Monday, October 1, 2012

41 Things That Scared The Hell Out of Me As A Kid

Reliving the (Mostly) Illogical Fears that Scarred My Childhood


You know, a lot of people tell me, “Jimbo, with all of those articles you write and videos you make and the way you’re always standing up for what you believe in, you must have quite the set of cojones on you, huh?” Well, I hate to let you folks down, but I’m actually the biggest scaredy cat on the planet. Everything - I mean EVERYTHING, from hard rain to riding in a car going faster than 70 miles per hour to that one tree next to the patio that kind of looks like it has eyes a little - scares the ever-loving beejezuz out of me. Ultimately, I’m such a coward that I make Monk look like Evel freaking Knievel by comparison.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a major league puss. Believe it or not, I was probably an even bigger wimp as a wee one than I am now - and as a 26 year old man, I STILL have to check the backseat of my car before I get in at night to make sure Michael Myers isn’t trying to hitch a ride with me.

It’s one of the great ironies of life, I know; I’m one of the most horror/monster/Halloween-obsessed people you will ever meet, but I’m also one of the most easily frightened human beings in the annals of human history. As neurotic as I am now, I was probably WAY more anxious as a youngster, when practically EVERYTHING I encountered, to some extent, gave me a bad case of the heebies, the jeebies, and in some of the more extreme circumstances, even an onset bout of the willies. Eight year old me, in essence, was practically an anthropomorphicized Chuckie Finster.

As the Halloween season steadily approaches, I was thinking recently about some of the things that scared me as kid. And that shortlist, as you will soon see, quickly grew to a bulleted, itemized sheet with more than 40 objects on it. And I’m man enough to admit it; half of the stuff on this list STILL kinda’ freaks me out a little. Maybe even three-quarters, if it’s really, really dark and stuff.

ANY OF THE CASTLE LEVELS IN THE FIRST “SUPER MARIO BROS.” GAME - Like every other child that grew up in the late 1980s, “Super Mario Bros.” was a cornerstone of my pre-elementary school existence. I really can’t tell you how many hours I spent bopping on turtles and hurling fiery death at waddling mushrooms, but I can assure you that every time I encountered one of the game’s eight castle stages, my exuberance quickly transformed into bone-chilling trepidation. Playing Mario may have been a fancy-free experience for the most part, but every time I ventured into Bowser’s domain, shit, as they say, got real. I don’t know if it was the stage music - this urgent, dungeon-sounding tune that was like “Ride of the Valkyries” mashed-up with the theme song from “Unsolved Mysteries” - or if it was all of that flaming ambience, or those pain-in-the-ass platforming sequences or some unholy mixture of the three, but those damn levels always made me feel about three or four notches less uncomfortable than I was about ten seconds before the level began. Oh, and if the timer went into the double digits, and that music began speeding up? Forget it, it was enough to make a five year old mull peeing himself. On more than one occasion, I simply got up and turned off the NES rather than play on until my avatar died from sudden onset “time-running-out-itis.” The original “SMB” will always be one of my most cherished childhood memories…but by that same token, it’s sure as hell going to remain one of my most nerve-racking, too.


THE ANGRY SUN FROM “SUPER MARIO BROS. 3” - “Super Mario Bros. 3” is clearly one of the best video games ever made, and a game that took everything that was fundamentally great about the original NES pack-in game and amped it up to 7 million. That said, I don’t think ANYBODY will forget that one desert level, where you’re just hanging out, chilling under the sun, when, all of a sudden…IT COMES TO LIFE AND STARTS CHASING AFTER YOU. In a lot of ways, that was the 8-bit equivalent of the dog jumping through the window in the first “Resident Evil” game - nobody expected it, and the first time it happened, there was no way you were EVER going to forget it. Even now, it’s a stage that gives me the creeps. All I can say is, thank god for that P-Wing power-up…

THE GHOSTS FROM “SUPER MARIO BROS. 3” - While “SMB 3” is one of my all-time favorite NES games, it’s also a game that’s traumatized me on two separate fronts. As much as I hated the castle stages in the first “SMB,” I think I probably hated the “ghost houses” in the third Mario game even more. Skeleton turtles (probably the reptiles Mario killed in the first game), those killer fuzz balls that revolved endlessly around those red orbs, and of course, the ghosts themselves. Oh, how I hated those bashful bastards, which would home in on your ass the very second you stopped looking at them. And good luck using a fire flower, because those marshmallow-looking pricks were impervious to everything except an invincibility star and, for whatever reason, hammers (it must be a Japanese thing, I guess.) How much did those things unnerve me as a kid? So much so that it was a variable I took into consideration when making the leap to the 16-bit consoles - and since there were bigger ghosts in “Super Mario World,” I decided to take my chances with “Sonic the Hedgehog” and his newfangled Genesis machine instead.

THOSE HALLOWEEN SOUND EFFECTS TAPES - You know what I’m talking about; those audio cassettes that were released every Halloween, which contained the sounds of witches cackling, thunderstorms and the periodic whirring chainsaw, which was almost always coupled with a bloodcurdling scream. The entire tape - side A and B - was just one long track that played endlessly on a loop. I think we had about three or four just laying around the place, and my mother would often threaten to play them at full volume whenever I misbehaved. Needless to say, my ass got scared straight, and I mean that in pretty much the most literal interpretation imaginable.

“PAC-MAN” - You can lump in “Ms. Pac-Man,” too. A lot of people look back on “Pac-Man” as a cutesy game, but that’s never the impression it made on me. When you really think about it, “Pac-Man” was the first survival horror game - you’re stuck in a blackened maze, while unkillable monsters chase you around until you find special objects that temporarily give you invincibility. And after that? They come back at you, twice as pissed as they were before. Playing the game was like defusing a bomb - if you had collected all of the palm sweat that game made me produce, you’d probably have enough fluid to fill a medium-sized Jacuzzi.

CHUCKY FROM THE “CHILD’S PLAY” MOVIES - Or more specifically, that giant, life-sized cardboard cut-out of Chucky that was placed in the corner of the local mom and pop movie store for about three months to coincide with the release of the second “Child’s Play” movie. Yes, in hindsight, the idea of Chucky seems pretty stupid (in the immortal words of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, “it’s a doll…step on it!”), but you have to think about the character as would a five-year-old. For one thing, he was roughly the same size as you, and since none of the adults in town would believe you, you were pretty much effed. That same video store also doled out “Child’s Play 2” bumper stickers, which read something to the effect of “Back off Jack, Chucky’s Back!” And I’ll be damned if I didn’t see that stupid thing plastered on Mazdas at random intersections for about a year afterward. My cousin eventually got the idea to slap one on our washing machine, a gesture which I subtlety responded to by trying to stab him in the face with a particularly pointy Hulk Hogan action figure.

HAVING MY HAND CHEWED OFF BY A VCR - Thank you so very much, opening scene from “The Toxic Avenger 3.” I mean, bunches.

ROBOTS, IN GENERAL - My entire life, I’ve had this strange attraction to robots. Perhaps my favorite toy as a kid was this little yellow fella’ named “Robie the Robot,” a Radio Shack toy that doubled as a coin bank. You’d place a coin in his hand, squeeze this lever on his arm, and he would proceed to devour the change while doing this robotic jig. After he was finished, he would lick his robotic lips with his tongue, and his eyes would shut. I loved Robbie during the day, but at night, I had to hide him from my peripheral vision. There was just something so cold and inhuman about the thing, as if one night, he could spring to life, confuse my face for a couple of nickels and try to eat my nose or something.

VAMPIRES, IN GENERAL - Not those fruity Ed Cullen vampires, I’m talking the old-school, Nosferatu vampires that looked like Billy Corgan and had fingernails that looked like rusty salad tongs. The concept of vampires was so spooky to me that, for the longest time, I slept with a pillow over my neck to keep those bloodsucking bastards from doing me in while I dozed off. It wouldn’t have prevented them from turning me into one of the undead, but I figured it would at least inconvenience them for a second or two.

Note how he isn't sparkling, either. 

THE IDEA THAT THE WATER SUPPLY COULD GET POISONED - I attribute this to a Weekly World News article that claimed that a tribe of disgruntled Native Americans were going to get revenge on old paleface by pouring dangerous chemicals into our drinking water. It spooked me so much that I convinced my mom to melt the ice in the freezer rather than take our chances with what was in the tap.

THE EBOLA VIRUS - I recall seeing a documentary about the great outbreak of 1976 as youngster. The fact that we lived about fifty miles away from the CDC headquarters - where that shit was literally kept in an icebox - really didn’t do a lot to assuage my worries that I wasn’t going to bleed my intestines out of my mouth.

AMOEBAS - Such a spooky organism. They’re basically “The Blob,” only smaller, and practically impossible to notice. You could have fifty of them throwing a rave on your forehead right now, and you would never know. That, and there’s a certain species that’s known to feast on brain tissue - and I’m man enough to admit that, even now, the primary reason I refuse to go swimming in lakes is because I still have concerns that one of those Metroid-looking bastards is going to go swimming right up my nasal passages.

THE VHS BOX ART FOR “MONKEY SHINES” - There was this George Romero movie that came out in the late 1980s called “Monkey Shines,” and it had arguably the most horrifying box art I have ever seen for any video in my life. Look at it. LOOK AT IT. If Satan himself were commissioned for the work, I don’t think a scarier image could have been plastered on the cover. The funny thing is, I caught the movie many years later on cable, and the film had absolutely NOTHING at all to do with killer clapper monkey toys. If the movie were just 90 minutes of this image on screen, it would’ve been the single most horrifying motion picture in history.

NUCLEAR WARFARE - I attribute this to the trifecta of “The Day After,” “Threads,” and that one scene in “Terminator 2.” And unlike a Freddy or Jason movie, I just couldn’t say “eh, it ain’t real,” and go back to playing “Battletoads.” Trust me, I tried.

RUSSIANS, IN GENERAL - Sort of the logical progression of the nuclear warfare worries. After all, these were the kind of people that had their fingers on the buttons that could unleash radioactive Armageddon at any moment, and therefore, they scared me shitless. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, I had this irrational(?) fear of the Ruskies, that deep down, they were just pretending to be all democratic and capitalistic to lull is into a false sense of security and then…BAM! “Red Dawn” becomes a reality. I also had the idea in my head that all Russian men were steroid-eating monster-men like Zangief from “Street Fighter II,” and that all of their women were Brigette Nielsen-like Amazons. The latter, I assure you, scared me a whole lot more than the former.

THE FLESH-EATING VIRUS - Finding out this was a REAL disease was one of the darkest days of my childhood. Needless to say, my hand washing sessions got a LOT lengthier in the ensuing weeks.

METEORS, ASTEROIDS, METEORITES, ETC. - Really, any form of space rock that could collide into Earth and kill us all. I think my neuroticism began when I heard about these giant-ass objects that collided into Jupiter in 1995, which I was CERTAIN was going to have some sort of intra-solar-system effect on Earth and cause the oceans to rise or something. And then there was all of that talk about how the dinosaurs died, that one vignette from the first “Creepshow” movie and the general notion that there was pretty much NOTHING we could do to prevent a collision from occurring. Honestly, I’m still kinda’ worried about these things. OK, I’m A LOT of worried about these things.

ACID-SPEWING THINGS - One part borne of the “Alien” movies, and one part borne from the toxic waste scene in the first “RoboCop” flick. There was just something so icky about the idea of having your body melted by some sort of chemical means. Sort of the inversion of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” principle, which kind of got my hopes up that if nuclear slime was poured on me, I would get to turn into a seven foot tall tortoise.

PANDAS - Wholly irrational to some, but I just don’t trust ‘em. They have teeth like jaguars, could easily overpower an adult male, chew on bamboo (which is way harder than a elementary skull student’s facial tissue) and their poo is golden. I don’t know why that last thing bothers me so much, but it just does. Every time I hear about conservation efforts to increase their populations, I cringe a little.

HUMMINGBIRDS - They’re basically flying syringes, coked up on sugar-water 24 hours a day. They’re the animal world’s equivalent of a crackhead holding a hypodermic needle - and they ALWAYS travel in clusters, too.

Nectar, from the Latin prefix "nec" meaning "death" and "tar," meaning "juice."

GETTING SUCKED INTO A BLACK HOLE - A pretty unlikely scenario (or is it?), but a notion that still scared the hell out of me, regardless. Nobody knows what’s on the other side of those things, except that once something gets pulled into it, it ain’t EVER coming back out. The notion of getting locked out of my own house was enough to drive me to tears, so this was enough to have me crawling into the fetal position.

HAVING MY INTERNAL ORGANS YANKED OUT BY A WHIRLPOOL - I caught a “20/20” special when I was in elementary school, about this kid that was hanging out in a swimming pool and had her intestines sucked out of her by a jet pool vacuum. As it turns out, it occurs a lot more frequently than you’d think. And if any of the people that invited me to pool parties back in the 1990s are wondering why I no-showed, there you go right there.

THE FACE ON MARS - AKA, that really creepy mountain on Cydonia that looks eerily like a human face. The first time I saw it, oddly enough, was during a commercial break on the Weather Channel, back when 90 percent of their sponsors were people hawking supernatural-themed, “NOT AVAILABLE IN STORES” video tapes.

ESCALATORS - I just KNEW that eventually, I was going to get my shoelace caught in the cogs and have my body vivisected right outside the Orange Julius stand. Even now, I have to leap over that last “step,” because it feels like some sort of mechanical blade is going to pop out and slice my calves off.



THE OLD SCHOOL COLONEL SANDERS LOGO AT KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN - For whatever reason, I thought he was a half man, half chicken hybrid. I didn’t know what the hell a bolo tie was, and just assumed that was the rest of him in poultry form.

BLENDERS - An electrical contraption that consists solely of super sharp blades swirling around and around. That one scene in “The Goonies” probably expedited my fears a bit.

DELI SLICERS - For pretty much the same reason I was afraid of blenders.

ANY KIND OF POWER TOOL - Chainsaws, circular saws, drills, etc. If it was sharp and powered by electricity or gasoline, it gave me the creeps.

BEING FORCED INTO A DRYER - I figured if some dude broke into my house and ordered me into one, I probably wasn’t going to be able to escape. I think this one was borne of all those hours I used to spend watching stuff get tumble dried at the local Laundromat.

GIANT ASS TREE STUMPS - Way, WAY spookier than full-sized trees. Periodically, I would stumble across one with the bark shaved off just enough to give it the illusion of facial features. And of course, those damn things were never the smiling sort, either.

THE INTRO TO “DREAM WEAVER” - Of all the songs I’ve ever listened to, I don’t think any has really creeped me out as much as Gary Wright’s seminal “easy listening” standard. How the first thirty seconds of that song never made it into a “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie is simply beyond me.

THE SLIME MONSTER FROM “GHOST WRITER” - Back in the ‘90s, there was this show on PBS called “Ghost Writer,” which was about the spirit of a slave (which often took the form of a semicolon) that helped a bunch of middle schoolers solve really unimportant mysteries and shit. Generally, it was a pretty uneventful program - that is, until they started this story arc about this thing called the “Slime Monster,” a purple, candy-bleeding doll that ended up becoming a full-sized demon-thingy that held half the cast hostage. Even now, it’s probably the spookiest looking thing I’ve ever seen on a television program aimed at children.

THE BIG ONE - As in, that huge-assed earthquake that was supposed to rock California and turn Los Angles into an island. It’s an odd phobia, especially considering the fact that I grew up on the opposite coast of the country, but thanks to this one apocalyptic VHS tape my mom ordered called “The Jupiter Menace” - which featured George Kennedy narrating over a bunch of pseudo-scientists and fundamentalist Christians that swore the world was going to end in 1984 - I was damned CERTAIN that it was going to hit before I was in junior high, and cause the Great Lakes to drown me and stuff.

Hail Satan. 

PORCUPINES - Despite my adulation for “Sonic the Hedgehog,” I just couldn’t find myself able to trust these things. That probably has something to do with the legendary B-horror classic “Critters,” which I saw when I was in the first grade. It wasn’t until recently - as in, the last year, actually - that I found out that porcupines CAN’T launch their quills at you like projectiles. All I can say is, I REALLY wish somebody would’ve told me that shit back when I was six.

NOT GETTING RAPTURED / BEING FORCED TO ACCEPT THE MARK OF THE BEAST - I grew up in a very religious (read: on the verge of bat shit crazy) household, so I knew WAY more about the Book of Revelations than any elementary school student should have. My mom was always renting these god-awful VHS dramas from the local Christian book store, with names like “A Thief in the Night” and “A Distant Thunder,” so of course, I had it in the back of my head that the Antichrist was nigh approaching and it was only a matter of time until a One World Government was going to round up all ye faithful and cut of our heads because we wouldn’t accept this barcode on our left hands or forehead (and if you’re unfamiliar with Christian “philosophy,” that’s what the New Testament actually SAYS is going to happen in the “end of days.”) Long story short, the literature stated that if you’re a Christian, you and all of your dead Christian relatives will get sucked into heaven BEFORE things start getting really violent, while all of the sinners are left to fend for themselves - and eventually, God gets pissed and rains hellfire on the planet for a couple of years, and then all of the saved souls return to Earth and rebuild everything. In hindsight, when THAT is the crux of what your innermost ideals resemble, I guess it’s not really all that surprising that I lived most of my childhood in abject, piss-soaked horror…

THE COMMERCIALS  FOR BOYS TOWN NATIONAL HOTLINE - Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you would often see some outrageously out-of-place public service announcements during afternoon cartoon programming blocks. You’re kicking back, watching some “Tiny Toon Adventures,” and then BAM! You’re face to face with an anti-drug PSA featuring a dope dealer that turns into a lizard monster. A lot of times, I couldn’t even watch “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in peace, because I knew, at some point, I was going to get assailed by some super-serious PSA about drunk driving and date rape. The commercials for Boys Town stood out to me, because I didn’t really grasp the idea of what the service was supposed to do - so for a good five year window, I thought “Boys Town” was an actual, physical place where all of the runaway kids were exiled for misbehaving.

THE COMMERCIALS FOR CHARTER - Similar to the Boys Town commercials, in the sense that a.) they ALWAYS seemed to pop up unexpectedly during cartoons, b.) I was WAY too young to grasp the sociocultural messages the commercials were sending and c.) I had the unfortunate tendency to interpret the commercials in the absolute worst possible way. I always thought “Charter” was a physical place, where you could be committed to at any moment, for any reason. That insanely spooky music, which always trailed behind the organization’s signature “if you can’t get help at Charter, please get help somewhere” tagline, probably didn’t help things, either.

THIS ANTI-GLUE SNIFFING PSA FROM 1995 - All I’ve got to say about this one is gah-damn!

THE FREDDY KRUEGER SQUIRTBALL - Perhaps Freddy in his most horrifying incarnation ever. Say what you will about LJN’s disastrous attempt to translate Fred K into a decent NES game, but you have to give the old Rainbow all the credit in the world for their Freddy-themed “Fright Squirter,” which was basically a squirt-gun variation shaped like the iconic “Elm Street” denizen. Even compared to today’s toy standards, the craftsmanship on this thing is pretty damned amazing, and seeing it for the first time - at this one convenience store, where it was positioned right above the magazine rack - was almost enough to make me poop myself. For the rest of my youth, I couldn’t bring myself to come within ten foot of the comics section, sensing that the cabinet would come alive and shove a razor-fingered glove up my bunghole if I got too close to it.

The sound of unbridled horror to a full-bladdered second grader.

HALLWAYS, IN GENERAL - I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something about angular vestibules - the longer and narrower, the spookier, of course - that always weirded me out. I guess it was the fear that as soon as I got halfway through it, SOMETHING was going to rush from the darkness and hit me like a freight train. Going to the bathroom all by myself in elementary school was when this fear was the absolute fiercest, which, obviously, brings us to EVERYBODY’S greatest childhood fear…

THE PROSPECT OF HAVING TO TAKE A DUMP AT SCHOOL - Probably the downright scariest thing I could think of, then AND now. All those germs, and you know kids like to miss the bowl on purpose. That, and my school’s janitors were the creepiest gaggle of individuals I’d ever seen - they actually had a house smackdab in the MIDDLE of the playground, for crying aloud - and I was certain that if I ever had to drop trou during the daytime, they were going to whisk me away in a burlap sack and turn me into tomorrow’s meat loaf or something. This fear was so strong that it’s probably the reason why I could never stomach the idea of eating breakfast as a kid - as if I needed to INCREASE my likelihood of pooing at school, right?

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