I often look back to my childhood and recall the movies that frightened me. Some of which to this day, even as an adult I struggle to sit through. They caused sleepless nights, a fear of the dark and even an acute fear of rabbits! But, it seems I am not alone and we were united in our fear, as many of the big screen outings that frightened me so much as a boy also had an impact on many of you, my fellow movie lovers. I took the question to Twitter and had some fantastic responses.
It seems many of us watched as Jim Henson’s beautifully frightening puppets branded our young minds forever with their mix of terrifyingly imaginative creation and human like movements. We watched as the vampire boy hovered outside the window in Salem’s Lot. We watched as ‘That’ clown summoned a boy to ‘float down here’ through a storm drain. We watched alone or with friends and family, transfixed. Like a gateway drug these movies helped fuel our passion for cinema. Finally, it’s time to discuss what the most affecting childhood scares were and what had us waking our parents in fear.
The 80’s; the age of the evil Muppets.
One team in particular had us hiding behind the sofa in fear more than once. A group of individual’s led by a pioneer in the world of puppeteering. The products of the imagination that came forth were aimed at children and adults alike but some of them carried a sinister and more frightening aesthetic. For every Kermit there’s a Skeksis and for every Miss Piggy there is a Firey (watch video below and prepare to be terrified). At the heart of the team was Jim Henson and his involvement in two movies in particular seems to have impacted us tremendously in our formative years. Just recently on a lazy Sunday I noticed The Dark Crystal was showing on one of the movie channels and decided I felt brave enough to try and make it all the way through.
Released in 1982 but watched by me years later as a youngster. Literally every single character in it terrified me, even the ‘cuddly’ Gelfling lead characters. Not long into the movie a rapid mainline of fear was administered as one of the most ruinous cinematic creations were introduced and I officially kissed goodbye to sleep for many a night. The Skeksis had shambled into my brain and would nest there in my subconscious for years to come. These creatures designed to resemble in part a bird of prey, dragon and reptile are wonderfully and carefully brought to screen. Their speech croaking from cracked tongues through needle like teeth. Their bulk and hunched backs adding to the look of otherworldliness. The Dark Crystal remains a frightening experience from start to finish and one day I vow to make it through in one sitting.
Another Henson movie, that this time mixed human characters into itstwisted fairy tale style narrative was Labyrinth (1986). With Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie added to the muppet mix of goblins and monsters. The Firey’s standing out as the more frightening creatures. The red furry beasts were the pointy nosed, appendage swapping monstrosities that turned the movie from family friendly fair to quite simply, a horror! A camp fire sing song playing as sinister and downright evil as they literally try to rip our female protagonist Connelly limb from limb. Labyrinth for me remains the peak of Henson and co’s. quality and was one of my favourite movies growing up. It had such an air of escapism and allowed you to disappear into its world along with the frightening creatures on offer.
From page to screen.
One thing that we on Twitter are in agreement with is that clowns are evil and should never be allowed screen time. It seems all of us suffering from this fear (Coulrophobia) were haunted by the screen interpretation of Stephen King’s fantastic book IT. The film is a collection of a two-part mini TV series first shown in 1990. Whilst the movie isn’t all that great, with less than stellar acting and poor direction not standing the test of time. The key to its successful scare count was Tim Curry, once again almost unrecognisable as with another childhood scare movie Legend (1985) where he went full demon as the Lord of Darkness. In it he just fit the role of Pennywise the clown so perfectly, there was no way after his efforts any of us would visit the circus again. Or mention the C word without seeing his face or hearing his voice resonating.
Also from the pages written by master of horror Stephen King came Salem’s Lot (1979). Which like IT eleven years later was shown as a two part special then combined into feature length form. Directed by the masterful Tobe Hooper the man behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) who would later in 1982 bring us one of my favourite horror movies, Poltergeist. Salem’s Lot had many scenes that lodged in your subconscious but the one that seems to have left the biggest impression to those who have watched the movie: a friend of the protagonist appears with a soft plume of fog outside a top floor window in vampire form and tries to convince our lead character to let him in. It’s a slow and spine chilling scene and sticks with you, the soundtrack booming in repetition reminiscent in sound of the shower scene in Pyscho adding to the discomfort.
One popular children’s author’s book to screen characters really hit high on the nightmare-o-meter. Roald Dahl’s novels were perfect for the picking to translate onto screen as they were darkly comic and macabre and although aimed at children, had very adult undertones and could be enjoyed by both alike. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s (1971) trippy and psychedelic tunnel gondola scene, The Witches (1990) face peeling reveal, and The BFG’s (1989) child munching giants all translated wonderfully well into film and brought with them all the malice from the novels of which the characters originated. The Witches, as the title hints is a dark movie throughout, with some seriously alarming scenes, the other two are more gentle and light hearted by comparison. This only adds to the shock when the scares hit. The tone of the movie jarring towards a more terrifying arc makes its impression all the more lasting.
A movie that severely affected me personally as a child was based on a novel. On the surface Watership Down (1978) was a simple story featuring a herd of cotton tailed little bunnies relocating after the destruction of their warren. In reality it was a twisted tale with a socio-political subtext and lots of rabbits in peril. Oh, and a bad guy coney that literally ripped the other rabbit’s ears off!!! Seriously. I vividly remember watching it one boxing day and it left me dumbstruck with terror. To this day I am still frightened of rabbits. This movie is solely to blame. Based on Richard Adams’ best-selling book from 1972, the movie is extremely dark in tone and carried such an eerie atmosphere that it felt very far away from the child friendly animation we expected.
Upon asking you lovely folks for your thoughts, there was one movie that was talked about an awful lot. If I were to mention the Wheelers I’m sure those of you who have seen Return to Oz (1985) will feel a cold shiver creep up your spine. This long belated sequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939) started with our beloved Dorothy whisked off to a horrifying ordeal within a mental institute and facing electroshock treatment then things get increasingly more frightening as events unfold.There is a seemingly Evil Dead inspired moose sled, a pumpkin headed Scarecrow substitute (although Scarecrow still appears albeit in appearance far removed from the child friendly cuddly character from the first movie) and as mentioned before the horrifying Wheelers. Limbs tipped with rusty sounding casters, insane faces paired with voices that make you wince mean this is a tough watch. The head swapping Princess Mombi adds further scares. Watching Return to Oz as an adult really shows just how much this movie was not at all suitable for children. It is incredibly dark and tonally fraught with horror.
The miscellany of scares.
The impact of Steven Spielberg’s work transcends generations and he set the bar high in the childhood scares ‘genre’ shaping the landscape of film and young minds alike. Who could ever forget the moment Elliot’s house swarmed with men in Bio-hazard suits or when the title character was discovered by the river, grey and hanging onto the edge of life in 1982’s ET; The Extra-terrestrial. It was both heart-breaking and terrifying and for many of us the first time we would bond with a movie emotionally. He gave us the spooky exploits of Indiana Jones in the titular trilogy. In 1993’s Jurassic Park he not only made a breakthrough for special effects and sound but the dinosaurs on screen were so perfectly believable that many of you sent messages on Twitter to confirm the Velociraptor kitchen scene as one of the most memorable from your youth. Spielberg also produced many films making the list including Gremlins, Poltergeist, The Goonies etc.
The donkey transformation scene from Pinocchio (1940) along the title character from the much darker sequel (1987) Pinocchio Emperor of the Night are both responsible for twisting a friendlier narrative into something else entirely. Lady in White (1988 and responsible for scaring @i_nesbot) was haunting and its title character a ghostly embossment onto a fragile young mind. Neverending Story (1984) had the emotional sucker punch mid-way through with a plethora of frightening characters. Even a less than spectacular Superman 3 cropped up with a scene within the finale that sees an antagonist changed rather grimly into a cyborg. Aliens (1986) had @darthsean85 having nightmares. The scene where the motion detectors are pinging away and the Xenomorphs are discovered in the ceiling remained with me for a while after.
All the films we watched as children affected us in some way or another. The movies mentioned are just a collection of the many that made the biggest impact. While my musings aren’t exhaustive (as I sit here typing I can right now think of at least five more) it goes some way to showing us how the film community share in the diversity of film. Thank you to all who took part and made suggestions, I am so very grateful. My apologies to those who I didn’t manage to include in the article. There were too many fantastic ideas to mention it was impossible to feature all of them.
Time for me to sign off and see if they all really do ‘float down there’.