After twenty-some-off years of voracious horror movie consumption, I find that my tolerance for “scary” things is abnormally high. There’s only so much Karo syrup and red food dye a girl can see before she becomes immune to it being tossed around. Most haunted houses don’t frighten me, though I still love the easy jump scares and special effects. Books that go for gross out over genuine emotion make me roll my eyes. I am, I guess, rather desensitized to manufactured horror.
At the same time though, there are concepts and movies and a few books that make me squirm in my seat or call up a deep seated discomfort that I can’t ever shake. A lot of these ideas are silly. Some of them are things I was exposed to as a kid and have left an indelible impression on me. I’m going to tell you a couple of mine. In return, I’d like to hear a couple of yours.
I’m not asking for personal, bone deep confessions. We all have things we fear that are very real. I’m curious what non-real things send a chill up your spine, make goosebumps crawl along your eyes, makes your close your eyes until the terror has passed.
The Illustrations from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
I rabidly consumed these books as a child and loved them enough to purchase a bound collection of all three as an adult. I constantly make references to the story “The Red Ribbon” much to the annoyance of my husband, who thinks I’ve now overtold a joke that relies on me not taking off my necklace. Some of the stories are creepy, some of them are funny, and some are retellings of old urban legends. All of the stories were accompanied by pen and ink illustrations by Stephen Gammell that are down right spooky as hell. I mean, look at this drawing I picked as an example. That’s in a kid’s book! That’s cruel! I’m in my thirties and still feel a vague sense of unease when I see any of the pictures.
The movie Poltergeist, and more specifically, The Clown
Did you just shiver involuntarily? Then you have seen this movie. You know who the clown is. Lots of people are already predisposed to find clowns creepy – this scientist asserts fear of clowns is related to the uncanny valley phenomena. But I’ll stand out on a limb and say that people of my generation were clown-damaged by viewing Poltergeist at a young and impressionable age. (I will also accept “Pennywise the Clown” as an alternate explanation.)
If you haven’t seen the movie – and you should, it’s on Netflix streaming right now – during one of the spirit attacks in the movie, evil ghosts possess a child’s stuffed clown doll and use it to attack him. Its arms grow impossibly long, it sneaks under the bed, its smiling face distorts and becomes menacing. It’s the stuff kids’ nightmares are made of.
Some time after I saw the movie for the first time, my aunt and uncle gave me a stuff clown doll they brought back from a trip they were on. It was blue and white and looked more than a little bit like the doll in the movie. I thanked them and then – maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this publicly – I put the doll in my infant brother’s room with the hope that when it came to life to kill people, it would start with him. But the joke was on me! Because of the angle of the bedrooms, I could see the damn clown doll from my bed every night, where I’d stare at it unblinking until I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
My brother is alive and well, btw. Thanks for asking.
In college, I took the only accredited college level class on UFOs in the entire country taught by David Jacobs. Professor Jacobs worked out of my department and his class was (in)famous. I had had him as a teacher several times over the years and wanted to make sure I got into the always-booked UFO class before I graduated. As a professor of popular culture, I always found him reliable, interesting, and insightful. His UFO class was the same – a fascinating overview of UFO phenomena across the world, history of cases, its influence on popular culture, and theories about life on other planets.
Here’s the thing; Jacobs is a believer. A hardcore believer who works with what he calls “abductees.” He’s spent over 40 years doing UFO research – I’ve heard his audio taped interviews with “abductees,” I’ve seen some of the “mysterious objects” he’s collected, and I listened to this intelligent, articulate man describe at length the evidence he’s collected that aliens are here on earth and their intentions are not harmless.
I remember sitting in one afternoon’s lecture when the stray thought passed through my head, “What if this all is true?” I’m not really a believer – I think life in the universe does exist aside from us and I don’t believe it’s necessarily in a form that we’d recognize as “human” – but for one moment, entertaining the possibility that Professor Jacobs was right was deeply, personally frightening. I felt chilled to my actual core. The thought was pushed away just a second later, but every time I think about it, I remember how profoundly unsettling it was.
By the way, I always had to turn on all the lights in the house after Unsolved Mysteries ran a UFO segment too.