At some point in the 1990s, before became a horror junkie, I worked up the courage to watch 1978’s Magic. You know, the one where Anthony Hopkins portrays Corky Withers, a ventriloquist for the dummy known as “Fats,” who may or may not have a personality of his own.
That premise is creepy enough: my lifelong dread of ventriloquist dummies (or what Neal on Freaks & Geeks called “figures”) was set in stone thanks to the Howdy Doody that lived at my grandma’s house. The scariest scene in Magic takes place after (SPOILER ALERT!) Corky/Fats kills his agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) and drags the body out into a nearby lake. Greene, however, isn't dead and his unexpected gasps for breath terrified me far more than any of Fats’ shenanigans. The experience was akin to falling into a deep, black hole; it was almost like the utter terror of a panic attack but concentrated into a few seconds. There was nothing else; only the feeling that I was actually going to die of fright.
The idea of dying of fright wasn’t new to me. As a kid, I was a big fan of the William Castle-produced The Tingler, starring Vincent Price. Price portrays Dr. Warren Chapin, who becomes fascinated by Martha, the hearing-impaired wife of a movie-theater owner named Oliver Higgins. Similar to the spirit of death in The Asphyx, “The Tingler” is a parasite that resides within every person. When that person is afraid, the Tingler grows stronger. If that person cannot release that fear, it is possible, Dr. Chapin believes, for that person to literally die of fright when the Tingler crushes their spine.
I was mildly obsessed with the idea not that the Tingler was real, but that a person could actually die of fright. Was this part of the reason I avoided horror films for so long? Or did I subconsciously know that I would eventually become somewhat addicted to them?
Surprisingly, for someone who claimed to be too scared to watch horror movies, I sure did watch a lot of them. And oddly, many of them were simply not scary. It seemed that it was the fear of fear that kept me away. There were major exceptions: Fulci’s The Gates Of Hell, Zelda in Pet Sematary, that part in Jeepers Creepers when the creature realizes Trish and Darry are watching him, when the alien is shown on the roof of the house in Signs. After I learned to relish the feeling of falling into a hole, I began to crave it.
Yet each time that feeling would eventually subside. I became convinced that the filmmakers knew that they had to ease up on the fear factor or it would be too much for viewers to handle, as if there was some precise algorithm to determine how much fear an audience would experience, when they would experience it, and the best ways to hold back to avoid killing them.
The more I craved That Feeling, the more movies I watched in an attempt to evoke it, and eventually it became harder to feel that specific type of fear. Of course, I felt scared watching horror movies, but that specific “falling off a cliff into a dark, bottomless pit of fear” feeling was rare. When I experienced it (like the first time I saw The Descent, for example) I was so terrified I just started crying. I was preventing my own Tingler from killing me by releasing my emotions in a strange and unexpected way.
The most profound example of this was the first time I saw À l’intérieur. I was home by myself, yes, but it was on a sunny afternoon. This film, with scant few jump scares but a veritable ocean of blood made me so scared that I started crying about a half hour in. When I finally stopped, I started thinking that maybe that magic algorithm had been utilized. Yet, the film wasn’t done with me, because it all started up again just a few minutes later, leaving me a literal, sobbing mess long after the credits had ended.
Ladies and gentlemen, I had broken my own fear barrier.
Once that happened, I felt like I could watch anything, thinking I’d probably never get that feeling again. Which is why when it has happened a few times over the next few years (Insidious, “Second Honeymoon” in V/H/S, Session 9), it has been a huge surprise. I still seek out that feeling because despite those few seconds of panic, it is one of the most disturbingly satisfying sensations in the world.