Two Movie Monsters
(my most frightening moments in film)
“Creature From the Black Lagoon” – No
“The Wolfman” – Nope
Face-hugging Aliens from “Aliens” – scary, but…no
Dracula – Nahh
“Cujo” – Oh come on
No, the two movie monsters who scared the hell out of me, got inside me, invaded my dreams and twisted them into nightmares, gave me the tingling neck when alone in a dark place, may seem, to you, odd or even mundane, but they had power over me from ages five through twenty.
The reason they hammered me like no other monsters is a kind of mathematical equation: good acting, good direction and production + my own personal vulnerabilities = true gut-level horror.
It’s a good list of directors, by the way: David Lean, and Alfred Hitchkock. Are you starting to guess? You’re thinking, was there ever a monster in a David Lean movie?! For me there was, and she was first created by Charles Dickens and then by David Lean and then by actress Martita Hunt.
She was Miss Haversham in “Great Expectations.” Remember her? In her youth she was left standing alone at the altar, and the despair and the shock of this made her insane. When we meet her in the 1949 David Lean production she is an old woman in a decaying wedding dress. The long dinner table is still set for the wedding, but the rats have eaten the cake. She thinks the groom is still coming.
Why did she frighten me so deeply? I was eight years old in 1949. We lived in an apartment in a tough neighborhood in Chicago, and my mother, to give herself a break and to trade life for fantasy, walked my brother and I to the local movie house twice a week, every time the pictures changed, no matter what was playing. So, at only eight, the idea and the sight of a crazy old woman took my breath and made me a statue in my seat.
My brother was 12, and I didn’t think he even noticed, but the idea of a WOMAN monster, a CRAZY WOMAN, terrified me in a special way. My mother was loving and playful, and we brothers depended on her for everything because my father was usually working and we were already afraid of him, anyway. Not that he was a bad man, but there was a force in his eyes, his Italian temper, and he didn’t know how to play. It would be another decade or more before I was certain that he loved us, and it helped to see him weep at sentimental television commercials as he matured.
Was I so afraid of Miss Haversham because she showed me that a WOMAN can be crazy, and did that meant it could happen to my mother? What a spooky thought for an eight year old. I’m not sure what I thought, but that experience left me with a serious fear of crazy women on the screen, and I wasn’t the only one. Years later I told my brother and he nodded, saying “Oh, yeah. Miss Haversham. She really got me.” So it marked him, too.
Cut to 1960, and I’m a freshman in college, home for a weekend, taking my girlfriend, Joann, to a movie that was making its way around the country, causing a ripple that was felt even in little Round Lake, Illinois. We were eager to see it and chuckling over the very dramatic ad campaign. Something like: “No one will be admitted to the theater after the start of this film. Nurses will be present at many showings in case patrons faint.” The film was called “Psycho,” starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.
Now we’re about 20 minutes into the movie and Janet Leigh is getting undressed. Anthony Perkins, the motel clerk, is watching her through a hole he’s made in the wall.
As Janet prepares for a shower, we hear a far away argument between the peeper, played very well by Perkins, and a woman we take to be his mother, but we don’t see her. Anthony is trying to calm the old woman who is shouting and seems dangerous.
Janet enters the shower. It’s 1960 remember, no nudity yet, only suggested, the entire sequence staged and shot to perfection by Alfred Hitchcock.
As she showers, the film suddenly explodes into a frenzy of violence so shocking it may never be equaled. It seems the old woman has rushed into the bathroom, swept the shower curtain aside and is stabbing Janet Leigh! This can’t be! Janet is the star of this film! Adding to the shock is the shrieking music, driving the scene as the knife strikes again and again and the blood begins to stream.
What we have here is my worst movie fear, the crazy old woman, like Miss Haversham, but now she has a knife! She stabs directly into my fear spot, killing the star of the movie only 20 minutes into the film!!
This old woman, to the same shrieking music, also stabs to death a detective who is mounting the stairs in her house, and by the end of this film, I am terrorized and wrecked. It’s as if I have been personally attacked. Such is the power of what (at it’s bottom) is a mere B-movie ‘slasher’, but due to genius film-making is an unforgettable shocker and a Jerry DiPego anathema.
I didn’t show Joann my fear, not wanting to seem weak. I drove her to her house and kissed her well as she kissed me, and I went to my home where my mother was absent – in the hospital for tests. I walked quietly past my parents’ bedroom where my father slept alone and turned to the staircase to my upstairs bedroom. I stopped. I could not climb those stairs – having just watched my most terrifying monster stab a detective on a similar stairway.
I was nineteen. I was so afraid. I could NOT climb those stairs. There was a monster waiting for me. I knew it wasn’t real. I was afraid of the crushing fear itself.
I walked softly into my parents’ bedroom, stared at my sleeping father, and I forced myself to speak, whispering, “Dad?” and said it once again, and he woke.
“It’s Jer,” I said. “I’m…not feeling so good. Can I sleep with you?”
He nodded, turned on his side. I took off my shoes and jeans and got into the bed beside him, nineteen, afraid, ashamed.
It was at least a year before I could take a shower without my chest tightening with ambient, illogical fear of a monster who never existed.
I’m no longer afraid of monsters, but I have never watched “Psycho” again – and I won’t. Ever.