“Horror really works when you’re young. It challenges you.” ~ John Carpenter
I have a peculiar history with the horror genre. I was raised by very strict Christian parents who considered anything vaguely mystical or supernatural to be ‘demonic’. Fortunately, despite a natural curiosity for anything deemed taboo, my personal interests skewed heavily towards the science fiction genre. The upshot of this is that I can count on two hands the number of occasions when I recall being scared by a film or television show. And when I say scared, I mean genuinely spooked, in some cases feeling compelled to turn the thing off midflow.
Most of these occurred during childhood, as these days - ironically now that I have the freedom to watch what I want - I’m rarely scared*. So I thought it would be fun to recount the formative scares which were so potent they were indelibly imprinted onto my mind. If they seem a little goofy you have to bear in mind that I was shielded from the hard stuff while growing up. Although to be fair, I was an impressionable child. NOTE: I’ve listed them in (approximate) chronological order; that is, the order in which I experienced them.
* I attribute this less to adult maturity and more to the nature of my profession: I can too readily discern the craft and see through the illusion (through no fault of the filmmakers). I didn’t see The Shining or The Exorcist until I was in my 30s, by which time I was relatively immune to their powers, although I admire The Shining greatly.
The Black Hole (1979)
A film which epitomised Disney’s identity crisis during the period of decline that followed the death of Walt Disney and prior to the Michael Eisner era. It was conceived on the one hand to capitalise on the recent success of Star Wars but, as with the same year’s Star Trek The Motion Picture, seems tonally indebted to 2001: A Space Odyssey, without ever doing justice to either influence. This discord is reflected in the score, composed by the legendary John Barry, which works well for the most part with its atmosphere of ominous mystery, but for a jaunty recurring overture which jars massively (a late addition to lighten the tone for families?) and sounds nothing like Barry.
Cute robots notwithstanding, this is the creepiest Disney film ever, as lobotomized drones wander about a derelict Gothic spacecraft, with a metaphysical climax in which the evil scientist apparently passes into the afterlife where he is incarcerated inside his Satanic razor blade-wielding robot henchman in a burning, hellish landscape populated by dark robed spectres. Certificate PG.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-80)
Broadcast on ITV in the early evening Saturday tea-time slot, this show was a big deal at the time, beating the BBC’s Doctor Who in the ratings. It was utter nonsense, but then most beloved genre shows of the time were: Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Knight Rider (Have you seen any of these recently? Unwatchable dreck.) Buck Rogers was your standard disco-era space camp - all spandex and lip gloss. But I liked anything with robots, spaceships and matte-painted futuristic cityscapes, while slinky Erin Gray certainly sparked my pre-adolescent imagination. But did you know the entire series was all just a dream? At least according to the pilot episode’s Bondesque opening title sequence in which a cryogenically frozen Buck (Gil Gerard) apparently fantasises a whole two seasons worth of serialised prime time telly in a psychogenic bower of bliss that plays like a kitschy fusion of David Lynch and Hugh Hefner... in Space.
But I digress. There was a creepily effective sequence in the pilot when Buck is pursued in the ruins of old Chicago at night by violent mutants - the radioactive survivors of a nuclear holocaust - which may have been inspired by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. The sequence climaxes in a cemetery where Buck discovers the graves of his long deceased parents, provoking a rare moment of emotional depth. The subsequent series was much lighter in tone, that is until the season 2 episode, ‘The Guardians’, which featured a mysterious glowing box that induced our characters to experience horrific visions - such as suddenly seeing zombified colleagues wandering the corridors. Shudder.
No Place To Hide (1981)
Broadcast on ITV as part of their ‘Murder, Mystery and Suspense’ movie-of-the-week anthology series. As I recall this was the first installment and it gave me nightmares. After the aforementioned sci-fi scares, this was evidently my formal introduction to the horror genre proper: a young woman, Amy, is stalked by a mysterious man in black (whispering 'Soon, Amy. Soon...'), who may or may not be a mere subconscious delusion. It was De Palma Lite and starred Kathleen Beller, whose previous claim to fame was a small role in The Godfather: part II and who later went on to star in Dynasty.
The most chilling moment occurs ten minutes before the end when Amy, who earlier in the story we’d seen murdered and dumped in a lake as part of an inheritance swindle, return, Carrie-like, from the dead to the great surprise of her stepmother and the audience. I’m fairly sure I didn’t make it to the end, and yet if I had I would have been almost immediately reassured by the reveal that her murder and return had been staged as part of an elaborate ruse to traumatise her duplicitous stepmother into a confession - a plot twist no doubt inspired by Les Diaboliques. Instead, I had to live with the memory of that shocking moment. Sidepoint: the following week’s installment was a 1971 pilot episode of Columbo, called ‘Ransom for a Dead Man’, which was also pretty chilling as I recall.
The House in Nightmare Park (1973)
Given the circumstances, it probably makes sense that my introduction to the haunted house genre should prove to be a harmless parody that slipped under the radar of my otherwise vigilant parents. Despite the tongue-firmly-in-cheek approach, the film has its fair share of creepy atmos and jump scares, but also a spine-tingling coda that has stayed with me ever since.
The Ghost Train (1941)
A very silly but enjoyable adaptation of a popular stage play, starring an irritating/entertaining Arthur Askey as one of a group of hapless passengers trapped in a remote, allegedly haunted train station one dark and stormy night. The legendary ghost train turns out to be a hoax staged by Nazi ‘fifth columnists’ - a fact I only learned recently upon rewatching it on YouTube, since the 8 year old me had turned the film off in terror prior to this crucial plot twist. Ah well.
Fame (1984; season 3 episode, ‘Lisa’s Song’)
Another relatively harmless romp that I turned off in terror. This was a ‘Halloween Special’, in which the ensemble reluctantly rehearse a ‘haunted play’. There were two moments that I specifically recall giving me the creeps: the sighting of a ghostly apparition in an empty theatre and a chilling scene in which Doris Schwarz, the lead in the play, is suddenly possessed by a restless spirit called Lisa. I didn’t make it beyond that point, but I needn’t have worried as the episode soon descends into sub-Andrew Lloyd Webber theatrics.
There have been numerous adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but this version has never been singled out as noteworthy. Yet it’s my favourite, perhaps because it was the first version I saw, but also because it seems to me to capture an authentic spirit of Christmas, thanks in part to the Dickensian production design which recycles sets from Oliver! created at Shepperton Studios two years prior. Also, Albert Finney’s performance as the elderly Scrooge was so convincing that I didn’t realise he was only in his mid-30s until many years later (despite him appearing as the younger Scrooge in a flashback); and there are a series of strikingly macabre sequences, most of them fairly faithful to the text, particularly the appearance of Marley’s ghost (Alec Guinness), translucent, wrapped in chains and with a handkerchief tied around his jaw - a burial ritual that prevents the jaw from disconnecting from the skull. The sequence climaxes in a spooky flight through a London night sky haunted by the damned. However, the most disturbing sequence was pure invention: after descending into the bowels of Hell, Scrooge is adorned with a huge chain made of his past sins by demons, a vision straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Merry Christmas!
Another one I never watched all the way through, but on this occasion it wasn’t my choice. I was at my aunt’s house and my cousin played a VHS recording of it (they were early adopters), but because my mother was also present she vetoed it just as it was getting interesting. This was hugely frustrating because it was so hyped and I was at the age when peer pressure had a big impact on my interests. However, the controversy went beyond its alleged horrific content. You see, at that time Jacko was a member of the same religion I was and it was heavily rumoured that the higher-ups in the organisation were appalled at his apparent endorsement of the ‘occult’, which they considered demonic, and threatened to excommunicate him unless he repented - which he apparently did, hence why the video is preceded by a disclaimer. Anyway, I finally saw it properly many years later, by which time it was more laughable than scary. Great song though, even if he does sing ‘diller’ and not ‘thriller’.
I never saw Ghostbusters at the cinema (I wasn’t allowed!), but it was impossible to avoid its impact on popular culture at the time; the logo was omnipresent and Ray Parker Jnr’s theme song was a colossal hit in ‘84. Frustratingly, my only exposure to the actual content of the film was via official merchandise and promotional clips on TV (it was the same story with Gremlins fml), and I remember being captivated by the imagery: the old lady in the library was a beautifully rendered vintage ghost, but Slimer and Mr. Staypuft had no basis in traditional ghost iconography, which added an uncanny element. The optical effects were produced during the golden age of Industrial, Light & Magic and these creations were both utterly convincing and downright bizarre - an intoxicating mix to an impressionable mind. The scene in the hotel corridor when Dan Ackroyd first sights Slimer was one of the most weirdly disturbing things I’d ever seen.
I’d been an obsessive admirer of Alfred Hitchcock ever since chancing upon a season of his films on Channel 4 in 1989, called Hitch on Four, during which Psycho hadn’t featured despite it arguably being his most famous film. I’d heard of the title but knew nothing about it, except that it was darker than his usual output. But despite my obsession - how very Hitchcockian - I’d not been in any rush to see Psycho since at that time I was much more drawn to his Jimmy Stewart/technicolor romps (Rear Window was a revelation and Vertigo was life changing). But I corrected that error eventually. I had the house to myself one night, a rare honour, turned all the lights off and pulled my armchair up close to the television for maximum effect. Let’s just say the lights didn’t stay off that night.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the shower scene that shocked me the most, since by that time in my Hitch education I was primed to expect it. Rather, it was the climax in the fruit cellar when ‘Mrs. Bates’ is finally revealed and a knife-wielding Norman bursts in, grinning maniacally and dressed in her clothes. The moment is punctuated by a reprise of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic shower scene music cue - a last minute decision in post-production - and it’s absolutely chilling. It’s little wonder that 1960 audiences had bolted for the doors and fainted in their seats.
I’ve seen scores of horror films since, a few excellent, but this for me remains the outstanding example of the genre. Aside from a few creaky moments due to the low budget, virtually everything about it is perfect: the plot, the music, the set, the hero/villain - all working harmoniously thanks to Hitch’s mastery of mise en scène - and, crucially, none of the shocks are cheap, unlike almost all horror films since. But a large part of the genius of Psycho is the supplanting of the supernatural with the psychological: Norman Bates is possessed by his dead mother only in the Freudian sense, a conceit that roots the horror in a real-world line of psychotic mummy’s boys, from Ed Gein to Jimmy Savile. Truly the stuff of nightmares.
Doctor Who (1974-1981)
Although ostensibly science fiction, it possessed a surreal creepiness - at least in the heyday of the Tom Baker era. A product of its time, no doubt.
Invaders from Mars (1953)
My introduction to the ‘body snatchers’ sub-genre and the resultant terror at seeing one’s loved ones change into cold, distant automatons. It Came From Outer Space was released the same year and had a similar effect when I caught it late one night.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
The bit when Augustus falls into the Chocolate River and is sucked up a pipe is a cautionary lesson I certainly never forgot.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
That damn music.
Hammer House of Horror (1980)
No specific moments spring to mind, just a pervading sense of doom. There’s something comforting about knowing from the outset that a story will end badly for everyone.
Return to Oz (1985)
Look me in the eyes and tell me you weren’t traumatised by the Wheelers and/or headless Princess Mombi.