When I was a kid, there were many things on TV and at the movies that scared the bejesus out of me. These are my earliest memories of entertainment-generated fear.
Note: A lot of friends have responded to this page with their own scared memories. At the bottom of this page, I've added some of their responses.
I forget which brand of scouring cleanser uses "scrubby bubbles" (possibly "scrubbing bubbles,") but when I was a kid it had commercials featuring cute, lovable, anthropomorphized bubbles that ended up ALL GOING DOWN THE DRAIN. Where did they go? One can only assume that they went somewhere and DIED! That they were giggling as they went down only made it worse -- like they're oblivious to their impending doom, and in for that much more of a terrifying shock when they get to the sewer system and realize they can't ever return to their heyday in the glistening porcelain sink.
If the scrubby bubbles inspired my first sense of concern, the Chuck Wagon commercial inspired a deep sense of menace and fear. There was this little man on a little horse-drawn carriage, and he was MEAN. All he did was shout, "Yah! Yah!" in the most commanding, angry voice I've ever heard from something so tiny. It sounded like he hated the horses. What's worse, the shaggy dog that chased the little man could never catch it. Instead, the man would steer his stagecoach under the sink, only to disappear just before the dog caught him. In the stagecoach's place would be a box of dog food -- suggesting an uncomfortable link between horses and dog food. I longed for the dog to catch the little man in his fangs and shake the life out of him. That way the little man wouldn't end up under my bed, waiting for his chance to attack me in the night and shout "Yah! Yah!" in my ear.
I was about five years old, and my parents made me go to bed long before "Deliverance" was on television. But I must have had childhood insomnia, because I later came out, in my PJs, and managed to catch the very end of the movie. Here's what I saw: a man's hand emerging from the still water. That's all, just a hand in the water. I'm still not sure why this scared me so deeply, though it probably had to do with the ominous music (more of a single tone, really) and with the fact that Jon Voight woke up afterward, upset from this nightmare vision. What did the hand mean? The hand meant SOMETHING BAD. That was all I needed to know.
The Heat Miser
I loved those animated Christmas specials. My sister and I would get excited whenever those came on, and we were always so sad whenever we found out from kids at school that we had missed one of them (we weren't big on checking TV schedules). One of our favorite animated holiday special was "A Year Without a Santa Claus," which contained our favorite characters, the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser. It was all good, except there was one thing that concerned me greatly: Everything they touched was destroyed. Especially the Heat Miser -- everything he touched just melted away into stop-motion nothingness. What if Heat Miser accidentally touched one of the kids who came to visit? What if he accidentally touched Santa? Death would be instantaneous! This gave me much to think about.
Lord of the Flies
This 1963 black-and-white film was something I came across on accident. The story involved kids roughly my age, so I thought, "neat," and watched. A kids' adventure story on a deserted island -- what could be better? I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The kids went from rude, to bullying, to cruel, to murderous. What really got to me was when Piggy was whacked with a rock, fell from the cliff, and then you see his body splayed upon the rocky shore. It only took a second.
The Avengers: 'Too Many Christmas Trees'
It took me putting up this page to figure this one out. A friend told me that my memory of an evil Santa Claus was from a black-and-white episode of "The Avengers," and when he sent me photos from it, I knew he was right. Throughout the episode, which is titled "Too Many Christmas Trees," the lead character is tormented by the vision of a Santa Claus that cackles evilly. I don't remember the details, but as a kid the program caused me severe cognitive dissonance -- Santa Claus is supposed to be good, not evil!
The 1958 film ends with a fly stuck in a spider's web. Only it isn't just a fly, it is a fly with a human's head. He's going, "Help me! Help me!" while full-sized humans, nearby, try to find him. They see him just as the spider comes along to pincer off or crush or otherwise suck the juice out of the pathetically high-pictched screaming man-fly. Seeing this, Vincent Price throws a big rock on the whole web. The horror! No child should see this. Decapitation, helplessness, and vicious insects, all rolled into one sickening scene.
Tom and Jerry
Speaking of decapitation... I loved the "Tom & Jerry" shows, but there was always something about them that bothered me: I wanted Tom, the cat, to prevail. I wanted him to catch Jerry and eat the little jerk. I think that's why I kept watching the show.....because there's always hope. Anyway, there is this one Fred Quimby-animated "Tom & Jerry" with a "Four Musketeers" theme, where Jerry is accompanied by three other mice who are all part of the French Revolution. I don't remember the details, but the cartoon ends with Tom in a guillotine a la Marie Antoinette, on top of a building somewhere. The mice, who are in the street below, look up, and see only the top half of the guillotine. The blade falls. The mice say something like, "Poor pussycat!," then they smile and walk away triumphant. Needless to say, THIS REALLY UPSET ME.
Trilogy of Terror
This is the TV-movie that ruined my nights for the remainder of my childhood. After seeing the segment in which Karen Black is chased by the murderous Zuni fetish doll, it was impossible for me go to sleep without looking under the bed to make sure there wasn't a spear-wielding little maniac about to go, "Aiaiaiai!!!" What bothered me most was that the doll simply could not be stopped. It would cut its way out of luggage, and attempts to burn it in the oven only made it angrier. Why, oh why, did my parents let me see this?
Willie Wonka, Evil Man
"Willie Wonka" was another one of those movies that my sister and I would rush home to see. I remember pedaling furiously on a Big Wheel, from wherever we were playing, then running into the house, turning on the TV (which, thanks to 1970s technology, took forever to establish its image), and being elated to discover the movie's opening credits. Whew! Just made it! So why is "Willie Wonka" on this list? Because that man is VICIOUS. Kids would blow up into purple balls, or get sucked up tubes, or be miniaturized, and Willie Wonka didn't care. He could have saved them from themselves; instead he rolled his eyes. When the prissy girl falls through the "bad egg" chute, Wonka suggests that she may end up incinerated. His apathy put pain in my stomach.
The Child Catcher
We loved "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" as much as "Willie Wonka." But we were absolutely, completely terrified by the Child Catcher. The scene where he stands there taunting the children to come out is among the scariest moments ever recorded on celluloid. If the Child Catcher didn't use a net to catch kids, he would lure them into his paddy wagon with candy. Who knows what he did to them after he caught them? Unthinkable. (Conspiracy alert! Note the hats: Is it possible that the Child Catcher is related to Willie Wonka?)
"Adjectives," from Grammar Rock
These cartoons/songs were extremely clever, and I'm pretty sure we learned a lot from them, like the fact that the word "lolly" sounds better in threes. The adjectives song, however, contained a different kind of lesson -- a power lesson. It came in the form of a girl who keeps getting taller, and a boy who keeps getting smaller. If that didn't already strike a nerve with any boy who started puberty much later than his female peers, it gets worse when the boy giggles at the big, gangly girl, and she responds by stomping on him. Though you don't see the aftermath, I imagined the little guy was pulverized. Probably had his guts squished out all over the sole of her shoe. Rather than learning my adjectives, I learned to shudder at the nastiness of women. This fear has stayed with me well into adulthood.
One weekend I was visiting my mom, who had divorced my dad and moved into a dumpy apartment. She was looking through the TV guide for something I would enjoy watching, and she came across "Burnt Offerings." "This should be good," she said. "It's a haunted-house movie -- you know, like Disney's Haunted Mansion." Wrong! "Burnt Offerings" turned out to be a demonic horror movie with a dour 1970s feel, in which most of the characters suffer deeply at the hands of pure, psychologically insidious, evil. Worst of all, there's this recurring apparition of a sadistic chauffeur who wears reflective glasses and grins malevolently. At one point, Karen Black, the "mom" in the story, turns into this manifestation of evil. By the end of the film, I thought my own mother had turned into evil for ever suggesting that we watch this. I had nightmares for three months. THANKS MOM.
This movie had many redeeming qualities for a young boy. First of all, it had these little creatures who appeared to be the Jawas from "Star Wars." Second, it had that really cool flying-metal sphere, which chases you and then lodges in your head and drills yellow goop out of your skull. Loved that. It also features Jodie Foster, in her very first role as a boy. (Okay, it's not really Jodie Foster, just a boy who looks and talks like Jodie Foster.) But mostly, "Phantasm" scared the living bejesus out of me. There's this underlying sense of insecurity in the fact that the boy is a recent orphan and he fears his older brother (his only remaining relative) is going to abandon him. As for straightforward scares, I was stunned by the nightmare in which the boy, safe in his bed, wakes up to discover he's lying on a cemetery plot. Suddenly hands burst out of the grass and grab him while the intimidating "tall man" mortician stands above. Don't get me started about the movie's surprise shocker ending. If a boy isn't safe in his own bedroom, then there is no comfort in this world.
My dad let me watch this on television when it was originally broadcast as a miniseries. "It's a vampire movie, it's got monsters, you'll love it." Wrong! I was expecting Dracula, not scare-the-hell-out-of-you, floating, pale, evil children in pajamas. Nor was I expecting to spend the rest of my bedtimes worrying about what was outside my window. The floating vampire child doesn't make any noise, he just hovers there looking white and hungry, with those dilated-pupil eyes that are just inherently chilling. Worst of all, he scratches at the window as if to say, "Let me in," and the crazed look on his face suggests that even if you don't let him in, he's going to wait it out. Eventually, a cold wind forces the window open (you can't trust latches when floating vampire children are around). Next thing you know, it's neck-eating time for floating vampire boy! Aaaaaggghh!!! My father loved torturing me based upon the fears this program stirred up. He would say, "I saw something outside your window last night." One time, my dad actually went outside my window and scratched at it until I screamed. THANKS, DAD.
My mom liked taking my sister and me to the drive-in. She had this amazingly ugly station wagon, but at the drive-in it became the coolest car imaginable because you could park it backwards, open the rear hatch, and lay down with blankets and pillows to watch the movie. Unfortunately, my mom's choice of viewing material left a lot to be desired. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was mind-bogglingly dull, and I made the mistake of eating a large bag of M&Ms throughout, basically sending myself into sugar catatonia. Later, my mom took us to see "Slithis." This was another case of a Bad Programming Decision by mom. She wasn't the only one to blame -- the newspaper ad made it look like a fun Godzilla-type monster movie. Instead, it was a horror film about this slimy reptilian man-like thing that would attack from underwater, pulling people off of docked boats, usually at night. Even the name, "Slithis," was upsetting. The film's low-budget cinematography and lackluster storytelling added to the unpleasantness. I think I had an M&M overdose that time too.
I caught "Sssssss!" on TV one night, and oh, man, did it get under my ssssssskin! It's about a man who turns into a snake. He's a good man, and that's what got to me -- he didn't deserve to become a snake! If I remember correctly, I think his girlfriend's father, a mad scientist, gave him Become-a-Snake injections against his will, or put Become-a-Snake juice into his cereal, or something like that. Cruel, heartless stuff. At the end, the guy finishes his grotesque transformation, and then -- adding insult to injury -- gets attacked by a mongoose. Adding more insult, the girlfriend watches in horror, and her echoing scream ends the film. Not exactly "happily ever after," there.
An American Werewolf in London
At some point, when I was about 10, I was sent to Los Angeles to spend the weekend with my uncle. Only my uncle was off somewhere being non-avuncular most of the time, so I spent much of the visit with his mousy girlfriend. She drove a crappy car (it might have been a Pinto) that stunk to high heaven because the cheap interior had rotted in the California sun. I can still remember the acrid, probably toxic, smell. Anyway, she wanted to entertain me, and suggested a movie. Cool. But "An American Werewolf in London"? Did she not understand movie ratings? I guess she figured a 10-year-old boy would love to see a movie about werewolves. Wrong! This movie sent me into a state of shock. First, there's the scene where the two tourists are attacked, and their puffy winter jackets (I had a jacket like that) are ripped to shreds, along with most of Griffin Dunne's face and torso. I probably could have handled that, but soon the other guy starts having dreams in which he has piercingly evil, yellow, dilated-pupil eyes. (Just like the kids in "Salem's Lot"!) By the time the Nazi man-reptiles (just like "Slithis"!) with machine guns invaded his family's house, I was terrorized. My uncle's girlfriend finally got a clue and took me out of the theater. She apologized profusely, but it was too late. I had a rattling weekend in Los Angeles, and about two months of nightmares. THANKS FORMER GIRLFRIEND OF MY UNCLE.
"Wolfen" (I think....the one with David Warner?) was on cable at my grandparents' house. I was a little older, maybe 12. The worst thing in this movie is the discussion about how, after decapitation, the human head remains conscious for about 20 seconds. Then, during the film's climax, you see a head get whacked off by a wolf's claw, and after it falls to the sidewalk in slow motion, you see the mouth trying to speak, while the eyes glaze over. Should children be watching this? My grandma finally got the idea that maybe the answer was no, but at that point, the credits were about to make like the head, and roll. THANKS GRANDMA.
During grade-school recess, we laughed about the newspaper ad that read, "It will scare the HELL out of you!" We thought it was funny to see the word "hell" in print. Then, we went home to watch it. It really did scare the hell out of us. I'd never seen people be so aggressive toward other people. So in-your-face. The message was lost on me, since I wasn't a juvenile delinquent type of kid, but the fear and intimidation generated by the prisoners, as they harangued their young visitors, was palpable. The next day, during grade-school recess, we spoke in hushed tones about the program. (Years later, I rented this on video, which now comes packaged with a follow-up documentary that was made decades later. It's quite interesting, though not nearly as scary as I remembered.)
This black-and-white 1960s movie and "Scared Straight" have a similar kind of menace: there's a claustrophobic environment, dominated by overbearing criminals who verbally assault and intimidate a group of cowering victims -- in this case, in a New York subway car. "The Incident" is a very effective, if one-note, movie, and as a kid it caused my adrenaline to flow just as it would at school in response to a taunting bully.
The Prince of Darkness
Though much of this John Carpenter movie falls squarely in the "cheesy" category, the hazy video image transmitted from the future, which shows what is alleged to be the AntiChrist arriving to spread evil and trigger the End of the World, totally got to me. It's scary precisely BECAUSE the image is so grainy and hard to make out. With the absence of a crisp, clear picture, imagination and fear take over. This is pretty much what made "The Blair Witch Project" so effective as well. (I feel sympathy for all the kids who were subjected to that film!) "Prince of Darkness" takes this fear one step farther at the end, when it employs the ol' "good person who turns evil" effect (see the "Burnt Offerings" entry above for another example). Even though I was well into my teenage years, this movie gave me fresh new nightmares for quite a while. THANKS JOHN CARPENTER.
"A reallly scary memory for me was the 'NBC Mystery Movie' theme music and imagery of that blood red sky, black clouds and that person in the shadows with a flashlight, while that really eerie whistling was going on. It unnerved me so bad as a kid, that it is still somewhat unsettling to hear it now." J.H.
"My parents let me watch everything as a kid. I too am still messed up over 'The Fly' and 'Amityville Horror' and would scream bloody terror at the Orange that sang opera on 'Sesame Street'." P.G.
"I was scared of the parrot on the umbrella handle in 'Mary Poppins'. What did it do at night?" P.M.
"In 'Carrie,' Sissy Spacek just looks too eerie with the pig's
blood dripping down her face, and otherworldly pacing around like a
zombie around the high school gym while the carnage erupts around
her. Also watch her body contort when she destroys John Travolta's
truck near the end. Then of course, there's Amy Irving's surprise
trip to the cemetery at the end. Brrrr! S.M.
[I was scared by] "The 'Mr. Yuk' Centers For Poison Control Public Service Announcements. '...Do not drink, and do not eat, or you will be sick! Sick! Sick! Sick! Mr. Yuk is mean, Mr. Yuk is ...green! Bwhahahahaaa!' The idea of this was to scare kids away from ingesting stuff they should not be ingesting (y'know, the detergents and ephemera left under the kitchen and bathroom sink). Mom got ahold of these labels featuring a puke green antithesis of a Smiley-Face, which she would place on all offending bottles and containers. The PSA featured static drawings of kids looking like they were about to hurl, a psychotic vocalist singing the above jingle and eerie colored-oil dropped into water as background, dissolving to a closeup of the Mr. Yuk sticker/logo. Brrrr!" S.M.
"I vividly recall a recurring dream I had as a child of running through a maze in a corn field (get it, a 'maize-maze?') and being hunted by the Jolly Green Giant. Actually, I don't know that I could call what he did hunting since he never moved a muscle. It's just that every passage I would run down to escape his horrible gaze would have him standing there, arms folded and mean looking, deeply intoning a 'ho ho ho' laugh, at every corner I turned. Laugh if you want to, but I always woke up screaming! I also remember nightmares involving Godzilla eating my neighborhood, but what kid doesn't?" Astorixus