Scary movies, childhood trauma, and Halloween

[Warning: Graphic horror descriptions included in this post.  No joke.]

When I was 10 years old I was in 5th grade and had the very great honor of being invited to a 6th grade slumber party.  Carol Addison was also granted this highest of 10-year-old-girl honors.

Jacqui Green lived at the end of my cul-de-sac in a two story house that was the mirror image of mine.  She had long black hair and green eyes and was a soft spoken, yet fierce tether-ball competitor.   She was mostly a loner on the playground, but had decided to have a big bash of a birthday party and invited a dozen classmates.

Long story short, it was the most traumatic, terrifying night of my childhood, without exception.  From what I can remember we had three movie choices: a Nightmare on Elm St (it was '85, so whatever version of that movie it was at the time), a Friday the 13th, and Sleepaway Camp (the original, first movie).  I can vividly remember thinking, "Oh, shit."

The girls decided to watch the least scary movie first: Sleepaway Camp.

I sat on that couch, wedged between bony butts eating cheese balls, mortified by what I was seeing.  Kids were mowed down by boats, a sexy girl had a knifed dragged down her back in a locker room, a man had boiling water poured on his face.  I did my best to be cool, to not look scared, but it was no use.  I tried watching the movie in the reflection of the fireplace panes, but after some children were hacked to death in their sleeping bags during a camping trip in the woods I got up to find the other group of girls who'd opted out of the scary movie.

They were playing on a Ouija board.

I sat down and joined in, but when someone asked, "Who here in this room will die first?" I returned to the movie and finished it.

It has one of the most horrifying, vile, terrifying endings of any movie I've ever seen.  A pubescent boy with hair on his genitals, long, flowing hair and stark, raving, psychosis in his eyes standing spread eagle with a severed head in his hands; his mouth agape and ape-like.

I have chills running all over my body even describing it now.

That is how the movie ends.  With the frame frozen on that sick image.

I don't remember cake.  I don't remember singing "Happy Birthday."  I only recall fighting tooth and nail to not be in a sleeping bag on the very end in the living room.  I got that far, but as I lay there trying to sleep all I could feel was my heart pounding in my ribcage.  I couldn't get those images out of my mind.  I knew it wasn't real, but my little body couldn't make the disconnect.  I thought I was going to die for my heart fluttered and skipped and my breathing was irregular. 

I got up and asked Jacqui to use her phone and called my parents.

"Daddy," I said, "I want to come home."

"OK, sweetie," he replied groggily, "I'll leave the door unlocked for you."

"NO.  You have to come and get me."

He drove our Chevy Celebrity the block and a half in his underwear.  "I let Whiskers in.  She can sleep with you," he said.

"No, Daddy.  I want to sleep with you and Mommy."

And it was like that for the next year.

Yes.  YEAR.

(As it turns out, if my memory serves me, Carol also called her parents for a ride home.  Was it because we were 10 and needed an extra year of development?  I'll never know.)

That movie affected so much.  It affected my relationship with music, with being a teenager, with my sense of safety in the world.  I had never even imagined things so graphic, so evil, in my entire life.  For years I could only fall asleep listening to classical music; I convinced myself that the entire episode happened in Maine (as far away as I could think of from California).  Years and years later I realized that my jumpiness, the easiness with which I was scared, and my general disconnect from music was due to mild PTSD.  From that stupid fucking movie.

Every Halloween I remember that night and the years of climbing out of that pit of terror.  I'm a grown up now, but it all rushes back to me when I see the ghoulish, bloody costumes hanging in Target aisles.  And I wonder if Hawk is being at all affected by these things.  I want to say, No, he's not, since there's no emotional connection for him, but he's not stupid.  These things are inherently scary.  They're supposed to evoke a primal emotion.  That's what they're designed to do.  Just like a scorpion looks scary to anyone from anywhere in the world, a bloody, hacked up zombie face will do the same.

And yet, I encourage my baby three-year old to be bold.  To walk up to what he fears and to touch and smell these awful things.  I have to walk up to these things boldly, too.  I have to hit the "TRY ME" buttons attached to robotic witches and ghosts that make scary noises and my skin tingle to show that I am able to look beyond the obvious and solve the riddle of their existence; lift up their gowns and show the metal rods and the ridiculous recorded loops of their howls.

Seeing Hawk dance and skip in sheer joy at these novelties helps to take some of the fear away.  I want him to know the difference between real and imaginary, but to also work out his fears and not ruminate on them like I did.  I know he's still little and there's plenty of time in his life for nightmares, but until then I want him to feel safe and like an adventurer.  Like he's the pilot in his life.

I imagine that whenever he feels that prick in the back of this neck from fear it's when he calls something "spooky."  It sucks that I won't be able to protect him from darker terror later in life, but I guess that's not really my job anyway.  My job is to give him the tools to navigate it.

And frankly, I don't think they should have this awful shit out in broad daylight, but a semi-naked woman's body wrapped in plastic and out of reach.  I'd much rather him see human sexuality -- even if objectified -- than decaying faces and body parts that might haunt him for years to come.

I dunno, what's up with that??  What do you think of the horror that's so accessibly displayed in stores?  Do you think it's ok?  Does it bother you?  Am I the only weenie out there?

The "Guys" as Hawk calls them.  Whenever we go to Target he insists we visit them.

Brave enough to pat it.

Pleasant, no?

The package says it all. 

These masks scare me.  (I told you I was a weenie.)


  1. I am definitely a weenie. My kids, on the other hand, love that stuff. Yet they're terrified of Swiper the Fox from Dora. They're clearly coming from a different place than I am, where different things are scary and benign.

  2. I had a similar experience around the same age - went to a birthday sleepover where we watched Poltergeist. The VCR tape ended, the screen went to static and we all FREAKED. I didn't call my parents, though now it seems like it would have been a more sensible thing to do. Instead I had a sleepless night at my friend's house in order to save face. I did have ongoing nightmares after that for a long time, though. I still don't understand the fascination with horror films, and refuse to sit through anything with too much violence in it.

  3. My experience was similar to yours but didn't happen to me until college. I ended up at a movie that I didn't want to see, seated in the VERY front row...and saw images that to this day, I can't erase from my mind. I have never wanted to watch another R rated action movie.

  4. Sleepaway Camp, at a slumber party, was my first introduction to horror movies, too. Scared the crap out of me and I avoided scary movies for the next ten years because of it. Thankfully, my own sleepaway camp days were behind me by then.

  5. I stayed upstairs at the only Halloween slumbr party I went to. I was not watching a horror movie. I still won't.

    The girl is easily scared of things. There are a lot of silly ghosts in our storytelling. Right now I think that is enough for her.

  6. I am a weenie too. I get so upset at the PREVIEWS of horror movies that I freak out and cover my eyes until my husband can turn it off. I don't think they should show those things except to people who have already elected to see a horror movie. The Paranormal Activity trailer which I so stupidly watched on purpose terrified me most of all. Kept me awake at night. I am 26 years old and this was last week. I am mostly over it, but I'm pretty sure that if I'd actually watched the movie I would be going to see a counselor.

    I used to watch whatever I could get my hands on from the age of 12, and I was fine. My high school boyfriend was the one jumping and clinging to MY arm when we went to see scary movies. I'm not sure what happened but I just can't watch that stuff now.

    As for my kids, I would sooo much rather them be exposed to harmless things like everyday cleavage than terrified by grotesque images. I will not let them watch horror movies at such a young age as my mom let me. Our society is so obsessed with keeping sexual images out of our children's sight but they don't think twice about putting stuff that truly is horrifying right out there for everyone to see. I can't watch Law & Order or House, either. It's sick the things people put on TV these days, always trying to top the last horrible thing.

  7. I think Halloween is taken a bit too far in the US. It's like people give themselves license to be their most crude, creepy and tasteless they could ever be. Yuck. I didn't like it at all.