by Travis Vogt
SUMMER, 1982: E.T. “Dead” in Ravine
The first prominent, lasting memories that I managed to form as a human being were both lousy. Sure, I have some vague, lovely snippets of being snug in the crib, the feeling of being held by my mother, my dad’s stubble when he’d kiss my forehead. But there’s nothing specific to be gleaned from any of that. The first real memory I have was crapping my pants for the very last time. I was three or four. The family was walking down the block to Albertsons—probably to pick up a bucket of their signature Completely Average Fried Chicken. Immediately following the incident in question, I remember thinking—probably not in these exact words—”Jesus Christ, I really shouldn’t be crapping my pants anymore. This is truly a disgrace.” I was genuinely disappointed with myself. So, that’s memory number one. Number two was going to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in the theater. I was, again, three or four. (I’m not interested in doing any math for this article.)
I couldn’t really follow movies until I was in my late single digits. Movies were fun and exciting, but really just a random series of images and feelings. And one image in E.T. managed to give me a feeling I’d never felt before. It’s when Elliot finds E.T. at death’s door, pallid and splayed out on the rocks in a dank ravine. This was my first realistic image of death, and it was way too much. I lost my mind. There’s something fundamental about the signifiers of death: I didn’t even know what death was at this point—my first pet death was still a good three years away—but I still recognized that what was happening to my little alien pal was really, really serious. This was what I took away from the movie. I didn’t give a shit that E.T. ended up pulling through in the end. That didn’t matter to me, because death was no longer a secret. Life had gotten real for the first time.
SUMMER, 1983: The Fucking Rancor
I don’t feel like I was much of a problem child, for the most part. I was polite, I sought approval of adults. I wasn’t a troublemaker. But I was definitely a ‘fraidy cat. That’s not a huge problem most of the time. Most kids in 1980’s American suburbia weren’t regularly subjected to a battery of terrors. I wasn’t afraid of ducks or dogs or riding big wheels or any of the other standard child experiences. But I was terrified of movies and TV shows. My mom’s friend Linda discovered this when she took me to a matinee viewing of Return of the Jedi when I was…let’s just say five. I got along well enough for the first fifteen to twenty minutes, but when that horrible, horrible Rancor appeared…I came unglued. And not without reason! The Rancor is a very pure scare monster. Giant and evil and loud and ugly. It was too much. I ran out of the theater screaming. Linda followed me out and tried—hilariously—to talk me out of being fucking terrified. “It’s just a movie! It isn’t real!” she said, like I was some kind of logical being. Like a five year-old crying child was gonna be like “You know, you’re right! Thanks for the reality check, there, Lind! I can barely write my own name.”
1984? 1985? The Raiders Skeleton Mouth Snake
There was once a thing called “VCRs” and there was once a time when being able to watch a movie in your home whenever you wanted was a brand new crazy thing. By this point, it was pretty apparent that I should not be allowed to watch anything that wasn’t a cartoon or Mr. Wizard. Literally everything scared me. So the main goal of everyone in my family was to keep me away from potentially threatening TV screens. I was fine with that. But at one point, I was playing around on the back porch and decided that I wanted to get a popsicle out of the big freezer. I plodded downstairs, grabbed my snack and wandered over to the TV where my brother and some neighbor kids were watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on our new, state of the art, 150 lb. VCR. It was the exact moment where Marion stumbles into the chamber of fucked up skeletons. The exact moment. The skeleton shit started going down—Karen Allen’s bumbling around a room full of old corpses. I remember seeing my brother look back at me out of the corner of my eye. He was a bit alarmed. This was exactly the situation he’d been trained to avoid. “You okay, Travis?” he asked. I was trying to be cool. I was processing it. I knew it was just a movie. I could take it. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied. And then the goddamn snake comes pouring out of that horrible skeleton’s mouth. Pure, unadulterated horror. I reacted about the same way Marion did: with a blood curdling scream.
I ran back up to the porch and chilled myself out. I was still scared by stuff all of the time, but I knew it wasn’t okay, so I tried to play it off for the sake of my parents. “I was just surprised, but I’m totally fine,” I said. After they went back into the house I pulled the sleeve off of my popsicle. The popsicle was white. Bone white, like that fucking skeleton. I threw it across the yard.
??????: Benson, “Death in a Funny Position”
Wikipedia is telling me that this episode of the seminal Robert Guillaume show first aired on October 22, 1982. But I couldn’t have watched it then. First of all, I would’ve still been in Sesame Street mode by that point, in no way ready for the political sophistication of something of fricking Benson‘s caliber. Plus, I remember a kid named Matt being in the room when I watched it, and I had not met him by this point. Pure deduction! My guess is I was closer to seven or eight when I caught this grim little gem in syndication.
In hindsight, this episode was just a comedic riff on the standard “Murder Mystery on a People-Moving Thing” trope. Benson and the gang were on a yacht for some reason and murders started happening. It was all in good fun and the adults watching no doubt thought stuff like “oh, how droll” or whatever. I’m sure none of the writers thought “we’re really gonna scare the shit out of some kids!” when they conceived of it. But it was the first time I’d experienced anything close to dark comedy. There’s a scene where some lady character (I don’t remember this show at all outside of this episode) encounters a man with whom she wants to have relations. He stumbles into the scene, acting strangely. She’s baby-talking him—you know, sexy-like—and one point notices the dagger sticking out of his back. In the baby-talk voice, she says “Ohhh, you have a dagger sticking out of your back…” and then she screams in terror. Pretty funny gag. To me, it was the darkest thing I’d ever seen. The studio audience was laughing. The guy was dead. The people were laughing. What kind of world was this?
1988? Enemy Mine, That Awful Pit Monster
I was ten or thereabouts, and bonafide ‘Fraidy Cat Travis was becoming a thing of the past. The way we figured, I could handle most anything that a movie PG-13 and below could dish out. That’s what my parents thought when they rented Wolfgang Peterson’s pretty terrific Enemy Mine. And I was cool with it, for the most part. There were space battles, creepy aliens and meteor showers and I took it all like a champ. And then came the scene where Dennis Quaid has a run-in with an Awful Pit Monster. The Awful Pit Monster grabs Quaid’s leg with its disgusting tentacle and tries to drag it down into its Rancor-esque mouth. Quaid grabs a space branch or something and the scene devolves into Dennis Quaid’s leg being nearly ripped off in somewhat graphic fashion. My parents glanced at each other and then glanced at me. “You okay, honey?” my mom asked, warily. “Yep! Totally cool!” I said, and we finished watching the movie.
Here’s the thing, though. I was not totally cool. Something about that monster absolutely fucked me up. It was the fact that it could come up from out of the ground. Monsters under the bed or in the closet? You could check for that shit. Monsters just up and coming out of the ground? There was nothing you could do. After I retired to bed, I freaked out for a couple hours, until my brother knocked on my door.
“Me neither. That ground monster really freaked me out.” We stayed up and talked about it for almost two hours. In the end, we rationalized that Enemy Mine took place on another planet, so it was unlikely that the ground monster could strike on Earth. I slept after that, but still had Awful Pit Monster nightmares for months afterwards.
February 20th, 1989. War of the Worlds, the TV Series, “Unto Us a Child is Born”—Nurse’s Leg Ripped Off
This is just an astonishing piece of hardcore gore for network television (CBS!) in 1989. I was almost positive that I was remembering this scene incorrectly. Surely I hadn’t witnessed a pretty nurse getting her leg ripped off in a graphic close up at about 8 o’clock pm in the winter of 1989. Well, thanks to the magic of the internet, I can verify that that’s exactly what happened. My memory was almost photographic in this case, and I’m damn sure I only saw this image once. The dumbass War of the Worlds show sure as hell wasn’t making it into syndication. I’d been doing so good, too! I was eleven, nightmares were on the downswing. I was just a year away from soft R-rated movie-watching approval. Then this repugnant shit goes down. Seriously, check out the video: the leg removal happens at 25:25.
Did you see that? Straight up blood-spurting action and everything. It’s downright Romero-esque. What the hell happened? Was somebody trying to get fired? If you didn’t happen to be alive in 1989, let me just assure you: this kind of thing did NOT happen on TV back then. Ever. Oh, here’s something else from the same episode:
What the fuck, War of the Worlds, the TV series? Was everyone on this show going through a divorce or something?
1991 or 1992: Taxi Driver, The Blood-Soaked Finale
I was in seventh or eighth grade. I was staying the night at my cable-having friend’s house. I saw that Encore was going to be playing the edgy classic Taxi Driver at midnight. My friend went to bed at 10. I stayed up because I was now a burgeoning film buff. I had a few books. I knew about Scorsese. I’d even seen The Color of Money. Yeah, that was my first Scorsese. Anyways, I was 13 or 14 and I basically wasn’t scared of movies any more. I could watch hard-R action movies no sweat. In fact, I loved them. I had this. Then I got to the end of Taxi Driver and that old familiar feeling of movie-induced terror came flooding back in. Scorsese was aiming for a heightened—if not downright cartoonish—level of violence. It was supposed to be unrealistic, but that was not the sort of thing that I was willing to associate with grimy, late 70’s era costumes and cinematography. This scene, to me, played like a snuff film. The main reason I was so disturbed was that this insane bloodbath totally comes out of the blue. The movie is grim and unsettling throughout, but there’s only the suggestion of violence until the last third. At one point, DeNiro’s Travis Bickle shoots a convenience store robber, but that scene is played relatively realistically with very little blood. So when Bickle starts blowing hands off, shooting through faces and spraying brains out at point-blank range while a 12-year old Jodie Foster screams in horror, I really couldn’t handle it. I had nightmares for weeks after. Maybe years.
But that was the last time. I’ve found movies to be scary in a fun sort of way since witnessing the end of Taxi Driver but the feeling of genuine terror is gone. And really, if you go back and look at the Taxi Driver blood bath, it’s so fucking brutal that there’s not much that I can think of that would top it in all of the 40+ years of cinema that has happened since. Maybe my parents should have just sat me down and shown me this movie at age four and purged me of all of my fears right off the bat. But that probably would’ve qualified as some kind of child abuse.
Travis Vogt is the editor of the Scarecrow Blog. Follow him @travisvogt.