I’m 18 years old. It’s near midnight, and I’m reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” alone in our silent home, which is dark except for the pool of light from the lamp beside me. I’m at the part where Eleanor and Theodora huddle terrified in a bedroom as the house comes alive, making horrific sounds as the walls breathe. I’m totally there with them, scalp prickling, as they watch the doorknob begin to quietly turn, back and forth.
Suddenly, our front door knob, several feet away, begins to quietly turn … back and forth.
I stare in disbelief. I creep fearfully to the door, my heart almost jumping out of my chest, feeling a complete unreality. Then, like any idiotic horror film teen, I cautiously open the door … and am two inches from a silhouetted face. I jump and shriek loud enough to wake the entire neighborhood.
It’s my younger brother, trying to sneak in from an evening out. Gah!
To this day, I’m not a horror fan.
I recently posted a version of this story (Books, Films and You – Boo!) at The Hog’s Head (thehogshead.org), a Harry Potter/literature blog, where I write as Arabella Figg. I asked for others’ Tales of Terror, and also consulted friends.
The results were illuminating and entertaining. First, the majority unapologetically revealed themselves as horror wusses. Some couldn’t even handle horror film trailers. Jenna shuddered over those for “Death is Coming,” “Hide and Seek,” and “The Unborn.”
Even children’s fare could traumatize. When I was 5, a TV special, with a tarantula enclosing kids in its legs, gave me a knockout nightmare I well remember. The flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” similarly affected others. Several people, as tweens, were terrified by Agatha Christie’s book “And Then There Were None.” “Right in the middle of a suspenseful scene … the light turned off!” said Melody. “I didn’t know Grandma had it on a timer.”
“In Search Of …” with Leonard Nimoy, scared some as kids. “It was the perfect storm of spooky,” said Judith. “Spock, to a kid, is the cool cucumber of empirical thought, the rational one. If (he tells) me a spaceship landed in the Peruvian mountains – who am I to question him?”
“The Amityville Horror” (book and film), still has some people freaking out over flies. Robin Cook, Stephen King, Ira Levin and Dean Koontz novels got nods. Others also considered “The Haunting of Hill House” extremely scary. Sandi said, “I systematically plucked a blanket and yelped” while watching the film version.
“The Exorcist” frightened the most people; some could only watch it on TV, in daylight, with people there. “I had to bail out a few times,” admitted Matthew. “The Shining” also gave many people nightmares; Dana called it “the scariest book of all time.” As a young teen, Hart saw the film with friends; once home, they found REDRUM written on the window (a prank). “NONE of us slept!” she said.
Dave called “Aliens” “an exquisitely crafted piece of sci-fi terror,” and said Hannibal Lecter “still reigns as the scariest movie villain I’ve ever watched.” After seeing “What Lies Beneath,” Stephenie said, “I paid my next two months’ rent to my roommate and moved in with my grandparents because of a claw-footed bathtub.”
“Salem’s Lot,” “Poltergeist,” “The Matrix,” “Jaws,” and “The Blair Witch Project” were also contenders. Some adults were even spooked by “The Corpse Bride” and “Coraline” – “when the Other Mother turns around and where her eyes should be, there are buttons,” said Red Rocker.
And then there’s Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” “Two words,” said Melody: “Talking Tina!”
A film or book needn’t be shocking or graphic. Because spooky “gotchas” and bloody horror lack the incredible power of that which “terrifies us down on a visceral level … that truly creeps us out and gets inside our heads,” as George pointed out.
Consider the Cold War episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” which, though bloodless and often told through metaphor, sent shivers through an already traumatized generation, reflecting and strengthening existing fears of nuclear annihilation. Story fertilizing our worst nightmares. Oh, yeah.
So, what’s your Tale of Terror?