When District 9 came out, I was geeked to see it opening weekend. My older daughters wanted to go but my wife was busy. So, finding a babysitter for my ten-year-old twins remained the only obstacle. Unsuccessful, I would not to be deterred. Why not just take them with me? Because of its “R” rating I was nervous that it might be too intense. Of course, they balked at any such notion. After some due diligence (don’t judge me), I determined that D9 earned its rating based on violent content. I (correctly, it turns out) assumed that the carnage was of the sci-fi/video game variety as opposed to the more visceral gore (pun intended) presented in the Hostel/Saw genre. Nonetheless, as the movie unfolded, I kept a close watch on their reaction (like I said, don’t judge me). Every fifteen minutes I’d ask if they were “doing okay.” Each time, they assured me that they were. After my fifth such inquiry, one of the twins looked up a bit irritated and whispered, “Aliens aren’t scary dad…sheesh.”
And they really weren’t scared. People and “prawns” were getting blasted right and left. Yet my youngest kids were unmoved (my oldest too, for that matter). My guess is that the subject matter seemed so far removed from their own reality that it didn’t have the desired effect. That got me to thinking about what scared me as a child. As laid out in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the horror icons of my youth in the late ’60s and early ’70s were represented by Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman (both Lon Chaney Jr AND Oliver Reed) or the creature from the Black Lagoon. In their day, I suppose they had scared a lot of adults. But as a ten-year-old they left me unfazed. In fact, I thought they were kinda cool. As it turns out, MY kids think that the title character in Ridley Scott’s Alien is kinda cool too.
So WHAT did frighten me as a kid? Here’s a list of “scary” moments that stayed with me for a LONG time. The employment of a naturalistic approach seems to be a common thread running through all of these examples and may illuminate my child’s comment.
1. The War of the Worlds (1938): Okay, you may ask, why is a radio broadcast about an alien invasion included in a list that’s labeled “Aliens Aren’t Scary?” Fair question. Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre dramatization of the H.G. Wells novel employed a “faux documentary” approach (if you can apply that to term to radio) sixty years before The Blair Witch Project. There’s been some disagreement over whether Welles knew that using simulations of actual radio broadcasts would result in the panic that ensued. However, even thirty-five years later, and knowing that it wasn’t real, I got spooked listening to an LP record of the show. The highlight for me is when reporter Carl Phillips describes a Martian ray gun rising out of the ship and firing on a surrounding crowd whose horrific screams can be heard in the background. Phillips hurriedly notes an exploding gas tank nearby. Then nothing. It works because we all instinctively know that “dead air” is anathema to mass media outlets. So when it does occurs, it’s just as disarmingly eerie as the cries of people being set ablaze.
2. The Birds (1963): Jessica Tandy discovering the eyeless body of Dan Fawcett is still troubling to watch even today. This is Alfred Hitchcock at his best. I dare say it rivals the shower scene in Psycho for evoking pure terror. To be sure, the attack on Marion Crane deserves its status as a classic filmmaking moment. But its technical achievements scream to be noticed and, to today’s audiences, almost detract from the horror of what it depicts. However, the scene from The Birds at the Fawcett farm is disarmingly understated. There’s no music and very little sound. A series of odd observations, like the broken tea cups still hanging on a rack by their handles, add to the menace as Tandy makes her way down a hall to Fawcett’s ransacked bedroom and the shocking discovery that time has yet to rob of its impact.
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968): Late in The Birds, Mitch (Rod Taylor) gets an update on the attacks from a car radio. This was partly the inspiration for George A. Romero’s use of a similar device in Night of the Living Dead (a lack of a budget being another). The group of people trapped in the now famous farmhouse, and the audience, get most of their information on the zombie situation from local television news reports. Then, as now, I find these bits among the most compelling scenes in the movie. They certainly play better in 2009 than the quick snippets of ghouls fighting over intestines and leg bones. Because of guidelines resulting from the Welles Martian broadcast, whenever Night of the Living Dead played on late night television in my area, the station flashed a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen proclaiming that “This Is A Dramatization” during the newscast segments. For my brother and I, this only added to the feeling that we were watching something very different than the garden variety horror flick.
4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): While I’ve since come to appreciate it, most of the action in Roman Polanski’s adaption of the Ira Levin novel didn’t really seem all that scary on first viewing. However, there was one moment that really did spook me. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) has a chilling phone conversation with Donald Baumgart (the voice of Tony Curtis in possibly the world’s greatest cameo), an actor whose sudden and mysterious blindness benefits her own would-be actor husband (John Cassavetes). Baumgart is understandably impatient with Rosemary’s call and unmoved by her offer of condolences. There are no specific references to witches or the Devil in what they’re saying. But the way these few pieces of what would become a frightening puzzle were dropped in at that moment was inspired.
5. The Exorcist (1973): Whether or not I realized it then, when I finally did get to see The Exorcist, some three years after its initial release, I was mostly affected by the matter-of-fact approach it employed to depict supernatural subject matter. This was in direct contrast to its much less subtle cousin, 1976’s The Omen. As a young teenager, seeing Regan’s head spinning was more a curiosity than something to be feared. Like the shower scene in Psycho, I was distracted by the mechanics of the effect rather than the sheer terror of it. But The Exorcist’s real strength was how it sets up many of the shocking moments against the backdrop of familiar (and presumably safe) settings such as a doctor’s office, a house party, a park, a child’s bedroom. Back then, seeing a film character, like the priest from The Omen, being impaled by a falling spike while surrounded by demonically induced weather patterns might have struck me as a neat thing. It just wasn’t scary.
Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.