Part of what makes horror so effective is how well it taps into deep-rooted trauma to scare you and, in some cases, scar you for life.
I have so many earworms and snippets from both motion pictures and real-life memories rolling around in my head at any given time that it’s a wonder I have room in there for anything else; on my worst days, I almost don’t.
Hyperfocusing causes a person to think about something in a rigid manner and keep going back to it, often at the exclusion of other, more important things. Though to describe it fairly, it seems more like the object of obsession keeps coming back to haunt the individual. People who suffer from OCD and similar diagnoses are keenly aware of this.
A couple of extreme examples would be the 1998 psychological thriller π (Pi), which involves a protagonist who sees “golden spirals” everywhere, or the dark Jim Carrey vehicle The Number 23, in which he plays a man who believes everything that exists is somehow tied to the titular number.
One of my favorite horror films, if not my favorite, is They, which involves shadow demons returning to claim adults who they tormented as children. Part of the “rules” is that “they” can get you, in any dark place, by entering our world through a portal, such as a mirror or closet.
If you truly believed such boogeymen existed, wouldn’t you begin to see them in every dark corner, behind every closet door, just waiting for the lights to go out?
One of the things that make it difficult to heal from trauma is the human psychological tendency to crystallize negative thoughts and store them for quick retrieval as an evolutionary defense mechanism. Your daughter may not think too often about the thousand times you called her a princess, but she will always remember the one time you called her a bitch.
That rustling sound in the tall grass may not be an apex predator about to claim you for its supper, but your brain isn’t going to let you forget about the time you sat shivering by the campfire as Thag recounted a story of witnessing just such a thing happen to Berf and Trog on a dark and stormy night.
“Reliving the experience” is one of the more pernicious symptoms of trauma and is central to the condition PTSD, which most of us wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. The idea of having to revisit the worst moment of your life over and over and over is one of the worst fates imaginable.
If there’s any truth to the quote from Robin Williams’ underrated 1998 fantasy drama What Dreams May Come, “Hell is your life gone wrong,” then moments of your life you’d consider “gone wrong” spinning around the needle in your mind’s eye like a broken record is the stuff pure terror is made of.
I spent many a late night in my youth watching syndicated episodes of the ‘80s horror anthology Tales From the Darkside, the opening and ending narration of which was scarier than most of the stories in the show. But there was one episode that has always stuck with me and seared itself into my subconscious like a face turning away from a wedding day kiss at the altar.
It was called “A Choice of Dreams” and starred Abe Vigoda as a mob boss who discovers he has terminal cancer.
After he is approached by a company called Afterlife, which promises to grant the wicked gangster a chance to relive his happiest memories after he dies, he spends his ill-gotten fortune on the procedure, only to discover that he is now a brain, trapped in a jar, being forced to relive his worst memories over and over. We then see that he is but one in a row of brains in jars doomed to the same fate stretching off into the distance. Over the moans and screams of the damned, we hear the small, sad voice of the mob boss proclaim, “I’m sorry.”
With that happy thought in mind, imagine, if you will, a scene from a movie that not only scares the shit out of you but continues to play on a short loop in your head for decades. Welcome to my personal hell. These are the six horror films that scarred me for life.
1. JAWS (1975)
I was born in 1975, a month after Jaws premiered to the largest movie audience ever at that time.
On November 4th, 1979, after weeks of ABC’s voice of doom, Ernie Anderson, heralding the network debut of “the movie that changed history”, my little four-year-old self cringed behind my parents’ recliners and took in the aquatic horror that would follow me for the rest of my days.
Like so many others then and since, whenever I find myself in a large body of water, I spare an at least fleeting thought for the big rubber shark that defined “summer blockbuster” and scared the living shit out of generations of little kids.
I later obsessed over the movie, becoming an avid collector of related memorabilia and making the pilgrimage to Martha’s Vineyard, where most of it was filmed. One of my prized possessions was an officially licensed, vintage gaff hook game from Ideal Toys signed on either side by Craig “Ben Gardner” Kingsbury (the famous head-popping-out-of-the-hole guy) and Lee “Mrs. Kintner” Fierro, the mother who slaps Chief Brody after her little Alex gets eaten.
The first time my poor little two-year-old daughter saw it after I put it on display, her eyes widened into saucers, and she let out a blood-curdling scream.
I knew how she felt. I had caught Jaws 2 at the theater a few years before watching the OG on TV. One of the most memorable aspects of the premiere of the movie that added “just when you thought it was safe to (go back in the water)” to the vernacular was the giant display the theaters erected over the entryway doors so moviegoers would have to walk through the open jaws of the shark from the poster to get to their seats.
And yes, Mom and Dad carried me right through and into its belly.
Two-year-olds can’t really comprehend plots or fully wrap their heads around the concept of a movie. To them, movies are mostly just a jumble of images that convey concepts with which they are largely unfamiliar. At my first indoor movie experience after the opening cartoons (typical DePatie/Freling bunk), I saw a beautiful world of blue open before my innocent eyes only to be punctuated by a creature Jaws franchise fans would later dub “Brucette”.
I still vividly remember seeing the Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque shark gobbling down the annoying teens in what was basically a slasher movie with teeth. But by the time I was 4, I knew exactly what was going on (us kids in the late ‘70s were a lot smarter than these Barney brats, on account of Sesame Street and The Electric Company actually teachin’ us some shit).
I was so shocked by Peter Benchley’s novel come to life in my living room that when my dad asked what I thought of the movie and if I was looking forward to going to the beach the next day (we lived in San Diego at the time), all I could think of to say was “Jaws can’t swim.” Not a great answer, I know, especially considering all the evidence I’d just seen to the contrary, but it was the only hope I could muster up.
The next day, Pops took me to the beach and dragged me into the water, kicking and screaming, tossing me into the drink while laughing his sick, fucking ass off. Now, you may think, dude, that’s what traumatized you, not the movie, but you would be wrong. If I’d never seen the movie, I wouldn’t have known the fate that surely awaited me just a few precious yards away from the safety of the sand.
I maintain that JAWS is probably the film that has affected more people on a deep, psychological level than any other movie in history.
If it weren’t a stupid meme, I’d cap off that statement with “prove me wrong.” I’m not even completely comfortable in lakes, let alone the ocean.
Chew on this: What other soundtrack can you instantly recognize from only two notes? And what other two notes carry so much horrific weight? What other movie is able to compare to the phenomenon of instilling a sense of dread in any kid who went into the water after seeing it, hell, sometimes after having only seen Roger Kastel’s nightmare-inducing poster art for it?
Yeah. Fuck that movie. You’re gonna need a bigger therapy budget.
2. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
The 1970s and early ‘80s were the perfect time for little kids to get traumatized by horror movies because drive-ins were all the rage. Like Grease and American Graffiti (both of which I caught at the drive-in), Happy Days, and Sha Na Na, they benefitted from a ‘50s nostalgia wave that nearly rivaled Disco.
And where else could a young couple with tiny brats in tow go to wind down and smoke some of the good stuff while still providing a hybrid of family fun and Date Night?
Drive-ins usually had playgrounds at the front where kiddos could burn off all their energy before dusk.
There was an understanding for most of us that once it got dark, we were to watch the opening cartoon (I always prayed for Looney Tunes but usually ended up with The Ant & the Aardvark) while scarfing our popcorn then lay down in the back and go to sleep (Car seats? Pfft!). If we failed to do so, it was at our peril.
My first peek at the forbidden world of shit my dad was determined to see was a Texas Chainsaw/Halloween double feature.
I’d recently stayed up for Meatballs and The Blues Brothers just to watch my stoner parents piss themselves laughing, so I wasn’t expecting… Leatherface.
Granted, I didn’t really watch much of the actual movie. I caught just enough to have my first foray through The Uncanny Valley — you know, that uncomfortable place in which you find yourself not quite able to accept that a face is human but still not totally convinced it isn’t.
The worst thing about the main antagonist from TCM was that his mask WAS a human face, which made the infamous Valley go that much deeper, especially for a kid without the full context.
Add the cacophony of the iconic instrument of death to the proceedings, and you really only need about a ten-second line of sight for a full, traumatic effect.
You may be thinking that my parents were selfish assholes — first throwing me into the ocean the day after my virgin viewing of Jaws, then having the audacity to take me to an R-rated double feature. But these were different times with different social norms. We hadn’t even graduated to the level of making Saturday morning shows and video games for kids based on adult fare like Robocop, Rambo, The Toxic Avenger, and The Terminator yet.
There seemed to be this prevailing idea that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and kids had been gradually introduced to violence and gore since the 1950s.
3. HALLOWEEN (1978)
What I can tell you about Halloween from the perspective of a preschooler who saw it around the time of its initial release is that, like Texas Chainsaw, it was a largely bloodless movie, which likely made my folks a little less worried about whether we watched it or not.
The horror was more from the sound and the soundtrack (respectively). To offer a little perspective, they marched us right out of The Fly in ’86 after the baboon got turned inside-out.
Also, like TCM, Halloween featured a mask perfectly suited for Uncanny-Valley-sensitive little squirts — based on a real guy’s face, painted white to give it a ghostly quality. Almost any time I shatnered myself from seeing my own reflection in a window, it was because, for a split second, I was sure it was Michael Fucking Myers.
The heavy breathing and closet rattling solidified PTMD (Post Traumatic Movie Disorder). But it was something else, I think, that went even a little deeper for me personally.
What bothered me most were all the beautiful