Scary Then, Scary Now

Halloween just isn't Halloween without Michael Meyers, nor is it complete in the absence of The Shining.

A few months ago, I wrote all about how there was this huge backlog of movies that scared me when I was younger, and how their ghastliness was completely debunked once I re-watched them and realized that most of them could have gotten by with a G rating. What I wrote was partially the truth; no question, my sense of horror was about as refined as my sense of style back then (which wasn't much, lest we consider clip-on earrings and slap bracelets haute couture). But what I failed to mention was that there's also a giant reservoir of movies that scared me then just as much as they scare me now. These are the movies that I continually return to, as bastions of horror that maintain steady rotation in my collection of scary favorites, and particularly at this time of year. In honor of Halloween, I'm rolling out the red (blood-spattered?) carpet with a few creepy choices that, in both adolescence and adulthood, have repeatedly made me check and close all closets before huddling under the covers until daybreak.

state_candymanHands down, Candyman was the worst. I saw this movie at a sleepover in fourth grade, and it set into motion the most ridiculous chain of events that, in retrospect, probably make up the most embarrassing few weeks of my life. First, the mirror in my room came down (and didn't return until seventh grade, I kid you not; even then, I eyed it warily). Then I began carting a sleeping bag into my parents' bedroom every night to camp out on their floor, because even though my mirror was no longer there, the memory of it still was. The carpet campouts eventually reached a fatal peak when I woke up one night on their floor and couldn't move my arms or head. That's right. My weeks of sleeping on the ground ultimately sent my whole, frantic family to the hospital at four in the morning, my diagnosis being a stiff neck that had also frozen my arm in place. After a few days of rest, I was able to move both again.

Even though Candyman was inadvertently (and mortifyingly) responsible for a trip to the ER, it maintains its place for me as one of the creepiest movies of all time. I've re-watched it in recent years, and while I can definitely pick out the cheesier elements, there are a few scenes that still haunt me to no end. Case in point, a few years ago a huge thunderstorm ripped through the city and knocked out all the power, and after a few hours of dark silence and muted candlelight, I decided to go to bed. But once I got under the covers, all of these terrifying images of Candyman lurking in empty parking lots and busting through medicine cabinet mirrors suddenly started plaguing my mind. If I got any sleep, it wasn't much. And for the record, deserted bathrooms still make me extremely uncomfortable.

state_strangerIn recycling a different but equally terrifying urban legend, the original When a Stranger Calls still ranks as one of the most horrific films I've seen, if for nothing else than for the sheer idea of it. Imagine this: a girl of babysitting age watches a film about a man stalking another babysitter, and all from inside the very house where she's watching the kids for the night! Some might call it cheap. I'd call it absolutely horrifying. "Have you checked the children?" was a line that my sister and I used to taunt each other with, as a joke between siblings who thought that the killer's accent unquestionably begged teasing. But secretly, I know we both recognized this film as the type that makes you prefer to wet the bed than emerge even for two minutes from the safety of blankets.

This movie's utter terror made me seek out its sequel, When a Stranger Calls Back, a made-for-cable movie whose origin explains the highly clever title but doesn't even scratch the surface of its eeriness. Anyone who has seen this will remember the creepy killer who paints himself the color of wood paneling and hides against the wall by the front door, inside the house but throwing his voice to make it sound like he's just outside and his car has broken down. Genius. The first time I saw this movie, I was home alone with a bag of Doritos and a giant thunderstorm lurking beyond the windows. Needless to say, it has disturbed me ever since.

Jaws is another one that continues to prowl about the edges of my consciousness, particularly when I'm in a body of water that registers well over six feet deep. Even at a young age I realized that this was horror of a different caliber, the kind that doesn't give you nightmares so much as permanent phobias about why this spot of the lake is warmer, or what it was that splashed behind you when you weren't looking. Jaws could be anywhere, skulking through the murky depths. Even at the indoor pool I still half-expect to distinguish a fin or giant tooth out of the corner of my goggles.

While I've since graduated onto a few other classics that are pulled out every autumn to commemorate the witching hour (Halloween just isn't Halloween without Michael Meyers, nor is it complete in the absence of The Shining), those few from childhood remain among the top of my list. If it was creepy enough to require a hospital visit, it's still good enough to endure for a lifetime of scares.

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