Saturday, June 13, 2015

Top 10 Childhood Terrors

Let this blog post serve as a grave marker. An epitaph. To what might have been. To the real horror, the horror of seeing something promising disappear under a mountain of bullshit. I refer, of course, to Silent Hills, about which I wrote many, many words (I was pretty much drooling on the keyboard) before it was unceremoniously canceled due to some falling out or other. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see if they dig up Silent Hill again...ever.

Meanwhile, to prove how amusingly subjective fear can be, here’s a list of things that scared the ever-loving piss out of me when I was a kid. You look back on this stuff and chuckle. Or, in some cases, nod and say, “Yeah, I was right to be scared, that shit’s still pretty freaky.”


All Dogs Go to Heaven
Case in point. Why the fuck is this even considered a children’s movie? Re-watching it for the first time in aaaaages, I came to suspect that child therapists have entire file cabinets devoted to Don Bluth. Look, a cute doggie who is also an alcoholic creep and who gets MURDERED ten minutes in. Who, at one point, goes to Hell, where he’s terrorized by fire, skeletons, and demons. Meanwhile, the villain, Carface, is truly the Boogeyman in bulldog form, what with his child kidnapping, murder, arson, cigars, and tying the hero to an anchor so he can slowly drown. An adorable little girl suffers PTSD-worthy levels of peril, and the fun-loving sidekick is savagely beaten by thugs, and...weirdly enough, the one part of the movie I could not watch as a kid was the campy singing alligator bit. I know, right? I hated that gator! He ate people! Fast-forward! But, really, the entirety of this film is one long Bosch painting. Which actually makes it kinda cool, huh?

Borrowed Black
I wouldn’t be surprised if no one reading this knows what I’m talking about. If you do, awesome, you encountered the same sanity-wrecking children’s book as me! My dad read me Borrowed Black and it messed me up for weeks. Set on the coast of Labrador, this freaky fairy tale stars the creepiest of all creepers, Borrowed Black, thing...whose body is constructed entirely from bits and pieces he “borrowed” (stole) from other creatures. He steals the moon one day, casting the land into darkness, prompting some talking animals to save the day. All this is depicted in bleak, monochromatic illustrations that quite literally popped up in my nightmares. Again: who dreams this up and thinks it’s for kids? As an adult, I tracked down Borrowed Black and found that the heroic animals are gratuitously whimsical and the rhyming prose is clunky. But he’s still there, the patchwork demon staring into my soul. Borrowed Black was my Babadook.

Doctor Who vs. Vampires
This one is vague, a shadow from the past, and pretty silly. One day at my grandparents’ house, I found myself watching an old Doctor Who episode with Tom Baker. Bless the internet for allowing me to pin stuff like this down! The ep, I now know, is called “State of Decay,” and in it, the Doctor battles medieval-styled vampires. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about the plot, but I remember the images that freaked me out. Images like a woman lying helpless while bats bit her neck. Or a giant hand (some kind of final boss vampire) bursting from the ground. The special effects were terrible, of course, but children don’t notice that sort of thing. You tell a little kid there’s a giant vampire clawing his way up from underground, they take it at face value. It haunts them. Today, I don’t give two shits about Doctor Who, but show me Baker in his hat and scarf and I’ll instantly go, “Yep, that’s the one who gave me childhood heebie-jeebies. Jerk.”

No Jumping On the Bed!
A few years back when I found Tedd Arnold’s No Jumping On the Bed! at a book sale, my heart swelled with joy, because I could finally make peace with the scariest picture book from my childhood. This “cautionary” tale stars a kid named Walter who loves to get some serious air time on his mattress. One night, he jumps so high and lands so hard that the bed breaks through the floor...and proceeds to crash through every floor of his apartment complex, picking up more and more people, animals, furniture, and random items. The presentation is in no way scary (the characters seem rather amused by their downward journey), but when I was have no idea. Walter’s act of property destruction was the most horrifying thing I could imagine. I’d stare worriedly at the ceiling in public settings, wondering if a bunch of people and furniture were about to crash down on my head. I never entirely got over the dread...well, until I found the book again and chuckled at how benign it really was. I think there’s a sequel where Walter floods his bathtub and...actually, don’t tell me. I don’t want to fucking know.

Peter Pan (The Parts with Kidnapping and Bombs)
We all know Disney is dark. While Mufasa’s demise certainly left me an unhappy camper, the Disney flick that I owned on VHS was Peter Pan. Nobody dies in Peter Pan! But there are some close calls. Basically, an entire stretch of the film, I couldn’t watch. Had to skip it. It begins when Wendy and all the boys get kidnapped by the pirates, after which Captain Hook tries to reduce Peter Pan to gravel with a bomb disguised as a present. Tinkerbell saves Peter’s life but is herself blown up, and the movie tactfully doesn’t show her gruesome, well-mangled little fairy body, but you can imagine. Meanwhile, Wendy has to walk the plank while her little brothers watch. Dafuq kind of fetish does this movie have for drowning girls? Needless to say, Peter saves the day and everything is fine (Tinkerbell’s miraculous recovery from FUCKING EXPLODING is expertly glossed over and ignored). So if you skip all the scary, kids-in-mortal-peril shit, it’s like it never even happened! You do miss the cool pirate song, though.

Peter Rabbit (and Farmer McGregor)
This might be the oldest childhood fear of mine, since I barely remember it. But my mother can fill in the details of my meltdown. Beatrix Potter wrote a lot of weirdly downbeat books about cute talking animals, starting with Peter Rabbit, who was really a disobedient little punk for sneaking into Farmer McGregor’s garden to pilfer veggies. As a tot, you naturally root for Peter, and in my case, it helped that I found Farmer McGregor unbearably scary. Something about his face...about the way his opaque glasses and Santa Claus beard obscure his features, turning him into an implacable force for murdering underage bunnies. My mother remembers one image in the book, a closeup of the farmer’s face searching for Peter, that made me wail and hide under the blankets, unwilling to continue being read to. I also had the story on tape, and listened to it a lot, despite my dread. I guess even at the age of...what? Three?...I was interested in what scared me. Farmer McGregor and his blank, judgmental glare were only the beginning.

MOTHER. FUCKING. COBRAS. Other kids think there’s a monster under their bed. I kept my limbs tucked in so I wouldn’t be bitten to death by evil cobras. Thanks, Rudyard Kipling, for trolling the children of the future with your messed-up jungle stories. I never read the original Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Nor did I ever see the 1975 Chuck Jones cartoon. No, I owned a picture book based on the cartoon. And that was more than enough. If you don’t know, it’s about a plucky mongoose who must defend a missionary family from malevolent cobras. In the cartoon, the cobras are kinda goofy to me now (Chuck Jones characters tend to look like their cheeks are stuffed with maple syrup), but in my early years, I stayed fetal in my little bunk bed (I was an only child; the upper bunk was for my stuffed animals) because I absolutely knew that Nag and Nagaina were slithering down below, waiting. And I had no mongoose. Why didn’t I have a mongoose, DAD?

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark...On Tape!
Well, duh, my entire generation got scared by Alvin Schwartz’s trilogy of spooky tales. And we all know why: it was the smeary, terror-dripping illustrations fever-dreamed up by Stephen Gammell. The penetration of Scary Stories into our zeitgeist is quite remarkable, as evidenced by how furious everyone got when Scholastic changed the art on us. And here’s what’s funny: yeah, Gammell’s awful, awesome art scared me, but what really got under my skin was listening to the stories on tape. Blame actor George S. Irving, who performed the reading with almost inappropriate relish, accompanied by eerie music. I sat around the tape player with my classmates, in broad daylight, and I might as well have been lost and alone in a dark forest with...sounds...steadily coming closer. I was petrified. And is it a surprise to learn that I willingly sat down to listen to Irving moan and growl and cackle more than once? Oy.

Superman Fights a Giant Gorilla
Back in the 1940s, Superman starred in a series of cartoon shorts. One of them, Terror On the Midway, was on a VHS collection owned by yours truly. I invite you to watch it, and then tell me I was wrong to be scared as a child. Proving that it’s an awful idea to put dangerous animals in cages with fucking latches, a massive gorilla escapes during a circus and runs amok. Lois Lane is, as usual, in peril, and Superman saves the day, the end. I swear the bare-bones plot is merely an excuse for weirdly stylized, almost impressionistic visuals. Slanted angles, deep shadows, a murky red color palette...this feels, not like a gee-whiz superhero cartoon, but like an animator’s drug-fueled nightmare. Yes, it’s goofy when Superman puts a panther in a full nelson, and yes, those doll-eyed children are scarier-looking than the killer ape. But the images tap into some kind of primal dread: people can get hurt, everything can crumble and burn, and Superman might not be there in time. Y’know, for kids!

“True” Ghost Stories
If Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark didn’t scare me much, it might’ve been because I was busy being scared by a totally different set of tales. The “True” Ghost Stories books (I’d guess there’s some legal hooey behind those quotation marks) were by different authors, but I had the complete set in one anthology. Every time I read it, I wondered why I was subjecting myself to this. Jim Sharpe’s illustrations weren’t as balls-out horrific as Stephen Gammell’s, and many of the stories didn’t bother me (UFOs? Eh. Haunted dolls? Meh), but a handful of them...brrr. One particular tale, about an air force pilot who has a vision of his friend’s corpse floating in the ocean, still bothers me when I recall it. That image. That face, eyes gone white, mouth twisted into a rictus. I don’t recall where some of these scary childhood books wound up, but I know exactly what became of “True” Ghost Stories. I burned it. One dark night, I tossed it into the woodstove. I adore books, and I fucking destroyed one because of how badly it scared me. True story. Without quotation marks.

What about horror movies, you ask? Well, The Ring did scare me a bit, but I was a teen by that point, and it’d become cool to scare myself. The Ring was, at the time, unlike any horror movie I’d seen before, but the resultant tiresome onslaught of increasingly stupid J-horror remakes did it no favors. I still like it. And I still think The Thing is horrifying. And I own both these films, obviously.

Also, I got scared by Rien Poortvliet’s gnome, because I had a nightmare where he grew fangs and attacked me. And once I dreamed that my elementary school had a torture chamber in it, but I found that one more interesting than scary, so I guess that makes me a kinky bastard? Whatever. Bottom line: don’t laugh at a small child because they’re reduced to tears by something you find silly and harmless. We’ve all been there. We’ve had some visual trigger, book or cartoon or game, that awakens the terror we’ve carried deep inside ourselves since sabretooths ate us for breakfast. Even when we grow up, we fear the unknown.

And we love that.

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