Over the past couple of days I’ve made mention to several people that I’m writing a series of blog posts about scary things I saw as a kid and—without fail—every person I’ve spoken to has immediately shared a memory of their own childhood-scarring experiences. The exchange usually goes something like this:
That’s a great idea! I remember a movie I saw when I was little, where this guy is out walking in the woods, then suddenly all these creepy dead children float down from out of the trees and hover just above the ground, blocking his path. Then one of the children, who is all gross and decaying, reaches out a white, clammy hand…
Anyway, you get the idea. After they describe the scene, again, almost to a person:
I can’t remember the name of the movie, or anything else that happened, but that one part really freaked me out.
Rarely are these memories linked to the entire feature length film. Rather, select scenes that packed such a psychological wallop as to have left a lasting impression of unpleasant bewilderment.
The film library in my brain is filled with similar cutting room floor memories, having grown up watching badly dubbed Italian horror movies (all hail Mario Bava, who we’ll save for a future post) on Saturday afternoons, where our local “movie macabre hostess” was a horror-pinup named Moona Lisa. These scenes play out in short vivid trailers of disconnected horror. No characters, no plot, no title. Just pictures that move in my mind, and the spine tingling shivers they raise in my memory.
Over the years I’ve grappled with these small doses of terror, trying to connect the memories to their source, and when I do connect a clip of gray-matter celluloid to a film title or TV episode…. Oh, the elation!! It’s like solving a lifelong riddle. We may all aspire to conquer our fears, but I’ll settle for merely making sense of them.
And what do I see when the little film festival of fright clicks up a scene or two in my mind?
Plants that come alive!
One very early memory is a scene from the first season of Lost In Space. Now, before you jump to dismiss the possibility of finding fear in such classic camp, go back and watch the first few episodes. The pilot, in particular, is high tension suspense, and the first season was a nice mix of disarming comedy and creepy Sci Fi terror, carried forward by a pretty awesome score (by John Williams, no less!). Yeah, the series became a silly parody of itself, but to a very young mind… the galactic perils of the family and crew of the Jupiter 2 were REAL!
One scene in particular completely freaked me out. I remember a character walking amongst the boulders and dirt on the surface of a planet, when he comes upon a patch of alien vegetation that suddenly bursts to life as wriggling, squirming petals and tendrils; cooing and shrieking as if they wished to ensnare a person in their slimy grasp. Growing up, we lived out in the country on 2 1/2 acres of… boulders and dirt… and PLANTS! Though I loved exploring and climbing the rocks, I would not go anywhere NEAR a rock that was close to a plant, convinced as I was that the plant would spring forth and drag me kicking and screaming into the earth.
The memory of that scene had no context, and I have no idea what the rest of the episode might have been about, but that image of a suddenly ravenous plant “stuck” in my brain.
Decades later, and thanks to bootleg tapes purchased at Comic-Con, I rediscovered the scene in episode 15 of the first season titled, appropriately enough, Attack of the Monster Plants.
Beware what lives in the shadows
In my last post I began by writing about the moment of mounting dread I felt while sitting in a theater Sunday afternoon. The movie I was seeing was Don’t be Afraid Of The Dark, the new film written and produced by Guillermo Del Toro. I really didn’t know much about the film, apart from its association with GDT, so I mostly went into the film cold.
As the story unfolded, I began to sense something very familiar that tapped at my vault of childhood horrors with the clack-clack-clack of an old and rusty skeleton key. I soon realized that I was watching a remake of far and away the CREEPIEST film I ever saw as a kid. My whole life I’d been haunted by memories of a truly frightening film I saw on TV that involved tiny demonic creatures tormenting a woman from the vents and dark corners of a very old house. I’d long ago forgotten (or maybe never knew) the title, but remembered the creatures and a very scary pit hidden behind a secret wall. The creatures, as I remember them, were terrifying! Through most of the film they were only seen as quick, look-away flashes; their looming presence felt through late cuts, rapid movements, and ominous sound. For a split second they were—There!—only to vanish as the eye plays tricks and the camera is late to the hunt. When finally revealed, the creatures were horribly mutated and prunish, with cruel faces and hateful eyes. They spoke in manic whispers of insanity; their intent obviously wicked and amoral. I didn’t sleep for days, avoided vents, bookshelves, cupboards, closets, the corner of any room, and when I finally did succumb to the powers of sleep, I did so with the lights ON for many, many weeks.
Sinking into the cushions of my theater seat I was frozen by this revelation, suddenly knowing what was to come on screen, with a clear understanding of how much it had affected me as a kid. I half considered fleeing the theater in anticipated terror.
I stuck around and enjoyed the film, but it didn’t have a fraction of the effect on me as had the original (which, after a bit of internet research, I discovered to have been made in 1973). Yes, the new version has plenty of good scares, high production values, solid acting, and the talents of Guillermo Del Toro. But the new version attempts (quite nicely) to explain why these bloodthirsty creatures want to torment their victims. And once horror can be rationalized, it’s really not that scary. Kind of like knowing the magician’s trick before he saws the lady in half.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m an absolute stickler for good writing, and the new version of DBAOTD is definitely the stronger narrative, with lots of subtext and well-developed characters to drive the story and explain the behavior of the characters. A+ Guillermo! But, when it comes to delivering mess-with-you-mind scares, nothing beats the lasting impact of the unexplained.
The original was scary because there was no explanation for what was happening. No one believed the traumatized heroine (played by Kim Darby) when she spoke of demonic creatures living in the shadows. The supernatural events were completely baseless and irrational, and that’s SUPER scary to a little kid! When you’re a kid—me!—and you see something without any basis in reality… that makes it all the more real, because there is no explanation. You rationalize what you see on screen by believing a few simple “facts”:
- There are demons that live in the wall.
- They only come out when it’s dark.
- They want to kill me.
Is any other justification for being scared necessary?!??!
If I were to go back and watch the original today (which I certainly plan on doing), I doubt it would have the same scarring impact on my mind. Then again, I now live in a very old house with all kinds of unexplained drafts, noises, hidey-holes, mystery doorways, and skeleton keys. Not to mention the pit in the basement.
I’d love to hear your Forgotten Movie memories. What movies scared you so badly that the rest of the film was vanquished from your memory? Share! We can start a support group.