1. The second half of the “Thriller” music video.
When I hear “Thriller” these days, it mostly makes me want to give a little shoulder-shimmy, not piss my pants. But back in the day, I couldn’t watch the video without leaving the room whenever the song paused after eight minutes to give way to that frightening dance interlude (the genius of which I couldn’t fully appreciate until post-adolescence). Dainty Michael Jackson transforming into a zombie mid-date was just too much for me to process. I mean, were we not led to believe that he was handsome, gentle, and undead? Suffice it to say, my trust was betrayed.
2. Never seeing my parents again.
There were two occasions on which I felt certain I would never see my parents again. The first time, it was because my brother told me as much while he was babysitting me — he even helped me pack my blanket, my stuffed dog, and a book (I was only allowed to bring three items to the orphanage, he lovingly told me). The second time was because my dad got locked out of the apartment while he was doing the laundry, and I was somehow locked in — or just unable to understand the way locks worked. I took a framed photo of my mother off of the wall, held it against my chest, and cried until my dad broke into the apartment. (This is no doubt my mother’s favorite memory, as it was the last time I showed a clear parental preference. My dad, on the other hand, insists that this never actually happened, which makes me insane.)
My mother spent my childhood reading horror novels by the likes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, so there was no lack of horrifying illustrations strewn about our apartment. There were drawings of dismembered ring fingers, covers covered in insects, ominous book jackets that instilled in me a quiet kind of fear I couldn’t place or understand. And then there was Very Special People, which wasn’t a horror novel at all — it was a 1973 ‘encyclopedia’ about circus sideshow attractions (aka, people with oddities who rose to fame via PT Barnum). The cover of this book scared me shitless. I would often hide it, or if I had to move it from one bookshelf to another (which happened frequently, I think because I wanted to scare myself/ find an excuse to chastise my parents for keeping it around) I’d use my hand to cover the faces on the book. My parents moved last year and didn’t care to take VSP along with them, so I took custody of it (even though I still refuse to look at it).
My dad had a mask that essentially looked like a combination of Zack Morris and Chester Cheetah — there was nothing scary about it, it just looked like some overenthusiastic dude from California — but it freaking TERRIFIED me. I think masks scared me because I had no control over where or when they’d turn up. They were always kept out my reach, like on top of the refrigerator or on the highest shelf of a bookcase, and any adult could decide, on a whim, to throw one on for five seconds just to mortify me because what else should adults do with their spare time? I dunno, like… find a cure for cancer, maybe?
5. The Twilight Zone
I LIVED for The Twilight Zone, even though it made me fear everything — ventriloquist dummies, diners, fortune cookies, books, making wishes, dolls, siblings, wearing glasses, time itself, cars… There was something timeless and intuitive about The Twilight Zone; it wasn’t a victim of its era like every 80s horror film or Tales from the Crypt; and it didn’t cater to a specific age group like Goosebumps. It knew how to make everyday life frightening, for everyone, forever.