My brother, Doc, introduced me to classic movies, one of my first being Here Comes Mr. Jordan, based on Harry Segall's play Heaven Can Wait. As I broadened my repertoire, I fell in love with Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Katherine Hepburn, to name a few. And the first time I watched a film directed by the Master of Suspense, I was hooked. Alfred Hitchcock offers just enough nervousness without sending me running for my mommy. Usually.
When I was in junior high, The Birds came on TV one afternoon when I was home alone. Bundled up on the couch, I relished every nerve-wracking moment. When Tippi Hendren sat on the bench by the school yard, oblivious to the winged creatures gathering on the jungle gym in the background, I wanted to scream, “Run Tippi, run! They’re right behind you!” As the credits rolled, I sighed with relief that I’d survived. Then I heard chirping. I turned down the volume to see if it was on the movie’s soundtrack. Still, the loud, ominous chirping continued. I walked to the picture window and raised the blinds; a multitude of black birds, grackles, blanketed every inch of the lawn, the trees, the fences, and the deepest recesses of my brain. I ran to phone a friend, trying to calm my bird terror.
A good thriller stays with me for a few days after the movie ends. But after watching Psycho for the first time, I waited several weeks before I took a shower if I were home alone. Okay, it was years; I waited years. On my return-to-showering-while-home-alone day, I pulled the shower curtain back to make sure nobody was there, before stepping in. That routine became permanent.
When The Amityville Horror came out, it was a huge deal. Everybody was talking about it and going to see it, so I went with a group of girlfriends. There we sat, six frightened maids all in a row. Every time something scared us, which was often, we screamed in unison. Then we’d laugh hysterically, out of nervousness. None of us slept well that night. After waking up at 3:15 a.m. for several days in a row, just like James Brolin does in the movie, I was done with horror movies. Until Friday the 13th aired on TV a couple of years later. Rosebud and I watched it together; right there in the middle of the bed between her parents, we were able to make it through it. But "Jason" was never on my list of potential baby names later in life.
Being a Jack Nicholson fan, I felt compelled to watch The Shining when it premiered. The first time I saw it was at a drive-in theater; horror on a bigger screen brings bigger fear. But my boyfriend noticed how calm I was during an especially distressing scene, probably when those creepy twins in the hallway showed up.
“How are you not flinching? You didn’t even jump,” he said after screaming like a little girl who’d lost her dolly.
What he didn’t know was that my visor was down. As I slowly sat up straighter in my seat, my eyes were blocked so I wouldn’t see the worst parts. It was one of my finer moments of courage. With no visor to save me on my second viewing, I watched it with a room full of friends in a hotel room during a college journalism convention. There was safety in numbers, and I had a death grip on a friend’s hand the whole time.
So, I rarely watch thrillers by myself, especially if they star Bette Davis.
As a 12-year-old, I spent many nights staring at the ceiling and praying for sleep to come because of Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. I’d never seen the movie, but it terrified me for years. My friend Gypsy had watched it one night and proceeded to tell me every gory detail. Beginning then, and lasting for longer than I’ll admit, I made sure my closet door was always shut before I went to bed. If left open, my hanging clothes became poor Charlotte's wedding dress. It was awful. Eventually, with the help of therapy, I was able to move on and watch Bette in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Nanny. And finally, when I was in my mid-30s, I steeled my nerves and watched Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined; my mind is often much scarier than reality. After the movie was over, I went to our bedroom and opened our closet door, announcing to Flash, “I ain’t scared of no dress.”
But I’m still afraid of those eyes. One night, Flash walked into the living room and saw me on the couch, with my hands over my face.
“What are you watching?”
“Dead Ringer. It’s great. You should watch it with me.”
“You should watch it with you. Why are you even bothering?”
“I can see it through my fingers. When it’s safe to see more, I move my hands.”
He shook his head as he turned to leave the room.
“It’s her eyes. Bette’s eyes! They scare me to death!”
“Then why do you watch it?”
“Because it’s so good.”
But the yellow-bellied sap sucker wouldn’t join me in the fun. He said he wasn’t interested in the movie. But I know cowardice when I see it; it looks back at me from the mirror quite often. Flash used to narrate scary movie scenes for me when I had to block my eyes; now he leaves the room as soon as the music crescendos.
But I’ve got Rosebud, my fear-o-meter, who lets me know which films I can handle and which ones to steer clear of. She also informs me of too much violence, evil content, and too many mean characters. It’s nice that she takes the hit for me and lets those things into her own psyche, while sparing mine.
“What are y’all watching tonight?” Rosebud and I often update each other on our weekly viewings.
“Oh, this movie called Hush,” she said.
“Oh my gosh. That was disturbing.”
“You watched that movie?”
“Yeah, a long time ago.”
“Are you sure you watched Hush?” She seemed shocked.
“Yes, with Jessica Lange…about the crazy mother-in-law.”
“Um, no. This is a different movie called Hush.”
“Yeah, never watch this one. Ever.” She used her stern this-movie-will-bother-you-for-years voice. I always listen to that voice. Well, almost always. Unfortunately, that same voice suggested I watch a sweet little film called The Bad Seed a couple of years ago.
“I’ve never heard of it,” I told her.
“Oh my gosh. You have to watch it.”
So I trusted my friend; she’d never steered me wrong before.
It started off okay. So far, so good. Then, things started happening that were a little hard to believe. I rewound, to make sure what I thought I saw was accurate. It was. I watched more, hoping this was one of those movies where the main character was having a nightmare and would soon wake up. Surely, nothing could be so evil. But nobody woke up. Why, why, why would Rosebud think I could handle this? Who thinks of things like this? Yet, I couldn’t turn it off. It had me in its grip.
When it was over, I sat on my couch, stunned, with my mouth hanging open. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t quit thinking about it for days. It was psychologically over the top. I contemplated waking up Rosebud with a 3:15 a.m. phone call when I couldn't sleep.
Eventually, I forgot about The Bad Seed. Until writing this. Now, remembering it, I’m a little afraid. I’m looking through my junk drawer for Cowboy’s old nightlights.
With age, my taste in spooky has mellowed; I gave up horror films years ago. But I’ll never give up thrillers. Most recently, I watched Midnight Lace with Doris Day and Rex Harrison. Reminiscent of Hitchcock’s work, it was just enough suspense; I only covered my eyes twice. I’m still as brave as ever. On nights when I’m in the mood for a scary movie and Flash is too afraid to join me, I turn on all the lights, get my comfort food ready, curl up with my ferocious dogs, tightly clutch my pepper spray, pray I'll survive, and relish every thrilling moment.