Well, they scared me, anyway.
Halloween and childhood are inextricably linked in my mind. Sure, there's the obvious reason: costumes, trick or treating. But it also brings rushing back that pleasant nostalgia for a time when even the cheesiest movies, toys and songs could somehow manage to scare you. (As an adult, when life can actually feel scary, those innocent thrills seem sort of safe and warm.)
Before you hit the bar (or couch for a Halloween movie marathon) tonight, trick or treat with me down memory lane for a few pop culture relics that used to give me goosebumps. If you were still rocking a vinyl Frankenstein costume in the late '80s/early '90s, I bet some of them freaked you too. And then hit the comments section: what now-hilarious relics scared you as a kid?
The "Friday the 13th" Nintendo game
I managed to churn through the entire Friday the 13th movie series by the end of elementary school without blinking a frightened eye. (Dusts shoulder off.) Yet somehow it required nerves of steel to play this 8-bit graphic Nintendo game, in which one inhabits the role of a camp counselor saving kids-in-peril from the evil clutches of Jason Voorhees, who is big and scary and inexplicably: Purple. Wait, why is he purple? He looks like Barney in a hockey mask, and yet I cringed with every Left, Right, A, B button hit as I navigated the intimidating complex of 2D cabins. The synthesizer soundtrack still gives me a little anxiety, if we're being real. Those fake children, they need me! And all I have is rocks!
This HBO Intro
Long before every basic cable package included 1,384 channels, and back when pay movie stations used to mean something, yo, there was something exciting and high-drama about watching relatively recent (you know, 16-month old) theatrical releases from your very own La-Z-Boy. So my heart was already going pitter-patter whenever I'd curl up with mom on a Saturday night to watch a scary flick on HBO. (She'd doze off in 10 minutes, unaware I spent the next 90 watching chainsaws and boobies. Kewl.) Yet it was this "feature presentation" intro that most freaked me out. Something about that Downtown America, USA miniature set that leads to a spooky sunset horizon, accompanied by the swell of an 80s Power Orchestra, was both titillating and terrifying. Maybe because it was scary how the future was so vast, the way now we could do things like watch more movies and make animated lasers and stuff.
Borderline child cruelty. If the Golden Globes had a category for Best Supporting Actress Whose Name You Will Never Know But Face Your Traumatized Childhood Brain Will Never Forget, then this bulldog truck driver-turned-Claymation-ghoul would win by a landslide. Though everything about Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is sort of disconcerting, really. In his major directorial debut, Tim Burton couldn't hide his (awesome) creepy side even in a story about a bow tie-wearing dandy looking for his lost bike.
"But it's just a puppet," you say. Oh, sure. Just a puppet in the daytime, when you strap it on your hand like Little Johnny Hero to scare girls in pigtails. But what about in the still of the night, when your parents go to sleep and its plastic eyes start to twitch - first the left, then the right - and the Boglin slithers down off your toy chest and over your snoring stomach and downstairs to the kitchen and eats all your Fruit by the Foot? THE HORROR.
"The Lady in White"
My grade school actually looked like the one in this movie: a brick schoolhouse with curved wooden banisters, where I was senior vice president of a Ghost Club that established an extremely persistent rumor that the devil lived behind the playground's backstop. (I'm still waiting for confirmation of the half-man, half-mutant that lives in the attic. I'm also waiting for confirmation that there is an attic.) The Lady in White really, really freaked me out with its story of a kid locked overnight in the school's cloak room (what an awesome name for a closet!) where he witnesses the paranormal replay of a young girl's murder. After that it becomes a pretty rote TBS-grade mystery, but it's worth watching for scenes that will bring you back to the days of plastic pumpkin-shaped candy pails and cardboard skeleton cutouts adorning the bulletin board.
The "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" series
I don't even know if you could get away with peddling these books to kids now. The illustrations were as close to X-rated as G-rated material goes, filled with creepy gray watercolors and pen and ink drawings that feature surreal, ghoulish creatures and ghostly hitchhikers and rotting corpses and various other terrifying images that required you to ensure the book was always - always! - placed face down when left unattended. Oh, there were also stories too. I don't remember much about them, but that "COLLECTED FROM FOLKLORE" note on the cover always made you feel kind of proud and serious. "Well aren't I tackling the thinking person's Goosebumps series, la-dee-da." [Adjusts monocle, eats Happy Meal.]
"A Nightmare on My Street" by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince
Back before he got in one little fight and his mom got scared (sending him to live with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air), the Fresh Prince was terrifying us with this Freddy Krueger rap-off that sampled the theme song to A Nightmare on Elm Street. I remember playing this song on my first tape deck, hearing the throaty gravel in Freddy's voice, and reminding myself: whatever you do, don't. fall. asleep. Because then a razor glove would thrust itself out of the boombox. And then it would cut off my head. And then my mom would be pissed because she just cleaned this room. Geez.
The "A Nightmare on Elm Street" board game
Yeah, so, Freddy was kind of hard to miss in the '80s. He was like the Santa Claus of Halloween: on lunch boxes, on collectible stickers, on t-shirts worn by older kids who probably went to cool clubs in the city that played The Cure and Depeche Mode. He was also available in board game form. I have no idea what really happened in this game, because despite blowing my entire "vacation allowance" on it at a Cape Cod mall, I never played it. I just kept it in a trunk in the basement, where I would periodically sneak down, move the play pieces around by myself for five minutes, freak myself out, and book it back upstairs without even turning the pull-string lightbulb back off. Luckily some guy on YouTube decided to explain it, but frankly, I'm no more clear on the matter.
John Bellairs books
The House With a Clock In its Walls. The Lamp From the Warlock's Tomb. The Curse of the Blue Figurine. Haverhill native John Bellairs wrote kickass kid mystery books that always put a little tingle up your spine on a blustery fall day. My aunt used to give me Hardy Boys books every birthday: BAH. They were too freshly scrubbed, a pair of ruddy-faced, touch football-playing, Camelot-wannabes solving Scooby Doo tales in Brooks Brothers outfits. LAME. Bellairs had a handful of recurring protagonists (Johnny Dixon! Lewis Barnavelt!) unraveling tangled Edwardian mystery-meets-supernatural plot lines that involved breaking into houses with creaky floorboards to find dusty books written in ancient languages that required a special amulet to - oh, you get the point. Plus Edward Gorey was responsible for the awesome cover illustrations, always portraying them as sad boys in sweaters. Excellent reading material for the 'tweenage Pre-Goth.
"Tales from the Crypt" and "Unsolved Mysteries" intros
These both meant one thing: it's time for bed.
The author is solely responsible for the content.