It's Halloween, and as you've noticed if you've been hanging around the site this week, we've been a little horror-obsessed. But while we've spent years getting freaked out at the movies (and loving every second of it), every fan of slashers, ghouls and ghosts always remembers his or her first -- that flick that grabbed you by the guts and wouldn't let go. In that spirit, and the spirit of the season, we're taking a look back at the very first films that scared us senseless. Check out our entries below, and let us know your picks in the comments!
I saw Universal Monster flicks, Hammer films, The Shining and The Exorcist when I was far too young, but those made me love horror without terrifying me too much. For the stuff that left an impression, it's largely about the '80s. The Children is not a great movie, but the low-budget horror about radiated zombie tykes is burned into my brain. The little monsters with black fingernails would kill adults through hugs, and may have also killed my desire to have children. But the Stephen King-penned "They're Creeping Up on You" chapter from Creepshow, directed by George A. Romero, still churns my stomach and makes me squirm. Romero scarred me when I saw Night of the Living Dead, but I've turned zombies into part of my job and love them so. But I am reluctant to even watch this cockroach horror story that shows a horde swarming around -- and bursting out of -- a germophobe's body.
I think the first horror movie that really scared me was Evil Dead 2. Up until then, all I'd really seen were cheesy old B-movies edited down for television. But one day my mom finally let me pick from one of the glorious-looking horror VHS tapes at the rental store, and Sam Raimi's classic is what I chose. It was like a roller-coaster, but full of weirdly-colored blood, decapitated dancers, cackling deer-heads and, smack in the middle, Bruce Campbell. As an adult, I see that it's more funny than scary, but as a kid, it had me hiding under my bed at night ... until the next day, when I'd watch it again, of course.
The first horror film that really scared me was A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was a kid when I was introduced to the shocking image of Freddy Krueger. In hindsight, he looks like a pizza-face with knives, but back then, he was my worst nightmare (pun intended). Villains like Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers lived in the physical world, and I could maneuver that. With Freddy, there was nowhere to hide. He owned your subconscious, which meant he could manipulate you without your knowing. Biologically, our bodies need rest for survival. You don't sleep, you die. But in this case, you do sleep, you die. It was a lose-lose situation. That's why A Nightmare on Elm Street's a film I still can't shake.
The first movie that freaked, and I mean really freaked me out, was a zombie flick. Sadly, I don't even remember the title of this little jewel (no, it wasn't) of a horror movie since it was ages and ages ago, but I still remember how it scared the living hell out of me! And I was pretty much scared with a capital S. I was about 12 at the time, and frankly, watching a horror movie alone with your little sister while your folks are out may seem like a truly excellent idea when you're a young teenager, but really, it's not. Even in broad daylight. The movie scared us so badly we had to stop it right before the end. Me and my sister still shiver (as well as laugh our arses off) at our first traumatic experience with the wonderful world of the living dead to this day.
The movie that first petrified me was WAY back in 1972 with the horror anthology Tales From the Crypt. This excellent British production, directed by Freddie Francis (The Evil of Frankenstein, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave), had five morality stories that delivered a series of serious nerve-jangling moments for a sheltered California Catholic kid. The skeletal motorcycle rider, a psycho Santa Claus, boozy Joan Collins, the old folks home razor-blade death corridor, Peter Cushing's rotting Arthur Grimsdyke corpse and a mushy, beating heart still haunt my dreams. I remember seeing newspaper ads with that frightening one-eyed skull draped in cobwebs and wanting more than anything to go see it. When my fun-loving alcoholic aunt agreed to take me, it wasn't without a jolt of apprehension as to what horrors this insane movie would bring. The movie passed by like a startling blur, but it was the devilishly twisted ending that grabbed me by the aorta, when the gathered group realized they were in hell and the stone slab slid aside to reveal a curtain of flames. The Crypt Keeper turns to the camera and asks, "Who's next? Perhaps you?" From that day on, or at least for a few weeks, I was on my best behavior for fear of ending up in smoking eternal damnation. It would be a while until I took in another dreaded PG-rated movie.
I grew up in the country, in a house far enough away from other houses that you felt very isolated at night. Even with all the outdoor lights on, you couldn't see into the fields beyond, but you could hear things out there, grass swaying and coyotes howling and even the occasional raccoon running up to the fence and peering through. All of those night sounds just beyond my vision were easy to ignore until I saw Night of the Living Dead (1968), and watched as dozens of zombies shambled up out of the darkness into the little halo of light created by that lonesome farmhouse. I knew it was an old black-and-white zombie movie, and very clearly not real, but it was too easy to walk out on my back porch and imagine something cold and lifeless stepping out of the shadows and reaching for me. I don't live in the country anymore, but that image still lives in my imagination.
The first movie that ever scared me was 1940's The Mummy's Hand, the first sequel to the 1932 classic starring Boris Karloff. Karloff did not appear as the ancient Imhotep in this one; the mummy's name was Kharis, and he was played in all his dusty, decaying glory by a guy named Tom Tyler. I was maybe 5 or 6 when I saw it on "Creature Features," one of the nightly syndicated movie packages that would run on a local TV station (WNEW) in New York City. I don't know why my grandmother, who was babysitting me, let me watch it, but my family was pretty cool about me watching and reading that kind of stuff. All I do know is that we were sitting there taking it in when they opened the sarcophagus and we got our first full look at Kharis' bandaged, wizened, very dead visage -- and it freaked me the hell out. I asked my grandmother to turn off the TV and suggested that it was time I go to bed -- imagine a 5-year-old wanting to go to bed! I don't remember what happened after that; I assume that grandma put me to bed ... but the image of the mummy was seared into my brain for the rest of my life.
Like Krystal, my first big scare was delivered courtesy of Freddy Krueger ... but the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie I saw was the third one, Dream Warriors. On USA. With all the really awful stuff edited out. Yeah, I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to scary movies. BUT, even given the restraints of late-night basic cable, this flick still managed to freak me out, particularly scenes like the one in which some poor sap has the veins ripped out of his body and used like marionette strings by Robert Englund's deep-fried dream murderer, or the one in which Taryn, the drug addict turned dream warrior, succumbs to her demons in the form of syringe's on the ends of Freddy's fingers. Shudder. That said, as much as A Nightmare on Elm Street III messed with my head, it did give me one lasting and beautiful gift: Its theme song, performed by Dokken, which has served as a seasonal anthem for me ever since. Happy Halloween!