No single film has affected my life more than a humble made-for-TV movie from 1973 called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which served as the scary movie deflowering of many impressionable young minds of Generation X. It seemed to run at least one Saturday afternoon every month of the 1980s on WPIX channel 11. Whenever it did, my older brother and I sat transfixed on the basement’s loop pile carpet (in three tones of brown), filled with dread.
Spoiler alert--but if you didn’t watch this movie as a child, it’s already spoiled.
The story goes like this: the neurotic Sally and her dapper polyester-besuited husband move into a huge house they inherited. They dismiss the warnings of the cranky old handyman to stay away from the room that’s locked and boarded up, because Sally is hell-bent on turning the space into a study.
Too bad there are demonic creatures sealed up in the fireplace! Sally breaks the seal, sealing her fate. The presence of these small creatures is at first only indicated by their green collective aura and their fiendish whispers.
Then we see more of their shriveled alien-like heads and their furry bodies (at a height around the Smurfs’ “three apples high”), as they lumber towards our increasingly agitated heroine whenever it’s dark, hissing and moaning, “Saaally! We want you!” Only light scatters them away.
The creatures kill the interior decorator before he can bring any sassy levity to her troubled existence or make this movie look any more like the 1970s. Finally when her husband leaves for a business trip, the demons dope Sally with her sleeping pills, cut the electricity, and begin dragging her down the stairs toward the fireplace. She feebly resists, and she’s able to call and alert her husband and temporarily fend them off with a camera flash, but she’s too weak to prevail.
The husband returns to the house just moments too late. The last scene is an interior shot from the seemingly bottomless fireplace, as he leans in with his flashlight.
[flashlight drops into abyss]
And then the whispering voices arise, with Sally’s voice now among them, as one of them!
My brother and I absorbed this conclusion with saucer eyes, innocent minds warped.
I didn’t notice that the creatures were low budget, and to see them now looking like stuffed animal puppets with shrunken heads is laughable. Then, it was terrifying. I became afraid of the dark. It was not severe enough that I needed a night light or a “feelings doctor,” but after turning off the light switch by my bedroom door, I always leaped onto my bed from a few feet away, so that nothing could grab me from beneath, and then I couldn’t ever let an arm or leg dangle over the edge. Those creatures were down there, waiting to drag me down to the basement and into the furnace.
But more than just giving shape to what might be lurking under my bed, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was the first example of an adult who made a mistake and couldn’t defend herself from the dreadful consequences. Until then, I hadn’t seen many, if any, movies that didn’t have a happy ending. There wasn’t much in my suburban existence to indicate that sometimes things will really not be OK. The closest I’d probably gotten to depressing grownup realities were country songs or the end of The Hulk TV show when Bill Bixby walks away with the Lonely Man theme playing.
I own a VHS copy of DBAOTD, a relic from when they were packaged in the oversize boxes, scored from a Blockbuster clearance bin. As a bonus, the tape includes trailers for multiple ’70s B-flicks, each involving death by swarms of critters: ANTS! SNAKES! Killer Bees! It was part of my “getting to know you” process that with a boyfriend that I would eventually dust off this tape and introduce him to this influential film, so that he might understand the reference, though not the terror it instilled. When I first met my husband, it was a very good sign that when Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark came up in conversation, he knew what I was talking about.
I’m not the only one so affected by DBAOTD. Due largely to its repeated afternoon TV air times, the movie made an indelible impact on a lot of kids. Around 150 user reviews on IMDB.com written by viewers now in their 30s and 40s indicate the legacy this little movie left on their impressionable minds of yore. These tributes have headings titled “Childhood Trauma-Inducer,” “serious childhood trauma spilling over into adulthood,” “messed with my mind as a kid,” and “messed me up but good.” You won’t have to look far to spot the phrase “psychologically scarred,” and like me, many of these people also report thinking that the creatures lived under their beds or in their fireplaces or in their basements.
The writer and producer of the movie’s new remake, Guillermo del Toro, had the same experience. "It was something close to my heart for a very long time," he told USA Today. "My brothers and I would pursue each other in the house, saying, 'Sally, Sally'. We thought the movie was the most terrifying on Earth, and I want to honor what worked so well in that film."
As I grew older, I’d still haul ass up the basement stairs if my brother turned the light off when I was only halfway up, but those early fears of the dark were supplanted by the 80s horror fodder I watched at slumber parties--typically slasher stuff that was either scary in a more startling, less haunting way, or just gory. It took a very long time to realize that I was in a lifelong setup for disappointment with the scary movie genre. For every Nightmare on Elm Street, there was a Nightmare on Elm Street parts 2, 3, and 4, and a remake of the original.
I still relish a good frightening movie as an adult, when one can be found amid the gore: The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, that hand-eye creep in Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and though it wasn’t a horror film, the party scene with Robert Blake in Lost Highway. I doubt these would be as scary if I watched them again now. As with comedy, horror often doesn’t stand up over time. It depends on the viewer and what they’ve seen before.
But as an adolescent and then adult, the films that chilled to the core, the ones that flashed to mind in the dark or as I fumbled with my key in the door coming home at 1 a.m. (because oh Jesus if I turn around, Candyman will be calmly standing there!), those movies are few. And after DBAOTD, nothing could ever affect me in the same way, just like with Sally, nothing was the same once she unsealed that fireplace.