This week’s question comes via contributor Caroline Siede, who also wrote the first entry:
“What entertainment are you embarrassed to be scared of?”
I thought it only fitting that I pose this question because literally every fictional thing I’m scared of is embarrassing. I’m pretty chill about ax murders, ghosts, zombies, and even creepy possessed kids, but I’m absolutely terrified of monsters—specifically the kind that are played by men in rubber suits. This isn’t a hard and fast rule; I can get through an average episode of Star Trek okay. But there’s a certain kind of creature with a recognizably human build but off-kilter proportions and animalistic qualities that makes me totally lose it. For instance, most people laugh at what I’ll generously call the “Party City Yeti” employed in The Twilight Zone’s “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” but I can only watch that episode while peeking from behind my fingers. My absolute nightmare, though, are the creatures from M. Night Shyamalan’s much-reviled The Village. And yes, I’m very aware that the entire point of the movie is that they’re actually village elders dressed in monster costumes. But as we’ve previously established, reality isn’t really a factor in this fear. So those hulking, hooded creatures will continue to haunt my dreams no matter what my logical brains tells me. Thanks a lot, Shyamalan!
It’s not so much fear as a sense of crushing despair, but I spent a long time hiding from the theme song from M*A*S*H when I was a kid. Any time I heard those dreary opening chords, I’d go running to the TV, desperately hunting for some other, more cheerful rerun to wash away that feeling of washed-out loss. It didn’t help that the show usually came on right after cartoons, demarcating the end of the fun part of my TV-watching day. Even now, the tune provokes a Pavlovian urge to get away, which probably explains why I’ve never sat down and watched what I’m sure is one of the great sitcoms of the 20th century. Sorry, M*A*S*H. At least I got some vindication out of the deal: When I eventually learned that the song is actually called “Suicide Is Painless,” it made feel a better about all the times it chased me out of the living room as a kid.
I still can’t believe how much Maleficent freaks me out. It started when I was a kid, when my aunt took my cousin and me to see Sleeping Beauty in the theater. I spied Maleficent and her dragon form on the posters outside and announced that there was no way in hell I was going to get into a dark room with that thing (I was about 5 or 6 at the time). My cousin couldn’t believe it. When my kids wanted to watch Sleeping Beauty years later, that witch was just as terrifying as I remembered her, conjuring up poisonous brambles and transforming into that dragon menace using “all the powers of hell.” Props to Prince Phillip for not running away immediately. Then to make matters worse, Angelina Jolie starred in a whole movie about her, adding giant wings to what was already an extremely scary figure. I could barely even sit through the trailer in the theater; when little Aurora asks Maleficent why she won’t come out and she replies, “Then you’ll be afraid.” I was already afraid.
The Child’s Play movies should not be scary, nor should their primary antagonist, Chucky—savvier thinkers than I have long posited that the killer doll’s obvious weakness is a swift kick to his uncanny-valley face. Even franchise mastermind Don Mancini recognizes that he created an absurd slasher, allowing Chucky to follow Freddy Krueger down the primrose path of quippy, self-aware camp in Bride Of Chucky and its sequel, Seed Of Chucky. And yet: Nearly three decades after stumbling upon a TV spot for Child’s Play’s home-video release, I still wake once or twice a year with a start and a sweaty brow, having just been terrorized by some evil toy or another in my dreams. The dreams are irregular, but I’ve had enough of them to recognize when I’m being set up for a Chucky-type scare, and the last few times I’ve been able to kick myself back to consciousness before I’m in too deep. Then again, in the course of writing this AVQ&A response, I discovered that Chucky has a real-life inspiration living (?) in Key West, so apparently I need to start doing nocturnal surveillance for Good Guy dolls and little Floridian sailors.
What surprised me most about becoming a father was my sudden and total susceptibility to cheap emotional manipulation in entertainment concerning kids. Whether it’s in a movie, a TV show—hell, even a particularly sentimental coffee commercial—if it concerns children or the delicate, ephemeral nature of a parent/child relationship, no scene is too banal or unearned that I won’t get weepy watching it. So now, I can’t watch anything with a scene showing a child by themselves. Whether they’re playing in the park unsupervised or sitting in their room, idly singing a little song, I just assume the scene is a preamble to them being attacked or taken or swept up in some terrible manner that exists only as a narrative device shattering a family’s peace and happiness. This feeling is most pronounced when I’m watching a horror movie or a thriller, but really, it happens regardless of genre. Any time I watch a scene with kids lost or alone is enough to send me running upstairs to make sure my own podling is still snug in her bed before returning downstairs to happily watch the adults get their faces eaten off by zombies or cannibals or extra-dimensional parasites.
I managed to make it this long without anyone finding this out, so I guess I’m overdue for a confession: I find the old woman in The Princess Bride who yells at Buttercup to be absolutely terrifying. After what turns out to be a dream sequence, in which Humperdink announces that Buttercup is now the Queen, an old woman dressed in rags and covered in warts (listed on IMDB as “The Ancient Booer,” which is a great name) starts yelling: “So bow down to her if you want, bow to her. Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo. Boo. Rubbish. Filth. Slime. Muck. Boo. Boo! Boo!” With each boo, the camera pulls in, until the final extreme close-up on her face, screaming “BOOOOO,” which is usually when I want to run from the room—or at least turn the television off.
When it first came out in 1978, I was only 8 years old, so I’m not embarrassed that I was scared of the movie Magic then. But it makes me cringe to watch the trailer now, at age 45, and find that I still have a residual tendency to shudder whenever Fats the ventriloquist dummy speaks. Not that director Richard Attenborough didn’t seemingly go out of his way to make sure that ventriloquist/magician Corky Withers—played by Anthony Hopkins—had absolutely the creepiest-looking dummy possible as his sidekick, but… it’s just a dummy. And I’m a grown man. It shouldn’t still creep me out. But it does. It really, really does.
This isn’t something I’ve been scared of in a long, long time, but I’m still baffled at my preschool self’s overpowering fear in the face of the opening credits of The Electric Company. The kids’ educational series was revived in 2006, but I was terrified by the 1970s’ original, a PBS staple intended for kids who had moved on from Sesame Street. It was a terrific show, with a cast that included Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman, and Spider-Man. The opening theme song was as innocuous a slice of Up With People-style ’70s pop as you could ask for. But before the opening notes to the song, a voice yelled, “Hey you guys!!!!!!” It was intended as an energizing call to arms for the nation’s preschoolers to get read to learn about phonics. But it was loud, and sudden, and my 3-year-old self was terrified of that voice. In those pre-remote days, I would spend Sesame’s opening credits waiting nervously near the TV, so I could turn off the set as soon as that show ended, wait until a reasonable amount of time had passed, and turn the show on mid-credits, just to be safe.
Sometimes you see an image as a child that horrifies you to such an extent that it sticks with you your entire life, no matter how ridiculous that image might be, or how fleeting that initial exposure might have been. That was the case with a movie called Attack Of The Mushroom People. I only saw a tiny segment of the film as a small boy and was so traumatized by the hideous Cronenbergian fusion of man and mushroom, fungi and fun guys, that I immediately shut it off lest I be bedeviled by nightmares every night of my existence. I still haven’t seen Attack Of The Mushroom People, and even the sight of still images on Google are enough to give me the heebie-jeebies.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya
I know Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is a film beloved by many, but the moment I laid eyes on that wrinkly alien, I became convinced his whole friendship act was just a ploy to cover up his secret life as a cold-blooded killer. It didn’t help matters that a few nights after I saw the movie, I had a dream that looked pretty much exactly like the real movie ending, with a small twist. In my subconscious’ retelling, E.T. murdered everyone. Now, I know that’s not how the movie really ends, but I can still see my bloody revisionist ending so vividly that, as much as I’d like to be able to say I have outgrown my fear of everyone’s favorite alien, I never quite got over it. I still cringe when I see stuffed-doll versions or images of E.T., and my mother, to this day, thinks it’s hilarious to taunt me with “E.T. phone home” in that creaky voice that could only belong to an extraterrestrial murderer. I can sit through horror-movie marathons all day, but I will go to my grave without revisiting E.T.
I completely understand Kayla’s aversion to E.T., not just because that scene where Elliott’s house in covered in plastic is scary as hell, but because I spent several years freaked out by another innocuous piece of children’s entertainment: Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. It must have struck some sort of chord with my subconscious elementary-age mind, because after seeing that movie for the first time I became terrified that, at some point, I would spontaneously shrink and drown in a bowl of Cheerios or something. Never mind that my dad was not a mad scientist, and no one I knew would have any idea how to even begin building a shrink ray. Things got so bad that I refused to walk over manhole covers or on open staircases for a while, for fear I would spontaneously shrink and fall to my doom through an unfortunately placed opening. What can I say? It was weird.
As someone who prides himself of being rational, and that tinfoil is for baked potatoes and not government mind control-ray-canceling headgear, I’m always annoyed with myself for getting wigged out every time I leaf through Robert Anton Wilson’s encyclopedia of paranoia (or is it?), Everything Is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, And Cover-Ups. In this 2002 tome from the author of the similarly minded, delightfully bonkers Illuminatus! trilogy, the late Wilson lays out an alphabetical catalog of every conspiracy theory anyone had every heard of, from alien abductors, to Satanic panics, to the Bilderbergers, the Illuminati, and the Freemasons, to the Kennedy death list, to the Vatican banking scandal, to the questionable suicide of journalist Danny Casolaro, who was found dead in a motel bathtub right before he was preparing to unveil details of “The Octopus,” which he claimed was an all-encompassing global conspiracy to which most other conspiracies in the book could be tied in one way or another. Like a book version of Snopes.com, this volume is a time-devouring rabbit hole that fogs my head the more I read it. Sure, some of the theories listed (Queen Elizabeth II is a shape-shifting lizard person) are comfortingly goofy, but Wilson’s evenhanded tone in presenting the shadowy weirdness caught in his book’s nets invariably creeps under my skin. After all, isn’t being skeptical of evil conspiracy theories just what evil conspiracists are counting on to keep me from recognizing their evil conspiracies? Think about that.
With this answer, I’m fully aware my genre street cred will be called into question (and that I should probably stop making fun of Kayla for the whole E.T. thing): The X-Files. I know, I know. It’s an absurd fear, especially in the context of ’90s special effects and the show’s impact on television. I’m perfectly aware it’s all a mental thing, but as soon as I hear that theme song, I legitimately cannot function. As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch the show, but once it hit syndication, my only exposure to it was waking up in the middle of the night—having fallen asleep waiting for a rerun of Angel or whatever—to either the theme or some gruesome scene, devoid of context. It’s a fear I know I should get over and, believe me, I have tried, but I simply can’t attempt to do it without going into panic attack mode. In fact, very recently, I had to watch “Space,” which is arguably the worst episode of the series and only really talked about when discussing how cheesy and boring it is. But I couldn’t tell you a single thing that happened in that episode, as I spent the entire episode an anxious mess. However, given the clip of The X-Files shown at the TCAs this summer, I can see myself possibly getting over this fear sooner rather than later.
I should probably be vaguely embarrassed to have even seen 8mm, Joel Schumacher’s snuff-film thriller, but it’s almost more embarrassing to admit that the movie really freaked me out. It’s not strange to be frightened or disturbed by the idea of a snuff film, of course, but that’s not really the material that messed me up. No, it’s more the back half of the movie, when the private investigator played by Nicolas Cage goes on a vengeful rampage, tracking down the people responsible for the porno snuff film he’s been investigating in the first half (he’s tasked with finding out whether it’s real; unfortunately, it is). It’s basically the point where the movie crosses over from vaguely exploitative to full-on exploitation (gaining credibility only from Cage’s typically committed performance): One bad guy dares Cage to off him in an endless, sweaty stand-off, while another lurks around a creepy house. Pretty standard stuff, but the pervasive sleaze and intensity of a few of these scenes summoned dread like a good slasher. I haven’t seen the movie since ’99, but my recollection is that it’s neither of those things. I also recall that after my buddies and I stumbled out of the movie late at night, we were so dazed and rattled that we turned into the wrong lane of traffic as we exited the mall. No one was hurt, but it feels especially lame that Schumacher’s faux-edgy thriller did that to us.
I have this insane fear of horses that stems from various childhood traumas. Well, not really traumas, so much as trauma, so much as once when I was about 5 I saw a horse with one eye and her minder try to make me feel better about it by saying, “Don’t worry, hun, she only has one eye because another horse kicked it out.” DID YOU KNOW HORSES COULD DO THAT BECAUSE I DID NOT KNOW THAT. I used to work in Philly’s historic district (called Old City) where there are a ton of horse-drawn carriages, and I would legit walk a half a mile out of my way to avoid them. Anyway, I can watch most Westerns—I actually love Westerns—but Black Beauty? Nope. National Velvet? Hell to the no. The Horse Whisperer? Not even a studly Robert Redford can calm my fears. Movies about horses have no place in my life.
HBO’s Tales From The Crypt (which our own A.A. Dowd covered memorably last week) is supposed to be a little scary—not terrifying, but also not exactly family friendly. (Excluding the Saturday morning cartoon adaptation, Tales From The Cryptkeeper.) Still, I’m ashamed at how thoroughly the show gets under my skin, to the point where I’m not really able to watch it in the morbidly comic way it’s so clearly intended to be watched. I still have bad memories of watching episodes when I was a kid and being scared for weeks, and even now, just reading (or thinking) about the show makes me uncomfortable. The protagonists of most entries are bad people, which is supposed to make their inevitably gruesome fates more palatable; the punishment almost always exceeds the crime, but still, we aren’t supposed to be rooting for them. And yet I’m so innately inclined toward empathizing with the main character in any story that I can’t find any pleasure in them getting their just deserts. Worse, I’m frightened by the idea of a world where every sin will receive the harshest recompense imaginable, in a way that indicates clearly that someone, somewhere is laughing all along. I don’t see the fun in that, no matter how hard I try.