Thanks to a well-meaning relative, or a pliant baby-sitter (or, occasionally, a malicious one), many of us are introduced to certain scary movies long before we’re actually ready to handle the long-term terrors they breed. Horror movie tropes often rely on a combination of our own irrational fears and a hyperactive imagination—for kids who already ardently believe in sci-fi and fantasy worlds, horror can be a bit much to process. And it turns out several of us at Tor.com have such movie trauma in our past.
From killer dolls to sleeping terror, each of these were basically phobias in the making for our tiny selves.
When I was about four years old, I had a babysitter who lived in the apartment next door. She had a daughter who was eight. One day she was called in for a late night shift when she was meant to babysit, so she asked her ex-husband to come over and look after me and his daughter. I’d never met the guy before, which was weird enough—and then he decided to turn on a movie. Knowing that I had certain limits (even as a four-year-old, yes, I know), I dutifully asked: “Is the movie scary?”
He said, “No, not really.”
No, not really.
NO. NOT. REALLY.
Then he put on Child’s Play. You know, the horror movie about the doll who MURDERS KIDS. And when I realized that this plan was going very, very wrong, I asked if we could stop the movie so I could go to sleep. He told me that I was welcome to head off to bed by myself if I wanted to. (His daughter, being four years older, did not find the movie frightening at all and I don’t think she liked me much, so she didn’t really care that I was terrified.) I tried to stay in the darkened bedroom alone with my stuffed raccoon, but the shadows in the room were moving. I was certain of it. So I came back out into the living room and sat through the rest of the film with a pillow in front of my face. And that’s the story of how I spent the next few years convinced that a homicidal doll lived in my closet—until I was told by an acupuncturist with a good grasp on child psychology that I could ask my stuffed animals to protect me at night and do all my worrying for me. A year after that my fear of the closet finally vanished for good, but I’ve never really lost my deep-seated sense of panic when I’m reminded of that ridiculous franchise. Someone dressed their toddler up as Chucky for the 25th anniversary at New York Comic Con and I almost dropped-kicked that poor kid on sight. Looking up an image for this (above, from the sequel) was traumatic. I should have had someone else do it. I’m going to go look at pictures of puppies for an hour now. —Emmet Asher-Perrin
Every time I go to put on shoes, I curse my babysitter… Victoria, bless her, introduced me to some of my absolute favorite movies; I still remember the utter delight that gripped me over my first watch of Clue. But in her “what do you MEAN you haven’t seen it?” zeal, she’d sometimes pop in VHS tapes and DVDs that I wasn’t yet ready for. Case in point: Arachnophobia—which to be fair, didn’t know whether to market itself as a thriller or a comedy.
It’s got an insane premise, in which a deadly Amazonian spider hitches a ride to California, mates with a local spider there, and produces egg sac after egg sac of tiny, equally venomous, babies. The Amazonian general and his American queen are pretty horrifying, as face-sized arachnids go, but it was those teeny-tiny offspring that haunted me: dropping down from a lampshade right as someone tugged the string, lurking in the toes of shoes lined up in front of the door, and—I’m shuddering—the wave of baby spiders crashing over the TV while the news reports about the epidemic. The thought that death, no bigger than a quarter, could be lying in wait, struck fear deep into my eight-year-old heart. I still can’t put on my shoes without turning them over and shaking them out. Just to be safe. —Natalie Zutter
A Nightmare on Elm Street
For some reason I saw this when I was 6? 7? Our neighbors had it on tape, my mother and I went over for a movie night, and I cajoled her into letting me watch it—I had seen R-rated movies before! I was tough! And anyway I could always just go into another room if it upset me.
Therein lies the rub, because it didn’t upset me while I was watching it. I thought it was great. Freddy Krueger was hilarious and gross, the kids were sympathetic enough for me to care, but not so sympathetic that I was undone by their gruesome deaths. I related to the conundrum of wanting to stay up late and falling asleep against your will. I also really liked the reveal the Freddy had done terrible things to children—the fact that the parents murdered him felt like justice to me. But then you get that last, horrible scene, where Nancy Thompson’s mother is murdered by Freddy just when you think everything’s OK. In one perfect twist, Nancy realizes she’s still trapped in a nightmare, the justice achieved by killing Freddy is undone, and evil triumphs. Wes Craven was a master at creating resonant horror, and this is a perfect ending. Old, Grizzled Leah can do naught but salute it.
Unfortunately Small Leah had to go home and go to sleep immediately after watching the movie. I still remember the dream I had: I was at our house, exactly, every detail correct. My parents and brother were there with me. And the monster wasn’t even Freddy—instead I was stalked by a Grim Reaper figure, cloaked, with coal-red eyes, silent, who would disappear and reappear much closer to you, with no warning. I understood in the dream that I was dreaming, and that it didn’t matter, because if a monster could move between dream and reality with no effort, how did you stop him? My mother tells me that my nightmares continued for weeks, what I don’t think I ever told her was that the real nightmare was too much for a child to communicate: how could I ever know again when I was awake, and when I was dreaming? —Leah Schnelbach
Now that we’re thoroughly creeped ourselves out remembering our own traumatic movie experiences, we turn to you: what was the first film that made you hide beneath the covers?