rule, children deeply fear the notion of their toys coming to life and being evil. It’s why nearly every kid who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s was scared of Child’s Play.
This movie was playing on TV one night while I was visiting my grandparents in Greenwich, CT. The combination of the scene itself plus the pitch-black, forested environment and old creaky house guaranteed that I’d be sleeping with the lights on for the duration of the trip. And I did.
This Nightmare on Elm Street had a number of more gruesome and iconic scenes, but that was the one that kept me awake at night and was the predominant image I had of Freddy Krueger for years to come.
Tales From the Crypt
Before I even start with this one, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Remember that opening sequence? Today, I consider it one of the best television series intros of all time. In the early 90’s, I considered it fucking terrifying.
My parents had HBO when I was growing up, and they watched Tales From the Crypt, which still kind of surprises me as they’ve never been much into horror. If I was still awake when the show aired, I’d usually be lying on the carpet in front of the sofa watching, but I could never gather the courage to watch the entire intro. I could not handle the Crypt Keeper popping out of the coffin. No way, no how. But I’d challenge myself. I’d see how far into it I could get before closing my eyes. I’d bet that most nights, I’d get to about the 1:12 mark in that video above.
Here’s an interesting factoid about me: When I have trouble falling asleep, sometimes I hallucinate. It’s kind of like my brain starts the dream process before I’m actually asleep. I won’t go into detail about it here, but if you know me well, I’ve probably told you about it. Anyway, the first time I can recall this ever happening was when I was about 8 years old. I was trying to fall asleep in my top bunk, freaking myself out about a Tales From the Crypt episode we just watched. In my bedroom, there was a net pinned up in the corner of the ceiling where all the stuffed animals were kept. And in my 8 year old freaked out kid mind, that pile of stuffed animals totally became the Crypt Keeper. It was terrifyingly vivid, and I think I may have screamed everyone awake that night.
As I look back, I have to credit Tales From the Crypt for being one of the (and maybe the most) essential influences in my later fascination with horror. That weird urge to be genuinely afraid of something but still be drawn to it – watching Tales From the Crypt proved that I had it.
Think back to the late 90’s. Scream had reignited the slasher movie craze from the 80’s, and knock-offs like I Know What You Did Last Summer were killing it (bad pun) at the box office. Since I happened to be about 16 years old at the time, I saw many of these movies in the theater with my friends and as a result, I was starting to get pretty jaded about horror in general.
I plan to go into this subject in great detail some day on this website, but different people are affected by different types of horror. To paint it in broad strokes, generally people are either scared of real-world horrors like serial killers and torture, or they’re afraid of the supernatural. Most people aren’t equally scared of both concepts, so they’ll usually find one of them scary and the other not so scary. I have never been affected by the concept of regular human beings, masked or unmasked, trying to kill other human beings, so with the state of horror being what it was in the late 90’s, I was starting to think that I had outgrown scary movies. Even the ones that got me good as a kid, like Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist, were showing their age.
2002. Some buddies and I went out to see this new horror flick called The Ring. I didn’t know anything about it, other than it was getting some good buzz. I confidently strolled into the theater expecting another predictable teen horror movie. And for the first few minutes, that’s exactly that it seems to be. That’s part of the genius of this movie – it draws you into a false sense of security.
But with four little words, everything changed: “I saw her face”. That twisted image of a dead girl, frozen in an expression of indescribable horror, head lifelessly dropping into her chest… well, if you’ve seen it, you know. A wave of horror literally washed over the people in that theater. It was palpable. I wasn’t the only person there that night that was caught completely off guard by this new brand of terror.
After that scene the film has you right where it wants you. There’s such a thick feeling of dread hanging over the entire thing. And of course, everyone remembers being freaked out by the ghost of Samara crawling up from the well and out through the TV. But for my money, it all comes down to that first shock. In that very moment, I understood that movies could still scare the crap out of me. As a matter of fact, just doing the image search for the pic above sparked a tiny bit of that old feeling of dread. It’s still with me today.
Related story: Very shortly after I started dating my wife, we rented The Ring on DVD and watched it together. Afterwards, we were both fairly shaken up and decided to check out the special features, and I found an Easter egg. I selected a non-descript graphic from the main menu, and The Tape began playing. At that point we both gave a simultaneous “NOPE” and decided we weren’t up to it. It is, after all, an extremely disturbing video. But the stop button wasn’t working. Neither was the chapter skip, top menu, fast forward, or even power button. Activating that Easter egg disables the functions of your DVD player while it’s playing. We both started panicking and before I could think of something more logical, I got up and unplugged the TV. Then we both started laughing. The Easter egg worked EXACTLY as they planned it. Utter brilliance.
I’ve said it a million times. Hollywood is 100% creatively bankrupt. Fresh concepts in movies come about in a similar manner as evolution – astronomically unlikely mutations that are then reproduced into stagnation.
In 2009, the Saw series was in its sixth annual installment, and suffering from the entirely predictable diminishing returns, when along comes a scrappy little independent movie called Paranormal Activity. On a reported budget of around $10,000, it obliterated Saw 6 at the box office and pretty much single-handedly killed the franchise. Cut to 2013, and Paranormal Activity is now the new “annual Halloween franchise”, flogging the same dead horse into oblivion that made everybody so sick of the Saw movies. Halloween 2013 may not have a new Paranormal Activity hitting theaters, but the next TWO installments already have release dates in 2014 – one being a “Latino-focused spin off”. You can’t make this stuff up.
I digress because I wanted to emphasize the notion that as a society we may be totally “over” Paranormal Activity because of Paramount’s hubris, but we need to remember there was a time when it was nothing more than a creative, low-budget horror film that totally changed the game. It’s why I’m telling this story.
You may remember the first movie’s “demand it in your area” campaign. It was a clever little piece of marketing that purported to use social media to gauge how big a theatrical release the movie would get. When I saw it in the theater in 2009, it was only playing in 3 theaters in the Phoenix area, but was only a couple of weeks away from a full-on wide release.
I saw it with a friend in a theater that was only about 50% full, or less. At that time it had not yet become the phenomenon as we now remember it. You may also recall that the film lacks the traditional studio bumpers and credits, and passes itself off as legitimate found footage. Having done my research I knew it to be fiction, but I think a certain portion of the audience I saw it with that night wandered in out of curiosity and had no familiarity with the conceit. I came to this conclusion because of the reactions.
Now, before I go on, this story really isn’t about my response to the movie. I thought it was one of the scariest movies I’d ever seen, and was afraid to even get into my car alone to drive home afterwards. It got under my skin as well as the friend I saw it with. We are grown men who watch a lot of horror and who knew the story was fiction.
I remember the person who broke out crying first. A woman in a row behind us started sobbing uncontrollably after one of the more intense scenes. This was the first and only time I’d ever seen a horror movie get that reaction.
The second notable thing was a group of teenage girls sitting in one of the front rows. One of the most effective aspects of Paranormal Activity was the “Night #xx” thing. As the horror escalates towards the end, you start to ask yourself how much worse it can get, and every time you see that static shot in the bedroom come back up, on a new night, you know something bad is about to happen – something even worse than what you had seen before.
So anyway, around night #20, these teenage girls couldn’t take it anymore. They just got up and left the theater. I saw it happen, and a small part of me wondered if the movie just wasn’t working for them. Maybe they were bored. I got my answer when the movie ended and I was leaving the auditorium. The teenage girls were sitting on a bench just outside the theater, staring at the floor, not moving. It was like they were comatose. I couldn’t believe my eyes. You always hear stories about audiences fainting, or vomiting, or having heart attacks while watching the notorious horror movies of the past, but here were three actual people struggling to comprehend what they had just seen.
There you have it. I love telling these stories, but I also love hearing other people’s accounts (most of them tend to revolve around Child’s Play and It). Which scary movies REALLY got under your skin? Feel free to spin me a tale in the comments.