Traumafession:: Justin Howard Query on Michael Jackson’s Thriller

Michael Jackson is the perfect monster

No one forgets his first time, and a significant gateway into horror was the 1983 short film slash music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Directed by John Landis with makeup effects by Rick Baker, this 14-minute video was the perfect introduction to horror for some: it introduced werewolf mythology, paid homage to teen horror films of the 1950s, included zombies of all shapes & sizes, and revolved around the notion that all of it was as harmless as a night at the movies.

But more than that, it showed new initiates to horror that the genre was meant to be fun, a marriage of scares and — here — a musical score, a balance of horror and humor. When critics of this long-marginalized niche of filmmaking call it nihilistic or “less than” art, it should be duly noted that some fans were brought to scary movies for the very reason that they would jump in their seats and then realize that the fright was in the fact the punchline of the joke. Yes, horror has changed with time, and yes, it can make intellectually serious commentaries through its tropes, but the most important moment in any horror film is when the credits roll. A catharsis comes with horror, and it signals that despite the heart-stopping horror, you were always going to make it out of this alive. You may even decide to dance to it as you leave the theater. There are worse ways to go, wouldn’t one suppose?

Traumafessions:: Unk on Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976)

LOOK WHAT HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY’S BABY is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination; it’s every bit as clunky as its title. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t freak me the hell out as a child though. As I recall, the first twenty minutes were horrifying to me, and then I’m pretty sure I bailed to hide under some covers somewhere. Little did I know as a kid that if I had just stuck around past the scene that caused me trauma, I would have probably found that the feeling of boredom had eclipsed any anxiety I was experiencing. Normally I’d watch a movie again before I’d dare write an opinion about it but in this case, I watched it about ten years ago and have decided that I’ve suffered enough. I’m going to practice self-care and simply watch the scene in question and hopefully, I won’t get too many of the facts wrong.

The eternally wonderful Patty Duke has replaced Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse and if there’s one thing I can’t complain about in this movie it’s the casting. I mean, when Sidney Blackmer couldn’t return to play baddie Roman Castevet (due to his death in 1973), they nabbed one of my all time favorites, Ray Milland! This is a movie that boasts Ruth Gordon, Tina Louise and a young Stephen Mchattie so let’s give credit where’s it due: the casting is impeccable! Sure, this ramshackle flick is all over the place but it’s not that much worse than the literary sequel the original author (Ira Levin) would come up with decades later. I guesss the idea of a sequel was cursed from the get-go.

Anyway, Rosemary (Duke) is traveling cross-country, always on the run trying to keep her little kid away from the Satanists who want him to be evil and destroy the world (probably). The kid gets in a fight with some bullies (as Rosemary is having one of her famous breakdowns on a payphone) and he zaps them with glowing demon eyes (must be nice). Luckily, Tina Louise who has an awesome camper helps them out and hides them away. Eventually, she gains their trust and helps them hail down a bus in the middle of nowhere in order to escape. Rosemary makes the dumb move of getting on the bus first, and the door slams behind her! The bus drives away with tricky betrayer Tina Louise clutching the kid! Rosemary runs to the back of the bus and does the frozen behind glass scream with clawed hands screaming “Nooooo” routine (again with this)! But wait, it’s worse…she goes to the front of the empty bus to plead with the driver and there is none! Nobody is driving the hell bus!

OK, this all hits me on a bunch of levels. We’ve got the Satanists, the two-faced beauty, the vehicle with no driver, the trapped behind glass, the pointless scream, and the being torn away from your parent(s). And this is a seventies made-for-TV movie so you know the insane diabolical musical score is not helping either. It’s an incredible scare (for me anyway) in a lackluster flick that mostly just rots on the vine directly following this harrowing sequence. It’s also a fantastic example of the fact that it doesn’t matter how good the movie is when you’re talking about Kindertrauma, a scare can find you anywhere.

Traumafession:: Unk on Friday The 13th Part 3 (1982)

About a month ago (April 30th), FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2 was celebrating its 40th anniversary. While singing its praises I nearly stated that Jason Voorhees, as presented in that film (with a THE ELEPHANT MAN-type sack on his head), is at his scariest (because generally he is) but something stopped me in my tracks from doing so. If I was being completely honest, the most frightening I ever found Jason Voorhees was at the end of the next film in the series FRIDAY THE 13th PART 3.

Come to think of it, I was hardly a child at the time and at that point, had watched the first two films multiple times (to say the least). At the point of the film I’m referring to, most of the film’s killing, violence and bloodshed had already occurred and I had devoured it all handily.

But his was the sort of scare that hit me on a purely visual level. It felt like one of my nightmares; I was shook as they say.

Chris Higgins (Dana Kimmell) had endured a rough night but it appeared that she had finally defeated her hockey-masked assailant and exhausted, fell asleep in a boat on a shallow portion of Crystal Lake. She is awoken by a screeching bird and is clearly (and rightfully) still in hyper-survival mode. She looks about and sees only her familiar farm. After a panicked jolt when the boat hits a floating branch (!) and a jump scare provided by an obnoxious duck loudly flying by her head (!), she comes to accept that the nightmare may indeed be over and that she is finally safe. But that’s when she sees him in the window…

A fleshy, almost pig-faced, mask-less Jason in all his deformed glory, covered in blood and somehow audibly groaning!  He begins to scratch and claw at the windows glass in a frenzied manor (I don’t know why figures behind glass get to me (SALEM’S LOT?) but they always do). He finally gives up on his nonsensical attempts to reach Chris through the window and disappears while Chris finds the boat she’s trying to row away in stuck on another damned branch.  Jason CRASHES through the door (!) and we get an even better look at his almost smiling (?) heavily breathing visage. He starts to run for Chris (and directly toward camera) but then suddenly disappears (along with the merciless, cow-prod score).

It’s OK! Chris has just lost her mind! The window is empty. The lake is at peace. Of course this is all just to distract us from what’s coming out of the water (an iffy, worm-enhanced homage to the first film). Hey, it works. I’m not sure why it worked so well on me but it did and I have to admit, it still does. Something about the brazen early morning clarity is truly jolting and even though the series was already notorious for such last minute trickery, I continue to fall for it hook line and sinker.

Traumafessions:: Unk on Sleestaks

Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman; all seemed like cool guys I could pal around with when I was little… Sleestaks, not so much.  Truth told, Sleestaks freaked me out. For those not familiar, Sleestaks are inter-dimensional, reptilian humanoids that appear in Sid and Marty Krofft’s seventies-era Saturday morning adventure series LAND OF THE LOST. They’re like eight feet tall thanks to extended lower legs, have sorta crab-claw hands, a spike/horn on their heads and gigantic glassy insectoid eyes. Did I mention they hiss(ssssss)? And if there’s a group of them (I seem to remember them preferring to travel in threes) the hissing is especially worrisome (and even vaguely insulting if you are a kid who suffers from asthma).

I don’t know what my deal is but as a child, I had a near primordial reaction to them. It was sorta like that thing when you put a cucumber behind a cat and it mistakes it for a snake and jumps three feet in the air (I beg you not to do this). Although I have to admit they never failed to liven up the show, they gave me true heebie jeebies. It didn’t help that they kind of hunch over with their arms spread out and almost ape the familiar movements of an adult trying to wrangle a child. As I recall there was a kind, helpful, more sophisticated Sleestak (possibly from the future) who did indeed attempt to aid our heroes Marshall, Will and Holly but his mellow disposition did not make up for the aggressive behavior of his more primitive brethren 

Here’s where it gets weird (and by that I mean, where I get weird). I have a very strong memory of my older brother riding a bike with a rope tied behind it and me on skates being pulled while holding on to said rope. This was in the basement so I’m sure we were not moving at any incredible speed. Anyway, I fell and smashed my head hard against the cement (not my first head injury by a long shot). I must have been out for a second because when I came to I was surrounded by Sleestaks looking over me and then they were quickly replaced by my familiar basement surroundings. What the hell was that? Normal brain damage or some unglued memory of alien abduction!?! Am I in some bed somewhere attached to tubes MATRIX-style and have no clue? I honestly DO NOT want to know. Anyway, Sleestaks; I very much prefer them on my TV rather than in my basement (or head).

Traumafessions:: Xminus1 on The Baby From Outer Space

I thought for years I was making this up but there was a really weird short film on nickelodeon years ago called The Baby From Outer Space. This one freaked me out and has stayed with me throughout the years. I have no idea how this got past the censors at the time. This short is really weird.
The short was uploaded to youtube and it is the only copy of it I have seen anywhere. That smiley face is just pure evil. Check this one out
(HERE).

Traumafesssions:: Unk on The Omen (1976)

Yep, I’ve been moderating this site about media that scared us all as children for (over) thirteen years and I’ve still got a few of my own trauma tales to tell. I was somewhere less than ten years old when I first encountered Richard Donner’s 1976 demonic kid flick THE OMEN and a recent re-watch really got the memories of fear a’ flowing again.

My family was living in California at the time and my best pal was a tomboy named Karen who lived at the opposite corner of my block. Interestingly, we started out as enemies with both our families engaging in a rock throwing rumble but soon we were joined at the hip and spending entire days together discussing important matters like Welcome Back Kotter.

For unknown reasons on this particular day my mother came to pick me up from Karen’s house and walk me home. She needed to talk to Karen’s mother about grown-up business in the kitchen so we were meant to hang out in the den and watch TV while they gabbed. Karen’s family had just gotten something very new called “cable,” which meant that we could watch any movie that happened to be on (this was way before on-demand was possible). As it turned out HBO (or whatever station it was) happened to be showing THE OMEN.

We had missed the beginning of the film and jumped in mid way as a frazzled priest was informing Gregory Peck that his son was actually the spawn of Satan and the best idea would be to kill him as soon as possible. Peck didn’t buy what the priest was selling and walked away in a huff leaving the priest alone. Suddenly the weather began to change for the worse. Insane, howling winds popped out of nowhere, thunder bellowed.

It becomes pretty clear the priest knows what’s up. He has said too much. Evil forces appear to have his number! He sees a church in the distance- surely he’ll be safe there! What evil force would dare come at him there? So now it’s a race against time; will he get there before he’s struck down? The church doors are closed! He can’t get in! He looks up to the sky as if to ask God himself for help. Instead, a lightening bolt blasts a large pole from the top of the church roof that falls like a thrown sword and spears the priest right through his body in the middle of the graveyard! Wha!?!!

Where the hell was God during all of this? Was he doing his nails? It was time to go. I wasn’t to witness another scene but I’d seen enough. I was terrified by what I had viewed (and from what I’d heard; Jerry Goldsmith’s score is incredibly persuasive) but I was also profoundly betrayed by the inaction of God during a time of obvious crisis. If God didn’t protect people when they needed him then exactly what was he good for? Looking back, so many of my media based traumas from childhood, involved religion, which probably has more to do with when I was raised (the seventies) then how. But I think there was a scarier, larger truth hitting home that went beyond dubious Bible stories. On some level I understood that the forces I relied on to protect me were unreliable and that simply being a “good” person like a priest wouldn’t shield me from life’s calamities.

Watching THE OMEN once again, this unholy set piece still feels so dark and jarring to me. The ambiguous danger is inescapable and you get a dreadful sense of the enormity of mortality and the minuscule, ant-like nature of human life (an unnerving fatalistic vibe much like the FINAL DESTINATION films would later accomplish). Death is everywhere and there’s no way to switch the channel.

Traumafession:: James on Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Sleepaway Camp. No other movie has psychologically scared me as extremely as this movie has. I actually watched it for the first time while CAMPING with my Dad and Uncle in a small Evil Dead-type cabin deep in the woods of Pennsylvania!

The movie has a series of things that made me uncomfortable. These kids weren’t just mean to each other, they were emasculating and castrating. Watching the cook blister and writhe in agony over for what seemed like an eternity, the snake emerging out of the open mouth of the most visually disturbing drowned corpse I had ever seen, and the curling iron up the genitals with brute force and sizzle. It all brought me down to a very vulnerable place. Then the ending put me in the truest form of shock one can experience. I retreated inside the safety of my mind and everything went numb as the guttural growling and hissing of the very embodiment of a critical psychological breaking point manifested itself onscreen. I don’t think I talked much afterward. It took years for me to watch it again. Now it’s a favorite.

I didn’t revisit Sleepaway Camp until watching Unhappy Campers. Renting the sequel was very therapeutic for me. Its lighter comedic tone eased me out of the trauma. It’s not without its own sort of brutality. I think the outhouse murder and the incredible monologue Angela delivers as she commits the act is very powerful and has become one of my favorite movie scenes. I’ve read that it was taken straight from Robert Hiltzik’s original script for the sequel, before changes were made and infused with comedy. I can only imagine watching that scene played out with the grim, dead serious tone it was intended to have, more like the original, and having no comedy before or after to alleviate its morbidness. Imagine that.

-James of The Esoteric Interpreter

Traumafession:: PopcornMonster on Laffun Heads

When I was a kid I remember these super creepy novelty heads that when the tie was pulled down would spit water, blink their eyes, and laugh while their tongues moved in and out. My aunt had the clown variety and it spooked me out but pretty much every version was high on the uncanny valley scale. To this day I often think about them again and have considered picking up a vintage head from eBay but as of yet I haven’t pulled the trigger due to the prices and the fact that even if I did buy one I doubt I would even display the thing anywhere and for fear of mentally scaring my daughter in the same way I was.

Traumafessions:: Andrew H. of In Search of Darkness Part II on Witchtrap (1989)

Witchtrap is one of those kindertrauma movies that I saw one scene from, and it haunted me for years. I tried for about two decades to hunt it down after watching part of it in the early ‘90s when I was a kid, and finally after searching the internet for “neck shower death” over and over I finally found it again. I came very close to submitting a Name That Trauma article about it in the early 2010s but thanks to fans of ‘80s Horror like me, I was finally able to stumble across a video clip of the big traumatizing scene that had me thinking about a killer shower for almost my entire youth.

The bit starts with Linnea Quigley heading into the bathroom after a couple of paranormal researchers find a pentagram etched into the wall of a dark basement. Very Legend od Hellhouse, very Poltergeist. Linnea’s character Ginger is the tech head. She’s been connecting monitors to cameras that can pick up ghost activity all day, and now she’s taking a break to get cleaned up after work.

Ominous music builds as she gets in the shower and then we see another member of the team getting dressed in a bedroom. A grimacing face flashes on the screen and our character Whitney falls on the bed in a psychic fit as the soundtrack kicks into high gear. Downstairs the monitors pick up a ghostly figure and then we cut back to Whitney writhing in pain as she’s being affected by the presence while the sharp music sue re-intensifies.

Back in the shower the water stops and Linnea’s Ginger aggravated says, “I don’t fucking believe this!” as she checks the problem. She stares and shakes her head and then it happens. The shower faucet shoots straight at her neck and we hear a crunch. Closeup to Linnea’s shocked face and then it pulls back fast covered in blood as she recoils and slumps to the shower floor with her throat torn out.

Seeing this got me kicked out of the living room. My aunt had no idea this was going to happen and eight-year-old me was just sitting there watching a movie completely clueless. I thought about this death scene for years and years before finding out that it was from the movie Witchtrap that had almost entirely fallen into obscurity before being re-released recently.

It’s interesting looking back because I know now that the version I watched on HBO in the early ‘90s was cut for gore, but the scene stayed vivid in my memory. Watching the uncut version now I see that the impact of the shower head was bloodier and you see the wound up close more than the edited version. The first time I watched it was enough, and it sent me down a path of searching in video stores and online for ears before I eventually saw it again.

I’m actually glad I went on that journey of rediscovery because since I first saw it, I’ve watched a ton of other supernatural horror films that make me appreciate it even more. Witchtrap is a lot of fun and if you like ‘80s cop thrillers and ghost stories, check it out.

UNK SEZ: Thanks, Andrew! I was happy to see WITCHTRAP is currently available on TubiTV for FREE HERE! Folks, there’s still time to support IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS PART II! Find out MORE HERE!

Traumafession:: Chris Moore on The Red Shoes

It was summer and I must have been about 4 or 5 at the time. My sister and I were being watched by a babysitter named Elise whose mother was one of the teachers at our school. Like most kids, I felt like anyone older than 12 years old was impossibly mature and Elise seemed like one of the coolest, most mature people there was. She had her own car and would take us all sorts of places including her video store of choice entitled Video Library.

My family were Blockbuster folks for most of my early childhood, so that was the only video store I was used to. Imagine my surprise when she agreed to take us to rent a movie or two at Video Library and I took in the cavernous building that seemed to house copies of every movie ever released on video up to that point. You could spend hours in there and still feel like you overlooked something. They seemed to have so many movies that Blockbuster didn’t – even in the children’s section I was relegated to for that afternoon. I settled on a large, white clamshell tape entitled Fairy Tale Classics. I saw that it had a version of Cinderella on it, so that was what really drew me in due to my obsession with transformation scenes. I always wanted to see how they’d handle those dramatic scenes where Cinderella turns her rags into a ballgown or how they’d handle the evil queen transforming into one of her disguises to kill Snow White. The rest of the stories weren’t as familiar to me – The Ugly Ducking, Ali Baba, The Bremen Town Musicians, and The Red Shoes.

I went home and put the tape in and was entertained, but unmoved by their Cinderella re-telling. All in all, it was by the numbers, but I kept watching and was enjoying the other stories until I got to The Red Shoes. For those who don’t know, The Red Shoes is a fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen who gave us such uplifting tales as The Little Match Girl and the original telling of The Little Mermaid where the title character kills herself when she discovers the prince isn’t interested in her.

The Red Shoes turned out to be another super happy yarn about a poor girl named Karen who’s taken in by a devoutly religious woman after her mother dies. Karen sees a pair of red shoes in the store window and obsesses about them because they remind her of some shoes she had when she was a child. Because her new mother is colorblind, she buys them for Karen, not knowing that they’re totally inappropriate for church and a creepy old soldier has told her that, if she wears these, they’ll take over her life and make her dance until she dies.

Karen starts feeling pretty snazzy in her new shoes and does a little dance in them one day, which turns out to be a really bad idea, because this triggers the shoes to have a mind of their own and she starts flying all around the town, unable to stop dancing. She even kicks her mother in the head, injuring her badly enough to make her bedridden. She’s subdued and some townspeople rip the shoes off of her and that’s that. She never wants to dance again . After all, guilty feet have got no rhythm.

This goes alright for a while, but eventually, she can’t control herself and she brings the shoes back out of the closet for a town festival and she’s back at it again. She’s flung all over town and into the woods where she encounters the scary soldier guy again who just keeps laughing at this poor girl. She gets back home and finds out that her adoptive mother has died in the time that she was out dancing around town and she prays to God to take her instead and bring her back. The angels grant her wish, but everything turns out to be a dream and she and her new mom are cool. She takes the shoes off and locks them away for real this time. The end.

Believe it or not, but this was actually toned down from the original story where Karen is so overcome with grief over her adoptive mother’s death that she asks someone to cut off her feet and she’s forced to live as an invalid until an angel finally grants her wish of death. There was something so nightmarish about this story and the way it was presented that rubbed me the wrong way as a kid and it haunted me for so long that, in my teens, I had to order a copy of the VHS from eBay just to prove to myself that I didn’t imagine the whole thing. I’m sure the strange synth score didn’t help relieve any of the creeps I felt and that scary soldier lurking in the woods was of no comfort either.

Looking at it now, I have to laugh that something like this could freak me out as much as it did, but I do have this movie to thank for introducing me to Video Library. After that fateful trip, I convinced my family to get a membership and, every Friday for the rest of my childhood, we’d stop by there on the way back from school and rent a handful of movies – movies that were to shape me in so many wonderful ways. That place became my film school and I wouldn’t trade those memories for all the money in the world.

UNK SEZ: Folks, you can watch this version of The Red Shoes right over HERE.

ALSO: You guys remember our old pal Chris Moore, director of BLESSED ARE  THE CHILDREN (available on Tubi), TRIGGERED, and now… A STRANGER AMONG THE LIVING (trailer HERE & rent it HERE). I’ve seen this fine flick and can tell you that as per usual, Chris Moore has delivered something multilayered, thought-provoking and consistently unpredictable. It’s a genuinely eerie mind-bender that strikes similar psychological nightmare cords as THE TENANT, MESSIAH of EVIL, and CARNIVAL OF SOULS; so do yourself a favor and check it out if you have the time (you do).