The moments that scare the living daylights out of us as kids are often unpredictable and coincide with our sudden awareness of our own mortality.
Do you remember when you first became acutely aware of your own mortality and the dangers of the outside world? I do – at least the moment is etched into my memory, even if the actual time has long since faded. I was a small child, sitting in our living room playing with toys while also watching an episode of The Saint, which was then on Sunday afternoon re-runs. I loved The Saint – the music, the excitement, the general fun of it all. But suddenly, on-screen, there appeared a man swathed in bandages, only his eyes uncovered. It wasn’t an especially horrific or terrifying image and yet somehow, at that precise moment, The Fear arrived. A previously non-existent awareness of the fact that there were Bad Things Out There, things that might want to do you harm. I remember suddenly developing an irrational terror (and yes, even as a small child I was vaguely aware that the fear made no sense) of going upstairs alone, as if all the horrors of the world might be waiting for me there. My innocence had been shattered by a single image.
I often think back to that moment whenever I see people talking about how children can be damaged by images of sex and violence, as though trauma and harm are inevitable. My experience shows that we can never predict just what will suddenly lodge itself in a child’s mind and flick that switch – to simply suggest that it will be a violent or overtly disturbing image seems wildly simplistic. I’d already seen scarier films and more violent imagery – even in The Saint, there was plenty of fisticuffs and shooting and I was an avid Doctor Who fan by this time. Why did this innocuous image so upset me? Who knows? It didn’t correlate to anything in my life – I certainly hadn’t seen a loved one similarly bandaged up at any point. The only explanation is that it simply appeared at the right time and if it hadn’t been this particular scene, it would’ve been something else, possibly just as unlikely. Kids develop The Fear all by themselves as they grow and become aware of the fact that one day, they will die, their parents will die… everyone will die. Becoming suddenly aware of the unknown and unpredictable dangers that might lurk outside the safety of your family – the things that your parents can’t protect you from and that you have no control over – is a part of growing up (and yes, I’m aware that some families are not remotely safe places, but that’s outside the scope of this piece). The monster in the closet and under the bed is not the result of watching horror movies but simply a natural reaction to a sudden realisation that the world is a scary and unpredictable place.
Every so often – such as whenever I stumble upon an episode of The Saint on TV or see mention of the show – I will remember this moment. I’ve never seen that episode since and have no idea which it is or what the context for the scene was (suffice to say that my concentration on the rest of the show was broken). When I do think about it, I also think about an episode of The Champions, where an elevator door opens and a bunch of black-clad criminals inside are revealed to have all been mentally transformed into babies or babbling idiots. If you’ve been watching re-runs of that show, maybe you’ve seen it – once again, this episode has so far slipped by for repeated viewing. Again, it’s not a scary scene in intent or execution but it deeply unsettled me at the time – not as profoundly as the scene in The Saint, but enough to lodge itself in my mind and stay there forever.
All this makes me think about the unpredictable nature of terror. We think, not unreasonably, that the scarier a work of art and entertainment sets out to be, the scarier it is likely to be. But that’s clearly not the case. Each of us is an individual and our fears are very individual too. Some people love dangling off the top of skyscrapers in shows of bravado while others want to throw up looking down from a window several floors up. When I see a movie in which someone has to climb to safety with an endless drop beneath them, my stomach clenches and my head spins even though I know it’s only a movie. I don’t even need to be invested in the characters for this moment to hit me. Our obsession with protecting people – not just children but adults too – from images and ideas that will upset or (to use the current buzzword) ‘harm’ them seems pointless when everyone will have their own private terrors that are unique to them. Scenes that the censors would find harmless might be more traumatising for some people than the most extreme banned horror movie.
There’s a fascination for me with these individual moments – the scenes in movies or TV shows or books or comics that most people will barely register but which somehow or other trigger a primal response with a few. Another childhood memory is seeing an ITV trailer of shows coming in the Autumn Season from back when that was the big time of the year for new shows and was trailed incessantly. It showed a couple making love in a bed, as the woman reached down and pulled a hatpin from beneath the mattress and stabbed the man. It wasn’t remotely graphic but it has never left my mind. Of course, I’m aware that this image might have been embellished with the false memories we all have – but it’s a vivid memory nevertheless. I’ve never identified the show this came from because as descriptions go it’s pretty vague (suggestions welcome!) – but again, I suspect most viewers forgot this as soon as they’d seen it. Why it had such an impact on me is anyone’s guess.
One last one. As a little kid, I was taken to a showing of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which I absolutely loved (and still do). That night, I had an absolutely terrifying nightmare about Oompa Loompas – the only time in my life that I recall an absolute cause-and-effect from film viewing to screaming, puking horrors in the night. OK, so Oompa Loompas are creepy characters – but I hadn’t found them scary during the movie, only afterwards when they invaded my dreams. It’s another moment that always came to mind during the Video Nasties hysteria when apocryphal stories abounded of children having night terrors after watching the forbidden fruit of VHS horror with the implication – if not a guarantee – that if only we removed this perverted filth from society, our kids could sleep soundly. It wasn’t a brutal horror film that gave me nightmares, it was a wholesome kids film. The idea that the more terrifying a film tries to be, the more terrified its juvenile viewers will be is a naive one. The real terror probably comes from a much less predictable source because it taps into something very personal – and how can we possibly protect against that? Incidentally, readers will be glad to hear that I have seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory many times since without any repeat of this extreme reaction. In fact, none of these moments has had a lasting impact – the sight of someone covered in bandages did not become a lifelong trigger or even have the same impact ever again – watching Mummy movies did not scare the bejesus out of me even as a child. These were all very much time-and-place terrors.
I imagine we all have these stories. The world is full of tales about the collective horrors of childhood – nightmarish public information films, inadvertently creepy characters in kids TV shows, scary clowns, The Singing Ringing Tree and the like. Entire books exist to explore the nostalgic nature of the things that haunted our collective childhoods. What fascinates me, though, are the individual moments of private terror – the single, innocuous images that somehow hit a nerve that until that exact moment you had no idea even existed, the ones that linger in your head for years, even decades afterwards. The seemingly harmless scenes that will flick a switch in your head. It’s the curse of the horror filmmaker, perhaps, that we all respond to fear in very individual ways – while we can be manipulated into feeling excited and tense, perhaps even nervous, and we can all be caught out with jump scares which startle more than terrify, deliberately hitting that private fear is much harder – impossible, in fact. Playing to collective fear is one thing, but irrational fear – how do you predict that? It’s the irrational, individual fear that is most potent though, simply because it is obviously speaking directly to our subconscious. None of the moments I’ve mentioned above was intended to scare and perhaps no one else watching was scared – but they hit me at exactly the right time. That’s probably why they have remained with me when scary moments from a thousand horror movies have come and gone.
Feel free to chip into the comments with your own examples of things that unexpectedly and inexplicably triggered some deep-seated individual terror in you as a child.
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