I don’t think I have an especially strange relationship with fear. Not like my relationships with other emotions anyway.
I will start off by saying, through writing these blog posts I’ve realised how much the curse of Anxiety and OCD, then the blessing of an incredibly fertile imagination have fed into my relationship with fear, and just how long they’ve been feeding it.
Originally I started writing this as one long blog post, discussing my relationship with fear and how it’s shaped me, my creative spaces and my writing. The post got long though, like really long, so instead I decided to break it down into stages, ages, or maybe even periods of life.
I guess this will be a sort of series. In this first one I’ll start at the beginning, because it is of course a very good place to start.
The first memories I have of fear all revolve around a television set. The one in the living room of our first house and the one at primary school, bulky boxes of black and white static, with buttons on the front and remotes for the lazy. I imagine of course there were other things that scared me, stories, thoughts, the dark but these are the things that really come to me when I think about fear and childhood.
- Pingu – Pingu Is Lost
- Simpsons Treehouse of Horror IV – Terror at 5 1/2 Feet
- Are You Afraid of The Dark – “The Tale Of The Midnight Madness”
The 90’s/Early 00’s was an interesting time to grow up. Kids TV had yet to become the clean colourful appropriate thing it is today. Social media was but a twinkle in some soon to be billionaires eyes and therefore the cries of “won’t someone think of the children” seemed, at very least, quieter.
Kids TV was therefore… weird. There were fantastically dark horror anthology shows like Goosebumps (1995), Are You Afraid of The Dark (1990) and Grizzly Tales For Gruesome Kids (2000). There were unsettling series like The Demon Headmaster (1996), Jeopardy (2002) and light spookery in The Worst Witch (1998) and Monster Cafe (1994). There were shows filled to the brim with creepy puppets, animations and costumes. I always think of that time as a sort of Addams Family aesthetic (even though I know it was full of much more than just that). Kids TV was one thing, kids movies were another. Dark Fantasy films became staples in the homes of parents who’d been frightened by them as kids themselves. Channel 5 burst into being and I remember seeing a lot of the Dark Fantasy cult favourites on there not good enough for the big three channels but certainly good and cheap enough for Channel 5.
It seems, looking back with my 31 year old ancient eyes, that being terrified by something you watched on television or in a film was a rite of passage.
Now I don’t remember exact dates and times, some of these might have happened out of order. I do remember the feelings these things gave me though. Just plain terrified or (to a child) deeply disturbing. I have however gone back and watched things, especially the TV episodes to see if that level of disturbance still exists on some level or if it has transformed into a sort of love.
1.Pingu – Pingu Runs Away – Creepy Ice Sculptures
I’m sure anyone reading this knows what Pingu is, but just in case; Pingu was a stop-motion claymation kids tv show. The show follows an anthropomorphic penguin family, who live in the South Pole, with the focus being on oldest sibling and title character Pingu. It’s the sort of fun educational thing for kids on the BBC where all they speak is gibberish but you still learn a lesson at the end of the episode.
Not only did we watch this on TV, I’m pretty sure we had a VHS of it, some toys and my brother even had one of his birthday cakes Pingu themed.
In episode #14 – Pingu Gets Lost – (apparently now banned all over the place but still available on youtube), Pingu argues with his parents, takes off and gets lost. He wanders around, getting more frantic and then BAM!
The Ice shifts and we are faced with the terrifying image of skulls, claws and goblins. The soundtrack is a mixture of creepy 80’s sounding fantasy music, plus some spooky wind and the terrified cries and screams of Pingu. Did I mention the Skull’s mouth moves at one point, like it’s talking but there’s no sound. Did I also mention that Pingu is crying, actual tears on his face and hiding.
It reminds me a little bit of Snow White when she gets lost in the woods and everything is suddenly terrifying.
Something about it deeply unsettled me. What am I saying, something about it now still unsettles me. A fear that seems to run to my very core and send a shiver up my spine. A chill that doesn’t quite make sense. A fear that can’t be unpicked and understood.
2. Gremlins (1984) + Gremlins 2 (1990)
Next up is Gremlins.
Ah Gremlins, such a classic tale now. A cult favourite good for Halloween or Christmas. Gremlins is a comedy horror where a boy is gifted a creature by his father with three very specific rules. The boy of course breaks the rules and hell breaks loose.
Now look, I don’t want to hear about the impossibilities, about it always being midnight somewhere, about how Gizmo takes a bath or goes out in the rain. The rules are the rules and the film is the film AND it’s a good movie, an excellent movie in fact.
I have no idea if it was the first or second movie that terrified me. I remember the patchy, faded, cold linoleum floor of the primary school. I remember the wooden and metal stand the TV was on. I remember thinking I shouldn’t be watching this. I remember the aftermath of telling someone I’d watched it, shunned by the dinner ladies who I’d gotten in trouble. Really though guys, why would you show a bunch of say what 5/6 year olds Gremlins.
Remember those creepy puppets I mentioned earlier? Well Gremlins was chock full of them. Even the fluffy Gizmo himself looked a bit like a creepy furby.
I don’t have a particular image I remember frightening me, not like with Pingu. I do remember going home and getting upset and telling my mum. I remember crying, a LOT. I remember being scared Gremlins were going to get me.
Now of course I watch Gremlins and have a deep love for it. Especially the second movie which is my favourite of the two.
The scene that still unsettles me in both movies though is when Gizmo is gotten wet (usually something is spilt on him) and the others pop out. The Mogwai is in pain. Screaming and writhing about. Again it unsettles me on some level that I can’t quite pick apart.
3. The Simpsons – Treehouse of Horror IV
– Terror at 5 & 1/2 Feet (1993)
Now we move onto a Simpsons Short that scarred me. This one is actually pretty easy to unpick in terms of fear. An unstoppable creature is after Bart and no one believes him….
From Season 2 onwards The Simpsons decided to Creep it real at Halloween and give us a half hour of three scary shorts featuring all our favourite characters. Some of my absolute favourite episodes and quotes from The Simpsons are from the early Treehouse of Horror episodes. I mean who can forget classics like; ‘Marge, Maggie lost her baby legs.’ or ‘No beer and no tv make Homer go…. something…. something.’ or The house deciding to destroy itself rather than spend a lifetime with The Simpsons. Early Treehouse of Horror not only sent up famous movies and stories it presented us with the palate clenser of Homers scaredy cat reactions listening to the stories. The stories were short, sharp-witted and unsettling. This, unfortunately seems to be something the later seasons have forgotten how to do.
Anyway, in this particular short Bart has a horrible nightmare about the school bus. The following morning he is paranoid and scared about the bus, and he has every right to be, as lo and behold, there is a Gremlin on the side of the bus. The Gremlin is pretty creepy looking, I think it’s the mix of soft and sharp that does it. The Gremlin is also unrelenting, it doesn’t die, get defeated or is harmed in anyway (even after Bart throws a flair at it). The bus stops just before the creature can cause it to crash. Even with the damage to the side of the bus nobody seems to believe Bart and so the final image is Bart in a straight jacket on his way to the asylum. He at least relaxes now, thinking he’s safe from the creature….. until it reappears in the window with Ned Flanders severed head.
It’s pretty easy to unpick this fear. An unrelenting monster means there is no chance for the heroes to win. There’s no chance of getting the upper hand. You can’t escape it. It’s not going to stop until you are dead. That’s a pretty scary prospect as an adult, but as a kid, when you’ve always been reassured the good guys win and get away (well 90% of the time – thanks Disney!), it’s pretty harrowing.
There’s also the whole thread of Bart not being believed. It’s never a question of whether Bart is mad. The audience can see the Gremlin. They can see it taunting Bart. That’s a pretty scary concept too. I think by this age I’d already had at least one big bad experience with people stretching the truth and me not being believed. So this was terrifying to think of.
The actual moment of fear I remember though. Is after the episode, sitting in my bedroom against the wall with a book in my hand. I’d felt unsettled and back to the wall was best because I could see EVERYTHING.
I moved, and then, a curtain tie back dropped behind me and I freaked out. I think I screamed and I’m sure my heart was beating so fast I thought it might come out of my chest. Like with Gremlins I’m not sure it’s something I should have watched.
Now of course it doesn’t bother me but for YEARS after I could never watch that episode and yes by years I do mean well into my twenties. It was like muscle memory for anxiety set in.
4. Are You Afraid Of The Dark – The Tale of Midnight Madness (1990)
The last in this entry goes to Are you Afraid of The Dark.
The titles alone for this kids horror anthology TV series were enough to give me the willies.
Being the fraidy cat I was I never usually watched Are You Afraid of the Dark or Goosebumps but one day I found myself caught, enraptured by an episode that actually starts in a cinema.
I’m not going to lie I think I misremembered most of this episode. I went back and watched it for this post and found that I was wrong on quite a few details – unless I’ve got the wrong episode.
This episode features two kids working at a cinema on the brink of closure. A mysterious creepy old dude shows up and says he can help. All he wants in exchange is his movies played once a week. The cinema manager agrees then goes back on his word. Something… something… something… a vampire ends up coming out of the screen a la Last Action Hero. Now this is not a run of the mill cute vampire like teens would expect today, it’s not even the soft sort of Gary Oldman Dracula. No this is full on creepy Nosferatu with the big two front fangs and weird pointed teeth. Not to mention the long fingers, pointed ears and almost literal alabaster skin.
This episode terrified me.
One particular image stayed with me for so long, it became warped in my head and the real thing is actually a shadow of what my brain cooked up. It was those horrible long white fingers, with nails that today most people would call a fashion statement, curling around a door.
Now in my head, I see this scary bit through the lens of a camera, like you would on screen. The position the camera is in means I’m seeing everything from a bed, probably lay down. The colours of the scene have been drained to nothing but a deep bold blue, the shadows highlighted and deeper still, almost black. The door creaks open and the shadow of the fingers comes around the door followed by the fingers themselves. The moment stretches on forever. Fear moves up my spine, spilling into my throat and solidifying like wax.
The actual scene is probably less than a minute and is just the fingers coming around the door. I don’t think it’s particularly drawn out, or even held focus on enough for it to be a spectacular terrifying image. It just is.
Why then did my brain turn a probably less than thirty second image into something drawn out way past that?
Well, now I realise what happened: Remember I said fear can be fed by OCD, well that’s what happened here.
Often it’s hard for me to watch a lot of horror movies because – and this will be discussed in a later post – my OCD is more mentally situated. My Intrusive thoughts for the most part are more image based and boy do they linger. Once the OCD latches onto a frightening image it’s hard to move it away. With the help of my wonderful imagination that one image can transform into something so much worse than the real thing ever was. That’s what happened with this scene.
Everytime the thought intruded something got worse from that one scene, something got scarier. It snowballed into something bigger than ever intended. I look back now and wonder if I was picking up on the storytelling techniques of cinema and television. Subconsciously learning the make-up of scary scenes.
Interestingly it didn’t seem to hinder my love of the spooky. TV Shows like The Munsters, Monster Cafe and Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids were among my favourites growing up. Along with films like The Addams Family, pretty much anything Tim Burton, and the stranger Disney movies.
My love of vampires wasn’t hindered by this either. I loved them. A lot.
Writing this I realised that the fear, compounded, is that of something fictional crossing over into our world. If we cross into theirs, we hope the laws of fiction will apply to us, the heroes save the day, the good guys win. However if they cross here, with their powers and bloodlust how are we to defend ourselves? Do they become human too? Well it depends who you ask.
I like to speculate this thinking could have come from something my mum used to say a lot. When we were upset or scared (and I was scared a LOT as a kid), ‘There’s nothing to be scared of in this house apart from me.’ Then she also used to say something along the lines of only the living can hurt you.
That thinking might also explain my somewhat irrational fear of inanimate objects that take on a life of their own and no I don’t mean singing, dancing, Disney style.
So those were the earliest experiences with fear, real fear I can remember. All centered around fiction, around the visual medium of film and television and so ends part one of our Fear and Me series.