The Wizard of Oz was the first movie I ever saw that made me aware that movies could be scary.
Margaret Hamilton, the actress who played The Wicked Witch of the West, said later that she felt guilty for much of her career, because she knew she had scared so many children playing that one role. I was one of them. But I don't hold a grudge.
Margaret Hamilton altered my world view. And though her Wicked Witch gave me a good fright, it was Almira Gulch, her under the rainbow character, that was terrifying to me. She, Ms. Gulch, was the evil that lurked in our human world, in the neighborhood of our childhood. She was the cruel adult. She represented all the powerful, mean grown ups I saw as a child, from the sadistically teasing gym teacher and the sour-faced lunch lady, to the guitar-teaching pedophile who prayed on me with their adult power.
Gulch hated Dorothy because Dorothy saw through Gulch's gingham, to her green-hearted core, and the power of Dorothy's seeing was the one thing stronger than the power Gulch exacted over her universe. The power of Dorothy's truth was too much and so Ms. Gulch wanted desperately to kill her little dog. Gulch sucked, and that movie scared the shit out of me.
But it wasn't until I saw Jaws that I new what real horror was. I was eight in 1975, the year Jaws came out. My parents were getting divorced. My mom wanted to see the movie. I'm not sure if my sister was there that day, but she may well have been. My intellectual, liberal mom had no problem at all taking her girls to see an adult movie (lower case 'adult'). I'm sure she thought it would be 'fun'. And it might well have been, if the movie hadn't been about a giant man-eating shark that could eat the back of a boat.
I wanted desperately to leave the theater from the first terrifying chord, but my mom was understandably loving the film. She was simply enjoying seeing Jaws as an adult while I, on the other hand, was being permanently scarred by a film experience. I forgive her. But let me say without hyperbole that for months afterward, I was scared to take a bath. The sensation of floating in the bath water with my eyes closed, made sensory my memories of that film, and my irrational fear bloomed into what I now recognize to be, a full-on panic attack. Never mind that it would be many many years before I would get in the actual ocean and even now I do so with some trepidation. To this day my fascination with, and terror of sharks runs deep. I'm sure Stephen Spielberg feels guilty for scaring all those kids out of the ocean. I'm not mad at him either.
But the experience of being so deeply terrified by Jaws changed me fundamentally. I never, ever wanted to be scared like that again. I didn't enjoy it as a ride, the way many kids legitimately do. I fucking hated it. Something in me formed that day. I made a decision. I would never ever, as long as I lived, see a scary movie. I vowed to myself, standing there in my Danskin top and corduroys, that I would never ever be pressured into seeing a scary movie by anyone, of any age, ever again, ever. It's the first decision I recall making on my own behalf. It was my first conviction.
And it freed me. I told my mom about it and she was totally with it. She understood. No more scary movies for Jessie. Done. It was powerful. Later, when there was peer pressure to see something creepy, I just said, Nope, I don't go to those. It was that simple.
It felt like I was sticking up for myself.
Then something terrible happened. For my ninth birthday, my dad announced he was taking me to see a show. As a New York City kid, I got taken to a lot of theater. I saw the original casts of Annie, A Chorus Line and Grease, all shows I loved. I wore grooves in those cast albums that I sang along to, and acted out, in my bedroom. And so, for my ninth birthday, a show!
My dad excitedly announced we were going to see... Death Trap!
That's right, Death Trap.
My heart sinks at the title. It sounds to my well trained ear like a scary title. The name of the play has two words in it and both of them are awful. I'm in a death trap of my own. I've made a vow to myself. A vow that works for me. And yet this is my dad, and he's doing this for me, and they're divorced, and this is my birthday present and I feel bad about everything under the sun, and he means well, and I'm totally fucking fucked.
For those of you who have not seen Death Trap, the play is staged to look like the inside of the main character's library slash study. The walls are decorated with torture devices and old-timey weapons, like crossbows and maces and he's got the whole sordid hobby wall-mounted in his pseudo-intellectual man cave. I don't remember much more about it than this: the whole first act is... a... slow... build... up... of... tension, with startles that quickly amount to nothing, because the real something is going to happen in the second act. With music and light, the way only theater can, the play tightens the screws. To a regular audience member, this would probably have been good theater. Great even. But I was levitating in my folding chair. I was so scared I felt like I'd been placed in a Space Bag(tm) and some unkind God was sucking the air out of it with a vacuum hose. I could have been put in the freezer and preserved. I was perma-sealed in fear.
I lean over and tell my dad that I'm really scared. He says, "It'll be fine. It's not that scary." But on the contrary I'm really, really scared. He repeatedly assures me that I am not.
I sit through a few more taut minutes. I lean over again. "I'm too scared." I whisper to him. "Can I go wait for you in the lobby? I don't mind, I'll wait."
I assure you, dear readers, that I would have been delighted to sit in that lobby of for 16 hours if it meant that I did't have to sit in the theater for one additional minute. But my dad was in a bind. He couldn't really let me sit alone in the lobby, I guess, and he was watching this surely expensive show, and this was my birthday thing that he was doing for me, and what the fuck was I so afraid of? Except the house lights are down now for the second act, and his hushing whisper is now a loud inside-voice. I'm in deep shit and I'm either going to sit in my own feces for the second act, or I'm going to stand up and get the hell out of there.
I beg him to let me sit in the lobby. Instead he noisily picks up his coat and umbrella and storms from the theater, bashing everyone's knees on the way out. I follow him out, apologizing to the Gulch faces as they point their knees unbudgingly to the side.
It was not a great birthday.
By the time we'd walked a few blocks with dad swearing and yelling, and we were finally in a cab, I think my dad realized the size of his fuck up. Not only in the bad-choice pick of theater, but also the other stuff. That he'd been a complete hot-headed prick. That his temper had seared the fear from the show into me like an branding iron. His misplaced anger turning an uncomfortable evening into an unbearable one.
He tried with all his might to put the toothpaste back in the tube. I think the desperation of the situation struck him fully. That his marriage was over, that his child was afraid, that I was becoming my own person, that I had rights, and that he'd just ruined my birthday loudly in front of strangers.
I don't envy him that regret.
Of course I got older. I forgave my dad and eventually I saw Jaws, swam in the ocean and went on to lead a somewhat normal life. Scary movies are now some of my favorites. Though I've still never seen a single slasher film. No pure horror of any kind. And I don't like practical jokes. I don't like the feeling of pulling something over on someone. I hate the moment when the joke is working and the face of the victim is so open and genuine. I don't like it when people hide and jump out. I don't care for it and have little humor about it. I think these are residues from my childhood. I find the real world quite scary enough and I don't need my trusted friends jumping out from behind bushes to prove it to me. Also, I don't do roller coasters. Not down with those. I don't want to feel precarious and out of kilter at dangerous heights with impossible speed. The Wicked Witch of the West is plenty scary for me.