Here’s an AVQ&A discussion idea: pop-culture-induced anxieties. Think about the people after Psycho who would lock their bathroom doors while taking showers. As a kid, I was convinced the Gulf Of Mexico was infested with sharks, thanks to Jaws. What art made a visceral impact on you that you still think about, even though you know it’s illogical? —Kyle
This takes me back to the good ol’ days of Ask The A.V. Club, when every other question we’d get would start off “When I was very young, I saw something on TV that gives me nightmares to this day. What was it?” I think we all have irrational associations that movies and books put into our heads when we were young, and even now that we’re all old and wise, it’s surprisingly hard to shake them. For the longest time after reading The Shining, I didn’t want to enter a bathroom alone late at night; I was convinced that when I turned on the light, the tub would suddenly be occupied by some quasi-dead, rotting horror, ready to reach for me. (Then again, leaving the light off wasn’t an acceptable alternative either.) And TV tuned to static hasn’t been the same for me since the Ring movies. But probably the most ridiculous pop-culture anxiety that’s ever stuck around in the back of my head is the vague fear of leaning against someone’s chest and finding out they’re hard, hollow, and about to convert into a biting monster. Remember that sequence in John Carpenter’s The Thing? It’s actually kind of a lousy special effect, but the abruptness and the signature John Carpenter viscerality still makes it linger in my brain. I have never held back on touching someone because of the fear that his chest might eat me, but thinking back for even a second on that scene, I can almost feel in my hands and wrists what it would be like to have what you thought was skin and muscle turn out to be an eggshell-thin surface over a mouth that’s ready to chomp off your hands. Thanks, JC!
I covered this in our related AVQ&A about childhood scares, but I have a deep, all-consuming fear of spiders that I attribute to an accidental viewing of Arachnophobia at a friend’s house when I was 7 or so. But it’s actually a little more specific than that. A couple of decades later, I’ve gotten to the point where I can squish a single spider with minimal squealing. But what really sends me into hysterics to this day, which I can trace directly back to Arachnophobia, is swarms of any kind, though those involving arachnids/insects top the list. Beehives, anthills, even schools of fish: Any huge, undulating mass made of tiny individual, creepy parts triggers the illogical part of my brain that’s convinced they’re going to overtake and kill me via a million tiny bites, or maybe just suffocate me with their grossness. I still have nightmares to this effect on a regular basis, and spotting a single spider or other creepy-crawly immediately conjures the sensation of thousands more of them crawling up the back of my neck. Even thinking about it… gah, excuse me, I have to go sob in the corner for a bit.
I was a precocious 8-year-old, seemingly mature for my age, so that’s probably why my babysitter thought it was okay to recount the entire plot of Halloween to me one summer evening. I’d never been a monster-under-the-bed kind of scaredy-cat before that night, but after that, I began sleeping with my head under the covers, operating under the theory that either the slashers wouldn’t be able to see me, or that they couldn’t cut through a bed sheet. It took until I was a teenager for me to get over that, but then a couple of years ago, when I watched all the Friday The 13th movies for an A.V. Club piece, the fear of lurking strangers with knives began to creep back in. Every night since, when I’ve begun my midnight trek from the living room to the bedroom, I’ve made sure the hall light is on. And still, in that split-second between switching off the hall light and opening our bedroom door, I have a flutter of panic, half-expecting some husky masked serial killer to impale me before I step into the safety zone.
Lucky for me, most of my vast collection of neuroses and anxieties stem from things that have happened to me in real life, and popular culture is, for the most part, an escape from them. However, there’s one I can trace directly to books and movies: my increased bad vibes about flying. I’m not really afraid to fly; I still do so at least half a dozen times a year. But I used to have no trouble flying at all, and now, I have a few moments of anxiety on any given flight where I imagine terrorist takeovers or mechanical failure that bring the whole thing down. These feelings started, naturally enough, right after September 11, 2001, but the curious thing is that none of the internal nightmares that run through my head at takeoff and landing come from reality. They all come from movies I’ve seen or books I’ve read. The terror of plane crashes—not just of dying in one, but of living through one—can be traced directly to my having read J.G. Ballard’s Crash in a nearly empty airport a month after the terrorist attacks. The occasional images that flash through my head during a rough patch of turbulence are never from any real-life experience I’ve had—they’re from United 93 or various disaster movies I’ve watched over the years. So I find myself in the situation of being increasingly nervous about the possibility of a disaster that’s almost certain never to happen because I’ve seen it happen so often in movies.
I was 11 when ABC showed The Day After, Nicholas Meyer’s made-for-TV movie about nuclear war, in 1983. Back then, there was a lot of nuclear paranoia running through pop culture; I vividly remember seeing the television version of Damnation Alley, a pulpy film about post-nuke adventurers, on NBC around the same time. But where Damnation Alley was cartoonish, The Day After was harrowingly realistic. The movie is two blood-chilling hours of escalating, unrelenting grimness, an unflinching account of pockets of average Americans in Lawrence, Kansas trying to keep their shit together as U.S.-Soviet tensions mount—and then trying to keep their bodies together after the bombs fall.
Calling my fear of nuclear war after that night a mere anxiety doesn’t do it justice. For years, I firmly believed I was never going to live to see adulthood. Fiery death-scapes and flash-fried skeletons danced in my dreams. I’m not kidding. I never talked about it with anyone, but as I entered my teenage years, I began to see human existence as some kind of futile pantomime, a way to pass the time until doomsday. As I left adolescence, perestroika, glasnost, and the fall of the Berlin Wall helped heal that trauma—most of which, granted, had as much to do with the fact that I was a weird kid anyway—but that apocalyptic pessimism has stuck with me in many ways ever since.
I wound up watching The Day After for the first time in my adult life while prepping for The A.V. Club’s recent feature, Roll Credits? The Truth Behind Cinematic Apocalypses. I was so nervous about seeing the film again, I woke up at 4 in the morning and wound up viewing it as the sun came up, my brain still half-steeped in dreamland. I kept hoping the movie would, in retrospect, feel somehow hokey—and maybe this was simply due to my sleep-deprived frame of mind—but The Day After was even more brutal than I remembered, particularly that iconic bomb-dropping scene. Perversely, the cheap special effects make that sequence all the more eerie, horrifying, and, in my eyes, weirdly realistic—as if the visual nature of reality itself was somehow mutated and flattened by a full-scale nuclear attack.
I eventually came around to The X-Files in a big way, but it never fails to bring back remnants of desperate, middle-school-era fear. I still marvel at how Fox Mulder keeps his eye on the show’s extremely well-developed big picture when there’s so much scary shit in the foreground to throw a guy off. I hardly remember any actual details about the third-season episode "Syzygy"—in which Mulder and Scully investigate possibly occult-related murders—just that it briefly put my 12-year-old self into a Daniel Johnston-caliber obsession with Satan, to the point that I almost decided then and there to become a priest. Thanks to this bit of priming, any film involving Satan or demons in invisible or shape-shifting form—from The Exorcist to Paranormal Activity—ends up preying on me pretty hard after the fact, even though I’m not religious. Reading back over summaries now, I realize the episode was probably also funny as hell: A mysterious set of bones found in the woods turns out to belong to a dog, not a baby. My seventh-grade Spanish teacher later decided to give us a completely distorted spin on the myth of El Chupacabra by showing us "El Mundo Gira." The deaths in the episode aren’t the work of a legendary goat-slaying monster, but the investigation did lead me through a hallucinatory mix of myth, extraterrestrial paranoia, deadly fungus, and dudes with hideously swollen heads. It filled me with such vague terror that I didn’t touch the series again until I was 20 or so.
Although I outgrew my Jaws paranoia, I have since traded it for something far more illogical: the fear that I’ve died during my commute home, but with my spirit unknowingly continuing the trip, à la “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.” Before you suggest I increase my meds, understand this: I usually ride my bike to work. The 10.5-mile trip mostly avoids surface streets, thanks to Chicago’s glorious lakefront path, but as anyone who bikes in a big city can tell you, it can be dicey. I’m a careful rider, but I’ve had close calls, so living in fear of motorists isn’t paranoia, it’s a survival instinct. Every now and then, when I park my bike in my building’s storage room and start walking upstairs, the thought will flash through my mind: “What if I got hit by a car and am really dead?” I never think it on my way to the office—because there’s no way my spirit is coming into work if I’m dead. That’d make no sense.
If we’re being honest, the list of things from assorted pop-cultural works that has gotten me all worked up over the years is a really, really long one. In my childhood, I was terrified at one time or another of any multitude of things, including the Rapture of the saved, Easter Island heads, coyotes (spurred by an episode of Benson), the Shroud of Turin, the Care Bears, and the possibility that I was the lost princess of Oz, Ozma, transformed into a boy and placed in hiding. Since I ostensibly grew up, I’ve been more terrified by stuff on the news than anything else—an article about peak oil set me off for something like four or five months when I was in my mid-20s—but occasional pop-cultural artifacts take up space in my head and root around for a while. In particular, earlier this year, thanks to the show Lost, I briefly became convinced that I was living in the wrong universe, that there was some other optimal world where I was happier with the path my life had taken. It got to the point where I had frequent, vivid dreams that mostly ripped off that show’s “Happily Ever After,” in which I discovered my true purpose, only to forget it when I woke up. Now, logically, I knew I had not somehow stumbled into a parallel universe where I wasn’t living the life I was meant to, but a tiny part of my brain kept screaming, “THIS IS WRONG. YOU NEED TO WAKE UP.” Then I found out—spoiler alert!—everybody was just dead, and it mostly went away.
This is more an anxiety in the past, but as a kid, I grew up being afraid of teenagers, and in particular, high school. It seemed, based on what I’d seen on TV and in movies, like a place populated entirely by greasers, burnouts, mindless jocks, and other types sure to administer swirlies and/or wedgies with little provocation. For a sensitive type like me, it looked like it was going to be four years of hell on earth. Then I got to junior high, and everything I’d been led to expect from high school arrived early. High school itself? That was a breeze.
I never actually saw the movie Fire In The Sky, but I remember being so afraid of the trailer that I had to leave the room whenever it came on: I especially remember being scarred by the image of D.B. Sweeney screaming from beneath a translucent caul. The existence of this movie thus placed “alien invasion/abduction” high on the shelf of my childhood phobias, alongside “fireworks” and “lightning.” (I guess I truly was afraid of fire in the sky.) Being kidnapped by aliens and serving as the guinea pig in various painful experiments is a frightening enough hook for a movie, but the fact that it was based on a true story had me practically running through the wall, leaving a Claire-shaped hole behind whenever the trailer came on.
Like some of my A.V. Club colleagues, I was a preternaturally neurotic child who was scared of just about everything. But nothing terrified me more than the looming prospect of a Communist takeover of the United States. When I was a kid, it was drilled into us that Russians were a cold-blooded, uniformly brilliant, incredibly determined lot who would not stop until they’d transformed the United States into a Communist dictatorship. We had no idea that the country was actually full of depressed, dispirited, hard-drinking bureaucrats who had nearly as much contempt for Communism as us good old Americans. In my mind, Russians were a cross between rocket scientists and Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. I was so terrified of a world in which the Godless Commies banned Christmas (never mind that I’m Jewish) and replaced Mickey Mouse with Josef Stalin that I didn’t even need to see Cold War artifacts like Red Dawn and the mini-series Amerika to be freaked out by them; I just needed to see commercials. My fevered, paranoid mind filled in the rest.