Thursday, May 4, 2017

Childhood Traumas: Things That Scared Me as a Kid

Recently, a good friend of mine posted on her blog as part of a project that's been going around with various bloggers about movies and T.V shows that scared them as kids (you can see her post here, as well as her other posts. Check it out, she has some really thoughtful commentary of a variety of subjects.). This inspired me to write my own entry detailing some of the things that freaked me out as a kid. Now, I've long been an aficionado of the Horror genre, so it takes a bit to really freak me out. But I managed to come up with some that really creeped me out. Since I'm going to be discussing these in detail, spoilers will follow so be warned. I've also decided to go in as close to chronological order as I can recall as well. 

The first one I want to mention is the Disney film The Watcher in the Woods. This film is one of the few Disney movies that it's sole purpose is to scare the crap out of the little kiddies and boy does it work. The film focuses on a family that moves to a secluded house in the English countryside and the two girls in the family almost immediately begin making contact with a strange entity living in the woods that surround the house. In one particular scene, the two sisters are in the woods around a small pond. The older sister, Jan (played by Lynn Holly-Johnson) sees a strange light in the water and walks out on a fallen tree over the water to get a better look. Another strange flash of light startles her and she falls in and gets snagged in the branches and can't get to the surface. Then, their landlady Mrs. Aylwood (played by Bette Davis) shows up suddenly with a long tree branch and keeps pushing her deeper under water with the branch while the younger sister, Ellie (played by Kyle Richards) tries to get her to stop. The whole scene is terrifying for a little kid and it's not even explained until the next scene that Mrs. Aylwood was doing it to get Jan free from the branches to save her. That was a scene that stuck with me for years and years after. I also reviewed the film in full on this blog a few years back and you can read more here

The next one I want to cover is probably the least suspecting one on this list, Garfield's Halloween Adventure. Who would expect a goofy cartoon like Garfield to be scary? But to me, as a little kid, the climax of this holiday special actually really freaked me out. For roughly the first two thirds, it was all fun but the last third is when things get creepy. Garfield and Odie had been out trick or treating and Garfield wants to keep going and convinces Odie to take a rowboat with him to an island not far from shore where there is another house for them to trick or treat at. To their surprise, answering the door is a creepy, old man who invites them in and regales them with a story of pirates who had buried treasure on that island and vowed to return 100 years that night. Garfield and Odie are freaked out by the tale and quickly find the man has subsequently deserted them and in the process stolen their rowboat. Left alone on the island, they are frightened when they see the ghost ship actually approach the island. They hide from the ghosts in a cupboard and watch as the ghosts enter and reclaim their treasure below the floorboards of the house. Odie sneezes and gives away their hiding spot. As the ghosts slowly approach the cupboard, this is where I really started getting freaked out. There was just something about how the ghosts were rendered, the music used, and the scene itself that really unnerved me. Garfield and Odie decide to make a break for it, swim for the mainland and find their rowboat. It's a happy ending as they find their Halloween candy undisturbed and head for home. 

Now, we take a leap forward from the more kid friendly scares to some real traumatizing movie moments. The first one is from a movie I literally stumbled into watching one morning. I came out to the living room and found my Mom watching a movie on T.V called Ghost Story. I was intrigued and sat down to watch it with her. The film focuses on four elderly gentlemen (played by John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Melvyn Douglas) being haunted by the ghost of a girl they accidentally killed and then hid the body of when they were in college. The only part of the movie I distinctly remember watching with her at the time was one of the characters, Edward (played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr) walking through the snow swept New England small town he lived in, a big down jacket and snow boots over his pajamas. He winds up stopping on a bridge just outside of town over a frozen over river when he hears a woman's voice calling out from behind him. He turns around, seeming to recognize the voice and is greeted with the visage of a slimy ghoul. He cries out and backs up, accidentally going over the railing of the bridge and slamming into the ice below with a sickening thump. It took me many years to watch the rest of the movie (because as a young boy I was 100% done with the movie after that scene), but once I did I really enjoyed it and it has since become one of my favorite scary movies. I also reviewed this one previously on my blog and you can read the full review here

Next up is a moment from Jaws 2. Yes, Jaws had it's share of frightening moments, but none equaled the moment I am talking about from the sequel. This moment stuck with me and freaked me out in a way no other moment in a Jaws film ever did. The moment I am talking about is, of course, Marge's death. The second film focuses on a group of sail boating teens that are terrorized by the man eating great white shark. At one point, the shark attacks the group and causes all of their sailboats to crash into one another and leaving a big, floating pile of wreckage for them to float on. After an attempted rescue by a Coast Guard Helicopter ends in disaster with the shark pulling the entire helicopter underwater (that part is pretty silly), the shark once again attacks the teenagers, causing part of the wreckage to break free and young boy Sean Brody (the younger son of main character Police Chief Martin Brody) to fall in the water. Heroic Marge then jumps into the water to help him get to safety, getting him back onto the overturned sailboat. However, before she can get up herself, the shark swims up behind her and swallows her whole. In this case, it wasn't so much what you see as what you don't see that made it so terrifying to me. You see the shark from the rear swim up and scoop up Marge, chew a bit as John William's bone chilling score and terrifying screams play over the soundtrack, along with some well placed crunching sounds and my mind did the rest. Part of the reason why this stuck with me was that Marge was a likable character, even if we didn't see her much. Yes, Chrissie and Quint's deaths in the first film were equally horrifying but at the same time we barely got to meet Chrissie before she became shark food and Quint was, well, an asshole so I wasn't too broken up to see him become the shark's last meal. Marge on the other hand we had a chance to get to know and like and then to see her die added a whole new level to it.  It was completely unnerving and stuck with me for years after, creeping up in my memory every now and again. "Hey Nate, remember Marge's death in Jaws 2? How messed up was that?!" My memory is a real dick sometimes. This one has also been reviewed previously on my blog, you can find my full review here.

When I was in fifth grade, our school library had a bunch of books on various types of movies and one was dedicated to monster movies, with sections on the usual types monsters like vampires and werewolves but there was also a chapter dedicated to The Thing. The 1982 John Carpenter sci-fi horror classic. In retrospect, I am stunned this film was featured in a book aimed at kids in a middle school library. Then again, it was a different time. Anyway, that was my first exposure to the film so when, one sunny, hot July weekday afternoon that following summer I saw it was on the USA network I knew I had to watch it. What that book I read in the library failed to convey was the overwhelming feeling of dread and paranoid tension that slowly builds throughout the film. The film focuses on a group of men working at an isolated Antarctic outpost that are laid siege to by a shapeshifting alien being than can mimic any living being. This leads to a lack of trust and growing paranoia as it becomes clear the The Thing has taken over several of the men in the camp. But there is one scene in particular that freaked me out and stayed with me more than any other. Amid the chaos, one of the guys named Norris has a severe heart attack and it rushed to the Medical Bay. There, Dr. Copper starts working on him and brings out the defibrillator. He charges it and zaps Norris. No response. Charges and zaps him again. Still no response. He charges it a third time and goes to zap Norris again only this time Norris' entire chest rips open into this giant, horrific mouth and Copper's arms fall into the open chest cavity which then slams shut, biting off both his arms. As a first time viewer, this moment was throughly unexpected and completely freaked me out. Since this was basic cable, it wasn't even edited that much as I recall. On top of this moment, there were other scenes that just piled on top of that feeling of horror, such as the infamous blood test scene where the defacto leader, MacReady (played with a stern and cool calm by Kurt Russell), comes up with a blood test to determine who's still human. This leads to the expected level of carnage and mayhem as the Thing is forced to reveal itself. This all culminates in an overall grimness and downbeat ending, the first film I'd ever seen where in effect everyone dies at the end. It really had an impact on me and chilled me to the bone. 

As we close out a journey through my childhood cinematic traumas, we end on a doozy of one and of course it comes from the one and only Stephen King. I was a big fan of Stephen King from Junior High well into High School. I enjoyed all his books but the one that freaked me out the most was Misery and the movie was just as intense as the book. There was something about how the book was more grounded in reality with the "monster" being unhinged and obsessed fan Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates) to the book's other main character Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan). The premise is that on his way back from a writing retreat at a secluded Colorado lodge, Paul Sheldon hits a patch of ice and goes his car goes careening off the side of the road and rolls down the hill. Annie Wilkes stumbles upon the wreck and with a big storm coming in takes him home instead of to the hospital. Turns out she's Paul's self-proclaimed #1 fan, and worships the Victorian period romance novels he writes about a woman named Misery Chastain. She's also a former nurse with a suspicious amount of hospital supplies in her home, including codeine painkillers, an I.V drip and a wheelchair. Things go well at first, but it becomes increasingly clear that not all of Annie's dogs are barking and things turn even worse when she reads the newly released Misery book only to discover her beloved heroine dies at the end. She then announces to him that she intends to keep him prisoner until he writes a new book resurrecting her Misery. Realizing he's in real trouble, Paul begins trying to figure out a way kill Annie and escape, which is difficult since he has two broken legs and is confined to a wheelchair. When she finally realizes what he has been planning, she takes drastic action. Now, here is where the two works diverge but are equally horrifying. In the movie, she takes a block of wood and places it between his legs while he's tied to the bed. She proceeds to break both his ankles with a sledgehammer. This was unnerving enough and had me pacing the room half watching as this was going on. I even knew it was coming in some form since I read the book first. Now then, the book takes the scene even further. Rather than just break his ankles, Annie actually chops one of his legs off and then proceeds to cauterize the stump with a blow torch. It was a horrifying moment that had me squirming all over my bed as I read it and remains the most animated I've ever been while reading a book. In both cases, what made this so intense for me was that the story focused on strictly human characters and was at least somewhat grounded in reality. This sort of thing could happen. There is a barrier I can construct if the movie or book is dealing with ghosts or monsters. That's not really real so I can have fun with it and not take it too seriously. But person on person violence is another thing. That seems more tangible and possible to me. Anyway, I have yet to re-read the novel and it was years before I watched the movie again, keeping the VHS tape in a dresser drawer (because of course I bought it rather than just rent it). I did eventually watch the movie again and much of the power it originally had no longer existed, but it still can get my pulse going and remains a superior scary movie. I've revisited this one in more depth on my blog as well and that review can be found here.

So, there it is. My list of movies, a T.V special and a book that scared the crap out of me throughout my youth. There were other films that would momentarily shock me or surprise me but these were the ones that stuck with me long after I first viewed them, provoking shudders and chills just thinking about them again. Each one of them did a great job of tapping into those primal fears everyone has and making it real, showing it in a shocking and indelible way that burned themselves into my psyche. Some of them may seem a bit silly as an adult, but remember for the first three I was just a young kid and my perspective was different then. And Garfield's Halloween Adventure is still terrifying. I stand by that. Those ghost pirates were freaky.