I owe my overactive imagination to my big sister, who convinced me at a young age that our basement was a place of horrors. Slick, gurgling creatures waited until nightfall to emerge from the sump pump. A twisted, oily horror resided behind the boiler. Mummies and vampires found refuge in the closets in the basement. And in the crawlspace lurked things that would make the Old Gods from Lovecraft’s stories flee in terror.
To make the basement — particularly the crawlspace — even worse, my sister threw the bottom half of a scarecrow far back in a corner so there was the constant reminder that if I ventured into the basement — at best — I’d be rendered in two. Worst case scenario: I was convinced the thing that lived behind the boiler could turn me into liquid (but still being aware and feeling pain), and pump me through the radiators in our home all winter in a super-heated, claustrophobic nightmare where I was so close to family, but unable to do anything about it. When the grief of my disappearance finally waned enough that my mother and sister could move forward, there they’d be unwrapping Christmas presents, warmed by my agony!
I lived in a world of monsters as a child. Free to roam outside longer than most kids, branches from trees were terrifying things I just knew would pull me high into treetops and shred me in the dark. Disembodied hands waited beneath my bed, just waiting to pull me under and kill. I spent many nights awake and in pain because a walk to the bathroom meant being near the entrance to the attic, and the picture window in the living room also in view on the walk may as well have been a movie screen showing the worst kinds of horrors that lived in our back yard.
Even away from our home, terrors lurked. Once, while spending the night at my cousins’ house, I peed the bed because just outside the bathroom door, my aunt — for some twisted reason known only to her — hung a painting of several clowns. Laughing and crying clowns! (Who does such a thing?!)
Even today, every morning I wake up — as I wander the apartment turning on lights — I expect to see something in the dark. Just standing there. Waiting for me.
I still hate mirrors. Oh yes, how I still hate mirrors…
Embracing the Terror
Somewhere along the way, again, because of my sister, I came to find myself dragged in deeper with horror. My sister was a reader, and while she lived to terrify me, she also encouraged me to read anything she had in her room. The first horror I read was The Gold Bug and Other Tales of Mystery, by Poe. (To this day, I can remember the very spot on her floor where I found it.) I was fascinated by the psychology in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and developed an irrational fear of orangutans and strait razors after reading “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
From there, it was a collection of Lovecraft stories. (Finally, the creatures in the sump pump had names!)
Then, Stephen King’s Carrie and Salem’s Lot. (See, I was wise to fear windows!)
My dad seemed to lack the filter that tells most parents, “Maybe the kids shouldn’t watch this.” He took my sister, step brother, and me to see The Exorcist at the drive in when it came out. It was a double feature, with The Legend of Hell House leading the way. My step mother spoke up, but my father insisted we’d all fall asleep instead of watching the movies.
He was wrong.
In the weeks that followed, my sister woke me up several times telling me she thought she was possessed. She wasn’t trying to scare me — she truly believed that she had succumbed to the grip of Satan himself!
It didn’t help when HBO came around that my dad let me watch The Amityville Horror in a living room with the very kinds of windows the house in the movie had. Yet again, my fear of windows was justified. I was terrified of the basement of my father’s house in Kansas, and the attic was even worse. I knew my dad kept his old stash of Playboys, Penthouses, and Easyriders in the attic, but fear won out over my desire to see boobs. Unless my step brother was brave enough to venture into the attic and drag a magazine down to his bedroom, I was having none of that!
My Irrational Fears
As the best example of how irrational my fear for things was, I offer this little story. My sister took me to see Jaws when it came out. The scene where the head comes out from the hole in the bottom of the boat? Scarred me in a big way. Safely in bed at home, the sound of acorns or other things falling from the trees above our house and onto the roof had me convinced that head was what was really up there making noise. The Saturday Night Live “Land Shark” skit may have been funny to some, but it made rational sense to me. I was convinced that Jaws would find his way into the St. Lawrence River from the Atlantic, swim through the Great Lakes, and find his way near my house through streams and creeks from Lake Michigan. From there, he would flop out of the water like a walking catfish and come to my house to devour me!
(Another quick aside: my mom took me to see Young Frankenstein at my repeated insistence. The row of skulls with Marty Feldman jumping out? Yeah, that’s as far as I got before freaking out and having to be dragged from the theater.)
Excuse Me. What’s that Star on the Wall For?
For some reason, An American Werewolf in London changed it all for me.
I don’t know why, but when I watched that movie with my dad, something clicked. I became not terrified of the genre, but a die-hard fan. I was fascinated by the movie in the same manner I was fascinated when he brought me to see Dog Day Afternoon. There was something more to the movie that hit me in a way I still don’t understand.
I was suddenly able to watch the movies that once scared me. Sure, Linda Blair as a possessed kid is still one of the most terrifying images to me, but I could watch it all. I even ventured into the attic to see what magazines my dad had tucked away up there.
I couldn’t read or watch enough horror after seeing An American Werewolf in London.
My sister was 5 years older than me, and that had its advantages. At 17, she could get my friend Mike and me into R-rated movies. When you’re 12, Stephen King’s Creepshow on the big screen is about the coolest thing in the world.
I suppose this is a good stopping point for today.
More about Stephen King tomorrow…
Cynthia Griffith says
Don’t forget how my dress form scares ya when you forget I’ve got a sewing project sitting on it 😉 Heehee!
I feel the same way about clowns. I don’t get scared easily, but clowns are evil, and warrant a flight or fight response.
The head in the boat hole scene in Jaws- I had a similar reaction. The first time I saw Jaws, I was sitting in a theater, and I knew what was coming next. Hooper was poking around the bottom of an abandoned boat in giant shark-infested waters at night- what else is gonna happen?! So I covered my eyes for a few seconds to spare myself. Except I timed it wrong, and uncovered my eyes at the exact moment the head popped out. And I screamed- loud. The people in the theater laughed. Strangers laughed at me! So now whenever I watch the awesome movie Jaws, I be sure to keep my eyes wide open with full concentration during the head-popping scene. 8)
Yep, American Werewolf in London was revolutionary. The first time I saw it, I thought to myself, “This could actually happen. Given just the right circumstances, there’s maybe a one in a million chance of this actually happening. Cripes.”
Christopher Gronlund says
Cynthia: Yeah, I’m pretty used to the dress form, now, but when you begin a new project, it takes getting used to in the mornings when I come out of the office and into the living room. (I’m always at the ready, just in case it’s transformed into something wicked during the night! I promise, should that ever happen, to go gentle on your sewing project in my rush to defend myself at 5:30 in the morning!)
Christopher Gronlund says
CMS: Yes, clowns! (My shameful confession, for a very short time when I was younger, I was a clown!) Now, as scary as clowns are, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a fave schlock movie. And zombie clowns and things like that…no problem. But actual clowns, especially out at night (and maybe with a shovel)…yeah, I’d rather face a bunch of zombies.
I lived a few towns away from where John Wayne Gacy was doing his thing. It was creepy ’cause I knew young guys were disappearing. (Granted, a little older than me, but still…) When I found out he was a clown and saw a photo of him dressed up, I knew the face of terror! We definitely agree on the clowns thing.
The hole in the bottom of the boat scene…I can now watch it. In fact, everybody reading this can by going 4:30 into this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hb3gYaKT6r8 It’s still creepy, just the way it happens. Years ago, in Canada, I swam down in a lake to look at a log on the bottom. OF COURSE there was a fish in it, and it shot out at me and I almost choked. I KNEW there’d be a fish down there, but…as I got close, I thought about that scene from Jaws.
American Werewolf in London. I just loved him chatting with his friend. Don’t know why, but it was the neatest thing to me as a kid. Normally, it would have creeped me out. And…I was old enough that I thought, “How’d they do that?” during the transformation. So there was a fascination with special effects that made it a step removed from terrifying to me.
Ha! I love the movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space! But actual real life clowns- not so much. Not at all. But you are forgiven for your youthful indiscretion. 😉
Christopher Gronlund says
CMS: Of all youthful indiscretions, it is the one that shames me the most…
I used to be terrified of movies I hadn’t even seen. I was convinced Freddy would get me if I fell asleep, despite having never seen any of the Nightmare films.
Then, when I was 15 (much later than I should have), I thought “Fuck it, this is silly,” and started renting every horror film I could get my hands on. I immediately became a huge fan of the genre.
Christopher Gronlund says
Yeah, I used to see commercials and they’d terrify me! Like you, I’d see something for a moment, and it paralyzed me. Along the way, i realized something: my imagination made it worse!
I can’t think of too many times something that terrified me was knocked down a step once I saw the movie and realized what terrified me wasn’t as bad on screen or TV as it was in my mind. (Now, if only I could have stopped later warping it all back into something terrifying, I’d be fine!)