Why do we check under the bed for monsters or dread swimming in the ocean or sleep with the lights on? Most likely it’s because of a horror movie or novel. Maybe you watched or read it as a kid or even as an adult; maybe it was temporary or continues to this day. Nonetheless, the horror genre is responsible for many of our fears. And with that in mind we asked our esteemed panel the following question…
I first saw the film on cable way back in my early teens, and The Changeling still stands out as that one tale of horror that makes it hard to go to sleep when the house is dark and quiet, and something goes bump in another room.
Do you know the story? I suspect the film is old enough that most of the younger generation will have missed it. Basically, George C. Scott’s character is a popular composer whose wife and daughter are killed in a freak accident in the opening scene. Emotionally broken, he takes a job in a new city as a college professor, and moves into a huge, ancient mansion…that just so happens to be haunted. As they usually are. Strange and scary events keep piling up, until finally Scott’s character takes matters into his own hands, solves the mystery of the house, and puts the innocent at peace and the guilty to justice. It’s a low-budget thriller that invests most of its money in an empty wheelchair that chases Scott’s character around the attic, yet still the film manages to terrify.
What’s the secret?
Well, I can assure you it’s not the wheelchair.
It’s actually this little red ball that Scott’s daughter used to play with before her death. That’s the one little detail that takes The Changeling from run-of-the-mill to brilliant. In a heartbreaking moment, Scott finds the ball amongst some boxes as he’s unpacking, and his reaction shows us just how much he’s missing his daughter. He puts the ball away, but the thing keeps coming back in one scene after another. The first few times it happens, Scott’s character thinks it odd, but not frightening. But gradually, after he keeps finding the ball in the most unlikely of places, his heartsick grief turns to abject horror. He believes, as one who has outlived his child must surely do, that his daughter is the presence haunting his life. His days are filled with many strange sounds and weird moments, but none of them are as ominous as the ball that won’t go away. His fear gets compounded by grief to the point that his existence becomes a hell on earth.
Finally, unable to weather another encounter with the ball, Scott drives to a huge bridge at the outskirts of town and throws it over the side. He drives home, believing that he has excised the guilt and fear that has been haunting him. He opens his front door, hangs up his coat and hat, and turns to face an empty, darkened house. Before him is a stairwell that leads up to a second floor landing completely lost in darkness.
Then, from somewhere up there in the dark, he hears it.
Thud, thud, thud.
He stands, transfixed, watching the darkness at the head of the stairs.
And then we see it – the red ball bouncing down the stairs.
Thud, thud, thud.
It is one of the most powerfully frightening moments I’ve ever seen, and it probably cost all of, what, about six bucks to make? No CGI, no fancy lights or slathered gore. Just a fifty-cent ball and some minimum-wage-earning stagehand to roll the ball down the stairs. I fell in love with the movie in that instant.
I’ve used that scene many times when teaching writing courses. I always highlight the fact that the scene is a hinge moment in the film – even though we, and Scott’s character, don’t recognize it as such at the time. Scott’s character believes, as do we, that his daughter is haunting him. But the truth is that something far more dangerous lurks in the house’s history. We think the ball drop is the moment that Scott’s character understands the horror swirling around him, but it isn’t until much later in the film that we realize the ball was a warning from his daughter, and not an attempt to terrorize him. It’s very effective storytelling, as it keeps you thinking about the story well after the tale is told. I think that’s why the movie, and especially that scene, has stuck with me all these years. That film is my red rubber ball.
It just won’t go away.
The original Dawn of the Dead was pretty intense for me. I saw it on opening night, a late show; I was a young college student majoring in Film, and a Teaching Assistant I was working with told me I had to go (because he knew I liked horror movies). I knew nothing about the film and had no idea what to expect…and it seriously changed me. Amazingly enough, at the time I’d never seen anything gorier than, say, Jaws (don’t ask me why I had never seen Night of the Living Dead – I really can’t explain that), so you can understand when I say that Dawn’s extraordinary level of splatter left me in a state of shock. But it wasn’t just the cannibalism and mutilation that messed with my head; it was also the vision of America disintegrating, of warring factions fighting over possession of a for-God’s-sakes SHOPPING MALL. The most horrifying scene for me in the movie is when one of the soldiers tells the pregnant heroine that he can perform an abortion on her; the casual way the actor delivered the speech, as if discussing lunch choices, just chilled me. I left the theater slightly nauseated and deeply disturbed, and didn’t sleep that night. Of course this meant that I became obsessed with the movie – I had to dissect every frame, to learn why it had affected me on such a primal level – and it inaugurated my interest in zombies. I loved the Skipp and Spector-edited Book of the Dead anthology series, and practically begged Skipp for a shot at getting into the third volume. That book eventually became Mondo Zombie, and I did get in (with a story called “Sparks Fly Upward”). Now, all these years later, I’m still writing zombie fiction…and still trying to figure out why Dawn of the Dead walloped me back in 1978.
The Shining was the first Stephen King book I ever read. So when the film first aired on cable, I thought I knew what to expect. I was ten years old at the time and I’d stayed up late to watch it one weekend when I was sleeping over at my grandma’s house. She had HBO.
The lights were out and I was watching the movie alone…I was entranced. On screen, Danny was pedaling his Big Wheel down one hallway after another. Carpet, tile, carpet, tile. Around one twisting corner after another. And then…the twins filled the end of the long hallway, beckoning to Danny. Flash! Hacked up, in pools of their own blood!
I threw my hands over my eyes, much like Danny onscreen, and I ran blind and screaming down the hallway. It wasn’t until I was in the safety of the guest bedroom, cowering under the covers, that I realized I’d left the TV on.
I fell asleep listening to the rest of the movie playing from the living room. My grandma laughed when I told her why the TV was still on in the morning. She was the one who gave me The Shining to read in the first place. Grandma was cool like that.
I wasn’t able to watch the film in its entirety until two years later when my family bought a VCR. Few other films ever measured up to the initial terror I experienced watching that movie. It left me scarred for life.
First there are the horror stories (especially movies) that make you jump, like Alien or Scream. There’s a monster chasing you–holy crap!–and you, the audience member, squirm in your seat, trying to make the main character run faster. It’s like the reaction you have when you’re feeding a baby and you open your mouth because nothing else will work. I tend not to care for those types of movies–although I’ll watch (and enjoy) the really good ones, more in spite of their jumpiness than because of it.
Then there are the horror stories that delight me. I find an almost sensual pleasure in watching things like The Silence of the Lambs and The Exorcist. Let the Right One In. Most Stephen King novels. Dracula. Hannibal. Audition (the book; haven’t seen the movie yet). Classic ghost stories. It feels like there’s some darkness locked up inside my spirit, and certain kinds of stories make it let its hair down. I think these kinds of stories have a relatable presence of evil–it comes out, it wreaks destruction, and then, almost as if on purpose, it lets itself be destroyed (for now). A spirit-affirming kind of horror.
Then, finally, there are the stories that scare me.
I might not even have a negative reaction to the story at the time–it might be months before I realize that the conscious level of the story has faded out of my mind and left behind this sick feeling to my stomach.
For example, The Lion King. I hate that movie. While my daughter was tearing through all kinds of jumpy-horror movies with her dad from age three onward, I would never let her watch The Lion King. Your father is murdered and you can’t do anything about it. Hamlet, I can cope with. But for some reason The Lion King, with its happy little songs, just makes me ill. Maybe it’s the way the songs imply that all of this is the way it’s supposed to be. Everything that happens in The Lion King is, after all, covered by the circle of life. Similarly, while I enjoyed The Little Shop of Horrors (1986), I could never, ever watch it again. I can still call up a lot of the songs. It’s ridiculous, but there it is. Feed me. Feed me!
Both versions of The Shining, although the movie version much more so than the book; when I think about the film version, I don’t think about the way things look so much as the way they sound: Jack typing, the sound of the ax biting into the door. The sound of a Big Wheel rolling over parquet, then carpet.
H.P. Lovecraft. Sometimes I wonder if most of the horror in his stories isn’t necessarily derived from the tales themselves, but from having to enter Lovecraft’s mind in the first place. On the other hand, I found Lovecraft (the graphic novel by Hans Rodinoff, Enrique Breccia, and Keith Griffin) to be a sensual delight.
The World’s End (2013). Fabulous movie. Never, ever want to see it again. On top of everything else, Gary’s musical tastes bring his soulless mortality a little too close to home.
An episode of The Twilight Zone called “Monsters!” about how humanity defends itself from vampires by being allergic to them.
Any time I read anything more than a few dozen pages of Kafka.
I couldn’t even finish Gone Girl, it horrified me so much.
Naked Lunch (either one, I’m not fussy).
The Walking Dead graphic novels.
A Clockwork Orange.
The Lord of the Flies.
Now that I’ve written this article, I have to wonder if the stories that mess me up aren’t about the destruction of the soul. A child loses his innocence and has to become a killer in order to avenge his father. Fear of a loved one turns an innocent man into a murderer. Self-indulgence destroys another. Madness, fear, and hate rot another man’s mind. The logical extension of an orderly society into madness. The craving for love that transforms into destruction. And on. And on.
I find these stories powerful, but haunting. After all, you can only be eaten once–but you have to live with the consequences of destroying your personality and integrity forever.
I was nine years old when I first saw John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy. Instantly, I was fascinated by the wilderness setting. In the deep woods, a logging mill is poisoning the environment with mercury. The bonus? Freakish mutations of the benign and not-so benign. Of particular note is a deadly fifteen-foot-tall mutant grizzly bear known as “Katahdin.” The grizzly proceeds to stalk the woods and kill anything it encounters. While the special effects aren’t exactly cutting edge, they do contain an organic element that makes them somewhat believable.
Rob, an inner-city doctor, is hired to write a report on the paper mill for the EPA. The loggers blame a string of recent disappearances on the Opies tribe, while the Opies demand a halt to the egregious logging practices. Soon all groups find themselves in danger.
As an outdoor enthusiast, this premise frightened the hell out of me. For several years I had trouble sleeping while camping, and I always looked over my shoulder when hiking in even the sunniest meadows.
Perhaps even more chilling was the mercury’s effect on smaller, subtler creatures. Like the poor, bloated tadpoles and freakshow salmon. Even worse, the mercury degrades the local resident’s minds. When you remove the special effects and marauding bear, it is this slow, insidious seep within the ecosystem that reveals itself as the true horror. Frankenheimer did an admirable job in creating setting as character. The loss of the ecosystem is felt just as sharply as the numerous deaths.
Sure, one could poke holes in some of the logic (I think you could do this for any novel or film, really. These are such enormous tasks) like the premise of grizzly bears in Maine (grizzlies only live in the Northern Rocky Mountains), or why some creatures end up benign and others vicious.
As frightening as Prophecy was to me as a kid, there is a chuckle-worthy moment known as the “exploding sleeping bag” scene. In this gem, a camper is stuck in her banana-colored sleeping bag as Katahdin approaches. With no choice, the camper hops along like a giant banana, only to be swatted backwards by the grizzly. The bag explodes into a flurry of down feathers. But as my smirk fades, a sinister feeling pervades. As an avid camper, I have pondered what it might be like to fight a creature while tucked within a restrictive sleeping bag, with no time to unzip. Not so funny now, is it?
To this day, when camping, I think of Prophecy. I wonder what sort of industry lay upstream, what sort of chemical dumping ground might exist, slowly brewing strange creatures and altering the landscape over decades. In the end, hasn’t the writer/director accomplished what they set out to? That’s a long, long time for a film to stick with you. And as I prepare for a fall camping trip, I wonder if this just might be the last….
Even though I write dark fiction, I don’t watch many horror movies…they scare me too much! Yes, I’m a wimp. I get sucked into a world and have a tough time dragging myself out. There is one movie and one book that have screwed with my head
The Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a 1981 horror film and one of the first I saw (I was maybe twelve years old). It was about a simple-minded man wrongfully killed while he was hiding as a scarecrow and returns from the grave for vengeance. If I watched it now, I’m sure I’d laugh, but I still remember watching that movie on my new television in my bedroom, when I was supposed to be sleeping. Needless to say, I needed a nightlight until I was out of college and living on my own (okay, I still have one).
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was a novel that has stuck with me for years. A dystopian story, it brings to vivid life a tyrannical world where there’s a huge gap in human rights between the highly privileged and everyone else. It scares me even today because I see how easily we can lose our basic human rights if we do not remain diligent.
If I think about more horror movies and books that have spooked me, I’m going to need therapy. I won’t be sleeping tonight as it is (thanks, James). I think I’ll go watch The Princess Bride now.
I couldn’t say there was any specific thing that “messed me up.” I know that when I was around five years old, I stayed up to watch the local horror host show with my parents, they were airing Black Sabbath and while I cannot recall a single thing about that film, my mother insists that I begged to go to bed and then wouldn’t, couldn’t sleep that night and a few others. Jaws came out when we were living in Florida and I was already afraid of the ocean. That fucking movie didn’t help with that at all. The first viewing of Friday the 13th I took in was at around one in the morning at my Dad’s house. They had a new satellite system (back when the dish was as big as the house) and I sat riveted to the small screen and the creepy menace that it held. Then the movie ended…and I realized I had to go up to bed…by myself. I was scared to death to go up the fifteen steps to my bedroom that I shared with my brother, right next to my Dad’s room. How silly is that?!
Books or stories have unsettled me but I never had any lingering sense of fear from any of them, that I can recall. I have read things that have blown my mind. When I was twelve and first read The Shining, man, oh man! And I knew there were layers of that book I didn’t get. His short stories “The Boogeyman” and “I Am the Doorway” have always stuck with me. I thought Alice Cooper and Kiss were creatures to be worshipped and bowed to.
I guess, I can remember loads of things that resonated with me for one reason or another, but only a few that actually terrified me or gave me pause to go about my normal life. I have always known that I love the feeling horror brings out, a weirdly electric sizzle in your heart, soul and mind. I’ve been chasing that ever since.