When I was a kid, the world had a lot of scary places.
There was school, with its ominous Teacher’s Lounge (my friend John Smitherman said that a teacher had killed herself there — “She cut off her own head with a ruler!”); and the Second Floor Boys Bathroom with its strange half-whispered voices (and also, if you weren’t careful, the girls could hear you tinkling).
There were the woods behind our house, which were home to either a ravenous holdover from prehistoric times (“Probably a Horrorsaurus!”—- John again) or a big dog that would eat your lunch if you weren’t careful.
And there was our house. Especially our house. It creaked and groaned in the middle of the night. The toaster would burn toast for no apparent reason. And there were parts of the basement where, if you turned off the lights and sat very quietly, you could hear someone breathing.
But there’s no way around it — my fear of the world came directly from the cultural effluvia I wallowed in.
There were scary comic books (the uncontrollable transformation of mild-mannered Bruce Banner (me) into the Incredible Hulk filled me with fear), scary TV (The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life” featuring a squinty-eyed kid named Anthony who terrorized everyone, including grown-ups, can still give me the creeps), scary books (“Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum” was particularly shuddery) and, always, movies.
In the past, I’ve written about my encounter with the unforgettable “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula,” but that’s really just the edge of the storm front. My nightmares were planted by sense-shattering fare like “The Thing from Another World. This simple story is about a group of airmen and scientists stranded in an arctic research station with a sentient vegetable. Christian Nyby is credited as director, but you can see producer Howard Hawk’s fingerprints all over the thing (“The Thing”). There’s his trademark overlapping everyman dialogue, the deep shadows, and the remarkable decision to film a scene lit only by a blazing kerosene inferno. Plus it’s got a monster that exsanguinates sled dogs, flying saucers buried in the ice, and revolting blood-filled seedlings. It’s all served up with a claustrophobic setting and a healthy dose of paranoia.
And yes, that’s Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) as the giant carrot.
Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” takes the paranoia to a new level as the residents of a sleepy California town are gradually replaced by emotionless duplicates. The menace is low key and has all of the inevitability of the worst kind of dream logic.
The ending, when Becky wakes up as a pod person, made me shiver as a kid, but here’s the absolutely terrifying thing — when I was in my mid-twenties a woman woke up next to me in the exact same way. It was as though a mask had slipped from her face and the synthetic person beneath was revealed. It was the only time in my life that I’ve felt that dreadful sense of deja vu. We broke up soon afterwards.
“The Incredible Shrinking Man” was another one of those that burned itself onto my subconscious. The science-fiction tropes that Richard Matheson lavishes upon his screenplay can’t disguise what is, at its core, an existential puzzle box. I’m guessing it hits upon every anxiety that’s ever been unspooled on a psychiatrist’s couch.
And that spider moves so fast.
My co-worker, the lovely and talented Megan, says that “Poltergeist” scared her as a kid and still gives her the willies. Sure enough, with its maniacally-grinning clown, vacuum-cleaner closet, monster tree, kidnapped children, corpse filled swimming pool, disintegrating faces, and maggoty drumsticks, this is pure nightmare fuel.
The recent movie “Chronicle” gave me the same feeling of dread that those long ago late-night features delivered. On the surface, it’s an exploration of alienation and the ways that high school life can warp an untethered life. You just know something bad is going to happen to that trio of friends. When Hell finally breaks loose, it’s ferocious and brutal to the core.
OK, so here’s your assignment: Find a movie that’ll give you the shivers this Halloween season and settle in on the couch with a loved one. Hold each other tight.
And, it goes without saying, always look carefully into the eyes of the person you wake up with.