In 2019 I wrote a three part article for my blog called Nightmares & Scary Tales.
Many horror writers get asked why do you like horror? I was no exception. I wanted to write this piece as a way for me to explore why I was so fond of the genre. Chronicling my first introductions into the realms of terror through books and movies as a child, I went on a little journey of self-discovery with this piece and found out my love for storytelling and the macabre didn’t just come from novels and films…
Here are all three parts. With original illustrations by Grant Springford. I hope you enjoy them. And if you like feel free to share your first adventures into horror in the comments below.
Nightmares & Scary Tales – Part One
We’re watching you
“Go to sleep! Behave yourself! Or the bogeyman will get you.” A warning to children throughout countless generations that if they don’t do as they’re told something far greater than their parents’ wrath will come to get them.
The ghoul beneath their bed. The monster in the cupboard. The creature creeping up the stairs and along the hall. Creaking floorboards, creaking doors. Then there’s the stranger with a box of bunny rabbits in the back of his car.
Tales to tame us? To keep us safe? Or delightfully amuse and entertain? After all there are those that take pleasure in scaring and those that enjoy the thrill of being scared, are there not?
What these embodiments of fear were going to do when they got you was entirely down to the child’s vivid imagination. Which is hardly surprising when the lights went out and you only had the darkness and the safety of your duvet for company.
“And in spite of what our fears suggested that old cat riddled with curiosity dug in its claws and dared us to creep out of bed.”
Like Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy you believed the bogeyman was real. Why wouldn’t you? As young children most – if not all – of us believed what our parents told us.
And in spite of what our fears suggested that old cat riddled with curiosity dug in its claws and dared us to creep out of bed. Along that same haunted hall and down the stairs to peer through the crack in the living room door and sneak a peek at the video nasty playing on your parents’ TV screen.
So what was playing on that VHS video recorder back in 1982? To be honest I can’t quite remember. I was only six years old at the time. But I do remember the first film that terrified me as a kid.
Chuck Norris’ Silent Rage. The details of which I can now recall having rewatched the film a few months ago – but had no memory of until then. Except the ending.
A small Texan town is terrorised by a psychotic, yet invincible killer. It was the movie’s final scene where (SPOILER ALERT!) the killer is sent to his doom down a well only to burst through the water’s surface moments later.
I lay awake at night terrified that the killer was somewhere out there, waiting. Undying. Relentless. Enraged. Roll credits.
I chuckled through most of the movie on this second viewing. I was curious to see if it would invoke that fear I’d experienced as a child. Needless to say it didn’t.
But it was certainly worth the try.
“I lay awake at night terrified that killer was somewhere out there, waiting. Undying. Relentless. Enraged.”
My first viewing of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining wouldn’t be until many years later. Hell, I only read the book for the first time last year and thoroughly enjoyed it.
But it was the televised trailer that struck fear into the heart of my soul. Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance pummelling the bathroom door with an axe and peering through the splintered crack. In real life it could actually happen, so no movie moment says: “I’m coming to get you” better than: “Here’s Johnny!”
But an iconic horror villain is only as effective as their brave, but petrified counterpart.
And so equally, it’s Shelley Duvall’s performance as Wendy that I also associate with fear. With the sheer terror torn across her face and in the whites of her scared and widened eyes, even today I can feel that fear reaching for me through the screen.
Alien was the first proper horror film I tried to watch as a child. That I was allowed to watch, should I say – for the most part my parents deemed horror too scary for me to see (and quite rightly so).
Now I say tried. It was tea-time one Sunday evening as I made a brave attempt to watch Sigourney Weaver and her crew of the Nostromothrough the gaps between my fingers.
But that first shot of the eyeless monster and its razor-sharp, metallic teeth dripping with acid was just too much for six-year-old me. It had me running up to the safety of my bedroom. The Xenomorph (as it’s now known) kept me afraid of the dark many nights.
Now whether I saw this on video or television I’m not too sure. But this time it wasn’t the final scene where (SPOILER ALERT!) Robert Shaw’s Quint is eaten alive by the great cartilaginous sea beast. Cue John Williams’ Academy Award Winning Theme. No, there is a moment where Roy Schneider’s Martin Brody peers into a sink and down a gurgling plug hole and we are left to wonder…
Well, did I peer down the plug holes in our house and wonder? Possibly. Was I afraid to get in the bath? Maybe. But what I do remember is being afraid to sit on the toilet in fear of a shark somehow finding its way up the outlet pipe and into the bowl to bite my bum.
Remember I was only a kid.
I laugh now, but there was more chance of a Gremlin getting in there than a shark. And their teeth were just as sharp.
Gremlins and the pirate video
Two years on and I was still too young to see a 15-rated film. I was eight-years-old by this point. And Gremlins would be one of my first experiences of a pirate video (Return of the Jedi was also another). Crackling screens. Jumpy pictures. Terrible sound.
There was the flashing Gremlin. The dancing Gremlin dressed like Jane Fonda or one of the kids from Fame. The whole gang of them in the cinema singing along to Hi-Ho Hi-Ho (it’s off to work we go) from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves before being blown to pieces. Pure genious. The perfect blend of comedy and horror.
For those that don’t know – The Gremlins was a 1943 children’s book created by renowned children’s author Roald Dahl; intended to be picked up by Walt Disney for a feature length animated film.
The story’s premise centred on claims by Royal Air Force Pilots that these so-called Gremlins were the cause of their planes’ mechanical troubles and mishaps.
The movie never got any further than pre-production due to establishing rights over the story and Dahl’s insistence on final approval of script and production.
Thus, it was never meant to be. At least not in this version any way.
But the pirate video was not my first introduction to the Gremlins…
Nightmares & Scary Tales – Part Two
Urban Playground Myths
The playground was probably where I first heard of the Gremlims.
There was no internet, no streaming TV back in 1984. Through other kids regaling stories of their cinematic and illegal home video experiences I was introduced to the world of dark fantasy and horror.
Standing on the concrete netball court in our school playground, a fellow classmate bragged how she got in to see the 15-rated movie. Her stories of the film invoked my imagination.
Who was Gizmo? Who was Stripe? And what about this Gremlin (like so many of his kind he was not worthy of a name) that gets blended to mulch in the kitchen?
My mind exploded (much like that poor Gremlin)! What on earth could something so horrifying look like? With the flame of imagination already ignited, hearing of such horrors further induced a morbid fascination for such gruesome obscenities.
But why? When such things already scared the bejesus out of me. Remember it was the mid-80s. I was eight at the time and a lot more innocent and susceptible to such suggestive cues than I am now. Aren’t we all? Hmm, maybe.
The storybook of the film fuelled the fire for my love of dark fantasy and horror. But unbeknown to me at the time, it would come to mean something else entirely as I meandered my way though life.
Along with Roald Dahl’s other macabre creations (The Witches, The child-eating giant from The BFG and The Twits – just to mention a few) you could say this book was one of my first introductions to horror writing.
My aunt even got her partner at the time to draw me a picture of Gizmo in the Barbie-mobile (from this book) to hang on my bedroom wall.
Come to Freddy
1984 didn’t just give us Gremlins, but probably the biggest horror icon (outstripping his contemporaries in terms of popularity and notoriety) since Universal Pictures gave us Bela Lugosi in the title role of Dracula back in 1931.
I had no idea who Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees were back then. Sure, I’d heard of Friday the 13th and Halloween but then they were just mere titles of really scary movies at that point.
And although I had no idea who Leatherface was, I had heard of the then-banned Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I needn’t say more. The title spoke for itself.
And like The Shining (see Part One) – I became aware of Pinhead through the Hellraiser TV spot albeit this was to be three years later.
But even several years before I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street, the bogeyman who came to haunt my dreams – quite literally – was none other the demonic child killer himself: Mr Freddy Krueger.
The power of great stories and great characters
A film will always be someone else’s vision of a story they want to tell. But when it comes down to listening to the spoken word or reading it on the page – it is there stories really take on a life of their own, particularly in the mind of a child.
When a friend told me her parents had allowed her to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street I wanted to see it straight away. Yes, she saw it on pirate video. One eight year old may have gotten away with sneaking into see a 15-rated film, but another passing for 18? No way.
Once again morbid curiosity dug it’s claws in. And this time the claws didn’t belong to a curious cat.
The burned man with knives for fingers who terrorises and murders children in their sleep. The blood of a slaughtered teen gushing upward from out of a bed. The slaughtered girl dragged across the ceiling to her death. Remember I hadn’t seen the film. These images came to me by spoken word.
At that age this film was a forbidden fruit. My parents wouldn’t allow it. It was too graphic and I was too young. And to be honest if they’d allowed me, given my previous record, I probably would’ve run a mile. But this time it wasn’t my conscious mind that went into overdrive.
How the spoken word can fill your dreams with nightmares
I had nightmares.
Freddy Kruger chased me through the streets. My feet even sunk into the squelching steps on the staircase as his clawed hand closed in. That imagined laughter as he called my name.
Those eyes in the pit of his scarred face bored deep.
Somehow Wes Craven’s story and vision had bypassed the cinematic screen and through the power of storytelling made it into my subconscious mind.
Now that is the power of a great story and characterisation.
When it’s communicated through word of mouth and taps into the fears already in our psyche the power of suggestion is already underway.
Do you remember ‘the stranger with bunny rabbits in his car’ I mentioned in Part One of this blog? As I said before, the stories, the warnings our parents give us to protect us also spark the imagination and set the creative mind a-wandering.
They also kept me safe as a child and I thank them for it. Which leads me onto Part Three.
Nightmares & Scary Tales – Part Three
The Tales Parents Tell Their Children
Wes Craven’s film speaks on many levels. But I can’t help but think as I write this that it also served as a warning about the dangers of getting into cars and going with strangers. A cautionary tale echoed through Nancy’s words: “whatever you do, don’t fall sleep.” Which mirrored my parents’ and teachers’ warnings: “don’t talk to strangers.”
The 80s in the UK was an era of an adult society still feeling the rippling affects of the Moors Murders in the 1960s. The dangers of going off with strangers were further installed in children from regularly televised government warnings.
In their way they were installing fear into our innocent minds – the kind fear that in its rational form (a baser instinct) is there to protect us.
Fictional character Freddy Krueger was a child killer – a real life predator – before he was a demon and I guess this is why he tapped into that fear already installed in my psyche.
When I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street I didn’t just see the first one in the series. No. My cousin had the first five films and when we went to stay with them one summer (it’s gotta be 1989 by now so I’d be 13 years old) we watched all five films. Back to back in one day while the parents were out. Freddy had dug his claws in and I was hooked!
An American Werewolf in London
Previous visits to the rellies when I was younger included a viewing of an American Werewolf in London. It was, again, the dream sequence where the zombie soldiers storm the family’s holiday home that freaked me out. The bulging eyes. That skin. And those teeth.
Recently there’s been talk of a remake. But for me, the combination of David Naughton’s performance as David Kessler and the special effects used in this film for the werewolf transformation scene are one of the best cinematic visual pieces of all time.
Watching the sequence you really get a sense of the pain and terror David experiences as a result of the flesh stretching and tearing and reforming across rapidly breaking bones snapping into place and changing the shape of his entire body. Let’s hope the remake sticks to those practical effects and not CGI. Or at least a combination of the two.
Hammer Horror and Vincent Price
It wasn’t just the visual and sound effect aspects of storytelling that sent shivers up and down my spine. The late night Hammer Horror re-runs had plenty of those, but it was crisp, eloquent tones of actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
It mattered not whether they were the hero or villain – the protagonist would always convey the urgency and horror of their discoveries; the gleeful antagonist savouring his triumps with machiavellian delectation. And then there was Vincent Price.
Although his works are far too plenty to mention indepth here, it is worth mentioning that contrary to a common belief he was never in a Hammer Horror. Something I learned recently.
But like his peers he leant his voice to many horrror story recordings and one particular pop record back in 1982. His voice on that recording would haunt me for years and would often send me running to hide behind the locked door of the bathroom. At least until the record was over. Why I ran to the safety of the bathroom I’ll never know. Seeing as I already feared Jaws rearing his ugly head up through the toilet bowl (see Part One).
What did Captain Howdy say?
Speaking of scary voices and and hiding in bathrooms this brings me onto my next subject. I may have been scared as a child to go to the toilet thanks to Jaws. But fear can get us at any time and at any age.
“We’re going to get you,” dad would often tease us with his impression of a deadite from the Evil Dead, which would send me running in fits of laughter to hide behind the sofa or up to my bedroom. But it was his story of when he took my mum to see The Exorcist when they’re were 19 that always sticks in mind. He’d recount the film was so terrifying and that mum was so scared by it that he had to escort her to their outside toilet at night (don’t forget this was the 70s) every time she needed to use the loo.
Again another innocent, but entertaining tale that transcended from one generation to the other and into the mind of a child. Who or what was The Exorcist?
And still, even by today’s standards and voice altering filters, the voice of Pazazu the demon is one of the scariest on film by a long shot.
It was only in recent years I rediscovered a real passion for reading that I had when I was a kid. And particularly for dark fantasy and horror. I’d discovered a few years back The Exorcist was based on a book. And it became of my favourite books of all time. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.
James Herbert and Stephen King
James Herbert and Stephen King not only adorned my parents bookshelves, but they often entered conversation when they and friends discussed the books they’d been reading.
Rats was James’ first and most popular title – one I read for the first time at 16 for a school summer reading project.
And there were countless Stephen Kings. But I do recall them speaking about how some of the endings from the Master of Horror would often let the books down. A sentiment I stumble across the internet in recent times.
Needless to say, regardless of how you feel about his endings, Stephen King’s characterisations, world building and iconic horror villains make his books part of the staple diet – especially if you are new to the dark fantasy and horror genre like I was.
‘It’ has to be my favourite. I read it a few years back ahead of the 2017 movie. The use of stories within a story to world-build and get the reader to grasp the reach and power of this demonic force reaping terror throughout Maine – is not only genious, but it also blends in the horrors some of us face in the real world. Making the characters we’ve known to love and hate all the more relatable and engaging.
I loved ‘It: Chapter One’. I missed Tim Curry’s Pennywise the first time around. And I thought Bill Skarsgaard’s take on the character put him up there with the best horror icons of all time. Here’s hoping Chapter Two is as good as the first. And as the Easter eggs from Chapter One suggests – I hope they make that ending work.
One helluva rollercoaster ride
I guess that’s how horror came into my life. The why? I can only guess. I’ve always likened my love of horror to the highs and the lows, the twists and the turns (and, of course, those screams) of a rollercoaster ride. It’s the exhilaration. Providing the book/film is really well-executed (again sorry for the pun – I promise this one was unintentional).
When your stomach churns and your heart beats faster, don’t you feel that little bit more alive? Like me, do you still get invested in the hero’s/heroine’s journey and liken it to your own? Hell yeah! Don’t we all?
A wild stab in the dark
I could hazard a guess and say those are just some of the reasons why I turned my hand to writing horror. Remember when I said before when there are those that like to scare and those who like to be scared?
Now I’m at a time in my life where I’ve faced my demons, turned my back on them just like Nancy did with Freddy. And I guess writing horror is my way of exorcising those demons once and for all. It’s my way of contributing to the wider world and this mysterious thing called life. Providing escapism and that thrill of the rollercoaster ride for all those who dare to board the train.
Insert maniacal laughter here.
Did you enjoy this blog? Be great to hear what you think in the comment section below. Or even share your thoughts on facebook or twitter.
Mark Young’s The Heartbreaker: 13 Dark Fantasy & Horror Stories is now available worldwide from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. for Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in Paperback. But be warned: there are no height restrictions on this ride.
Artwork by Grant Springford. Text by Mark Young.
© 2019 Mark Young. All rights reserved.