I was one of those kids in grade school. The one who wished Halloween was a year-round thing, and that ghosts and monsters and the scares they brought were real. When my class went to the library and most people were looking at books about cars, and cats, and Garfield and so forth, I was always the person in the folklore and mythology section, searching high and low for books that collected scary stories. Occasionally made fun of for my predilection for horror and the macabre, I was actually mostly allowed to pursue my weird little guilty pleasure in peace.
Nowadays, with the internet and mobile computing so ubiquitous in our society, it’s easy to reach out and get a scare by doing a few quick searches, and I couldn’t be happier for it. These days we have creepypastas, freaky image lists that can keep you awake far into the night, and even web series in addition to the horror films, books, and shows that come out with such regularity to the mass markets. Heck, it’s not uncommon for me to fire up a list of Youtube videos about creepypastas, strange encounters on video, or other scary stories and encounters to play in the background while I work on other things.
So clearly, I’m one of those adults now.
My affinity for a good scare has come from a fertile background of horror and slasher films, scary stories, and that feeling you get when you see a particularly gruesome, life-like piece of artwork. To that end, I’ve created a list of those things that have scared me as a kid, which give me a good little rush today, and at least one upcoming phenomenon that (I hope) should deliver a nice fright in the future when it releases.
This is by far not an exhaustive list, and I’ll have a list of honorable mentions at the end, but a nice little Top 10 (in no particular order) that I hope you’ll enjoy and comment on.
- Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (book series)
Okay, so maybe there’s some slight order to this list, at least where my #1 is concerned. I just couldn’t start this list without the series of books that I discovered as a child, and whose grim, gruesome stories collected and revised by Alvin Schwartz and nightmare-fueled illustrations by Stephen Gammell caused more than a few silent gasps when I first beheld them.I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who kept these titles circulating at the libraries when I was young, even if this series has ended up being one of the most challenged series of books in their collections (for the exact reasons listed above). An “updated” edition was released a few years ago that swapped out Gammell’s illustrations with comparatively much tamer artwork by Brett Helquist, and while I’m sure those versions won’t be as challenged by
lily-liveredconcerned scaredy-catscitizens, they just don’t pack the punch of the originals, and in my opinion are not worth reading.
It’s pretty telling that, in an iHorror article just recently released about the best stories from these dark tomes (and which may or may not have served as inspiration for this list!), I thought of three particular stories that both scared the hell out of me AND were really good. It turns out they were THE TOP THREE stories in the article. I won’t spoil what they are (and doubtless won’t need to for many fans of this series), but I will take that as evidence that I’m both a visionary and a messed up individual.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (movie series)
I don’t think it helps that my first exposure to these films was A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, where Freddy seemed particularly more vicious than I’d see in the later films (though the first classic one was also a pretty good horror film on its own thanks to Robert Englund’s performance). Not only was he killing people in their dreams once they fell asleep–a terrifying enough premise all on its own–but he was also possessing one particular teen-aged character once he fell asleep in order to do it. In any case, the terrifying, claw-gloved antagonist of this series would go a long way in making sure I resisted the urge to fall asleep as much as possible for many years. It probably helps explain why I’m such an effortless night-owl by default.I’d thought I wouldn’t be able to take Freddy seriously when they made him more of a clownish killer in the later Nightmare movies, but Wes Craven’s Final Nightmare did a good job of establishing how and why this character existed, and temporarily renewed my interest in him. I wish they would have explored that when they rebooted by series a few years ago, but unfortunately they didn’t, and I was left wanting for another good Nightmare film. Hopefully someday, someone with the right skills can come along and make Freddy frightening again.
- Stephen King’s It (movie)
Oh my wow. Pennywise, you magnificent bastard.This film, along with honorable mention Poltergeist, is no doubt responsible for more than a few people’s irrational fear of clowns, though I myself never succumbed to this. And with Tim Curry’s simultaneously comical and vicious portrayal of the character (or rather, the main physical manifestation of said character), it became one of the movies that came quickest to mind whenever I thought about things that scared me. A creepy… no, scratch that–terrifying clown, who you couldn’t even really kill, and who could psychically torment you across distances? A monster in disguise made to lure children to their doom? Yep, I’m pretty sure that’s pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel.
But there’s also one other scene worth mentioning. It’s one of the very few that really gave me a good jump scare when I first saw it. Look below:
Yeah. That may been tame by today’s standards, but it made me jump the first time I saw Bill looking through the scrapbooks and comes across this picture of his younger brother Georgie, who was just recently murdered by Pennywise. And suddenly the picture winks at him.
The still picture FRICKING WINKS at him!
I jumped in fright, and I feel no shame in saying so.
These pieces of three-dimensional nightmare fuel in the form of a Halloween decoration you can buy (yes, seriously) are creepy enough on their own, but I first encountered these things as the featured images in connection with a creepypasta called “The Russian Sleep Experiment” (which is, on its own, a great creepy story that you should totally read if you haven’t already). The clear intention of using the Spasm was to give an approximate visual representation of what the sleep-deprived, slowly feralizing prisoners were becoming, both in terms of their looks and their natures.
And it was very effective. I mean, just look at the twisted little bastard. It looks mostly human, though with some serious deformations. The first time I saw this image, I immediately asked myself what depraved movie would have had a character like this in it? How was that look achieved? And oh my jeez, how the hell could I get that image out of my gorram head?
I can’t, so here it is for all of you.
- Garfield: Alone (comic strips)
I remember reading this series of comic strips during a week in October when I was around 10 or 11, and it was a harrowing experience to say the least. For a comic that had had a consistent style and premise, both of which revolved around the life and antics of a surly, lazy cat and his companions, this abrupt shift in tone and mood was unsettling from the get-go. The premise, that Garfield was in fact a lonely, starving cat who lived in a dilapidated and crumbling house, and that his actions with Jon and Odie in the warm, well-kept abode readers had come to know are merely the self-delusions of an individual suffering from starvation and extreme denial, left an indelible mark on my appreciation for Jim Davis to tell a good horror story when he wanted to.There’s an article by Chris Sims on Comics Alliance that I pretty much try to re-post every October on my Facebook, and he breaks down the specifics of why this series of comic strips is so effective and frightening far better than I could. I highly recommend you read it if you want to know more about this series of strips, if for no other reason than he includes the entirety of their run in his article.
- Night Terrors (mobile game)
This one’s not out yet, so I don’t have much to say about it, other than it looks to be frightening as hell, and I’m really excited for it.
As much as I am a gamer, and a fan of horror, I actually don’t play very many horror video games. I’ve seen a few of them, and even played a couple (Slender: The Arrival and Five Nights at Freddie’s being a couple of semi-recent examples) from time to time, but I can’t claim to really want to play them very often. I guess there are limits to the extent I want to immerse myself in that particular medium. Maybe that will be the case for this one as well, but some reviewers’ claims that this is “Pokemon GO for horror fans” guarantees that I’ll at least check this one out.
- The Thing on the Doorstep (short story)
This isn’t the most famous of HP Lovecraft’s stories, and certainly suffers at times from his tendency to over-verbalize, but this first exposure to his works instilled in me both a love for the writer and a visceral sense of terror at this story’s premise. It mostly comes down to the central premise about the story being about possession, and the extremes of one particular entity’s willingness to take over the bodies of others, but there are other elements and themes of this story that creep me out as well. That this little gem of a horror story both begins and ends with the author’s imprisonment in a mental facility leaves the reader more than a little discomfited at the entire experience, which is exactly how you should feel when reading Lovecraft. Well done, Mr. Lovecraft. Well done.
- Exploring haunted locations
A thing that I sometimes do is grab a friend after reading an article about haunted locations and going and exploring to see what we can find. I don’t think I’ve ever found anything overtly paranormal or supernatural, but there have been one or two experiences that I haven’t been able to fully explain, and they certainly chilled my bones at the time. Below is a picture and link to a video I made when my sister and I went to Spaghetti Warehouse in downtown Houston.
- Horror film remakes
In the last decade or so, there have been a slew of remakes of old horror films that have really driven home the scares. Not that the originals aren’t perfectly hair-raising on their own–I can recall more than a few of them keeping me up at night–but the sheer level of visceral terror involved in such films as Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween and Fede Alvarez’s 2013 reimagining of The Evil Dead just make it seem like the creators were really out to get moviegoers. There’s also no doubt that with the advances in movie effects, films such as these are ripe for an upgrade.
- Slenderman (egregore), and Marble Hornets (web series)
I pretty much couldn’t close out this list without mentioning Slenderman (a.k.a. the Slender Man), whose emergence onto the internet and into the collective consciousness of a generation has been both fascinating and horrifying to behold. The unnaturally tall, thin, blanked-faced character dressed in a black suit tends to stalk, abduct, and otherwise traumatize people, disrupting video feeds and often causing others to disappear without a trace. Having only graced the internet with his presence since 2009, Slenderman is a very new phenomenon that demonstrates just how powerful a well-conceptualized image and premise can be online.It’s Slenderman’s fame in particular that intrigues me, as he’s basically gone from a nonexistent thing that has no influence on the world to a nonexistent thing that now exists very strongly in the minds of others, and who very arguably influences the world in which he doesn’t exist, fitting the definition of an egregore. This is very evident not only in the number of stories, creepypastas, artworks, video games, and other multimedia in which the character continues to pop up, but also in the unfortunate attempted murder of a young girl in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 2014. Her classmates believed the Slenderman to be real, and that by murdering their classmate, they would become his proxies.
Closely related to Slenderman is the web series Marble Hornets, which utilized the mythos surrounding the character as a framework for them to create a horror series. While there are several very unnerving shots of the Slenderman (known as the Operator in the series) throughout the 90 or so short episodes, many of the series’ scares rely on what isn’t seen, or at the very least more conventional horror tropes, such as being attacked by a man in a mask. This has the effect of making the times the Operator does appear to be that much more significant and frightening.
Honorable Mentions: Stranger Things (Netflix Orginal series), Berserk (anime and manga by Kentaro Miura), Poltergeist (movie), The Shining (movie, 1980).