To keep with the spirit of Halloween, I decided to explore the way in which my film fears have changed between childhood and adulthood.
To measure the change, I needed a baseline, and that starts with childhood. I’ll tackle my adult picks in another post.
The following list won’t be complete, but it’s what I came up with after sitting in thinker-pose for an hour. These are the scares from films, stories, and scenes that cut me deep.
My ultimate goal is to find a common theme. As a writer, I’m hard-wired to try for a specific conclusion—even in a blog post. Let’s see how I do.
The Peanut Butter Solution (1985)
Not an overtly scary film, but so weird and disturbing that it stuck with me.
It’s fun just to describe the plot of this insane Canadian film. And remember, it’s a children’s movie.
A normal 11-year old kid, Michael, lives in the big city with his father and sister. One day he and a friend explore the burned-out remains of a local mansion. Inside he sees the ghosts of two homeless people who burned to death in the fire. It scares him so badly that he gets “the fright” and loses all his hair. After a period of bullying and humiliation at school, the ghosts take pity and give him the recipe to “the peanut butter solution,” a mixture that will bring back his hair.
Michael screws up the recipe, and the solution brings back too much hair—it grows super fast, about a foot every few minutes. The bullying and humiliation get even worse. Fortunately, a friend discovers that he can make the hair stop growing by screaming at it.
Michael’s art class teacher, an evil Frenchman who hates children and their imagination, somehow learns that if you turn Michael’s hair into a paintbrush, it will magically paint whatever you see in your head. So he enslaves all the school’s children in an underground sweatshop, forcing them to make paintbrushes out of Michael’s hair and refusing to feed them unless they meet quota. The kids eventually escape after tricking the art teacher into walking inside one of his own magical paintings.
How did anyone come up with that storyline? I’m a sci-fi/fantasy writer, and I don’t even know. Hallucinogens? Whatever the method… kudos.
The Gate (1987)
Some kids open a gate to Hell in their back yard. Horror stuff crawls out. Good childhood scares, but the scene that killed me involved the protagonist growing an eyeball in the middle of his palm and stabbing it out. Freaky.
The Green Ribbon (1985)
My brother reminded about this, a short illustrated story from the book In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. It did a good number on me. Simple plot: boy likes a girl with a green ribbon around her neck. They date, marry, live full lives. On her deathbed, he takes the ribbon away, and her head falls off.
Re-reading as an adult, I’m just impressed the characters were able to get through fifty of marriage without realizing her head was unattached.
Watership Down (1970s I guess, I don’t care, I hate it)
Traumatized. I still don’t like to think about this one. I wrote about it on this blog several months ago.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The only true horror film on the list. I didn’t have much courage as a child when it came to grown-up films. If I came across one, my typical reaction was to raise my hand and explain that I wasn’t allowed to watch it.
But somehow the 1970s-version of Invasion slipped in there. Remember this one? It’s still the most gut-churning of all the Body Snatchers adaptations. I’ve included a clip below. Don’t watch.
This film is also notable as one of the few times Leonard Nimoy scored a non-Spock film role. (1970s turtleneck = amazing.)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1985)
The only scene I can remember is when the villain makes the sympathetic father grow physically older by tearing pages out of a book. That terrified me.
An impossibly goofy fantasy film that I loved with all my heart. Not frightening in the least, but I can remember this scene giving me the creeps. A changeling is killed, its face melts, and it crawls back into the soil like a worm.
When I finished the list, I was surprised at how little conventional horror it contained. The classic scary bits—ghosts, dead things, witches, demons, etc.—don’t make much of an appearance.
So is there a theme to my childhood scares? I didn’t see it at first, but on second glance, it seems obvious:
Almost everything here has some aspect of body horror, even The Peanut Butter Solution. Purists will disagree—and sure, it’s not like I was watching Carpenter’s The Thing. But I can see the elements. I was a kid, so give me a break.
This theme shouldn’t surprise me; body horror is still what freaks me out the most. I’ve seen each of Cronenberg’s 80s and 90s films once, and I have no plans to see them again. I don’t know why it scares me—there was nothing in my childhood to inspire it.
No one’s eye ever popped out and chased me around (that I can remember).
I should note that this list doesn’t represent my favorite childhood horror/scary films, just the ones that affected me. I’ll tackle actual favorites from adulthood next time.
Was there any particular theme or creature that you found scary as a kid? Rabid animals? Snakes? Chuck Mangione? Probably clowns. Can you imagine being a kid in the 1930s, when clowns were the top form of children’s entertainment, running amok through every neighborhood?
I can 🙁