Ask any ten people to name the scariest thing they can think of and you’ll likely wind up hearing ten different nightmare scenarios. Sure, there are veritable kingpins of the haunting game. You’ve got ghosts, clowns, spiders, dark rooms, staticky television sets, phone calls from unknown numbers, and the inability to quickly think of a polite follow-up question when someone you’ve just met tells you what they do for a living. But everyone’s got their own personal biggest fears. And in turn, their own personal picks for scariest thing they’ve ever watched or read. But certain scares hold a unique place in our psyches – the things that scared us as kids.
So as part of Nerdoween, we here at Nerdist have decided to celebrate the things that frightened us most when we were most vulnerable. We’ve tapped our memories for the movies, books, and TV shows that terrorized us in our younger years. But beware: you’ll find our staff picks and longstanding nightmares below, and many will still frighten you now. We know because they still scare us.
Robbie’s Bedroom in Poltergeist
Eric Diaz: “Poltergeist was my first true horror movie experience. And it got me right where I live. Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s 1982 haunted house opus was set in a Southern California suburban home, much like my own. And one of the family’s three kids, Robbie, was eight years old just like me. So when his familiar bedroom, filled with Star Wars toys and Marvel comics, suddenly came to life at night and terrorized him, I was frozen with fear. Poltergeist taught me that horror didn’t always happen in some creepy old mansion. It could be in a home just like mine.”
The Woman Without Eyeballs from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Harper & Row
Sophy Ziss: I think it’s a rite of passage for my generation to have been traumatized by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. ‘The Haunted House’ chapter did have a happy ending. But that didn’t make the artwork less disturbing! There was something about turning the page as a kid and seeing a full-page illustration of a woman with hollow eye sockets and stringy hair, and features rotting off of her face, that felt downright wrong. Almost like a person wasn’t supposed to see that. I mean, I’m 27, I live by myself, and still worry on occasion she’ll pop up and ask me to bury her bones.”
The Brutality of The Toxic Avenger
Kyle Anderson: “Cartoons were my lifeblood when I was a kid. And if it was action-adventure in nature, I inhaled it like a sweet hit of scented oxygen. In 1991, one of my new favorites was Toxic Crusaders, a show where doofuses get exposed to radioactive material and get turned into superheroes. I loved it! So you can imagine, when flipping channels one Saturday afternoon and finding a live-action version of Toxie wielding his trademark mop, I was stoke. Until I watched more of it.
See, back in the early ’90s, the USA Network was a cesspool of residual ’80s trash. And one fateful Saturday they showed a marathon of Troma’s Toxic Avenger movies, the basis for the cartoon. Those movies were violent to a degree my fragile little mind hadn’t seen. And the violence was super gory AND played for laughs. I was terrified, but couldn’t stop watching. As a result, I was terrified of the word ‘toxic’ and anything having to do with tutus, mops, and any bar from Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ for years to come. Don’t make children’s cartoons out of Troma movies.”
E.T.’s Near Death in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
Kelly Knox: My first memory in a movie theater is actually the scariest one! In 1982, tiny me was watching E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial on the big screen. From what I remember, I literally have never seen E.T. again since things go from cute to scary as E.T. falls ill and turns a sickly, pasty white color. Just as the screen started flashing with bright lights, illuminating the clear plastic tunnels while he was being held prisoner, I’d had enough! I crouched down behind the theater seats in front of me so I couldn’t see the screen any longer. You can have your IT and Nightmare on Elm Street and Something Wicked This Way Comes. But E.T. was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”
The Little Ghost Girl from Lady in White
Benjamin Bailey: As a kid, A Lady in White scared the hell out of me. It’s not gory and there are no real jump scares or anything like that. But man, as a ghost story it is top-notch. The scene where we see the ghost of a little girl relive her murder gave me endless nightmares. The ghosts don’t menace the main characters in the story, which is somehow even more unsettling. I was scared when I woke up at night that I’d see a little ghost just playing in my room or walking down the hall. That notion seemed, and sorta still is, very real to me.”
Judge Doom Getting Flattened and Dipped in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Dan Casey: “A protracted, high-pitched wail. Anguished cries of pain. Bulging red eyes that look as though they might burst at any moment. A horrible gurgling from the viscous, green ichor on the ground. These were the truly wretched sights and sounds of Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom, the imperious executioner of beloved cartoon characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Why my parents let me watch this hard-boiled tale of deception, mystery, and murders most foul I will never know. But the scene at the film’s climax where Judge Doom dies slowly and horribly in the fulminating green goo of his own creation left deep and lasting psychic scars. I always knew the scene was coming. But I couldn’t look away. My pulse quickened, my breath shortened, and time seemed to stand still as that interminable nightmare played out in excruciating detail. The scene only lasts for about a minute, but the effects have stayed with me for a lifetime.”
The Nuclear fallout of When the Wind Blows
Luke Y. Thompson: “When I was about eight years old, my parents got me Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, which they thought was a children’s book like all his others, despite knowing and telling me it was about World War III. I assumed it would be a war comic; instead, like most of his books, it begins with working-class folks who daydream big and occasionally humorously misunderstand things. Halfway through, a nuclear bomb drops. Not knowing anything about radiation, I was as ignorant reading it as the main characters who slowly die. As the book’s colors get blurry to represent brain and eye damage, and our protagonists begin vomiting and bleeding to death.
To make matters worse, in trying to ‘explain’ things, my parents told me this could happen any day if nothing was done about it. (It was the Cold War still.) After reading the book twice I made them take it away. And it resurfaced in bad dreams for many years afterward. I performed a bit of self-exorcism by watching the animated adaptation as an adult with lots of cocktails nearby, seeing it now as just the sad story of a loving couple who die. I’m still a bit afraid to look at the book again though.”
The cube from Cube
Rosie Knight: “I remember watching Cube at a sleepover when I was about 11. I was really into horror at the time, but had only really seen slasher movies and classics. So I was not prepared for the overwhelming terror that Cube bestowed on me. Something about the notion of waking up somewhere unrecognizable just struck me so hard that it honestly took over my life. I was constantly considering the idea that anytime I closed my eyes I could wake up in an evil sci-fi trap box. Weirdly it only grew my love for horror and Cube is still up there for me.”
Rik Mayall’s Head Getting Squashed in Drop Dead Fred
New Line Cinema
Mica Arbeiter: “For something close to 20 years, I had no idea which movie it was that had lain a young me to psychological waste with images of a grown man writhing in anguish as his head was slowly squashed in a refrigerator door. I had run out of the room at Evan and Jason’s house the instant the scene got too graphic – that horrifying moment when Rik Mayall’s face flattened and neck turned to rubber. And was left battling unwelcome memories of the sequence without even the comfort of knowing the name of the film that had so scarred me.
The mystery of its origins made matters all the more grim when the trauma resurfaced thanks to the scene in the otherwise jolly Liar Liar. When Jim Carrey smashed his own face in the toilet. In fact, flashbacks would pop up from time to time until 2012, when some handy Googling by a dutiful friend introduced me properly to the veritable snuff film that is Drop Dead Fred. Even still, I’m at my least comfortable around fridges.”
The Floating Child from Salem’s Lot
Todd Gilchrist: “When I was about five, Salem’s Lot premiered on television. I guess because it was a TV movie, my parents didn’t think it would be that scary. Or maybe they just weren’t quite paying attention as I became enthralled by it. But there’s a scene where a small, evil-looking vampiric child floats up to a window and starts scratching at the glass. (I am trying to describe this from memory, because the last time I tried to re-watch it at age 40 I couldn’t get through more than a few seconds.)
The scene was scary enough. But what was worse was the fact that I was staying at my grandmother’s house where every bedroom had floor to ceiling curtains that glowed in the moonlight at night. To this day I’ve never watched the whole movie or even the complete scene. And I was constantly reminded of it any time I ever visited my grandmother.”
The Man Who Attempts to Kill the Circus Freaks, and then himself, in Geek Love
Alfred A. Knopf
Lindsey Romain: “The scariest thing I’ve ever read is actually one small snippet in a vast sea of weird prose. Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (not about nerds, but about circus geeks, the kind who bite the heads off chickens) is a bizarro opus about a traveling freak show and the strange family that runs it. There’s a lot of freaky stuff in the book. But the one thing that has stuck with me for years is a small side story about a man named Vern Bogner.
After encountering the freak show on one of their stops, he grew enraged and disgusted at their deformities and attempted to assassinate them. He failed, his life fell apart, and years later he attempted suicide and instead blew off half of his face. He returns to the freak show, this time seeking acceptance, and becomes the secondhand man to one of its members who is slowly forming a cult. That may not sound scary. But the depictions of Bogner after his suicide attempt, coupled with the fact that he wears a cloth bag over his head and goes by the name Bag Man, have crawled under my skin and stayed in my head since I first read them.”
Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters 2
Michael Walsh: “A horrifying portrait of an evil, genocidal 16th century sorcerer comes to life in modern day New York. He then abducts a baby so he can use its body to take a physical form and rule the world. To most people who saw Ghostbusters 2 in 1989, that was the premise of a supernatural action-comedy. To five-year-old me it was a genuine horror movie. Because Vigo the Carpathian scared the crap out of me. The only thing that frightens me about the movie now is its premise. But as a kid seeing that freakish monster step out of his giant painting was like seeing a literal nightmare come to life.”
The Shape from Halloween
Matthew Grosinger: “It’s the only recurring nightmare I have as an adult, and, much like my boogeyman’s methods, it’s a variation of the same thing every time. Michael Myers is stalking me, again. And I know that this time will be the last. I’m frantic, running hard. But it doesn’t make a difference against his metronomic approach. An exacting, steady threat. And just before he gets me, I jolt awake, almost in shock.
I have never decided what’s scarier about The Shape: his expressionlessness and black chasm eyeholes. Or his semi/sub human movements. Like he just learned to walk and pick up objects last week. What I do know is that I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween way too young, watching with my older brother, and was permanently scarred. If I was the last one awake, watching TV in the basement, you f***ing bet I systematically flipped switches to leave at least one light on at all times as I headed upstairs for a fitful night of sleep. Though this childhood terror turned into a longstanding fascination with Carpenter’s films and his most iconic character, I still have this feeling that he/it is out there somewhere. Especially when I fall asleep.”
Pretty Much Everything about Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland
Rachel Heine: “Picture this: you’re whisked away to a magical dreamland. You meet a cute princess who teaches you how to fly. The King takes you under his wing. What could go wrong? Well, in the case of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, you could accidentally open up the forbidden door to Nightmareland, dooming your new pals to a fate worse than death.
As a little girl, I instinctively knew that if I met a sassy, cigar-smoking clown who was clearly trouble, I would definitely listen to him and accidentally free the Nightmare King from his prison. When Nemo had to watch, helpless, as dark, tangled tentacles descended upon his coronation and swallowed poor King Morpheus up, I got my first taste of existential dread. That didn’t stop me from watching it over and over again, though. (Let’s not analyze that.)