I was terrified of the movie Poltergeist long before I saw it, even before I knew it existed actually, and all these years later it still scares the crap out of me. Why though has less to do with what I watched and more to do with how I watched it.
I was young, probably around 10, when my best friend’s father told me all about what had happened to him when he watched Poltergeist a few nights earlier. Harry is a big guy, broad-shouldered, and while he is a gentle guy, he isn’t some shrinking violet either. He proceeded to tell me about Saturday night, when the rest of the family had long gone to sleep, but his insomnia led him to his TV. My friend lived on the first floor, and right behind the living room was an old wooden porch, the kind where every step makes a sound, and where anyone could look directly through the living room’s oversized windows. Harry said he happened to come upon Poltergeist at around 2:00am, and that’s where he put the remote down. He then proceeded to explain how he ended up being frightened worse than he could ever remember. “Michael, the hairs on my arm were standing up, and I could have sworn someone was walking behind me on the porch. I was frozen in the chair. I couldn’t move.”
This was the way a horror film chicken like me usually reacted to scary movies, not big Harry who loved them. What the hell could have happened in that movie to scare him that badly? Poltergeist immediately became the scariest movie ever, even though I didn’t know it was a movie five minutes earlier.
It would be a few years before I would finally sit down to watch it myself, and almost like a horror film character that can’t help but walk over to look at the killer one more time, I needed to watch it just the way Harry had: alone, quietly, and very late at night.
Sometimes we build something up so much it’s impossible to live up to our expectations, the hype can’t possibly meet it. Poltergeist was not one of those things for me. I was still a big baby about horror movies, and it turned out this was a great one. I remember exactly when I was hooked, or rather when I was terrified. It was the scene where one of the characters goes into the bathroom to wash his face after seeing a steak creep across the counter, but instead of cleansing his face the skin starts to peel away, and he keeps pulling at it until he is only a skull with eyes.
If you’re sitting at your desk at work, or on your couch with the lights on, that might seem hokey, but even now, watching it on a sunny morning, it made me want to throw up. That reaction I had all those years ago, sitting alone in a dark room, came flooding back, and the hairs on my arms stood up, just like it had then. The combination of anticipation and atmosphere made that movie much more than it may have been otherwise.
I’m no longer a chicken about horror flicks, but I still tend to favor the ones that I stumble upon late at night when the rest of the house is quiet. No other genre of film offers the potential for a viewing experience the way horror movies do. If I listed my ten favorite movies of all time, there wouldn’t be a horror movie close to the list, but if I listed my ten favorite movie-watching experiences, it would have a bunch of them.
I’ve probably watched The Shining a dozen times in my life, and the next time it scares me will be the first. I think the first time I saw it was as a Saturday afternoon cable movie. I love it, but it has never scared me. When The Blair Witch Project came out, people I knew were losing their minds, saying it was the scariest movie they’d ever seen (you had to be there to understand why that wasn’t an absurd thing to say, people thought it was real found footage, something that could never happen today with the internet). I watched it after school one day, it was a pretty nice day. I was disappointed.
Having the perfect setup to watch a horror movie can transform what you are seeing from something that is just another movie into something that can scare you for the rest of your life. It’s why they keep making them, even as people keep complaining about them, because when it all comes together it’s a wholly unique experience as a viewer. You might carry other great films and characters with you, but you can carry around the feeling of a horror film in a different way than any other genre.
That face melting away will always make the hair on my neck stand, just like the coffins rising from the ground and those bright lights. That movie still turns me into a scared kid, uneasy about the shadows outside my window. Poltergeist will always scare me, because it will always put me right back into the dark room, alone and terrified. I still imagine Harry frozen in his chair, thinking someone was on that porch.
Watching Poltergeist was a hell of an experience, and I’m still having it.
What’s your favorite horror movie experience? Don’t be frightened to tell us in the comments below.