Horror: What truly terrifies you?

There are countless books and movies that attempt to scare us. Some succeed; many fail. Being scared out of your wits is a personal thing, it seems. What succeeds in scaring you may completely fail to frighten me. So, I ask “Which bits of a book or movie are capable of truly terrifying you?”

There’s something exhilarating about entering into a potentially scary experience. It’s a delicious sensation that builds and creates goose bumps on my skin and chills in my core. I curl up tighter on the couch and sink lower under my blanket. My hands make their way closer to my face so I can hide my eyes if necessary. This is a good kind of scariness, one that you anticipate when watching certain movies.

It is in no way similar to feeling disturbed by themes that involve violence done to children, which does my head in but could never result in the scary sensations described above. In fact, I can’t watch horror movies or read books that involve harm coming to children.

When I was a kid, Edgar Allan Poe’s stories scared the heck out of me and probably set the foundation for what I would later find scary, namely suspenseful horror that is not overdone and psychological in nature. For example, Fortunato being walled up, one brick at a time, in the wine cellar. The thought of being trapped like that and no one ever knowing where you were was terrifying to me at the age of eight.

About that time, there was a TV show called The 4:30 Movie that had theme weeks. Vincent Price Week was a favorite. Several of his movies were based on Poe classics and to this day, when someone mentions Edgar Allan Poe, I see Vincent Price’s face (and hear his distinctive voice).

Then there was Monster week. Though I’d watch intently as people screaming in Japanese fled the city with Godzilla, Rodam, Gamera, or Gargantua chasing after them, I was never scared by these fake, rubbery monsters. The horror came later if Mom happened to cook something jiggly like eggplant parmigiana. Then, I’d hear the screeches of Gamera and Godzilla coming from my plate. To this day, whenever I bite into an eggplant parmigiana hero, I always think of them.  

You see the similarities, right?

As a teenager, I saw the standard teen horror flicks. With the exception of the original Halloween movie, the teen horror movies just never did it for me. They relied too much on cheap thrills and such far-fetched plots that eventually I decided to willingly unsuspend disbelief. Cheap thrills leave you hungry for something more substantial. Sure the startle factor is powerful, but it’s short-lived. Something would pop out at you and you’d scream. Remember what you did after screaming? You laughed, right? Because it was more a feeling of “you got me” rather than “wow, you really scared me down deep and that fear is going to linger for a while.” After the movie, you’d walk home with your friends and rather than looking over your shoulder in fear, you’d laugh at who screamed the loudest at those moments.

A good scare is a lot like garlic. It lasts long after the story has ended. Here are some of my favorite, scary viewing/reading moments:

Jaws: It doesn’t matter that I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever be eaten by a shark. The possibility exists and so I’m never quite at ease ever since I saw this movie as a kid.

Open Water: To start, I have a fear of being under water. (I won’t tell you how old I was when I finally learned to put my entire head under the shower, cheeks puffed with extra oxygen stored up.) This movie had me on the brink of an anxiety attack, but I couldn’t stop watching it. Even if I didn’t have a deep-water phobia, as clearly the divers in the movie didn’t, you can’t escape the horror of their situation. First of all, it happens in real life—fly-by-night operations leave divers behind. Then there’s the near certainty that you’re going to die and probably in a gruesome way. The nudge of the shark wasn’t even as terrifying as waiting for the shark’s nudge after the partner died and drifted off. The suspense made me sick inside. Oy! I’m starting to hyperventilate just thinking about it.

Communion (the book): It is a mistake to read this book in bed at night. It terrified me. It’s supposedly a true story about author Whitley Strieber’s encounters with aliens at his cabin in the woods, and there are witnesses. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter; it feels real. And the horror of this book carried over into my real life in strange ways. See my post Signs for the details. And speaking of Signs…

Signs: I love this movie because you don’t see the aliens until the end and it’s still scary as hell. The rustle of those corn stalks gets me every time.

Fire in the Sky: Freaky. Freaky. And can I just say, freaky. The whole “based on true events” thing already kicks the scare-o-meter up a few notches for me. DB Sweeney cowering naked in the corner of that shack made my hair stand on end. And the whole icky, sticky beehive-like thing was disgusting, but in a scary way. Imagine waking up to find yourself in something like that. Jeez. But that part only worked for me after the rest of the movie had done its job.

Twilight Zone: The Movie: Can you honestly tell me that when you take a night flight you don’t look at the wing expecting to see that thing standing out there? Shiver.

Planet of the Apes (the original): This is not a scary movie, but the final scene on the beach stayed with me a long time with all the unspoken facts: There’s nowhere to go. You’re where you wanted to get to, but it’s not what you thought it would be. Your life is a nightmare you’ll never wake up from.

With that said, I think I’m a bit clearer about what scares me. It’s the sense of being trapped without control, whether it be in the middle of the sea, among talking, dominant apes, or prodded by aliens. And most likely, this loss of control scares me in books and films because it disturbs me in real life, too. For those of you who know me, I’m sure you’re shocked by this admission. 🙂

Your turn. What truly terrifies you?

Did your Schoolhouse Rock…or was it the House of Blues?

Have you ever considered…Which school subjects were valuable in your adult life and career? Which subjects were nice to know but not critical to future achievement? Were any a waste of time? Which subjects do you wish had been stressed more because as an adult you realize how useful they are in your life?

Lately, my thoughts have turned to my early school experience, no doubt the result of observing my 11-year-old son in his studies. School is a lot different these days. Kids are exposed to topics in elementary school that didn’t come my way until junior high school. I can’t help but feel we’re rushing in, bombarding our kids with tons of material, before the 3 Rs—Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic—have taken hold in their adorable little brains.

A few years ago, a teacher confided that new material is presented too frequently for the students to become proficient. After a day or two they move on to the next topic, resulting in lots of breadth and not much depth. Each topic is like a toothpicked morsel on a butler-carried tray, quickly consumed and followed by the next. Shouldn’t subjects that are the basis for all other learning be more like a sit down meal that you linger over? The following year, many of the same topics are repeated for the same short periods of time. Because no foundation has been laid, it’s like learning it anew.

All of this had me pondering what in my schooling I felt was valuable. The first thing that popped into my head was exposure to books and storytelling, which led to a passion for reading. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Heller, held a regular story time. She was an entertaining reader, using different voices for each character. For a moment each day, I was in that crowded bed with Charlie’s quirky grandparents, or standing in a barn gazing up at a lovely arachnid marketer who spun messages in support of “some pig.” I tasted the sweet pulp of a giant peach while visiting James and his insect friends. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for story time, and when we were told to read on our own, I ran to select a book.

Mrs. Heller didn’t make it to the end of the school year. Maternity leave beckoned and our substitute for the rest of third grade was Mrs. Zuckerman, an Argentinian, who decided to teach us Spanish at a time when foreign language study did not begin until seventh grade. She must have known that language is more easily acquired before the age of 12. When Spanish was finally officially taught in junior high, there was already a comfort level and an enjoyment. I took it every year thereafter, eventually majoring in Spanish Language and Literature in college, along with studying Italian and Russian. We become more and more global every day, and the internet allows us to talk to people all over the world, provided we speak each other’s language. Moreover, vacations are so much more enjoyable when you can immerse yourself in the culture and speak the language of the natives. But learning a foreign language was important for another reason. It helped me “back into” English grammar since in the 1970s in my part of town knowing the parts of speech had been deemed an unnecessary skill. (And “old math” was frowned upon. 😉 )

Another source of pleasure in elementary school was music. In addition to a music class and participation in the glee club, I had a fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Nannarone, who brought in her daughter’s John Denver album to share with us. She clearly loved this album as much as her daughter did and her enthusiasm showed. My favorite song back then was Grandma’s Feather Bed. Come on, it was nine feet high and six feet wide. You gotta love that. 😀 But there was more than music at play here; we were listening, evaluating lyrics, and discussing Denver’s stories. It was a lesson in comprehension and so many other things.

Sigh. All these great memories and then…SOCIAL STUDIES. It’s not that the study of history isn’t valuable. It was the way it was taught that rendered it dull, quickly forgotten, and avoided at all costs. Do you remember memorizing timelines? Did you enjoy it? Has your life ever depended on knowing the exact day that Columbus discovered America or that the Constitution was adopted? Would knowledge of the general time period have served you just as well? I think so. I also think that social studies textbooks should be banned from elementary school. There, I said it. They are the absolute worst way to get a child interested in history. In this day of multimedia, why are we not using more of it to engage our children. I grew to love history as an adult when I began to experience it in the form of biographies, vacations to historic sites with engaging tour guides, and TV programs and movies, such as the recent John Adams on HBO, which had me running to other sources to research more. A textbook never had that effect on me. I do not know as much as I should about history, politics, geography, or other topics taught with that cursed social studies textbook, and yet I was a straight A student. That’s because your brain can memorize facts for a test and forget them immediately afterward. What good did that do me? Huh? Huh? [Note to Self: Breathe deeply and wipe froth from mouth.]

So, what do you think? Which subjects or events from your early school years made an impact, either positive or negative? Which do you think served you well into your adulthood and career? Which do you think were a grand waste of time? Which subjects would you have school children learn to make them most effective in their futures? I’d really like to know your opinion.