I was working on two writing projects in the genre of children’s/young adult horror when I thought: what were the things which terrified me as a child?
#5: The dark
Nyctophobia, or a fear of the dark, might be single biggest fear afflicting children. I would argue that it transcends the confines of a simple ‘phobia’ – most mythologies group darkness with negativity and chaos, and most creation myths are remarkably similar: a powerful force drives back the darkness to create matter and order.
All I know is, as a child, the dark held huge, shadowy creatures slightly blacker than the dark itself, and glowing eyes that would only pop open when they were right beside you. I was exceptionally lucky to have a solid bed base, precluding the existence of things lurking underneath, waiting for a stray hand or foot to grab.
Ghosts, however, were a very real and present danger of my childhood dark. In a time before the proliferation of video recording devices, which have pretty much relegated ghosts to myth, I was certain that they existed. I would lie in bed for hours sometimes, bladder groaning under the pressure, counting to one hundred until the arrival of dawn made the trip to the toilet safe once more. Thanks, planetary rotation.
In my worst childhood nightmare, I dreamed I was lying in my own bed. Ghostly faces were floating outside a window to my right, sneering and grimacing while they stared through me to my soul, their palpable hatred expressing exactly what they would do to me if they could get past the glass and inside my room. Luckily, my window was shut tight, but even as I thought that, I also thought of the gap under the nearby external door that the faces could easily slip beneath. With that, the faces smiled horribly, turned from the window and began to drift towards the door.
As they oozed into the corridor I woke in a cold slather, absolutely paralysed with fear. At that moment, I swear to God, my closet door opened a few centimetres. How I made it to my mother’s bedroom without my major internal organs is still a medical mystery, because my heart and lungs were still resting on my bed while the rest of my body approached light speed down the hallway.
The thing was, my mother was at that moment having her own nightmare of a shadowy figure looming over her sleeping form. As I shook her awake, she sat bolt upright in bed and screamed like a drill sergeant, right in my face. That was dreaming done for the night. It makes me wonder why children even bother to sleep between the ages of four and fourteen. Thanks, my brain.
(The funny thing is now, when I have nightmares they occur from the third person point of view of me watching the nightmare happen to other people, so I tend to be able to detach from the horror contained in the dream and wake myself up if it gets too intense.)
#3: Nuclear paranoia
I was nine or ten when I watched doomsday telemovie The Day After (starring Steve Guttenberg!), which in hindsight wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. It wasn’t so much the attack sequence showing much of Kansas, including its inhabitants, being vaporised into skeletons – although the soundtrack of abrupt, distorted screaming is probably as close to the gates of hell as a nine-year-old mind should wander – but the lingering radiation sickness which overcomes most of the characters as the film progresses.
I struggled to understand how ionising radiation worked, and my mother struggled to explain it to me. According to her, radiation was “a bit like invisible ghosts attacking the people and making them ill”. How could you protect yourself from it? “Well, you can’t.” Great, so now there were actually physically verified ‘ghost rays’ which could pop up out of nowhere and make you die. Super.
Combine the prevailing 80s attitude that nuclear war was pretty much inevitable with my mild OCD and you suddenly had a child who could mentally overlay heat and blast radii from various kilotonne and megatonne detonations on maps, who knew the minimum thicknesses of materials capable of blocking radioactivity, and who could calculate the patterns and rates of decay of fallout plumes. And that was before I managed to see Threads, the British version of The Day After, which took the American movie and drowned it in a seething pool of dour Anglican realism until every last skerrick of sentimentality and hope had been boiled away. Thanks, Cold War.
#2 The Amityville Horror
The movie’s no cakewalk, but there is much truth to the saying that the imagination conjures the greatest horrors, and so after I read this account of the supposed demonic possession of the Lutz household when I was about twelve or thirteen, I had to sleep with the light on for six weeks.
At school they were telling us that evil spirits were real and very powerful, and that exorcisms were just an occupational hazard for the clergy. I mean, once a week we had to acknowledge the existence of an actual (holy) ghost. I really was very cross when I found out the whole thing was a scam, and should probably sue for the damage done to my bladder, which was firmly back in protect and contain mode. Thanks, Catholic education.
#1 The Faces of Bélmez
Continuing the theme of cemeteries making terrible neighbourhoods (quiet during the day but murder at night) comes this story of the imprints of faces appearing and reappearing on the floor of a house in the town of Bélmez, Spain, supposedly built on the site of an Inquisition-era witch cemetery. The family living there, naturally a little perturbed, had the floor dug up and reconcreted, only for the faces to appear again, and looking even more miserable.
This story appeared in a fascinatingly evil purple book called Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, and at the age of eight I found this entry so pants-splatteringly terrifying that I avoided reading the entire chapter it was in (‘Footsteps into the unknown’), just in case the pages accidentally turned to the above picture. Of course, the whole story was made up of village superstition, bad science and concrete stripper, but with lines like, “These microphones had recorded sounds not audible to the ear—voices speaking strange languages, agonised moans matching the torment in the eyes of the faces on the floor,” that didn’t stop it from being the Stephen King version of the Shroud of Turin, at the time. Thanks, Reader’s Digest.
Proceed to ‘Five things I learned from my favourite horror films, part 1’, or return to Re: writing.
So, what was it that scared you as a kid? Clowns? Humphrey B. Bear (the silent ones are always the creepiest)? Deep water (thanks, Jaws)? Let me know in the usual space.