Horror filmmakers have provided us with enough fuel for a lifetime of nightmares full of crazy killers, dissected mutants, alien births, and rotten flesh as it’s torn apart. If this is the kind of thing that comes from the depths of their imaginations, what the hell scares these people?
Because it's Halloween, I spoke with a bunch of horror icons and asked them, “What is the greatest horror you have ever experienced in your real life?”
Illustrations by Nick Gazin
Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Hills Have Eyes
A year and a half ago, my wife and I stayed in a hundreds-of-years-old inn in northern Scotland. When we arrived, they told us that the place was haunted. I, by and large, have never experienced anything supernatural and tend not to believe in anything until I see it for myself. The innkeeper took us through this great gallery that led to the lobby, which connected to a giant dining room. He stopped and pointed out a giant mirror that recently had to be moved from the restaurant because guests were noticing people in the reflection, but when they turned around the people weren’t really there. I thought, OK, sure, and laughed to myself.
In our room was a giant fireplace with a gaping opening, all black from years of soot. It was right at the foot of the bed. It wasn’t working, and I didn’t think much of it. But that night I had a dream that I was looking at the fireplace and it was medieval-sized—so big you could walk into it. From out of that darkness came a ghostly woman with a long gown who looked around and then looked directly at me. Her arms came out and she just rushed toward me. I woke up in a scream, gasping, and just completely out of breath.
Halloween, The Thing, They Live
Many frightening things have happened to me in my life, mostly when I was young. I think I was scared of almost everything back then. Recently I was visiting my father in Kentucky, when I suffered a retinal detachment in my right eye. I asked the examining ophthalmologist if I could travel back to LA and my eye doctor. He told me my retina could detach during the flight and that I needed surgery immediately. Until my surgery two days later, I was terrified of going blind. My eyesight is my career, my life. Until recently retinal detachment meant blindness. I thought I was fucked. The surgery was successful, although not without complications. The fear subsided. Today I can see.
Basket Case, Frankenhooker, Brain Damage
Annie, the Broadway musical. Talk about horrifying. Ilze Balodis, one of my best friends and an actor in Basket Case, worked at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The school always got preview tickets to various Broadway shows, so, in 1977, we went to the Alvin Theatre to watch Annie three days before it officially opened. I was horrified immediately. Insufferable Broadway brats straining to act "cute and adorable" as the orphans, Dorothy Loudon outdoing the brats as Miss Hannigan, and that god-awful song "Tomorrow" seemingly sung every 45 seconds. I told everyone I knew that the show wouldn't last a week. Instead, it became a huge hit. It spawned a movie directed by John Huston—John Huston?!—and a remake is scheduled for release this December. The horror continues.
Hellraiser, Nightbreed, Candyman
Honestly, when I was in my coma. To be plunged into an absolute darkness and wake up with a breathing tube down my throat and be in that absolute nightmare place, surrounded by people I didn’t know. It was terrifying. The absolute worst experience of my life, no question. And I’m talking about horror now, as opposed to grief. You know, the losing of my parents, the losing of certain people in my life who were very precious to me. In terms of emotional horrors, that’s far worse than a coma. But if we’re speaking of horror in the most conventional sense, it would have to be the coma.
Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven's New Nightmare
One weekend I found myself staying by myself at my dad's little farm out in the boonies of Oklahoma. I thought at the time that I'd enjoy the quiet peace that I usually find out in the country. That I would have no problem staying by myself in a little cabin on the prairie. But as darkness fell, every sound magnified into a Freddy fingernail screech and every bug and raccoon seemed to come out of the night to scare the living daylights out of me. Even the wind conspired against me to send spooky voices my way. I realized that all the horror movies I've watched were replaying themselves in my imagination as I just tried to enjoy that solitude. I spent that night totally freaked out and stayed awake until morning, TV blaring, hoping to scare away all the demons.
Candyman, Night of the Living Dead, Wishmaster
Nothing is more horrific than seeing a merchant of peace be assassinated. Suddenly all around me, the city was ablaze and people were rioting over Dr. King’s assassination. I was in the seventh grade and was raised by a single woman, my aunt, who refused to let me go out in the street and protest. I wanted to have my voice be heard. I am a child of the 60s, so I lived through the assassination of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Dr. King. It seemed like everyone who promised to lead us to a better place was assassinated. What is more horrific than seeing the unexplainable happen to a great man of peace and not be able to change it?
Return of the Living Dead; Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers; Silent Night, Deadly Night
When I was 14 or 15 years old I went on a family vacation to Acapulco. After checking into our rental house, my mother stayed behind while my father and I headed to the store. Thankfully he forgot his wallet and we turned back only to find two huge men standing in the yard about to enter the house. Before we could do anything a man holding machete grabbed me and in a fit of rage I kicked the living hell out of him and he let us go free. Thinking back, I think it was a hint to my future, as I did it in a bikini.
Dawn of the Dead, From Dusk Till Dawn, Friday the 13th
The scariest thing I have ever experienced was while I was a combat photographer in Vietnam. Your whole body shakes and rattles and your mind is focused on only one thing—is there a person going to walk out of those woods in front of me? 'Cause if he does he is going to want to kill me. Where do you in normal life ever experience THAT? You don't. It's a really scary thing to have to think about. Especially after there has been an attack and you know they are out there and it's dark... real dark... until the clouds move and the moon lights up your position. Think about that kind of fear. In a movie theater you identify with a character and go on the journey of, say, Father Merrin in The Exorcist, and it is scaring the shit out of you, but deep down you know you are safe sitting in the theater. Imagine deep down knowing that you are not safe. You are scared of being shot or getting blown to pieces... and there is no deep down safety that you are somewhere else. That is the scariest thing.
R. A. MIHAILOFF
Leatherface, Texas Chainsaw Massacre III
I am the guy you don’t want to meet in a dark alley for real. But honestly, I can’t think of anything profoundly horrific that has happened to me in my life. The only thing that scares me is death. I am absolutely terrified of dying. Mostly because I am an atheist and believe when you die, the lights go out. That’s it. It’s the end of The Sopranos. I’m loving this life and having so much fun. I never want it to end. The thought of losing all of this terrifies me. I love being big. I love being strong. I love being a man. I love being in the movies.
Phantasm, Mindwarp, John Dies at the End
There has been a dearth of ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties in my life. I have never even stepped foot inside a haunted house. Nothing genre-related has ever really scared me. I don’t really have nightmares except with everyday occurrences, like someone close to me falling ill. I look forward to my dreams. In them I am I often traveling and on my way home and can’t wait to get there to see my loved ones. Everyone I have ever loved is in my dreams. The closest I have ever gotten to a nightmare is a reoccurring dream I have had of an all-brown city that is impoverished and deserted. In it, I walk around wondering how it all happened. I feel alone and am only able to see an occasional figure in the distance.
The Hills Have Eyes, Weird Science, Teenage Exorcist
Quick backstory: I was a Boy Scout a long time ago, worked with the sheriff’s department in college as a volunteer diver, and I used to have an advanced first-aid certificate from the Red Cross. I just like to help.
I was on my motorcycle in the mid 70s. To set the scene, I was into the super-bikes. I had a beautiful Norton Commando 750. It was a great, powerful bike. I was riding the coast back from San Luis Obispo, and at this point I was in Santa Barbara. I noticed there was a traffic accident up ahead and a beat-up old Volkswagen van was on its side. I parked my bike and realized that three people had been ejected from the van.
I immediately knew what to do. I stopped traffic and asked someone to get out of their car and instructed them on how to hold the man’s head, because he was having difficulty breathing. It sounded like he had a punctured lung. I said, “If you notice anything strange, just call out my name, and I'll tell you what to do. The ambulance is on its way.” I moved onto the next victim, a man who was semi-conscious, and next to him was a big cooking pot, the old-school kind that’s dark blue with the white spots on it. It was full of spaghetti!
In the other lane of traffic, there was what looked like a pile of blankets, but there was a woman inside who had a terrible head injury. A big chunk of her skull was gone. The poor gal was in a lot of pain. As I was applying pressure to her wound, I looked up and saw a BMW with a guy in a business suit weaving through the traffic because he was important and needed to get somewhere. As he pulled up, he did not know there was a person in the pile of blankets. Right as he was about to drive over her, I jumped in front of his car and he honked at me to get out of the way. He could care less about the accident. I said, “Please stop! Come help us!” He honked again and stuck his head out of his car and said, “Get the F out of the way!” and then drove forward and tapped my legs ever so slightly with his bumper. I jumped on the on the hood of his BMW and grabbed his windshield wipers and started pounding on his windshield until I broke it with my fist. At least then he stopped the car.
At that time, a police officer arrived. The guy in the BMW screamed, “Arrest this man. He broke my windshield!” And I say, “This guy wanted to drive over an injured person.” Mr. Business Guy, Mr. Important, got out of his car and was ready to do business with me, but the cop grabbed the guy by the tie and his belt and twisted him around and put his boot you know where and gave it a tight little squeeze and handcuffed him. The guy finally shut up. I tended to the victim until the medics arrived. Later I went to the diner across the way to fill out a report, and a cop handed $20 to the waitress and said, “This gentlemen right here— whatever he wants, it’s on us.” I said, “OK, well, I’m gonna stay and have dessert. I like pie.”
Follow Jennifer Juniper Stratford on Twitter.