'I didn't sleep well for months': the films that terrified our writers as kids
Pamela Hutchinson, Peter Bradshaw, André Wheeler, Benjamin Lee, Gretchen Smail, Andrew Pulver, Gwilym Mumford, Charles Bramesco, Catherine Shoard and Adrian Horton
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
My first trip to the cinema scarred me for the rest of my filmgoing life. I still remember a suitably childlike awe at the size of the room and my glee when the film began with a glittering dance sequence. The occasion was my older brother’s seventh birthday and naturally he had chosen the film. Like any self-respecting seven-year-old in the mid-1980s, he wanted to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. So my first big-screen movie was a supposedly family-friendly film that features ritual sacrifice and pits of fire as well as a banquet of baby snakes, monkey brains and eyeball soup – not to mention the scene in which a man’s heart is ripped, still beating, from his chest.
Overimaginative at the best of times, my tiny brain was overwhelmed by each new horror, and I was terrorstruck by the thought of what gore might spurt next. I even squirmed 180 degrees in my seat, only to see the adult next to me averting his eyes too. Subsequently, Temple of Doom was heavily criticized for its dark and offensive imagery, but it was too late for five-year-old me. To this day, I feel a frisson of nervousness as the lights go down in the cinema – the fear that the chorus line will be pushed off the screen by a parade of bloody monstrosities. And yet, I keep going back … PH
I wasn’t allowed to see horror movies when I was a little kid, certainly not allowed to stay up late and watch scary films on television, and this was in that ancient pre-internet and pre-VCR era when it was physically impossible to get your hands on them covertly. So I was shocked – really shocked – by the public information films on safety which reached out of the TV screen around teatime and punched you in the face, about the same time of day as Jackanory or Hector’s House. This one is a classic, Lonely Water from 1973, sometimes called Dark And Lonely Water (although no title appears). It was commissioned by the government’s Central Office of Information (COI) in response to an increase in child drowning accidents: written and produced by the COI official Christine Harmon and directed by Jeff Grant, who blogged about his experience.
Lonely Water is brutally addressed to children, not to the adults who are supposed to be taking care of them. A dark, hooded figure appears to be walking on the dangerous stretches of water, looming up behind the kids, with Donald Pleasence doing the creepy narration. Like so many chillingly contemptuous teachers that I remember from those days, this Angel Of Death sneers knowingly at the “showoffs” who mess about near water and fall in and drown, and also at the simply “unwary” who don’t know what they’re doing. The dark cloaked figure appears disturbingly behind them, as if walking on the misty water itself. Lonely Water is often compared to the beginning of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (and it is eerily similar) and Pleasence might bring to mind John Carpenter’s Halloween from 1978, in which he starred. But for me the film-maker who most comes to mind is Peter Watkins, who made the chilling The War Game and Punishment Park: film-making with a clinically icy establishment voice whose clear, cruel purpose is to disturb. PB
Freddy vs Jason
Scary movies and I have never gotten along. Life is frightful enough.
I’m pretty sure I was dragged to see Freddy vs Jason as a kid because my parents did not want to sit through whatever else was out at that time, like Freaky Friday or Uptown Girls. I was eight years old and officially tall enough to ride the cool rollercoasters – I wanted to prove that I was mature enough to withstand blood and gore. But I still didn’t understand that everything on TV and film was fake. Because how can you fake getting your head chopped off? So imagine my horror when I saw Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child, my favorite girl group ever, on the big screen. There she was, pissing off Freddy Kruger by calling him a faggot (Rowland’s release of gay circuit party staples like Commander make up for this uncomfortable moment, in my opinion). And then, BAM! Rowland gets smacked with Jason Voorhees’s machete out of nowhere.
I could not fall asleep that night. Kelly Rowland was dead! Destiny’s Child would never make music again. And my mom was no help with my eight-year-old anxieties. She just brushed off my pop music concerns with: “It’s not real. Go back to bed.” A few months later, I saw Rowland on TV in a live appearance. She was healthy. Her head was still intact. And there were no traces of blood. The world could go on. Every member of Destiny’s Child was still alive. AW
I was eight when I first saw Nicolas Roeg’s sadistic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, a horror film for children made with a cruel, adult sensibility. I was at a friend’s house, too embarrassed to admit that I was terrified and too terrified to stop watching, and by the time it was over, I was left with a horrifying new outlook on life. Many of the films that rank among the scariest for children subvert a traditionally harmless character into something monstrous (it’s why Pennywise and Chucky had such a profound effect on so many) and at an age when I still defined women in soft, simplistic terms, I was suddenly made aware that not all of them wanted to coo over me – some of them might want to kill me instead.
It wasn’t the grandiose unmasking of the witches that stuck, as gruesome as it was, but instead I was haunted by the smaller moments, the scenes when they were still in full disguise, insidiously targeting vulnerable children, overcome with pure hate. There was the witch who trapped a girl in a painting, the witch who tried to lure a boy down from his treehouse with chocolate and a snake, the witch who pushed a pram toward the edge of a cliff – insidious scenes designed to provoke nightmares and that they did. I remember not sleeping well for months, horrified that they were hiding in my suburban setting, disgusted by my existence, waiting patiently to eradicate me.
I was eager to grow up for a number of reasons – my own money, an escape from my bleak small town, the ability to devour a second and third portion of dessert without restriction – but the most overwhelming of all was the knowledge that once I turned 18, I’d be safe from the witches. BL
The first time I saw The Ring I was about 12, and the viewing was basically forced on me during a classroom movie day. Looking back on it now, it’s a pretty quiet, atmospheric film for most of its runtime, but for the entire duration I was scared out of my wits, watching it behind my fingers. What Gore Verbinski does so well in The Ring is imbuing the most mundane objects with menace. I couldn’t look at TVs, chairs, ladders and mirrors for a while without feeling spooked, all because they featured in Samara’s video. It’s weirdly the chair that haunted me for years after: the image of it spinning upside down returns to me occasionally, and the eerie wrongness of it still unsettles me.
It’s also a movie that taught me early on about futility, and that kindness is not always repaid: despite finding Samara and giving her a proper burial, Rachel’s man still dies, and her son would have too if she hadn’t made a copy of the tape in order to infect the next person. It’s ultimately a sad film about a very harsh, dog-eat-dog world, and that really bothered me as a kid. GS
As a sensitive, if not to say delicate, child, I always steered well clear of scary films – still do. But there was a time in my mid-teens – the early 1980s – when I felt I should investigate this horror movie thing, and (before the video-nasty scare really took hold) they were often on late-night TV. I managed to get through The Amityville Horror, Alien and Halloween without incident, but the one that really shook me up was an Australian film that I never heard of again until it was remade to little fanfare in 2013.
Kicking off with a gruesome scene where the murderous title character chucks an electric fire into a bath containing his mother and her lover, Patrick is a classic spin on the old kill-everyone-with-telekinesis-you-are-sexually-threatened-by trope, popularised by Carrie a couple of years earlier. The main twist here is that, shortly after the electric fire incident, the glassy-eyed teen of the title slips into a coma, and does all his nastiness while lying in a hospital bed. I think it was the fact that he was unconscious the entire time (as well as the very creepy touch of communicating via a possessed typewriter) that really freaked me out. And there’s an amazing final flip-out: I won’t give it away exactly what it is but it’s far worse and shocking than any Hitcher-type unkillable killers. I’m getting worried again just thinking about it. AP
Given that people the world over cower in fear of them, it’s strange that arachnids haven’t been more of a major player in Hollywood horror over the years. Sure, there was the giant spider in Harry Potter, and the final hideous transformation of Pennywise in It, but they were minor elements rather than the main event. Instead, for the most part they have have been restricted to sub-Sharknado B-movies with titles like Lavalantula.
The one respectable exception was Arachnophobia, a genuinely terrifying effort that sadistic TV schedulers would regularly drop in before the watershed when I was a child. The genius of Frank Marshall’s 1990 film was that, rather than making the spiders giant, he made a virtue of their smallness: the gist was that a deadly South American spider mated with a common house spider, producing hundreds of lethal offspring that lay waste to a small American town. Here, the deadly killer could appear at any moment, lurking up a coat sleeve, or lying in wait in a dusty corner. In the end Jeff Daniels’ heroic physician does the decent thing and kills the spider queen with fire, but I never enjoyed this cathartic conflagration, having long since legged it from the living room. GM
Don’t Look Under the Bed
Encountering genuinely frightening material in a Disney Channel original movie feels as unexpected and scandalizing as discovering a razor blade in a candy apple – these things are supposed to be for children! I watched this kiddie horror flick (the last that the Disney Channel ever produced, due to an influx of aggrieved letters from parents tending to their hysterical offspring) through the wide, terrified eyes of a boy in 19-never-you-mind, having come in prepared for a spooky good time about a girl and her imaginary friend battling the Boogeyman. What I got instead was a demented funhouse fantasia of fear, real fear, the kind of immediate visually – sourced fear completely alien to a child theretofore frightened only by the figments of his own imagination.
There are lots of psychologically unsettling elements to the script: the notion of a loved one transforming into something monstrous and turning on you, the transition from being a dependent toddler to a semi-autonomous grade-schooler, the locus of danger being the safe confines of your bedroom. But as a youngster, I was hit hardest by the old-fashioned stuff. The Boogeyman character’s design – long nails, rangy hair, sharp teeth – and the Twin Peaks-style eeriness of his slow, creeping approach laid me right out. If one day I do become a father, my only priority will be protecting my progeny from this film. CB
I have no idea how old I was when I caught 20-odd minutes of the 1972 portmanteau horror Asylum on telly. I had no idea that’s what I had seen until I did some Googling for this feature and figured out this was the origin of those images seared on to my brain. The individual limbs wrapped in brown paper heaving their way up the cellar stairs. The severed head, similarly packaged, rolling slowly into the kitchen.
These body parts, it turns out from rewatch, belong to Ruth (Sylvia Sims), who has been chopped up by her cheating husband, Walter (Richard Todd) so he can pop off with foxy Bonnie (Barbara Parkins). But Ruth has been taking African voodoo classes, so her bits and bobs don’t stay shut in the newfangled deep freeze Walter has bought specially – instead they conspire to strangle him to death and so mess up his mistress that she’s wheeled off to the institute.
I expected the scenes to look a bit clunky to my 40-year-old eyes – a touch hokey, perhaps, the scares maybe over-signposted. Actually, the whole thing was atrocious: completely without chills, poorly played and appallingly paced. All you can think about is what an incredibly meticulous job Walter has done with his brown paper and string (no seepage at all!) and what a smashing utility room they have in their basement. CS
One day when I was about five, I found my dad watching ET. I don’t remember meeting Drew Barrymore; all I can recall now is the scene in which one kid searches for ET in the woods and finds him, splayed and freezing and nearly dead from homesickness, in a creek bed. Something about that image has haunted me since – maybe it was the inhumanness of his half-dead pale body, or the idea that an alien could be found clinging to life in the creek behind my house, or even worse, that I, too, could become so detached from my home that I would die.
Whatever the case – and I am sure there are many valid reasons why ET is considered a classic – I stopped watching, and have never seen it since. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the root of my aversion to Halloween-themed or scary movies – my first impression seemed less thrilling than sad. Regardless, I finally rewatched the scene on YouTube, and I’m relieved that my brain didn’t make it all up; I’m not relieved to learn that ET is also pestered by a raccoon while catatonic in the woods, which makes the prospect of death in the creek seem more grounded in reality than I remember. AH
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