With this weekend’s A Fantastic Fear of Everything, Simon Pegg stars as Jack, a children’s book author who becomes obsessive and paranoid about death and murder — even when there’s nothing at all to worry about. While Jack is an adult who can’t cope with the real world because of his obsessions, it’s more often the kids who are deemed the scaredy cats due to their irrational fears. Maybe that has a little to do with sneaking scary movies bright and early?
It’s a rite of passage, really, that happens when Dad is snoring on the other side of the couch and the remote is blissfully, blessedly unattended for once. That’s right; it’s time to steal that remote and secretly switch the channel to the scariest programming possible.
Nightmares be damned, you’re nine years old and you have living to do, man! Trying to watch horror movies (and just plain fear-themed films) before the appropriate age comes from a specific scientific combination of attempting to appear more grown-up and the innate desire that exists within all of us to do the opposite of whatever our parents say. When the lights go out and the moms are out of sight, it’s time to see exactly how brave you can be when facing down Freddy Krueger.
As tough and gallant as we might fancy ourselves as children – and this especially applies if we’re literally talking about us, little movie buffs in the making – there are just some films you just really can’t handle as a little one. But there’s another class of films to consider: the films we remember as a child being monstrously scary, the bed-wetters and nightmare-inducers of our youth that really didn’t hold up on the terror scale in adulthood.
In the eyes of a child, there are plenty of films that make the misguided leap from mild at best to full out panic. Take The Mummy, for example, the Brendan Fraser vehicle in which a group of archaeologists in the 1940s stumble upon a cursed tomb in the pyramids and unleash the wrath of the mummies. For about a six-month period in 1999, mummies were a clear and present danger in our lives because of this movie. Mummies could potentially be in the shower when you pulled back the curtain (my real, bizarre fear), and scarab beetles just might as well be coating the floors when the lights go out, waiting to eat you from the inside out.
Looking back today, there’s nothing about the film that necessarily screams bloody horror. The creatures of the features are friendly CG messes and with the wisdom of adulthood, scarab beetles can be put with quicksand in that pile of “things I probably won’t actually have to deal with today.” The tendency to latch on to certain, somewhat silly aspects of scary movies isn’t exclusive to kids – we do it all the time as adults – but it’s certainly amplified in childhood. Little legs, big imaginations.
Something like Pet Sematary, with its demon cats, demon children and a tiny little ankle-slashing scene, all combine into memories of a dark and deeply disturbing film. But more recent viewings suggest that shrouded in a haze of 1980s fog, the ol’ cemetery and its sweet ass Ramones soundtrack aren’t nearly as threatening as the fact that you didn’t realize the groundskeeper was played by Herman Munster.
Likewise, underage viewings of Poltergeist may have characterized the apparitions and other ghoulish entities terrorizing the Freeling family as seriously sinister, instead of seeing through the claymation for what it really was: kind of cheesy. Poltergeist is considered a classic for a reason; it’s a solid, spooky story about a family that becomes the unwitting victims of demonic forces that take over their house built on a burial ground. To kids, that shot of the claymation steak filled with lime green maggots scooting across the kitchen counter is vomit-inducing; today it might be a little worse than anything you’ve seen on that Food Network Kitchen Nightmares show.
It’s true that swimming in a pool full of skeletons isn’t high on anyone’s list, no matter their age, but most of us are able to hit the pool nowadays without imagining muddy bones dragging slowly, ever so slowly across our floaties. Imagining Jaws is in the deep end might be a different story.
But of course, there are also the creatures of the night that existed as nightmare fodder for years, despite their lack of menace. Chucky, with his shock of red hair, passion for murder and stabbin’ hands was a great reason to check under the bed. Tiny murderers like the Leprechaun or even the Gingerdead Man could definitely be lurking around any corner. It, that towering, bloodthirsty Stephen King creation of a clown that lived in the sewers quite literally ate children. If that’s not stranger danger, nothing is.
Rewatching these films, and the countless other horror films that likely accompanied them on late-night binges, in the clear light of being a grown-up means that while there’s still that thrill of the fright, it’s not one that’s going to scare you witless. Killer Klowns and hockey-masked murderers may have been serious threats (and necessitated a shower-curtain check every once in awhile) as a kid, but they can stay firmly planted in the nightmares of youth for now.