For someone who is such a lover of horror films and enjoys watching episodes of 48 Hours about real life murder mysteries almost on a loop and who literally has every single book written about the Manson Family and their blood-drenched killing spree back in the summer of ’69 spread across my bookshelves, I happen to have a very low tolerance for the things that really freak me out, the stuff that has managed to slip into my subconscious and has remained there, taunting me almost, for decades.
The things that terrify me? They’re maybe not of the typical variety. I can’t say that I enjoy clowns, but I’m not petrified of them either. I never lie in my bed in the quiet shadows of the night and mull over the possibility that either Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees is coming to get me – and I have never been at all frightened by Chucky, because, well, he’s a doll and a redheaded doll at that, and butcher-knife-wielding or not, he is like three feet tall and he always has on the kind of ugly striped shirt worn by an unfortunate tween with bad acne. Just last week, I finally read the book The Shining about a zillion years after it was published, and I told my mother that I was in the middle of it and I could hear her as she took a deep breath over the phone and she sounded genuinely horrified and very serious when she tried to caution me not to read it if I was alone in my house and I thought that was very cute of her, but it was also entirely unnecessary.
I do understand that none of the above entertainment might read as particularly entertaining to a lot of people and it’s not like I see any of those violence-packed books or films as entirely benign, but I don’t feel warped by any of it either. I don’t think about scenes from scary movies or books while I’m in the shower and, for a very long time, I actually used to have a Psycho poster hanging next to my shower because I thought putting it there was really very funny and I could kind of tell by a person’s reaction to it whether or not he might end up looming large in my life.
I guess I’ve just always appreciated a somewhat subversive sense of humor.
All of that said – all of that kind-of-bravery-or-general-stupidity I just expounded upon aside – I do have some very real fears generated by scenes from movies and television shows and the combination of the images and sounds over the years that have caused my psyche to shudder must have gotten in there really deeply because there are definitely still shards of them embedded within and just thinking about even a glimpse of any of it still puts me on a very narrow edge where comfort can only be experienced from a distance.
I was about seven years old when I first saw Poltergeist, and the movie provided some very good scares. The tombs of skeletons opening in the mud pit of the future swimming pool is a great moment and those sudden sound cues that ring of doom still cause my jaded students to jump when they see it today. The maggot-filled steak that moves across the kitchen counter will always be revolting, as will the scene that follows it when that paranormal tech guy rips apart his own face in the bathroom mirror until we see the pulsing of tendons and the empty socket of an eye. But the movie’s main scares are not what stayed present for all of these years. For me, it has been two images that cause me to tremble and I think that one of them makes perfect sense because it’s all kinds of spooky, but the other one makes way less sense to me in terms of how powerful it has been in causing me to feel a real sense of discomfort. That moment when the mother turns around in her kitchen and all of the chairs she just pushed in to the table are now stacked high on top of the table is spooky as fuck and, for me, it’s made even more spooky because neither she nor the viewer gets to see it actually happen. I’ve always been of the belief that what the mind conjures up and pieces together as though it is an old-fashioned Avid editing system is often far scarier than what a filmmaker is able to put forth on the screen. After all, we bring to that symbolic editing our own catalogue of memories and our own strongbox of fears, and it’s maybe the best movie that can silently slip a key into something we thought we’d locked away carefully, beckoning those fears forth in the darkness of a theatre.
The other thing from Poltergeist that scared the shit out of me was the static on the television set. There’s a lot of static in the movie, and sometimes it’s filled with the voices from the other side, but those voices and their inherent threats are never what got to me. Instead, it was just the simple static, so empty in its nothingness, so realistic in that I could see static on my own television screens at home too. The openness of it and the fuzzy sound of it read to me – even then – as a wide shot where something vicious could pop out from the far left corner of the frame at any moment and violently tarnish an image that once felt alarmingly safe. Even today, the appearance of static on a screen causes my tummy to flip – and not in that good way. I cannot look right at it because of what I think might appear behind the white noise and yet I also can’t look away because, even though the unknown is what I know will warp my mind, I guess I’ve just always been drawn to the darkness.
But probably nothing in Poltergeist was as emotionally scarring – not that fucked up preening clown and not that mouth thing the closet in the kids’ room turned into that sort of looked like a vagina after it had given birth to a twenty-seven year old sumo wrestler whose skin was made out of spikes – as knowing that, soon after the movie was shot, the actress who played the oldest daughter was strangled to death by her boyfriend and that, a few years later, the little girl who played Carol-Ann, perhaps the most angelic-looking child ever captured onscreen, died of an undiagnosed illness. Stories began to spread about the Poltergeist Curse, and to me that was way more sinister than anything in the actual movie.
Could remnants of a film fracture off like splices of film stock and attach themselves to the actors’ lives? Could those remnants actually haunt a life?
It sometimes feels like my life has been haunted.
I feel a deep dread when look into the distance during a shot from The Wizard of Oz where I have always heard a dead body of an extra is hanging from a noose. It doesn’t matter that the story has all but been disproven; I spent years wondering about the veracity of it all and my mind created violent and dark thoughts that settled in forever and now I think that maybe I see something that simply isn’t there. And nothing has played with my mind more than that random image of what looked like a little boy in the background of that shot from a fucking comedy. Remember that story of the ghost who appeared in the window of Three Men and a Baby? I didn’t see it at all when I saw the film in the theatres, but after it arrived on video, the stories began to spread like a satanic wildfire. I didn’t even have to watch the movie again to be afraid of what might be there and I also didn’t have to believe in ghosts to feel myself tremble, and yet I still had this weird need to confront the very image that made me peek behind the shower curtain every time I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I would kind of slowly move towards the area that was hidden and I would then really quickly pull the curtain back and I always sort of wondered what I would do if there really was a madman standing there with a very large axe or if maybe there was a little boy ghost in there lathering up, and I didn’t know what I would actually do – my guess is fall into a fetal position and begin sucking my thumb while praying for death – but I still did it every single time I was in there for at least five years. I was legitimately afraid of something I never even saw. And I got more afraid the longer I went without seeing anything.
I finally rewatched the movie. The moment was like an event. There were a few of us who went over one of my friend’s house and we made popcorn and I’m sure there was pizza too and we put on the video of a movie with Steve fucking Guttenberg and held hands like we were watching people line up to experience pure torture and when the image appeared onscreen that had been reported to be just a cardboard cutout of one of the actors that had accidentally been left in the background of shot by the prop master, we screamed bloody murder and seeing it didn’t assuage any of my fears. It confounded those fears and, just this morning – so many years later from that night on my friend’s couch – I saw a still image of the cardboard cutout/definite ghost and I felt like part of my brain was being dragged through meadows of safety to swamps from the past and all of those initial feelings of displacement you have when you are confronted by something that feels not of this world came rushing back.
And all of that happened just because of one glimpse of something that wasn’t even real.
It always has been that way and I have tried to come to terms with the fact that I think it probably always will be. Nothing about Paranormal Activity freaked me out except for the image of an open bedroom door. It wasn’t that the door allowed ghosts in or that the house was maybe haunted or that the movie in general kind of sucked. It was an open door that struck me as the vessel to danger that stuck in my mind and I still don’t love sleeping in a room with the door open at all. But even worse than that fear is looking into the mirror late at night and it’s not like I’m at all afraid of seeing somebody’s image pop up behind me in that conventional but still effective way that always seems to happen in a scary movie. What I’m desperately afraid of is seeing Bloody Mary appear in the mirror instead of me, and just so I’m being totally honest, I first heard about the chanting of the Bloody Mary thing when I was in fourth grade at a sleepover party at this girl Jennifer’s house and I was so terrified by the notion that I refused to go into the bathroom in a group to try it and just the possibility that something could appear as though from nothing was enough to scandalize me for probably the rest of my life.
We all have that something that lives inside of us as a latent fear that is primed to come forth when psychologically summoned. This morning, every time I ran into a friend of mine, I asked each one what single thing from a movie kind of needlessly haunts them and all I can say from my little bit of research is that we all have fears and, while those fears may differ, it is often the fear that first develops as a child that will impact you the longest.
One of my friends – he has long been one of the people I can always count on to watch a horror film with me – is terrified of all things zombies. He can watch zombie movies, but there are conditions. He can’t watch them alone or at night, and that includes episodes of The Walking Dead. This is a guy who has a realistic-looking bony and vacant alien hanging on the wall of his classroom that I avert my eyes from every time I enter that space, but his zombie issue is real and he thinks that maybe it comes from the time his parents took him to see Night of the Living Dead when he was only five years old because they didn’t really know it would be the kind of thing that would permanently warp their sweet, young child. Another friend is more like me in that it’s the vast unknown brought to cinematic life that is the most terrorizing. She cites Jaws as the movie that has stayed with her the longest and she thinks it’s because of not having any knowledge that what could harm you is below you and out of sight. Her other lasting fear is that excellent moment from the original When a Stranger Calls, when the babysitter who has been told to “check the children” all night long by a creaky and anonymous voice over the telephone is told by the police who have begun to trace the crank calls that the call is in fact coming from inside the house. I teach that scene to my classes as an exercise in charting the buildup of suspense, but it might be time to choose a new scene because there’s simply no longer enough of a resonance to understanding the terror generated from someone you don’t know calling you from another line in your own home and the loss of that fear is because these kids have never lived in a world without caller ID and cell phones and it’s no big deal for someone to call you from inside your own house anymore. My stepfather will call me from the driveway to indicate that he is outside in the car. I try to remind him that it might be nostalgic for all of us if he does something like honk the horn, but those days are gone and they are gone forever and they have taken with them some of the things that used to frighten us because some threats have just been removed by a changing zeitgeist that has maybe slipped different fears into their place, but those of us who remember how it used to be still feel the effects of what once was.
There’s a kid in one of my classes now who barely spoke for the entire semester, but he has apparently started to take to me and he is really enjoying the extended horror unit I’ve been teaching. He’s been doing things like raising his hand and participating in class and I act like it’s nothing out of the ordinary, but I have looked at this guy’s attendance and he barely goes to his other classes and I’m really pleased he’s enjoying Film. I kept him after class one day recently and asked him what it was that he liked so much about horror films and he told me that it’s the gore to which he responds. It has never been the gore that lured me in and it’s also never been the gore that frightened me and I asked him if he also liked a more psychological style of horror and he didn’t really know what I meant so I brought him in my copy of The Silence of the Lambs and I told him that I considered it to be one of the scariest movies ever and he seemed excited that I was lending him a movie but he also came in the next day and kind of shrugged and said he just didn’t think any of it was that scary.
I think that maybe if there had been a scene of projectile shooting veins that the kid might have responded better. I also think that I might be glad that I don’t fully understand him.
I see the differences between who a lot of us are as people when I notice what it is that we fear and I also notice that there’s something about us that is inherently the same. Zombies might not creep me out in the least, but I was about five years old and my mother took me to see some movie called Pete’s Dragon and it’s possible that my father was in the theatre with us, but all I really remember was that I had a brown paper bag filled with colorful jelly beans and that one of my friends from kindergarten was also there and we sat near the front and that’s when some dragon – maybe Pete’s, but I have blocked it out – flew across the fucking screen and landed near a tree and I was utterly traumatized and, to this day, I cannot watch any creature with bony wings fly across any screen and not turn borderline catatonic. The image impacted me in my formative years and it continues to trouble me in ways I have never been able to understand, but the fear is real and it’s settled in deeply now and I think – barring some kind of meditative retreat where I’m meant to expel the negative from deep within my soul while standing on top of a mountain – it probably always will be a part of me.
And really, chilling though those memory-based fears might always be – permanent though they may stay – they’re nowhere nearly as scary as some of what we’ve all encountered in real life with real people and those bedroom doors that have been left open just a little bit.