Though I said yesterday that I probably was going to write a shorter post than usual, in fact I became quite verbose on the subject of Joss Whedon’s “The Cabin in the Woods,” and got some good pointers about it from my commenters. Today, the subtext of my post is that memory of terror, unless it’s perhaps of a genuine personal tragedy or accident that has befallen one, is fragmentary and gets confused with other moments one has witnessed on the screen, or perhaps is connected with the time and place when you encountered the substance of the memory. Thus as a former fan of “Dark Shadows” when it was in its first “incarnation” as a television show in the 1970s (and Mom didn’t know, I don’t think, that we watched it in the afternoons after school), I can’t be sure that my memory of what sticks in my mind as one of the most frightening werewolf scenes I’ve ever seen didn’t come from that show. Maybe it did; maybe it was Quentin Collins I’ve confused the werewolf snippet with. At any rate, I want to pass along here two early memories of the two most frightening images/films I saw at the time when I was eagerly absorbing all sorts of fictional material, and before I had more or less eschewed horror films.
In the barest trace of the werewolf film in question (which is all my memory retains of that particular episode), the unusual thing wasn’t the amount of blood and gore I saw, which is in marked contrast with the horror films I’ve lately seen advertised on television. I can recall no blood and gore. What was the most startling and vivid and terrifying was the pursuit of the victim herself as she ran through an autumn wood, where some leaves were down while others still clung to the trees above. There was a suitably mysterious mist rising to all sides of the path she was fleeing along, though she was quite unmercifully clear and plain ahead, even I believe losing a shoe as she ran along the path, screaming fitfully and in sheer hysteria. But do you know what was the most frightening aspect of all? It’s that her screaming was muted and subdued as if coming through a tunnel from a distance: what I heard in the foreground audio was the hoarse breathing and growling of the beast running behind her. Moreover, the film was taken from the beast’s visual point of view as he or it ran. This may be standard now for all I know, but I had never seen this before, and was astounded by the greater immediacy of my fear; I was in the werewolf’s totally unreasoning mind, his hungry and rapacious point of view suddenly my own. This was a very effective way to keep a young child up at night with nightmares (believe you me!), though of course what was even more frightening was that I couldn’t confess my fear because I didn’t want to be prohibited from perhaps more scary television watching to come.
The second memory is of me as a slightly older child, acccompanied by my five-year-old brother. It was New Year’s Eve, and we were at a relative’s house for the celebration. It was a very small party, though such family favorites as Swedish meatballs were on the menu (another stray fact my mind insists on dredging up). While the adults partied in the kitchen and dining room, my brother and I sat in the den, served food periodically like little princes by adults who popped in to see if we were all right. It got late and then later. All of a sudden, on came “Chiller Theater,” a classic show of which we had only heard, never having been allowed to watch it before. We made one of those unspoken pacts children make and turned down the sound a bit: we were going to watch a movie on “Chiller!”
This movie did not feature monsters. In fact, it featured something which our culture nowadays believes to be the province of Bart Simpson: the trick harassing telephone call. (In our area, there was a tobacco called “Prince Albert,” and it came in a can. We were fond of calling up total strangers at stores and markets on the phone and asking “Do you have ‘Prince Albert’ in a can?” Our busy and long-suffering audience of one would either unsuspectingly or just to give us cheap joy answer “Yes.” Whereupon we would respond with the nostrum, “Well, you’d better let him out then, hadn’t you?”) Anyway, to get back to the “Chiller” movie in question: the basic plot involves a teenage girl’s slumber party, at which she and her friends are getting bored late at night and trying to think of something to do. The parents are away at a late night party. At the risk of giving away the whole story early, I should probably tell you that the title of the movie is “I Know Who You Are, and I Saw What You Did.” Well, the story jogs along at average pace for a while, with various comic misunderstandings when the girls call strangers and say “I know who you are, and I saw what you did.” Then, the girls happen to strike a nerve in a major way with someone who has really done something horrible, we don’t find out what right away. The phone line on the other end of the call goes dead. The dread and thrill gradually build as the girls become the victims of their own practical joke; near the end, a call to the police to come and prevent an intruder who is trying to get in from entering goes awry, when their own phone line goes dead, due to it having been cut through by the mysterious criminal. (This was well before the day of cell phones.) It was also before the day, however, of horribly bloody scenes being actually “shown” on film, and so in the end the police do get there in time, in league with the returning parents (whose calls had received no answer, of course).
Though I can’t say that either of these memories haunted me for life (and it’s a fact that I continued to read Gothic novels and scary stories for some years to come), they have certainly stayed with me as reference points to my earliest recall of scary movies, even though they were only television films. What about you? What are some of your earliest fictional scary memories? How have they affected your reading and viewing habits since?