Ghosts, ghouls, vampires, demons—they’ve been frightening kids for centuries, and with good reason. But children’s brains are strange, malleable places that can perceive even the most unassuming figures—a cute, helpful Jedi Grand Master, a cuddly elephantine creature, a precocious baby dinosaur—as sinister agents of terror. Which brings us to today’s Halloween-inspired PopWatch Confessional: What’s the unintentionally scary thing that frightened you most when you were a kid? (Bonus: Reading through is a great way to stealthily learn how old we all are.)
Ashley Fetters, online news editor: I was about eight when I saw the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time. Not long afterward, I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, convinced there was an evil, glowing Yoda lurking in my room. Yoda—arguably the nicest character in the entire franchise, and he’s the one I had nightmares about. I try not to read too much into that.
Jeff Labrecque, senior writer: Keith Carradine. Seriously. I saw him in a 1983 TV miniseries called Chiefs, in which he played a squirrelly serial killer named Foxy Funderburke. So, yes, I guess he was supposed to be scary in that. But that role is forever burned on my brain, and I flinch to this day any time I see him on screen. Heck, I once saw him off-Broadway, in Lie of the Mind, and, I swear, I think I blacked out for 10 minutes when he first walked onstage.
Esther Zuckerman, staff writer: Considering this happened when I was around 2, I do not remember all the details of my Aladdin-inspired terror. I do know that my parents took me to see the movie at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre, and that I screamed and tried to bolt when the the Cave of Wonders appeared on the screen. I don’t blame my 2-year-old self; the Cave of Wonders is scary! It’s a cave with a tiger’s head and glowing eyes that growls “Who disturbs my slumber?” Unfortunately, I lived in fear of the entire movie for many years following, hiding whenever it was played at kids’ gatherings. I have obviously gotten over that fear. Aladdin is great.
Kyle Ryan, EW.com editor: I’ve been searching the web for some kind of confirmation that this wasn’t a childhood fever dream, but something from Sesame Street in the early ’80s still haunts my memory. They used to do these segments with Spider-Man—maybe they still do?—that all had a “one to grow on” kind of lesson. I don’t remember the lesson of this particular one, but at the end, Spidey had measles. In my memory, his outfit is covered with gross dots, but that can’t be right, can it? Anyway, it freaked me out. Maybe that’s why I had no interest in any of the Spider-Man movies.
Ray Rahman, staff writer: As a kid, I loved Jim Carrey. I mean, we all did: Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber, the Riddler. And when you love someone, you never want to see them get hurt. Unfortunately, that ended up happening when I first acquired a VHS copy of The Mask and got to that first transformation scene. You know, where he puts the mask on in his apartment?. It was weird how upset I got seeing Jim Carrey physically struggle with that reptilian mask as it swallowed his face. I was afraid for him. Sometimes I still am.
Breia Brissey, associate editor: Winnie the Pooh is not something that strikes fear in most, but in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, Pooh has a dream about Heffalumps and Woozles. (They steal honey! Beware!) I was pretty sure that heffalumps and woozles were made-up creatures, but wasn’t willing to risk it. I think they’re supposed to be cute, but let’s be honest: They’re scary and they steal things. Not cool. For reference:
Jonathon Dornbush, EW.com intern: Snacker the Shark, of the N64 game Banjo Kazooie, is undoubtedly supposed to be a challenging foe—but he’s not supposed to haunt your dreams. Unfortunately, after playing the game, I developed a recurring nightmare in which the shark would chase me around an ocean without a sliver of land in sight. Seriously, coupled with the Jaws-like music, I feared for my avatar’s life whenever I stepped into the virtual waters of any video game. And it made real-life swimming difficult as well for a summer or two—which was a shame, considering I lived down the block from a beach my entire childhood.
Dory Devlin, EW Community director: Home sick from school one day, I caught a rerun of the 1971 TV movie Duel, in which Dennis Weaver is followed around by a faceless trucker. I’m not sure why I stuck with this movie, because the suspense freaked me out. Every Route 80 family road trip after that found me carefully watching to be sure no tractor-trailer truck stayed too close to us as we made our way to my sister’s house in Pennsylvania.
Joshua Rivera, EW.com writer: Remember The Pagemaster? While I can’t really tell you if it’s any good or if it holds up (probably not), as a kid I couldn’t get enough of Macaulay Culkin being turned into a cartoon and going on an adventure with public domain-sanctioned literary characters. That was sort of my niche. I would watch The Pagemaster countless times growing up, but one scene would always send me diving behind my couch in fear—Dr. Jekyll’s transformation into Mr. Hyde. Something about it never failed to turn mini-Joshua into a big ball of NOPE.
Kathryn Luttner, EW Community deputy director: I’m not sure if this counts, because it occurred at the Houston Children’s Museum. But: My Girl Scout Brownie troupe attended a play called Feet. It was about a monster who lived underneath a kid’s bed, and if any child (adults were safe) dangled his/her legs over the side, he would slice them off and either eat them, or maybe just hoard them (I can’t remember). It terrified me. For at least a year, I refused to sit on the edge of my bed and treated every bedtime as if I were in a pole vault competition. Because of that, I still have my two feet.
Ariana Bacle, EW.com writer: When I was younger, I liked to watch horror specials on the History Channel and read books about how to talk with ghosts—yet I was terrified of the baby in Dinosaurs, an early ’90s sitcom that substituted life-sized dinosaur puppets for humans. While the rest of the family was made up of weird-looking grown-up dinosaurs that appeared much more threatening than a tiny baby, Baby Sinclair was the one who got me because of his creepy cackles and habit of chanting “not the mama!” with evil enthusiasm. To this day, seeing a photo of Baby Sinclair, with his bug eyes and toothless smile, is all it takes to give me the chills.
Hillary Busis, staff editor: My original answer was the villain of The Care Bears Movie—a sentient magic book with a ghoulish green head that, in retrospect, was a total Maleficent ripoff. But given that she’s a bad guy, and bad guys are supposed to be scary, I’ll go instead with the Looney Tunes short “Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers”—a gentle riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the pods are “strange carrots” and the snatched ‘toons just register as more simply drawn versions of themselves. It is, however, supremely unsettling, especially when a Daffy Duck riddled with bullet holes suddenly sports a human mouth. GAHHH.
Stephan Lee, correspondent: Volcano, starring Tommy Lee Jones! I know it was a typical ’90s disaster flick (the best kind there is) with funny-terrible dialogue—but at the time, it was scarier to me than Scream. The scene where a man jumps into the liquid hot magma—or is it lava? I don’t think even TLJ knew for sure–and his limbs burst into flames one by one until he MELTS into the ground like the wicked witch was terrifying. Also, lava in the subway tunnel has become a recurring nightmare.
Teresa Jue, EW.com intern: The year was 1995, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie had just come to the cultural surface.There’s a reason its primary antagonist, Ivan Ooze (Paul Freeman), only appeared in one iteration of the Power Rangers franchise: the guy was super gross and supremely creepy. His ability to transform into this weird purple ooze, which he used to seep past locked doors, has led to my lifelong fear of Gak.
Lindsey Bahr, correspondent: Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen were on near-permanent rotation in the Bahr household during my single-digit years. But while I understand conceptually how a surrealist Terry Gilliam fantasy and “the nothing” should probably freak a kid out, none of those movies ever bothered me. What did? Oh, you know, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Not the alien himself, mind you. He was fine. But when those damn scientists, or federal agents, or whatever they were took over Elliott’s home and engulfed it in white plastic, I just lost my mind. Even I recognize that my horror was probably an overreaction, especially for a kid who was totally down with Gmork, the Southern Oracle, a floating Robin Williams head, and David Bowie’s, uh, hair. It is, without question, one of my more traumatizing movie memories. With so many years having gone by since I last saw E.T., I honestly can’t remember the details—but my childhood mind understood that scene to mean “your home is no longer yours,” which was more terrifying than any wart-covered Muppet or swamp of sadness could ever be.
Mandi Bierly, senior writer: I went through a phase during elementary school in which I wouldn’t change out of my pajamas in the morning until I listened to the entire Air Supply Greatest Hits 8-track in the living room. Correction: I always had to end the listening session before the final track, “Sweet Dreams,” because its eerie intro would frighten me.
Lanford Beard, staff editor: I watched every horror movie you can name as a child—The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street, and so on—but the only movie that ever gave me actual nightmares was Ricochet (1991). It’s a pretty standard thriller in which John Lithgow’s character escapes prison to exact revenge on Denzel Washington, playing the cop who put him away. To this day, I have no idea why it freaked me out so much. Demons and slashers? No problem. A deranged Rev. Shaw Moore? TERROR!
Neil Janowitz, EW.com assistant managing editor: I remember one thing, and one thing alone, from the film Watership Down, which I saw when I was clearly too young and have refused to watch again: Bloodshed. Animated rabbit viscera strewn hither and thither, the result of persistent warfare. One moment stands out in particular: Bunnies, one wearing an eyepatch, I think, fighting near a fence, with the eventual loser crumpling to the ground—dead, blood gushing (in my mind) from its carcass. That cartoon animal gore affected me more than any slasher film. (These days I have a higher tolerance for such things.)
Marc Snetiker, correspondent: Has anyone said Furby yet?