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?

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

A difference of opinion is no reason to eat my brain.

For many of us who read novels or watch movies in genres outside the realm of “this could happen in real life,” there is a willing suspension of disbelief before we enter the theater or open the cover of a book (or press whichever Kindle button). We’re excited. We’re ready to be entertained. And we participate in the experience by opening ourselves to what realists would call the impossible…

Tonight I am guest blogging over at Celluloid Zombie about the willing suspension of disbelief. Though Richard Lamb and I disagree on this topic (just one of many), he’s busy at work and will permit even someone he disagrees with to guest blog at his site. Lucky for me.

So jump on over with me to Celluloid Zombie and chime in and tell us your opinion.


It is Friday night and the movie Signs is on TV. I settle in to watch it with my ten-year-old son at my side, snuggled under a throw. I’ve seen the movie before, years ago, but all I remember of the story line is that it involves extraterrestrials. This will be my son’s first, official scary movie. A bit over-protective, you say? Perhaps, but Jaws ripped a bloody hunk of wide-eyed innocence out of my childhood, so deal with it.

Maybe I’m a wuss by today’s standards of horror, but it’s the little things that scare me, the rustle of corn stalks in the wind, a momentary shadow blocking the light shining under a closed door, the hint—no, the promise—of something more to come. As the tension in the movie builds, I look over and see that my son has stuck his fingers in his ears. When I question him about this, he says it’s in case something jumps out on the screen. Hmmm, clearly I’d done the kid no favors. I gently remove the fingers from his ears and place them over his eyes.

We get through the shadowy figure on the roof, an otherworldly ankle retreating into the corn, a clawed hand reaching underneath a pantry door, and finally the big moment has arrived—the alien appears in full-body view. I gasp and assume fetal position. My son shouts too, but it’s not fear I hear in his voice. “Ewwwww. He’s naked. I can see his be-front.” (I find out later that a be-front is the opposite of a be-hind. Kids.)

Naked? I peek through my fingers, concerned now that I am not only frightening him to death before bedtime but also exposing him to alien nudity at ten years of age. I can feel my head tilting to one side, assessing the situation. I wouldn’t exactly say naked. He looks a bit like Kate Moss, circa 1993, in a washed-out, grey catsuit. In fact, she may have worn something just like that on a catwalk in the past.

The movie ends and Jon brushes his teeth and climbs into bed. Much later, I make my way upstairs in the darkened house. My eyes are closed as I climb the stairs and my fingers feel for the light switch in my room. I laugh to myself, remembering I did this very thing as a child whenever I was afraid and said a special prayer, taught to me by Grandma Pasqualine, that was 100% effective in warding off bad dreams. When I hear my son call out from his room, saying he can’t sleep because he’s disgusted by that naked alien, I tell him he can come sleep with me. Little does he know that he’s helping me out.

When I relate this story to a friend the next day, he exclaims, “You’re kidding?” A lover of all things horror, he can’t imagine that I was that freaked by the movie Signs. I remind him that I have alien issues that began almost fifteen years ago.

It was my thirtieth birthday and my cousin, let’s just call her Cuzzy, sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers and two mylar birthday balloons tied together, one floating higher than the other. That night, I crawled into bed with a copy of Communion by Whitley Strieber, a supposed true story of the writer’s abduction by aliens at his summer cabin. Years later, they made a movie of the book, starring Christopher Walken who, in all fairness, has always frightened me a bit whether he was in a horror movie or not, the only exception being his appearance on Saturday Night Live with the delivery of the line “I got a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell.” But I digress.

As the ceiling fan whirred and my book light cast a concentrated beam in the otherwise dark room, I turned page after page of the frightening account. Eventually, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and succumbed to sleep. Hours later, something woke me and I opened my eyes to see two silver-faced creatures bobbing at my bedside. I screamed like I had never screamed before, over and over again, and my husband jumped many feet into the air. Had I been a person of lesser health, my heart could not have survived the fright. By the time my husband peeled himself off the ceiling, I was kneeling in the middle of the bed, pointing my finger, babbling incoherently. He turned on the light to reveal that I had almost been abducted by…wait, it’s coming…a pair of mylar balloons. Of course, you know that I’ve never lived this down.

Though the “aliens” were debunked, the scientist in me (yes, believe it or not, there is a scientist in me despite my “I want to believe” philosophy) had to know how those balloons made it to my bedside on the very night Whitley Strieber was scaring the crap out of me. The next day I created a re-enactment and realized that the ceiling fan, set to draw the hot air up and cool the house, had also sucked the balloons from the kitchen, through the foyer, up a flight of stairs, and into my room to end up at my side of the bed. You see the problem though, don’t you? What stopped them from getting sucked up into the ceiling fan? Why did they “choose” to linger at my bedside? Mwhahahahahahahaha. I can honestly say that no horror movie has ever scared me more than that night did. All mylar balloons are now tied down before bedtime in my house. Wince. And that’s because, yes, it’s true, this event happened twice to me.

Sometimes I wish I were more like my son, able to get through the scary stuff with just an “ewwww” and some mild digestive upset.