You might laugh at what frightens me. Everyone is built different; one person's fear is another's source of amusement. One evening a friend came over just as I was starting to watch The Shining on TV. My friend laughed as the foreboding music began to play, even before the titles appeared, and then he kept laughing during the opening credit sequence. It was annoying; I asked him what was so funny. "I laugh when I'm really, really scared," were his parting words as he hastily departed.
So consider this list a cinematic confessional: five films that, when I first watched them, shook me to my core, sometimes for reasons that I'm still reluctant to explore. Listed in reverse chronological order of first viewing:
5. Ringu (1998; d. Nakata Hideo)
After hearing about the movie for months, I bought an import DVD and watched it late one night, by myself, in my father's house. It was a traumatic period of time in my life, but I'd been watching a lot of Asian horror films and only one had really affected me. (See below.) I thought I was sufficiently hardened to ridicule anyone who might be scared by such a silly concept, and then I got wrapped up in the story and it started playing on my nerves and I became aware of the empty spaces in the house and I began hugging a pillow and rocking back and forth on the sofa. Later, I laughed at how the opening night audience reacted to the American remake.
4. Kairo (AKA Pulse) (2001; d. Kurosawa Kiyoshi)
Before I moved from Dallas back to Los Angeles temporarily to help my father, my addiction to Asian movies had taken hold and I was watching everything I could. As I recall, Kairo was only available on VCD at the time, so I bought it and slipped the first disc into the player. Near the end of it, there's a particular moment of silence, followed by a gasped word, then silence, then a gasped word, and that combination made the hair on the back of my neck stand up -- like it is as I type this -- and it took me quite a while that night to summon the nerve to watch the rest of the movie. Why did it unnerve me so? I have no idea.
3. Dawn of the Dead (1978; d. George Romero)
I can't even recall if I had seen Night of the Living Dead at this point, early in my solo theatrical moviegoing experience, but the local alternative weeklies in Los Angeles were raving about the movie and so I ventured to a cavernous older theater (most likely the long-closed Four Star Theatre) and was totally freaked out when a zombie takes a huge bloody bite out of somebody's shoulder. (Not as big as I remembered, but still ...) It wasn't a nibble, it was a chomp, and a chunk of flesh came off, and I flashed back to seeing a big open wound in my uncle's arm after he fell through a glass door, and I sat glued to my chair, my stomach churning, barely breathing throughout the movie. I've been afraid of an impending zombie attack ever since.
2. Jaws (1975; d. Steven Spielberg)
Having seen Duel on TV, I was doubly eager to see the hot new summer thriller. The sight of the bitten-off leg early on made me jump, just like everyone else in the packed theater, but it was the heroic final battle of Robert Shaw vs. the shark that frightened me the most, the idea that you could be a big strong man -- I was a weak slender teen -- and still get eaten alive, not just eaten alive, but bitten and chomped and ... oh, I was upset for weeks. The movie was the perfect storm of fears: my fear of the water (unreasonable for a Southern Californian) and my fear of being eaten alive by an animal. All that summer, I kept imagining that a shark would burst out from the bathroom sink and eat me.
1. Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959; d. Robert Stevenson)
As a wee lad, my mother took me to see this inoffensive children's movie from Walt Disney. In my parents' view, the only safe and decent movies for a child had to have the Disney imprimateur, so when this movie (starring Sean Connery, pre-James Bond) was re-released, off we went. In one scene, a much-talked-about banshee finally appears, and its ethereal appearnce and spooky cry frightened me terribly; I'd never seen anything like it. And then I went home to the safety of my bedroom, where my parents left the window open on a hot night, and warm gusts of wind keep pushing the thin curtains hither and yon, looking for all the world like the horrible banshee, and I didn't sleep well for days.
Below I've embedded the opening credit sequence from The Shining; see if you can watch all three minutes without a shiver crawling down your spine. And feel free to share your own frightening experiences, if any, at the movies.