Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our Horrors Week question was suggested by assistant editor Caitlin PenzeyMoog:
What’s something you couldn’t finish because it was too scary?
I still haven’t seen more than 15 minutes of The Nightmare, and that was after three tries. I watch a lot of horror movies, and most of them don’t get to me, except in a “well, that was a neat exercise in sustained tension” kind of way. But there’s something about shadowy figures with red eyes waiting in the darkness that absolutely scares the living hell out of me. If I’m going to engage in a little armchair psychoanalysis, I’d have to say it’s because my childhood bedroom looked out onto a staircase, where I would lie awake at night watching the shadows of people moving around downstairs and tree branches passing over windows and imagine all the scary monsters that were slowly creeping up the stairs to get me. And when, as an adult—before I saw the documentary—I met someone who had experienced sleep paralysis, I actually lost sleep over it, terrified that I would spontaneously develop it too. So give me your demons, serial killers, vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. I can deal with those. But shadow people? I’m out. (See also: The Babadook, although I was able to finish that one.)
I’ve never gotten into American Horror Story because the first episode of the first season touched too many of my horror nerves. The creepy basement was good fun, and the girl with Down syndrome telling Connie Britton “you’re going to die” was awesomely scary. But then the teenage daughter’s plot hinted at revenge via drug subterfuge, egged on by the psychopathic boy who freaks out the psychologist dad enough that he tries to report him to the cops. And the dad, ugh: When he’s all spaced out and Connie Britton has sex with… something in a bondage suit, thinking it’s her husband, I turned the TV off. I can do monsters and serial killers, demons and ghosts—it’s hard to be truly frightened when I know there are no monsters coming to get me, and that the chances of a serial killer busting down my door are remote enough to negate worrying about it. But the stuff where your brain plays tricks on you, where you may or may not just be insane—or worse, someone is tricking you so you feel like you’re insane—that scares the shit out of me. I used to say I liked those kinds of psychological thrillers best because they were the only movies that actually frightened me. But the stuff going on in American Horror Story was overload, and I couldn’t handle it.
Here’s one that still gives me chills. The first time I tried to watch David Cronenberg’s The Brood, I had to switch it off, because holy hell, the execution just terrified me. Like any good Cronenberg, it’s all about psychological issues manifesting in bodily ways; in this case, a psychotherapist who encourages his patients to let go of suppressed traumas and emotional problems by causing physiological changes in their bodies. But the creepiest twist in the film—which I won’t reveal here, because it’s a damn good one—was nowhere in sight when I had to turn off the TV. No, it was Cronenberg’s masterful appropriation of classical horror style that unsettled me so thoroughly. While caring for her son’s daughter, a grandmother is being threatened by small, unseen beings in her own kitchen. Something about the way Cronenberg filmed it—the old-school cuts to things scurrying just out of sight, the building fear on the face of the woman—freaks me the hell out. Eventually, I got around to finishing the movie. Of course, it was a month later, in broad daylight, with other people walking in and out of the room, but still, I was proud of myself.
Manos: The Hands Of Fate has earned its reputation as one of the worst movies ever made, a reputation reinforced by a classic episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But what goes unspoken about Manos is how it’s an out-and-out creepfest—in practically none of the ways fertilizer-salesman-turned-filmmaker Harold P. Warren could’ve planned for. It’s too poorly executed to function as a piece of intentional horror, but all of Manos’ shoddiest elements—the poorly synchronized sound, the amateur performances, the bizarre pacing, the discordant jazz score, the twitchy screen presence of John “Torgo” Reynolds—made for a discomforting, alienating experience the first time I tried to watch the film on MST3K. I stopped the tape sometime after Torgo’s first pass at poor Margaret, my skin crawling and my mind stuck on one of the MST3K episode’s signature riffs: “Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph.” (It certainly didn’t help that my first viewing took place alone, at night, in my parents’ basement.) With its Lone Star State pedigree, isolated setting, and snuff-film-esque aesthetics, Manos: The Hands Of Fate serves as an unlikely precursor to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—though even the cannibalistic Sawyers would have to recoil at Manos’ conclusion, which finds little Debbie joining the ranks of The Master’s wives. Betcha Leatherface and family wouldn’t object to hanging The Master’s glowering oil portrait in their dining room, though.
The thing about horror video games is that they’re interactive. I can just cover my eyes and get through The Ring—a movie that scared me so badly once upon a time that I got legitimately nervous looking up pictures of it for a recent Newswire—but if I’m playing a scary game, I have to force my way through it, step by step. So it’s not necessarily that Amnesia: The Dark Descent frightened me so badly that I had to stop playing it (although the feeling of being hunted by an invisible, pursuing monster through a series of water-logged tunnels came pretty damn close), but that it exhausted my ability to be brave. Escaping the beast and reaching the next point of relative safety, I just couldn’t bring myself to plunge back into the darkness again. Whatever was down there was going to take more energy and courage than I could manage to muster, and I walked away from the game and never looked back.
This is a bit of a cheat because while I finished The Exorcist upon first viewing, I had to hit stop on the VCR and flee the room for five minutes. I must have been 7 or 8 and I watched the movie with my dad in his bedroom. An admitted non-film buff, he had never seen the movie and had no idea the psychic scarring he was inflicting on his Catholic, devil-fearing son. I had a big Satan complex growing up. There was something about the idea of possession, of having an evil entity invade your body and soul, that scared the holy hell out of me. I recall watching a 20/20 special on demonic possession several weeks prior (I was a weird kid) and that laid the groundwork for my phobia. The Exorcist pushed me to the point of clammy, giddy exhilaration: sheer, white-knuckle panic. I was completely in the film’s vise-like grip, from Father Merrin staring down Pazuzu in the desert, to Regan urinating on the rug, stating in dazed monotone, “You’re gonna die up there.” I can live with head-spinning and pea soup, but those quieter moments continue to haunt me.
I have a bigger cheat: I’ve never really stopped watching anything because it was too scary since I’ve been old enough to watch anything that was actually scary. And I do get scared: Blair Witch unsettled me, 8MM freaked me out, Paranormal Activity gave me a pit of dread in my stomach, but I stuck with them. My flight instinct only ever really kicked in when I was pretty small, and even then it was conflicted: As a 3-to-4-year-old, I loved Fraggle Rock but also feared the Gorgs, the gigantic adversaries of the Fraggles. Although I would faithfully watch the show, when the Gorgs appeared (at least in my earlier days), I would run out of the room. So I guess I kept watching in the hope that I could catch a Gorg-free episode (I’m not sure how, in retrospect, I dealt with the opening sequence that always included the Gorgs). Once, I ran out of the room, into my parents’ room, and stuck my head under their bed, where I promptly fell asleep. My mom snapped a quick picture of me asleep with my head buried under the bed like a stupid baby ostrich. If I had a scanned copy of the photo, I would include it here as a reminder that even relatively hearty viewers can begin as total wusses.
I can’t really think of anything I’ve stopped watching or reading because it scared me too much; these days I spend most of my time trying to track down horror movies and novels that will get under my skin, to the point where any reaction is enough to keep me interested. Sometimes, though, there are movies that I’ll watch once and never dare watch again. I own Sinister on Blu-ray, and I managed to survive one viewing, but I’ve never gone back, and not because it’s a bad movie. I don’t think it’s a great one, but something about it unnerved me so badly that I wasn’t able to sleep the night after watching it, and just thinking about it now makes me uncomfortable. Ethan Hawke plays a writer (bad enough!) who starts investigating some murder/suicides committed by children; there’s a goofy-looking demon involved, and the plot and characters are, at best, solid. What makes it so unnerving are the psuedo-snuff films that serve as the centerpiece of Hawke’s investigations. These grainy, Super 8-style filmstrips of gruesome death nail the verisimilitude angle so well that I found them nearly impossible to sit through, and despite the disc still sitting on my shelf, I’ve had no urge to try my luck a second time.