How young is too young to watch a scary movie?
With Halloween approaching, we asked you, the reader, to share your experiences of this rite of passage. Nearly 1,000 people responded with indelible memories; for some, watching a scary movie at a young age inspired a lifelong love of horror movies.
Among those we heard from, the most common ages to be exposed to a hair-raising movie seemed to be from 7 to 10, peaking at age 8. But many were also freaked out as teenagers and even as adults.
You watched them at the local movie theater; on a black-and-white television; at your neighbor’s house when your parents thought you were being closely supervised; with an older sibling who let you tag along; or with a grandparent who thought the PG-rated “Poltergeist” was a great choice for movie night.
“The Exorcist,” William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece that turns 50 this year, was mentioned most frequently as your first scary movie, followed by “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Birds” and “Psycho.” But even Disney’s 1942 animated film “Bambi” traumatized many.
You also had us looking up lesser-known, eerie cinematic moments: the “wheelers” in “Return to Oz” (1985); the creepy hearse driver’s smile in “Burnt Offerings” (1976); the haunted organ music in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966); and Large Marge’s jolting transformation in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1985). We also appreciated the crisp, black-and-white splendor of Gort the robot in “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951) and the unexpectedly heart-wrenching ending to the Japanese Kaiju movie “Rodan” (1956).
Here are some of our favorite responses.
‘The Exorcist’ Still Haunts You
“My parents were watching it, and it was back when TV only had like five or six stations over the airwaves. This was in a cabin in rural Michigan on a B&W set. I remember my parents telling me it was better to watch it to the end and see the resolution. Later that night, my father got food poisoning and was throwing up a lot. After watching that movie, I thought he was possessed.”
— Bill Lester of Long Beach, Calif., on seeing the film at age 7.
“My parents did not know and would not have approved. I am now 53 years old so we did not even own a VCR. A babysitter brought one over for the weekend, and we watched not only ‘The Exorcist’ but also ‘Deliverance’ (was our babysitter Hannibal Lecter?).”
— Jeff Knops of Seattle, on seeing the film at age 9.
“I was so frightened that I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head so that I didn’t have to watch it. It didn’t work. The sounds of the movie scared me just as much. I couldn’t sleep for months. Later I snuck into it a second time in order to overcome my fear. It was equally traumatic.”
— Jay Frisch of New York, who sneaked into a theater to watch it at age 13.
“My mother’s boyfriend would take me and my 5-year-old sister to horror movies. This was in the ’70s, when you could take kids to terrible movies at second-run theaters, apparently. He told us we were going to see “Benji,” the dog movie. This was not recognized as abuse back then. Many things were not. My sister still has nightmares about it — she’s 51 now.”
— Jodi Peterson of Central Illinois, Ill., on seeing the film at age 8.
“One girl of 14 who had been tasked with watching me for the day suggested we all watch ‘The Ring.’ She called my mom to ask for permission, but my mom had misunderstood and thought I’d be watching ‘Lord of the Rings.’”
— Holly of Arlington, Mass., on seeing “The Ring” at age 9.
“My parents had absolutely forbidden me to watch this movie. Uncharacteristically, they forgot to tell the babysitter. In my memory, I barely slept a wink. I could not go to my parents for comfort, because they had forbidden me to watch the film. I could not go to my sister for comfort because she would certainly inform my parents. So there I lay, rigid, hypervigilant and terrified.”
— Tess Tyson of Gig Harbor, Wash., on seeing “The Birds” at age 6.
“My mother was out and my 10-year-old cousin was watching me. ‘The Blob’ was on the Friday Night Frights. He made the judgment call I could watch it with him, rather than risk missing any of it by putting me to bed.”
— Eric Gansworth of Tuscarora Nation Indian Territory, Tuscarora, N.Y., on seeing “The Blob” at age 5.
“I was spending the night with my friend Matt. His mom was at a party so it was just the two of us in the house. Matt’s house had HBO, which meant scary movies in all their R-rated glory. Ten-year-old machismo made us eager to watch. So we watched it. Jiffy Pop and Coke were consumed. Super fun! But THEN when it was time to go to bed, Matt said, “I’m going to sleep in my mom’s bed and wait for her to come home,” leaving me alone in his room in a sleeping bag. I was petrified. Absolutely petrified.”
— Jason Heck of Belton, Mo., on seeing “Halloween II” at age 11.
You Call These Children’s Movies?!
“My earliest and most vivid encounter with sheer terror took place in a movie theater when I was 3 years old. It was at the Fresh Pond Cinema in Cambridge, Mass., not during a showing of ‘Cujo’ or ‘It,’ but another dog and clown horror classic (masquerading as a kids’ movie), ‘Air Bud.’ Still indelible in my memory is a particular scene in which the sottish, spiteful clown re-emerges intent on snatching Buddy, our endearing, basketball-dunking dog pal, away from his newfound, but kind, young companion. Even now, I’m not sure what was scarier: watching the clown reappear on the screen, or the deafening, collective cry of fear that erupted from me and the rest of the audience of toddlers.”
— Clare Goslant of Cambridge, Mass., on seeing “Air Bud” at age 3.
“The wicked witch was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. I screamed and shut my eyes every time she appeared. That same year, after I had watched ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ I was cast as a wicked witch in my second-grade play. I cried and cried when I came home. I had wanted to play the fairy princess. My mother taught me how to cackle. And she said I’d be the star of the show. She was right.”
— Cathy Arden of New York, on seeing “The Wizard of Oz” at age 7.
“It was supposed to be a children’s movie, but the scene of Bambi’s mother dying in a forest was something I found terrifying!”
— Carter Bancroft of Huntington, N.Y., on seeing “Bambi” at age 5.
“My older sister and I were dropped off at the big movie theater for the Saturday matinee. She left me all by myself and went off with her girlfriends. This was before parental helicopter-ing. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ would later be broadcast annually on TV. Kids were able to cuddle with grown-ups in the safety of their own home, with the happy songs, cute little Munchkins and Dorothy’s funny friends. There’s no place like home. That’s a whole different process than I experienced, and it was a whole different picture for me. It was not so much my young age, but watching a family movie in that wild setting, having such a powerful effect on my senses, made it my first scary movie. I was scarred for life.”
— Don Feiler of Mattituck, N.Y., on seeing “The Wizard of Oz” at age 5.
“The menacing, manic Caligari with his long white hair and elongated hat terrified me as he danced around the tilted landscape and jagged windows. I could not wait for it to be over and for the threatening nonsense to stop. When it was, and my heart stopped racing, I realized I just had my first experience of art.”
— Kathleen Brady of New York, on seeing “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” at age 14.
“I’m sure I played it cool in front of my friends, but I laid in bed that night filled with dread, fear and regret. Michael Myers was coming for me. I finally went into my parent’s bedroom and woke up my mom and told her what was necessary at the moment — I wasn’t feeling well and needed her help. She took my temperature and tucked me back into bed and I think could tell I just really needed her right then. She sat on my bed and read me stories from a book she kept at her own bedside until the screams of Jamie Lee Curtis were replaced by the laughter of Erma Bombeck, and I was able to drift off to sleep. To this day I’ve never told my mom the truth of why I needed her that night. Maybe she knew all along. But I’m sure it was the last night of her soothing one of her babies to sleep.
“My mother is now 90 years old and her senior living facility is showing Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ this weekend. I’m planning to go watch it with her and perhaps afterward we will drink hot tea, finally tell this story, and read her Erma Bombeck book to distract us from any lingering fear. And isn’t that why we watch scary movies? They play out our fears and anxieties on the screen and remind us to find safety in those people and places who make us feel loved.”
— Beth Martinez of Austin, Texas, on sneaking into a showing of “Halloween II” at age 14.
“The sheer volume of spiders haunts me to this day. I am now a horror cinephile, but that movie wrecked me. The climax has spiders pouring out of the walls, the pipes, the television screen. And when it ended, I experienced this crazy sense of euphoria and pride at having survived something so terrifying. Unfortunately, it also instilled a lifelong fear of all things creepy and crawly — but honestly? I’ve been chasing the high of that first horror movie my whole life.”
— Andrew Gombas of Queens, N.Y., on seeing “Arachnophobia” at age 8.
“Being frightened by things that can’t really happen is both thrilling and teaches you perspective. Now that I’m grown up, I have a hard time watching scary movies because of all of the scary things that have happened to me in real life. I miss that ‘innocent’ fear.”
— Erin Walla of Norway, Mich., on seeing “Horror of Dracula” at age 7.
What Were My Parents Thinking?
“I actually watched this with my dad. Forty-three years later, I continue to jokingly ask, ‘Why did you think this was a good idea?’”
— Derik Frederiksen of Seattle, on seeing “The Shining” at age 6.
“The fact that no one in the room thought it was a bad idea for a child to be watching gave me true Gen X cred.”
— Lynwood Lord, Media, Pa., on seeing “Alien” at age 9.
“Why the title didn’t give them pause, I’ll never understand. I had my eyes covered through most of it, so I didn’t see much of the film; the soundtrack was scary enough. When the movie ended, the lights came up in the theater, and still, the stunned crowd sat silent, no one moving. I couldn’t understand why no one was running out of there, and in my little-kid, high-pitched voice, I yelled out, ‘Let’s get out before it starts again!’”
— Joey Moskowitz of Paradise Valley, Ariz., on seeing “Psycho” at age 5.
Skeptical, but Still Scared
“I remember being scared but also dubious of the entire premise of the movie. I just didn’t believe it was plausible for you to run for your life and the guy to catch up with its leisurely stroll.”
— Eva Edith of Wasco, Calif., on seeing “Halloween IV” at age 8.
“I remembered the scene of Sadako crawling out of the television set very vividly. The only scene that I covered my eyes was when they played the ‘cursed video’ that would give you a call after you’d seen it. Funnily enough, my mom also looked away from the screen. We were a superstitious Asian family, so we weren’t taking any chances.”
— Ryan Oquiza, Ashburn, Va., on seeing “Ringu” at age 7.
“I remember trying to act cool and not scared, surrounded by my newfound middle school peers. I still had to hide my eyes sometimes. The scene where the demon pops up behind the dad scarred me for life. I had to keep my bedroom door open with the TV on in the next room for the next six months. I swore my house was haunted after that movie.”
— Sheridan Posschelle of Denver, on seeing “Insidious Part 1” at age 13.