Horror is a lot like violence and pornography. The more you see of it, the less impact it has. Viewers eventually become desensitized to it to varying degrees. But in childhood, everything is fresh and new. There’s no desensitization at all. Horror movies are at their most shocking at that point in a person’s life. In my own childhood, there were several films that scared the crap out of me–figuratively, of course. These are the movies that gave me a proper appreciation for the horror genre. Here’s a list of these films.
I wasn’t even allowed to watch this until I was 8 years old, two years after it had been in theaters. It’s easy to see why. People who grew up in the 80’s have one thing in common, no matter who they are. If they saw Poltergeist as a child, they had nightmares about clowns at some point. But it wasn’t just the clown that got to me. There was also the guy peeling off his face. There was the gang of corpses swirling around in the pool. There was the fact that the tiny elderly ghost hunter woman looked and even sounded an uncomfortable amount like my own grandmother. For good measure, there was a colossal murderous tree that just happened to look just like the tree outside of my window. When people ask me which movie scared me the most as a kid, this is the answer every single time.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s re-make of The Thing From Another World (1951) was a rogues gallery of pants-shittingly terrifying images. Severed heads crawling around on spider legs, evil shapeshifting stray dogs, torsos with mouths, Wilford Brimley… What child wouldn’t be horrified by this type of stuff?
The Dark Crystal (1982)
I had repressed many of my memories of this movie into adulthood. “Oh”, I’d think, “that Jim Henson movie with the puppets? I can’t believe I was scared of that as a kid”. A recent re-watch brought the reality crashing back down on me. It’s about creepy turkey vulture puppets who suck the souls out of other saccharine cute puppets so they can run their little corner of the world. That’s seriously jacked up, especially to a six year old (which is how old I was when I saw it in theaters). Making matters worse, my two older brothers dropped me off in a Revolutionary War cemetery on the way home, daring me to stay there at night for as long as I could. And now the two events are always going to be associated with one another as one of the most terrifying nights of my life.
This came out the year before I was born. I wasn’t allowed to watch it until I was 8 years old (paired with Poltergeist, I guess 1984 was a banner year for me for horror). It’s not necessarily a horror but Spielberg certainly doled out a heaping spoonful of suspense. Many of our family vacations revolved around trips to the beach, to the ocean, where I would play. That little fact gave Jaws some extra teeth–no pun intended, I swear. Watching the great white shark devour beachgoer after beachgoer made images dance in my head of ME being the victim in the waters that I’d visited so many times. Lakes and rivers became a lot more appealing than the ocean from that point forward. That is, until I saw…
I was so content for a year or so to visit lakes and rivers instead of the ocean after I saw Jaws. And then I saw Piranha, wherein a pack of seemingly harmless smaller fish in a river spin swimmers into a bloodbath. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t nearly as frightening as many of the other movies on this list, if only because I was older and it was hokey. Also, the topless women helped distract me from the horrors. Still, I was quite uncomfortable watching it.
When my brother took me to see it, he insisted that I “couldn’t get scared”. If I had flipped out in the theater, he would never let me live it down. He probably would’ve kicked my ass because that’s what big brothers do to teach you things. And so I bravely walked into the theater, ingested the film, walked out, and claimed to have never been scared. The only problem was that my face had given me away on several occasions during the movie. The abject horror on my face prompted my brother to tease me about it for a few days afterwards. “What do you mean you weren’t scared? You had piss dribbling down your leg”. That wasn’t true, but he was right to call me out on it.
To celebrate Halloween when I was ten, my mom let me watch Psycho. Truthfully, I was bored for the bulk of the movie. Hey, I was ten. Cut me some slack. But there was more than enough in the film to scare me. Anthony Perkins’ creeper behavior, the gory shower scene, the general suspense of the film, and the corpse mom at the end all made me uneasy.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
Yes, believe it or not, the Disney movie from 1949 scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. I think it was at a 1st grade assembly or something right before Halloween when they showed us Disney’s version of the Headless Horseman story. It was a cartoon, no doubt, and it was narrated by the velvety smooth voice of Bing Crosby. I understand why people might have reservations believing that it was all that frightening. Lest anyone forget, though, the story is about a headless guy with a demonic pumpkin in hand who rides around on a pitch-black demonic red-eyed horse that breathes fire. This image alone conveys my point about why a five year old would be crapping their pants: