Horror: What truly terrifies you?

There are countless books and movies that attempt to scare us. Some succeed; many fail. Being scared out of your wits is a personal thing, it seems. What succeeds in scaring you may completely fail to frighten me. So, I ask “Which bits of a book or movie are capable of truly terrifying you?”

There’s something exhilarating about entering into a potentially scary experience. It’s a delicious sensation that builds and creates goose bumps on my skin and chills in my core. I curl up tighter on the couch and sink lower under my blanket. My hands make their way closer to my face so I can hide my eyes if necessary. This is a good kind of scariness, one that you anticipate when watching certain movies.

It is in no way similar to feeling disturbed by themes that involve violence done to children, which does my head in but could never result in the scary sensations described above. In fact, I can’t watch horror movies or read books that involve harm coming to children.

When I was a kid, Edgar Allan Poe’s stories scared the heck out of me and probably set the foundation for what I would later find scary, namely suspenseful horror that is not overdone and psychological in nature. For example, Fortunato being walled up, one brick at a time, in the wine cellar. The thought of being trapped like that and no one ever knowing where you were was terrifying to me at the age of eight.

About that time, there was a TV show called The 4:30 Movie that had theme weeks. Vincent Price Week was a favorite. Several of his movies were based on Poe classics and to this day, when someone mentions Edgar Allan Poe, I see Vincent Price’s face (and hear his distinctive voice).

Then there was Monster week. Though I’d watch intently as people screaming in Japanese fled the city with Godzilla, Rodam, Gamera, or Gargantua chasing after them, I was never scared by these fake, rubbery monsters. The horror came later if Mom happened to cook something jiggly like eggplant parmigiana. Then, I’d hear the screeches of Gamera and Godzilla coming from my plate. To this day, whenever I bite into an eggplant parmigiana hero, I always think of them.

You see the similarities, right?

As a teenager, I saw the standard teen horror flicks. With the exception of the original Halloween movie, the teen horror movies just never did it for me. They relied too much on cheap thrills and such far-fetched plots that eventually I decided to willingly unsuspend disbelief. Cheap thrills leave you hungry for something more substantial. Sure the startle factor is powerful, but it’s short-lived. Something would pop out at you and you’d scream. Remember what you did after screaming? You laughed, right? Because it was more a feeling of “you got me” rather than “wow, you really scared me down deep and that fear is going to linger for a while.” After the movie, you’d walk home with your friends and rather than looking over your shoulder in fear, you’d laugh at who screamed the loudest at those moments.

A good scare is a lot like garlic. It lasts long after the story has ended. Here are some of my favorite, scary viewing/reading moments:

Jaws: It doesn’t matter that I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever be eaten by a shark. The possibility exists and so I’m never quite at ease ever since I saw this movie as a kid.

Open Water: To start, I have a fear of being under water. (I won’t tell you how old I was when I finally learned to put my entire head under the shower, cheeks puffed with extra oxygen stored up.) This movie had me on the brink of an anxiety attack, but I couldn’t stop watching it. Even if I didn’t have a deep-water phobia, as clearly the divers in the movie didn’t, you can’t escape the horror of their situation. First of all, it happens in real life—fly-by-night operations leave divers behind. Then there’s the near certainty that you’re going to die and probably in a gruesome way. The nudge of the shark wasn’t even as terrifying as waiting for the shark’s nudge after the partner died and drifted off. The suspense made me sick inside. Oy! I’m starting to hyperventilate just thinking about it.

Communion (the book): It is a mistake to read this book in bed at night. It terrified me. It’s supposedly a true story about author Whitley Strieber’s encounters with aliens at his cabin in the woods, and there are witnesses. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter; it feels real. And the horror of this book carried over into my real life in strange ways. See my post Signs for the details. And speaking of Signs…

Signs: I love this movie because you don’t see the aliens until the end and it’s still scary as hell. The rustle of those corn stalks gets me every time.

Fire in the Sky: Freaky. Freaky. And can I just say, freaky. The whole “based on true events” thing already kicks the scare-o-meter up a few notches for me. DB Sweeney cowering naked in the corner of that shack made my hair stand on end. And the whole icky, sticky beehive-like thing was disgusting, but in a scary way. Imagine waking up to find yourself in something like that. Jeez. But that part only worked for me after the rest of the movie had done its job.

Twilight Zone: The Movie: Can you honestly tell me that when you take a night flight you don’t look at the wing expecting to see that thing standing out there? Shiver.

Planet of the Apes (the original): This is not a scary movie, but the final scene on the beach stayed with me a long time with all the unspoken facts: There’s nowhere to go. You’re where you wanted to get to, but it’s not what you thought it would be. Your life is a nightmare you’ll never wake up from.

With that said, I think I’m a bit clearer about what scares me. It’s the sense of being trapped without control, whether it be in the middle of the sea, among talking, dominant apes, or prodded by aliens. And most likely, this loss of control scares me in books and films because it disturbs me in real life, too. For those of you who know me, I’m sure you’re shocked by this admission. 🙂

Your turn. What truly terrifies you?

42 comments on “Horror: What truly terrifies you?

  1. Julie Compton on


    The things that scare me are very similar to the things that scare you, but I’d describe it more as “losing my freedom” as opposed to “losing control,” but the two are very closely aligned. Stuff like Fortunato being walled up, brick by brick? Yep, that does it for me. Anything along those lines . . .

    Interesting post!


  2. Richard on

    A good ghost story does it for me every time. Something that gets under your skin rather than scares you outright. Although I’ve never looked at my dinner and thought of ghosts. 😛

    I just pray you are never abducted by sharks from outer space. 😉

  3. JRO on

    O.K….let’s start with bug or as I referred to as “Buggies”, as you well know because I shared a room with you. Although this is not a book or movie, I feel it deserves honorable mention as I still get abused about it at the ripe old age of 41. Just think, I could have won a CLIO if I was teamed up with Terminix. I guess I missed that boat.

    Now let’s talk about all the movies I got to see as the youngest of 3, most of which I would guess I saw before the age of 10 but probably should not have seen until I was at least 13. For those who don’t know me, I was born in Dec of 1969. I’ve listed the years so you can be the judge of age appropriateness for some of these:

    “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (1973) – This is where those little people drag the lady into the furnace.
    “The Birds”, Alfred Hitchcock – I know this was from the ‘60s but I must have seen it on TV in the early 70’s
    “Psycho”…need I say more. After seeing this movie, I wonder if there were some twisted subconscious workings that persuaded me to marry a Hotel Manager. And if he ever snaps, should I be more concerned about the shower scene or the stuffed mum??
    “Jaws” (1975) – somehow although I remember being jumpy and still am every time I see this movie, I am able to swim with dolphins, sting rays and an occasional nurse shark.
    However, I have never purposely gone to swim with and feed the sharks.
    “Halloween” – The original with Jamie Lee Curtis….the best!

    I think being exposed to all this horror at such an early age de-sensitized me. As a teenage, I lived for seeing all the horror films like Children of the Corn, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloweens, etc.

    I agree that once you become a parent, it is harder to see these films. I think it is because when you are young, you think you are invincible and these movies seem far fetched. As you get older, you realize that in our society there are a bunch of lunatics roaming around who would think nothing of putting on a mask and killing someone for no reason.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      For those of you confused by Jackie’s cryptic comment about buggies, she’s my sis, younger by 4.5 years. We shared a room and a high-riser bed. I slept on top; she was on the pull-out bed. She used to have nightmares about bugs and wake screaming “buggies, buggies.” Now that used to scare the crap out of me. ROFL! Funny thing is, she’s not afraid of bugs when she’s awake. LOL! Weirdo.

      Yes, Jackie, you saw movies at a much younger age than you should have, but then so did I. Jon didn’t see his first scary movie until he was ten. That was partly for my benefit, since he’s “vocal” in his sleep, too. Must be a family gene.

      Ooooo. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. One of my favorites. [whispers] Sally. Sally!

  4. rebecca @ altared spaces on

    I’m afraid of the oven light left on. This is left over from a bad experience in childhood, but I react dramatically if I come into the kitchen at night to find that creepy light left on. Such a goofy thing….so much irrational fear. I always find it interesting what tiny things like that scare people in their ordinary days.

    I knew a woman who was frightened by sweaters that would pill. They totally creeped her out. When I asked about the experience this huge story came pouring out. Fascinating.

  5. Carl D'Agostino on

    My fear is not imaginary or a fantasy. There are far too many drive-bys in Miami from thugs. Police bullets fly around too. I have children and grandchildren, This is part of Miami you do not see in tourist advertisements.

  6. Jessica Sieghart on

    Just like haunted houses or anything suddenly startling (even though I may expect it), I’m not a big fan of horror movies, either. I can tolerate the Freddy Kruegers more than I can movies like The Omen or The Exorcist. That whole demon/devil stuff just freaks me out. The last scary movie I saw was years ago. The name is escaping me now but it was a group trapped in the woods and was filmed with a shaky camera. I stayed up late and alone watching it and then was afraid to go upstairs in the dark. LOL. Silly, but true. I enjoy the pumpkin, hayride version of Halloween 🙂 The “thing” that truly scares me is…cotton balls. I’ve had a phobia to them since I was a toddler. People laugh, but if I see one, I become terrified. I may have even screamed once or twice like those horror movie girls 🙂

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Sounds like Blair Witch Project.

      Phobias fascinate me. I wonder what it was about cotton balls that scared you as a toddler. You must have a heck of a time rounding the corners of the aisles at the pharmacy, wondering where those cotton balls are going to turn up.

      Many people say they have phobias but I’ve known only one who truly did. She claimed to become paralyzed with fear when she saw a snake, and not just real snakes. Even snakes in a photograph. Her phobia was so bad that she wouldn’t open the S volume of the encyclopedia for fear she might see a photo of a snake. I always thought she was joking until she visited me in college and we went to the zoo. We walked into a building that had small animals and such. When I turned around, she was standing in the middle of the room in a catatonic state. Her face was screwed up in an expression of terror, her breathing was rapid, but she couldn’t move. I finally realized what was happening and got her out of there. It was the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

  7. Cynthia on

    I cannot bear any kind of horror or violence – nightmares stay with me for life. Mothra and the other japanese horror flicks were too funny and fake to scare me at all – horror value was about on par with Gidget Week for me! And luckily whatever Jaws inspired was laughed away too – I saw that in a theatre which cleverly had seats on swings so you could push back a bit to let someone pass in front of you. When the shark came up, I jumped, startled. My seat swung back, and the poor man behind me was 6’6″ and his knees were against the back of my seat. Needless to say, when I swung back and bashed his knees, HE howled out, imagining the shark had got HIM !!! That was so funny, the movie ceased to scare.

    I have to say, I stopped reading this post when you began describing plots… couldn’t handle it, dont want to imbibe images that will stop me sleeping. The only ghost stories I could bear are M.R. James, circa 1910 – they are very elegant, compelling and completely based on imagination – the mind doing itself in – that is enjoyable without producing nightmares.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Cynthia, that is quite the unique Jaws experience. I can see why you might have had a case of giggles that cancelled out any of the horror. 🙂

      I think I have the perfect ghost story for you. It’s called Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. I picked it up in England a few weeks ago and flew through it. My parents have also read it and enjoyed it. It’s a very old-fashioned ghost story with a wonderful plot. You can tell the author did tons of research.

  8. Lisa Creech Bledsoe on

    I am most assuredly an oddball, since I don’t watch horror movies (or even anything with much violence) at all.

    For me, feeling stressed doesn’t qualify for relaxing or entertaining in any way, and that’s what I’m looking for in a movie or book.

    I know, I’m a freak. I’m so sensitive to it that yesterday I was picking up my teenage son from a friend’s house yesterday and remarked to my husband that only in a country without war would people go to the store to purchase fake human bones to scatter in their yards to entertain children.

    That said, ALL of Poe haunted me in high school — The Cask of Amontillado, The Pit and the Pendulum, Masque of the Red Death, The Tell-Tale Heart…

    I was also terrified of vampires. Of course, that was before vampires got all sexy. 🙂 I loved Ann Rice’s books…

  9. Melinda on

    I remember my sister and I getting up at the crack of dawn to sneak and watch the “scary” movies like Vincent Price’s. I was only 6 so she was 3. I just watched the original Halloween with my daughter before we went Trick or Treating which is one of my favorites, but I don’t like the other slash ’em up horror. I like suspense and twisted plots that you don’t see the end coming like Gothika and Sixth Sense.

    I guess I’m alone in liking the Omen series and the Exorcist, but none of those scare me like my irrational fear of being on anything that looks rickety…like a swinging bridge, any fair ride that goes higher than 2 feet, or the gondola cart that goes up the Swiss Alps which I did have to do as a kid and thought I would have a panic attack and was certain the cable would snap. Oh and snakes. 🙂

    The Twilight Zone TV series was my favorite as a kid!

  10. Michael G. on

    Though it’s not strictly a horror movie, the film Testament about the effects of a nuclear disaster on a small town was as chilling a movie as I’ve ever seen. It focusses on a mother who tries to protect herself and her kids while the city folk are falling down like flies. I made the mistake of rewatching it not long ago. Big mistake!

  11. bronxboy55 on

    Stuff that can really happen is far more terrifying to me than any demon possession or non-existent monster. Armed intruders hiding in the dark, hundreds of rats inside a wall, that giant shark lurking under the surface — I guess it’s any threat I can’t see.

      • Girlboxing on

        Yes! GREAT! In fact I watch *all* of the Masterpiece Mystery series (or as many as I can find!). I love Inspector Lewis — who knew there could be so many murders in one tiny college town! Not to mention the redux of Sherlock Holmes last year! That was great!

  12. duckofindeed on

    I was actually afraid of the Disney “Alice in Wonderland” and also “Coraline”. Whenever characters in movies are trapped somewhere or are at risk of that happening, I get really scared. I would hate to be stuck somewhere. Similarily, the scariest movie I ever saw was the first “Blair Witch Project”. You have a narrow field of view, and you never see anything actually happen. You just know the people are stuck in the woods, and they’ll never get out. The sounds in the woods, the mysterious piles of rocks they found in the morning. You know what was out there came close to them at one point. The last part where they went into the old building was really scary. I still get creeped out when I think about it. I couldn’t sleep that night.

  13. esophageal spasms symptoms on

    Ah, reminds me of the famous quote “Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” – Winston Churchill


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.