Recently, my co-contributor Karl Hungus posted a great piece on what turns the screws of his fears. I could not help myself, and have decided to return the favor.
My earliest fears - that is, the first movie to really scare the bejeezuz out of me – was a mixture of The Hand with Michael Cane, and Sasquatch. I can recall these movies being on a television when I was very young, and I was not able to understand them. They may have been playing on what would by now be an antique movie player, either an early VHS or maybe some sort of laserdisc system (anyone recall “Selectivision??”). In fact, for a long time (whatever a long time is to a 4 year old) I conflated these two movies together. But what was it that scared me? The autonomous hand? The concept of some monster named ‘Sasquatch’ roaming the dark woods? I think that it was just that these movies were scary, and therefore I was scared by them.
Not too long after the Hand/Sasquatch caper there was a television showing of the first true fear I would experience on film. This was different than the abstract experience from above. Rather, this was something I perceived could happen to me, and it continues to affect me. The movie was Spielberg’s “Jaws” and I am still afraid to swim in any body of water alone, much less swim in any body of water, alone or otherwise, at night. This includes shallow, above ground swimming pools.
What was it about Jaws? Well, it did have the advantage of at least being essentially plausible – people had really been attacked and eaten by sharks, most gruesomely by the infamous white shark. That both the robot shark and the real life versions are so awesomely built to inspire human fear they border on a parody of the form – huge mouths in a dreadful smiley-face, with mandibles that can diabolically disengage for larger bites, filled with row about row of symmetrically triangular razors – it is almost too much, like a child’s drawing. Further, it was not unusual for me and mine to spend a good deal of time in the water, as we loved swimming and beaches (still do).
Well, I can chalk a lot of the fear about Jaws, in addition to the plausiblilty, up to that there was a) the prospect of being eaten alive – which has got to be painful in the extreme, and b) that it came from nowhere. That is, you never saw it coming until it wanted you to see it coming. While the shark does reveal itself at times by the fin, whenever it went in for a kill, it came from underneath. I think that the two most terrifying “kills” are the opening scene, where the shark essentially comes out of nowhere to take the skinny-dipping girl, and the later scene, when the boy on the raft is killed.
The first – the girl killed at night, gets to me because she cannot possibly see the shark, and was trusting of the ocean to not send something wicked her way. And there she is, a fragile human full of the belief nothing can go wrong, until suddenly she is without a leg. Oh, the horror. And you pretty much don’t see the shark, either. In the end there is barely enough of her left to fill a bedpan.
In the second scene, where the boy is killed in broad daylight, you again don’t really see the shark, except as it completes a “death roll” as the rest of the swimmers run for it. Now, this scene got to me young because that could have been me on that raft. But, as I have gotten older, it has turned more into the instinctual “protect the young" fear. While I am not a parent yet, I am the oldest in my family, and have a very developed protective streak, and the idea of being unable to prevent a child in my charge from harm, much less becoming a snack for a giant fish, is unconscionable. When the camera closes in on the poor mother in her sun hat searching the surf for her son, it is almost unwatchable for me now.
Finally, there is a third scene, which is the death of the character of Quint. He is an implacable foe of the shark, bent on vengeance, clearly cast as a latter day Ahab. But in his final scene, when the shark has breached the transom and all but sunk his Orca, he is kicking and squealing like a baby, all for naught. Even the toughest succumb to the Leviathan is the unspoken moral.
Notwithstanding that I was already damaged goods from Jaws, my good ol’ Uncle Pat decided it would be a great idea to take me and my cousin, Jenn, to see the brand new adventure film at the local drive-in in New Jersey. We had gone to this drive-in before, having seen both The Muppet Movie and The Empire Strikes Back there. This time, though, with Raiders of the Lost Ark, we were in for fare a little more suited for adults. Frankly, the only scene that got to me was the melting faces. It didn’t get to me at the time, only later, when I tried to go to sleep after an extremely satisfying movie going experience. I closed my eyes and all I saw was the wire rimmed spectacles falling from the disintegrating face of Major Arnold Toht, over and over again. As for Jenn, to this day she never got over the chamber of the serpents.
I am unsure why, beyond the obvious, this got to me. I suppose it had a lot to do with the idea of the pain of a melting face, coupled with the idea of being so bad that God is that mad at you. It’s worse than the Devil being mad at you, I guess.
I appreciated Mr. Hungus’ inclusion of the film “Pet Semetary” in his piece. Being a precocious child, as well as always trying to prove myself to the adults in my family, I read the novel as a 3rd grader (it took me a long time to get through, though – most of a year, if I recall). I was blessed with the type of parents that would permit me to read just about anything, including Stephen King, and this one looked good. Well, let me tell you…………
Pet Semetary might be the all around scariest King book, and was by far the scariest King I ever read. As a kid it was mind-bendingly terrifying. It had it all – reanimated zombie cats, ghosts coming without warnings, children’s deaths, reanimated zombie children, and a twisted sister locked in the attic. There was a blackness in the horror of Pet Semetary that most horror books lack. And somehow this blackness translated into the film.
I suppose, at the outset, Pet Semetary has an advantage of being scary as it threatened the well being of children. As can be seen by what I related above, in addition to my own safety, as I got older there developed in me the fear of harm to the helpless. To be unable to save Gage from the truck is unimaginable; the fear of being a parent and losing a child is only moreso.
In addition to this, though, is that the dead return to life rather surly. They aren’t slothful, moaning zombies, but actually motivated agents of great evil. Churchill the cat was not pleasant after his stint in the Micmac burial ground, and Gage literally brings the voices of Hell. Mr. Hungus had it nailed with his analysis of the showdown between Gage and the old man, Jud. It was scary in the book, and this was faithfully translated into the film version. And while the Achilles severing was awful, the part that got me was when Gage swipes the corners of Jud’s mouth with the scalpel. (Fans of Asian cinema might see shades of this in the character Kakihara from the incredible Ichii the Killer.)
To be continued.....................