My First Fright

It was just an arm and a hand — a scaly, serpentine arm that was also the monster’s seemingly endless body, a giant grasping hand that was also its blind searching head. It emerged from a slum manhole and crawled into my dreams, seeking to crush me and absorb my fluids through the mouth-sized pores in its palm. I lay awake at night dreading to hear it fumbling up the outside of our house, claws the size of railroad spikes tapping on the windowpane before it burst through and seized me in my bed. I was 10 years old.

The day before my night terrors began, I begged a quarter from my grandfather and bought a Butterfinger and the comic book Ghost Stories (issue No. 21, 1968) at Rexall Drugs. As I say, I was 10 years old and not particularly scared of ghosts. But there were worse things inside it than the hooded specter on the cover. The first story, the best and worst, was “The Monster of Dread End,” written (not that I knew it at the time) by John Stanley, the creator of Little Lulu, and drawn by Ed Robbins from Stanley’s layouts. The publisher, Dell Comics, was considered so wholesome and kid-friendly that they’d never been forced to carry the seal of the Comics Code Authority that had censored the unfamous horror comics of the 1950s out of business. Stanley was really testing that freedom.

“The Monster of Dread End” is about a big-city neighborhood in which children are disappearing. The milkman finds the remains of one in the gutter. “It was a balled-up thing… like an empty wrapper thrown carelessly aside… but somehow still recognizable as having once been human.”

“Hey, my kid sister is missing! Her bed is empty!” yells a boy from his porch. More kids disappear, victims of the mysterious horror that comes at night.

The years go by and the neighborhood becomes a deserted slum. Finally, Jimmy White, the boy whose little sister was the first victim, returns to Dread End. Now 15, Jimmy wants to find the monster responsible. He waits in a shadowed alley. At midnight, a manhole cover is pushed aside. Something emerges, something like a giant blind snake with a scaly hand instead of a head, feeling its away towards the dark dead-end where Jimmy is now trapped.

If you want to find out what happens to Jimmy, you can read the entire story online at www.besthorrorcomics. com/pdf/Dread_End.pdf (excellent large scans). Or if that doesn’t work, google “The Monster of Dread End” and John Stanley. Several comics-related blogs reprint it in full, as it’s widely regarded as one of the greatest comicbook horror stories of all time.

Looking at it now, it’s damn creepy, but back then, it was vertiginous. Not only did it scare the crap out of me, but I suddenly knew, absolutely knew, that I wanted to do to other people what this story had done to me. I remembered the whole experience later, in that random way the flotsam of one’s childhood washes up on the shore of adult consciousness. It led me, over the years, to ask several well-known creators and fans of Scary Entertainment what works had scared them as kids.

The comic book connection prompted me to start with Neil Gaiman. These days, Neil mainly writes bestselling and award-winning novels and short stories and film and TV scripts. His American Gods is being adapted for HBO and Coraline is a modern classic of creepy children’s literature. But he made his reputation with Sandman, not a horror comic per se, but one with some spectacularly disturbing issues. Neil was recently in Winston-Salem as part of the sold-out Unchained storytelling tour and the youngest of his children is now attending a local university, but I actually asked him this question years ago, before he had ever set food in the Triad.

What, I asked Neil, had really scared him when he was small?

“I was about 5 or 6, and it was a story by Charles Birkitt or something like that, about a couple whose son or daughter was stolen away some years before the story starts, who visit a freak show and see these beautiful, strange freaks, one of whom has golden eyes. Later they read a newspaper account about an evil doctor who has been stealing children and making them into freaks. There was something in that story that chilled my heart.”

A little investigation proved that this was “The Harlem Horror,” by Charles Birkin. Gaiman’s memory of the story was pretty accurate, although, when I tracked it down and sent it to him, it didn’t hold up as well for him as “The Monster of Dread End” does for me.

“The first thing that strikes me is the astonishingly bad writing. The second is that, in my memory the story started in Coney Island. And the third is how well I had remembered the key freak scene — the golden eye — with one exception: In my memory the freak girl had been intelligent, although dumb; in my memory she had recognized her parents, although they had not recognized her.”

“The Harlem Horror” was, of course, meant to be scary, and it worked, at least on Neil when he was a boy. But not all of the fiction and films and TV shows that frightened us in childhood were created with that intention. Consider this example from LA-based professional hard-boiled dame Christa Faust. Faust is now known for her toughas-nails neo-pulp crime novels featuring former porn star Angel Dare (the first, Money Shot, has been optioned by Hollywood), but like me, she has a story in Poppy Z. Brite’s anthology Love in Vein: Twenty Original Tales of Vampiric Erotica (Harper Voyager, 1995 and still in print), and I first met her back at the World Horror Convention in Atlanta in the mid ’9s.

“My reactions to things that other people found scary were often more like desire and fascination, but a thing I remember seeing on TV as a child that I found intensely frightening was footage of the Beatles being chased by rabid women. It started off with scenes of these crushing hordes of young girls whipping themselves up into a frenzied, voodoo-like trance, shaking, eyes rolling up into their heads and screaming as if possessed. Then they smashed through some kind of barrier and went running madly after the fleeing musicians. The whole time I was watching, all I could think of was what might happen if they were caught. They would be torn apart, eaten alive, kissed and kissed and kissed until they were dead. To this day that kind of ravenous, unhinged fan behavior — especially when it involves large crowds — really creeps me out. I’ve been kicking the bones of a story on this theme around for quite some time but it has yet to gel into anything significant.”

Of course, not everyone who enjoyed a youthful fright found it in such an unconventional inspiration. The classic Monsters wouldn’t be classic if they hadn’t scared generations of moviegoers. And you can’t get more classic than the shambling stitched-together creation of Dr. Frankenstein, brilliantly designed by Universal Studio’s makeup maestro Jack Pierce and touchingly and terrifying acted by Boris Karloff. My father let me stay up one Friday night to watch the original Frankenstein on “Shock Theater” (back when Dr. Paul Bearer hosted it out of WGHP in Winston-Salem, before switching to the Tampa-based “Chiller Theater” in 1971), as he considered it an important rite of passage, confessing that he’d slept with a baseball bat beside his bed the whole summer after he’d seen a theatrical re-release of it as a boy in the early ’40s. My father was an amateur actor, and when I was growing up, he often performed at the Fayetteville Little Theater and the Fort Bragg Playhouse with Tom Savini, who went on to design the makeups for Friday the 13’s Jason and his gorily dispatched victims and the zombies in the original Dawn of the Dead (and to act in such films as Knightriders, From Dusk Till Dawn and Machete). For Tom, Karloff’s nameless monster (Frankenstein is the creator, not the creation) was also a formative fright. I recently asked him if it was because the Monster accidentally kills a child in his first screen appearance, something that definitely traumatized me when I saw it. But Tom said no, “It was because he was put together with dead bodies and I believed every word of it!” My late father said something similar, that he always knew the Wolfman and the Mummy were fake, “but Frankenstein was real.”

Dad and Tom weren’t the only ones to have found filmdom’s most famous fiendish flat-top frightening. He also lumbered into the nightmares of Greensboro’s Fred Chappell. The former poet laureate of North Carolina and faculty emeritus at UNCG is also a respected and awardwinning fiction writer, whose work has not only been published in literary and academic journals but also in the venerable horror magazine Weird Tales, and his first novel, Dagon, was influenced by the famous pulp horror writer HP Lovecraft as well as Faulkner and the French symbolists.

“We lived on a farm on the outskirts of Canton, NC, a grubby paper-mill town 20 miles west of Asheville. Canton boasted two movie-houses: the Colonial, first-run flicks, and the Strand, re-releases. It was a two-mile walk from the farm to the Strand where one blustery October night I saw a double-feature: Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein. The shortcut trail back home led through a dark and darkening grove. The wind blew more forcible. Shapes formless and huge appeared on all sides, most vividly before me. I got home all right, but the house was deserted, my parents on a duty visit to an aunt’s bedside. That was the world’s longest night. I spent it in a chair backed to the bedroom door that I could not lock.”

Of course, there are film-frights of a more recent vintage than the classic monsters, although for some of us it’s pretty scary to realize that 1973’s The Exorcist is now older than Frankenstein was when I was first saw the latter on “Shock Theater” (it also unnerves geeks my age to realize we’re further away in time from Star Wars than Star Wars is from The Wizard of Oz, but I digress). The festering demonic visage of possessed Linda Blair, vomiting up both pea soup and blasphemous obscenities (the latter in the unforgettable voice of Mercedes McCambridge), profoundly shocked the Triad’s resident Scream Queen, the lovely actress, singer, songwriter and model Christy Johnson, who fronts the band DreamKiller when not appearing in such films as the 2005 feature Mortuary (directed by Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist fame) and the recent Ghost Trek, as well as the just completed Hatchet County (in which she plays “Lucifer/Pride”) and the upcoming Night of the Living Dead: Genesis (in which she plays one of the leads).

“I first saw The Exorcist when I was 3 years old and it scared the crap out of me! I wasn’t able to watch it again until I was 12. It’s funny because after years of obsessing over it, I no longer found it a big deal! I also spouted my first curse words upon initial viewing which I’m sure frightened my parents more than the film did me.”

Jackson is not the only Greensboro-based musician to have ties to horror films. When I first met local legend and musical madman Eugene Chadbourne, the international psychobilly cult figure had just finished playing the audience (literally) at Tate Street’s sadly defunct Nightshade Café with an amped-up original Freddie Krueger glove given to him by that character’s creator Wes Craven, a longtime fan of Chadbourne’s work, running the dull blades across the people in the front row and thus producing discordant sounds on the amp. He closed his set by telling the audience they to go home and watch House of Frankenstein on TNT’s “MonsterVision” (also sadly defunct). Chadbourne originally played the film professor in Craven’s Scream 2, before a website leaked the identity of the killer prior to the film’s release, causing Craven to change the plot and necessitating reshoots for which Eugene wasn’t available, due to his European tour.

For Chadbourne, it was a Hitchcock movie, albeit, surprisingly, neither The Birds nor Psycho. “A favorite fright memory from my childhood involves my older brothers watching Dial M for Murder while I was put to sleep on the other side of the wall. I lay in bed listening to the film soundtrack and my imagination went wild. I did not sleep the entire night and was convinced this was the most scary film ever made. My brothers laughed off my reaction and when I finally saw the film I realized why — it is suspenseful and amusing but hardly something that would keep someone up at night — no Psycho! The episode taught me both the value and the problem of having an active imagination.”

Interestingly, the only person other than Neil Gaiman who mentioned being scared by a book rather than a movie works in a purely visual medium, although for the woman who calls herself BelleChere, that medium consists of terrifically crafted costumes on her va-va-voom body. BelleChere, a theatrical costumer and theater tech, makes fanboys (and no few fangirls) swoon when she appears at events like the San Diego Comic-Con and Atlanta’s DragonCon as characters from comic books, video games and movies, regularly winning the costume contests and becoming as big a draw as many of the actors, authors and artists on the guest roster. She’s been the most spectacular embodiment of the sexy horror comics heroine Vampirella that I’ve ever seen (as well as Lady Death from the Evil Ernie horror comic), and yes, I’ll confess that my initial impetus in interviewing her was so that we could run a photo of her in that costume. But she’s also a sweet, smart, articulate lady, and in her answer she touches upon one of the creepy literary touchstones of her generation (although, as with many its readers, it was the illustrations that really got to her), one that I’m too old to have been affected by (it was first published in 1981), but which I would surely have loved and feared as a kid.

“Without a doubt, the inspiration behind plenty of my childhood nightmares was the book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Though the adapted urban legends inspired my already overactive imagination, it was the illustrations that did me in. Even now, in my late twenties, those graphic, gritty, distended images creep me right out and make my heart leap.”

It almost breaks my own heart to tell her that Stephen Gammell’s terrifically scary illustrations are gone from last year’s 30th anniversary edition of Alvin Schwartz’s three-book series for Young Readers, replaced with much milder, even cutesy, ones by Brett Helquist. She is outraged.

“Whaaaaaaat? I swear the coddling of kids is stripping them of their potential imaginations. Yes, Gammell’s artwork horrified me, and maybe the memory of those images have sometimes STILL made my heart flutter when taking a walk at night by the woods, but that’s not a bad thing. People should explore the extent of their emotions — it’s what’s at the edges that’s thrilling. They’ve muted it, and that’s a shame.”

One thing that can stimulate the imagination at this time of year is a good Haunted House attraction, and the Kersey Valley Spooky Woods in Archdale is one of the best, ranked No. 1 in the country for 2012 by and regularly on the “Ten Best” lists of various trade journals (yes, the industry has those). High Point’s Joh Harp (that’s not a typo, it’s pronounced “Joe”), of Joh Harp FX, and his partner Amber Michael, are responsible for much the spookiness of the Spooky Woods, where Amber is a make-up artist, character designer, set decorator and set designer and Joh is a special effects make-up artist, set designer and costumer.

“I would have to say my thing would probably the woman from the movie Throw Momma From the Train,” says Michael. “Anne Ramsey, she terrified me as a child. Also, because I was raised in a very religious home, the ‘End of Times’ and the threat of Hell was pretty high on my scale of scary.”

I aked her if she’d ever been subjected to “Christian scare” films like Ron Ormond’s notorious The Burning Hell (1971, but still playing to small isolated congregations in the South). “No. I had friends that watched those movies, but I don’t remember ever seeing them as a child. It was the way my family/friends/preacher/church believed without a doubt in demons, that these creatures were really in Hell and would rip you apart and you would be burning forEVER! The concept of ‘forever’ really creeped me out, too — I used to think how I wouldn’t really want to be in Heaven forever either.”

Harp’s formative shock also involves religion, albeit much more indirectly. “When I was a child, my parents were religious. My dad was a minister and they sent me away to a summer camp for Christian kids. It was segregated sexually, so it was kind of the Christian boys club. I was about 10 years old. They did a lot of cooking-out and next to our camp was another church and they were about to cook their dinner on a gas grill. One of the gentlemen went over to light the fire and it engulfed him in flames. Nobody knew how to handle the situation and they kept yelling, Jjump in the lake.’ He didn’t seem to be able to think of drop and roll. Our group leader, however, was a fireman, and grabbed a large quilt and wrapped it around him and brought him to the ground. Just before the paramedics came in, I walked up to the guy’s body an I could smell his burning flesh and I glimpsed the burns through the flashing lights, this ghastly orange, pink and black. Because I do special-effects makeup, I often do burned effects and when I do, I think back to that poor guy. Not to mock him, but because it was imprinted on me at such an early age.”

Harp’s anecdote reminds me of slightly of my old neighbor Tom Savini, who’d been a combat photographer in Vietnam before he became a special-effects makeup artist specializing in horror films. When Savini was still a talented amateur, doing community theater in Fayetteville with my father, he would sometimes make very oblique references to what he’d seen over there and how it affected the way he sculpted imaginary wounds. I sometimes wondered if he was exorcising something.

And on that sobering note, let’s go back to Neil Gaiman for our conclusion, as Neil has one last anecdote that not only includes the infamous London wax museum that was the predecessor of later horror houses and other scary exhibits and attractions, but has something serious to say about the difference between imaginary horrors and real ones.

“The thing that really scared me as a kid was a visit to Madame Tussauds [there’s no apostrophe in it] Chamber of Horrors. I’d been looking forward to wax figures of Dracula and company — instead there were real murderers, horrid, dull people who had, mostly, killed their parents or children or spouses, and sold the bodies ‘to anatomy.’ For pennies, or shillings.”

“Those people scared me, with something that lasted.”

That lasting something is part of growing up, the realization that there are no monsters in the sewers, no big bad wolves, just “horrible dull people” who kill for sexual kicks or chop up their own children for mere shillings. Those of us who are writers react to this daunting sordid mundanity in various ways. Sometimes we want to show “evil’s” sheer ordinariness, to delineate the everyday passions and pressures that can drive seemingly normal people to monstrous acts, to paint naturalistic word-pictures with clinical colors. At other times, depending on our natures or our moods, we want to capture the primal magic of fairy tales, to be children again, to feel what we once felt when peeping from beneath our bedcovers at the moon-washed window.