Halloween’s here, but none of the manufactured spooks and ghouls of the holiday can compare with your earliest memories of being frightened at the movies. Those images that you saw on screen can stick with you for the rest of your life. And when you’re a kid, your imagination can — and does — take you anywhere, especially to some of the darker places you’d rather avoid. Everyone’s list is different, but here are the top five movies that scared the crap out of me when I was a little girl:
• “The Shining” (1980): I have no idea what my parents were thinking letting me see this movie — and read the Stephen King novel that inspired it — but it remains, in my opinion, the scariest movie ever made. A lot of that has to do with Stanley Kubrick’s bold, startling visuals. A lot of that has to do with the unwanted psychic images that flash into young Danny’s mind — you’re a kid, maybe that could happen to you, too. And then, of course, there’s the notion of your father, the man you trust, losing his mind and turning on you and your mother. It didn’t help that my dad looked vaguely like Jack Nicholson back then, and he’d stand in the doorway maniacally snarling, “Here’s Daddy!” just to mess with me. Yeah. Good times.
• “The Exorcist” (1973): When you’re young, before skepticism sets in and you’re not quite questioning authority just yet, the threat of hell and the devil are very real and very pressing. And so the possibility of being possessed by the devil when you’re a little girl is just petrifying. Part of what made “The Exorcist” so frightening back then was the buzz that surrounded it, the fact that everyone was frightened by it. It created such a mystique, and deservedly so. But the idea of that kind of loss of control, of being a young, vulnerable creature who’s manipulated for pure evil — and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it — well that can traumatize an innocent mind.
• “The Amityville Horror” (1979): Again, this is one of those what-were-my-parents-thinking? movies. I just remember seeing it on television, probably on ON-TV, with the little decoder box that you had to switch “on” to receive programming. We didn’t have a basement — we lived in a one-story, midcentury modern tract house in the San Fernando Valley — so we didn’t have a hidden well that was the passage to hell. But just the idea of it! All those tortured souls still haunting the place. And the blood dripping down the walls and the growling voice of the house, urging its new inhabitants: “Get out! Get out!” Once again, my dad would run around our own house mimicking that voice. But I’m totally over it now, which is great.
• “Fantasia” (1940): I’m sorry, the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence is still totally disturbing. I don’t care how old you are. The menacing demon Chernabog on high on that dark night, summoning souls from their graves in a frenzied swirl, the skeletons flinging themselves into a fiery pit. Also there’s the whole “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment with Mickey Mouse, which is supposed to be lively and whimsical, but the idea of the mops and buckets thinking for themselves and wreaking havoc always freaked me out. Still does.
• “The Wizard of Oz” (1939): We all have fond memories of this movie from childhood, and anyone who knows me — or has seen the “Movies That Made Us Critics” episode of the show I co-host, “Ebert Presents At the Movies” — knows that this was an early influence on me and my lifelong love of film. But man, those flying monkeys were scary. I have vivid memories of hiding behind the coffee table, cowering at my mother’s feet, every time they came on. And they came on a lot, because we had this videotaped and we watched it all the time. Sure, the Wicked Witch of the West was frightening, but even then it was obvious how cartoonish she was. The flying monkeys, though — you could imagine that really happening.