Sunday, August 31, 2008

"Can't Sleep, Clown Will Eat Me!"

So I'm cruising through MetaFilter the other day when I ran across this entry: all the things you once tried so hard to forget...

KINDERTRAUMA is about the movies, books, and toys that scared you when you were a kid. It’s also about kids in scary movies, both as heroes and villains. And everything else that’s traumatic to a tyke! Through reviews, stories, artwork, and testimonials, we mean to remind you of all the things you once tried so hard to forget…Your Happy Childhood Ends Here!

Thanks. Thanks a lot. As if I need help remembering the things that scared me as a kid, as if I need prompting.

Monsters in the closet? Well, yes, for a while, but a quick, well-lit pre-bedtime search, a carefully closed door (rubber doorstops were my friends), and a Donald Duck night light took care of that. Monsters under the bed? A bit more worrisome since under-the-bed remained dark and forbidding even with the lights on, thereby precluding a thorough search--searching doesn't work if the monsters can see you first(1), but for the most part, at that time, the...things...I worried about were too big to fit such cramped quarters.

(by the way, parents, some amusing advice on how and how not to handle such problems with your own kids can be seen at Exterminator Wanted! Apparently My House Is Infested With Monsters)

But there were...other...things.

Let's start with this... thoughtful... handmade gift from some maiden aunt:

Tell me that's not a spooky-ass thing to give a 3-yr. old child, what with its disturbing semi-smile, its pale-blue, eternally-staring eyes (the photo does not do them justice), and inexplicable red poofy-balls--sort of a Casper the Gay Psychotic Clown-Ghost (2). I stuffed it in the back of a dresser drawer as soon as Mom wasn't looking, then tried desperately (and unsuccessfully) to forget it was there.

But it was.

And who knew what it was doing in there, unwatched and unsupervised? I imagined it plotting all sorts of mischief and I never looked at it again (3).

And then there were certain Saturday morning cartoons, specifically, some of the early Betty Boop features and more specifically (YouTube links), Minnie the Moocher, Snow White, and Bimbo's Initiation. You'll have to picture me at age five or so, sequestered in my darkened basement/rec room, eyes glued to the television set, bathed in bluish cathode ray tube phosphorescence, and wondering what the hell is going ON here? The Cab Calloway music was spooky, dark, blaring minor chord stuff, but the storylines were frighteningly incomprehensible, reeking of... disquieting, disturbing... dream logic: Why is there a dancing, singing walrus wraith in that cave? What on earth were those skeletons drinking that could kill them? Why are the ghosts going willingly to those electric chairs and how the hell can you execute a ghost, anyway?

Pay particular attention to the backgrounds--they were the wallpaper of my nightmares

There's more. In 1963 my parents and I went to see my Uncle Dick (among others) perform an evening magic show at some shopping mall in Lynchburg, VA. We passed a movie theater displaying the one-sheet for Children of the Damned...

...and I was immediately traumatized. Those... eyes... haunted my dreams for years.

As did this trailer for The Monster of Piedras Blancas. Not so much the monster, though he/she/it was grotesque enough to make me a little leery of nighttime strolls on the beach even today, it was all the severed heads!

And this one for Target Earth, an otherwise eminently forgettable (and supremely boring) sci-fi film of the '50s, but the scene at the very end of the trailer (skip the rest of the crap unless you're a fan of Really Bad Cinema) where the robot crashes through a window... brrrr!

And let us not forget Shock!, a syndicated TV package aired in the late '50s and early '60s that introduced an entirely new generation to the Universal Studios monsters of the '30s and '40s. I spent many a Saturday afternoon wrapped (okay, cowering) in an old army blanket (4) being terrorized by Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, John Carradine and Lon Chaney, Jr. while my mother took a nap upstairs (5).

No, I don't need ANY reminding of what scared me as a kid. It's all right there, seared into my cerebral cortex.

(1) One slightly boozy summer night during my late teen years a bunch of us were gathered in my friend Scot's trailer and (for whatever reason) started discussing our various childhood strategies for dealing with the perennial monster problem. Some of us insisted that the smartest method involved avoiding detection altogether--the ol' "covers-over-the-head" technique, which was based upon the belief that monsters are incredibly stupid and can't get you if they can't see you. Others held with the (obviously incorrect) "draw-the-covers-up-to-your-eyes-so-you-can-see-them-first" school of thought. For 20 pts., compare and contrast these ideas making specific mention of the numerous logical fallacies inherent in each.

That same evening we discovered that all of us, independently of one another, had mastered the technique of Chain Lighting. Here's the basic scenario: you've managed to beg/wheedle/con your parents into allowing you to stay up late and watch a scary movie ("But, mom! It's not that scary!") because, well, scary movies are cool. This is an unusual privilege and one that can be easily rescinded should the parental units suspect late-night monster movie viewing has induced even a moment of anxiety in precious little Buddy or Sis. Presumptive evidence of this would be such things as, oh, I dunno, every light in the house being left on overnight.

Point of Information in case you were mystified by that last part: these were the days ('50s, '60's) when your average household might have a single, solitary, lone television console (hard to believe, I know, but that's the way it was) located in some central area such as a den, a family room, the living room, a basement, wherever, but note that it was nowhere near your bedroom. As an added bonus our parents were Depression Babies and wasting electricity was both a personal affront and a moral failing.

So, you've just finished watching something incredibly scary (which you know because you're incredibly scared) and now you must wend your way to your bedroom but you have to turn out all the lights first or you'll never, ever get to see another scary movie until you're too old to care!

And monsters thrive in darkness.

You're boned.

Or are you? This is where Chain Lighting comes in--having carefully noted the exact location of every source of illumination between the TV room and your bedroom (uh, you did do that, didn't you?), you now move from your currently well-lit starting point to the next strategically-placed lamp, turn it on, return to your initial position and extinguish that lamp. Move back into the light and repeat as necessary until you reach your final destination, safe in the knowledge that (a) monsters are dumb (keep telling yourself that or you'll lose your nerve), (b) at no time will you be in total darkness (making you easy pickin's for hungry horrors), and (c) your parents will be none the wiser.

(2) And don't think the basic premise of Casper the Friendly Ghost didn't bother me.

(3) Until my parents moved and I came across the damned thing by accident. Forty years of silent, patient waiting in that dresser drawer paid off for the little booger--I gasped.

(4) I went the blanket route while my friend Sam refined the "let's-mostly-hide-behind-the-sofa" technique. It never, ever occurred to us to Just. Not. Watch.

(5) My parents weren't too sure about this approach/avoidance thing I had with monster movies, brainwashed as they were with the notion that such things led to crippling anxiety, juvenile delinquency, antisocial behavior, and a career in politics. I knew Famous Monsters of Filmland had once run an article entitled "Monsters Are Good For My Children" by Mrs. Terry Pinckard, mother of four, which I hoped would convince them otherwise, but I didn't own a copy (6).

(6) And still don't. Can't even find a copy online, which surprises me. There's a brief reference in this wonderful interview with Famous Monsters editor Forrest J Ackerman, Inside Darkest Ackerman, but that's about it. Sam? I'm looking at you.

Hey! You made it through all the stupid, annoying footnotes! Good for you! As a reward you get a bonus story.

In 1974 Larry Cohen released It's Alive, a movie about a mutant killer baby, but I didn't know that at the time. I was home from college one summer and stayed up late to watch something-or-other when the network aired what I thought was a Public Service Announcement:

Caught me completely by surprise... and that gawdawful baby cry at the end... ewww!

Well, dumbass that I am (that's foreshadowing, by the way, a sure sign of quality bloggery), I told my asshole kind, thoughtful, loving friends about my reaction, secure in the knowledge that they, of all people, would sympathize.

A few weeks later on yet another slightly boozy summer night (see 1) I wandered over to Scot's trailer to hang out with my...friends... and to drink a little Malt Duck. Eventually I was seized by the inevitable call of nature and as I wandered down the narrow, darkened corridor of the trailer and approached the bathroom something grabbed my ankle...

And emitted that horrible mutant baby cry.

I looked down and there in the gloom and darkness was this...this...thing...on all fours with a bloated, faceless head.

I yelped. Loudly. Very loudly. Loudly enough to elicit hysterical laughter from the living room.

You see, apparently once he heard I was coming over, my friend Wally decided to don a fencing mask and hide out quietly and patiently (oh so patiently--at least an hour) in the hallway until such time as I needed the bathroom.

He was damn lucky I have excellent bladder control.


Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Ah, GW. I shall should tell you now, but I think I shall post it tonight on my blog, about EXACTLY WHY I AM AFRAID OF CLOWNS. (ok, just for you, here is a hint: I SAW ON GET BLOWN UP!!!). True, true. Many years ago I stayed up until 2 0r 3 in the morning, my adorable now 16 yr old niece and godchild in the next room, I feel crinkled paper under the pillow, grab the sheet and hold it to the light from the street lamp, and its a cut out clown mask she drew hours earlier, knowing I'd not sleep that night...

Cathy VanPatten said...

Ah, Bimbo's Initiation... I know we've discussed this before, but I was in my 30s before I came to the realization (on viewing the cartoon again for the first time since my early childhood) that it and it alone was responsible for my childhood terror of walking over/on manhole covers or sidewalk grates.

I still don't know why I was terrified of shower heads and ceiling sprinkler fixtures (especially the sprinklers at Newberrys) as a child. I thought the would suck me up into them. Go figure.

And I was a teenager when an old scare movie, aired on a lazy Sunday afternoon when I was supposed to be doing homework, really DID scare me. I still don't know what it was (I missed the title... maybe it will ring a bell with you?), but two things creeped me out (and do to this day, just remembering): an electric shaver that starts acting like a cobra and attacks the guy trying to shave, and a tiki or similarly carved tombstone that starts "bleeding." Ugh. Shudder!

Capcom said...

Yowza! That sock doll is eerie!

Gosh, I was afraid of everything when I was a kid, even going out the front door. But mostly everything on the Twilight Zone scared me at night, especially the Talking Tina doll. My grade-school teachers scared me too. In fact grade-school in general felt like Bimbo's Initiation! :-p

Heheh, It's Alive was awesome. :-D But then The Exorcist scared the crap out of me, and I wasn't even a kid. I spent a few years after seeing that, waking up in a sweat and positive that my bed had just jumped. X-(

G. W. Ferguson said...

@Wayne: So that penchant for inflicting the macabre upon others is a family trait. Now we know!

And tremble.

@Cath: I remember (with great discomfort) the Cobra Razor, but only as part of a TV spot for (I'm guessing) The Twilight Zone. I spent a lot of time on YouTube hoping to find it since it was a great example of the sort of brief imagery that terrified me as a child. No luck, which may be just as well.

I do hereby solemnly swear not to call you in the middle of the night and chant "Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?"

@capcom: I wasn't allowed to watch The Twilight Zone as a kid--came on too late and my parents were concerned (rightfully) it would scare me too much. Unfortunately, the TV ads were equally terrifying (see above).

My friends and I did eventually see It's Alive! (at the drive-in, no less!) and it was lots o' creepy fun...

...but that cry from the mutant baby haunts me even today; I got chills just from the YouTube video.