My daughter is just starting to get into horror, mainly as a result of the recent remake of It and the immense popularity of Stranger Things. I’d love to say that having a horror-loving father (and mother) has also had an impact on her, but that’s really not the way parenthood seems to work. Either way, she’s got a hardy taste for scares, and that makes me just about as proud a parent as when she comes home with a glowing school report.
The other day we were talking about the scariest film we’d ever seen, and I answered with a reflexive invocation of The Exorcist and The Shining, but over the last few days the question has wormed its way into my skin and I’ve been thinking about the most scared a horror film has ever made me.
It’s a scary film, don’t get me wrong, but perhaps a little context here. I was raised by publicans who worked every night. At a certain point I got old enough to be left without babysitters to fend for myself of an evening, and most days this led to a trip to the local purveyor of VHS tapes to get something that fulfilled one of two criteria: Fighting, or frightening. My parents were generally okay with me watching most things as long as they weren’t full of rude bits (there was the time when I wanted to rent Red Heat only to be vetoed over the title, much to the consternation of a young man who just wanted to get his Arnie on).
At the time of this tale, we lived in a flat in Docklands, London, a place with amazing views over the Thames and a lounge blessed with a pretty sizeable television for the time. I’m sure if I showed it to my kids they’d laugh at its tiny proportions, curved screen and fat arse, but back then it was the height of televisual sophistication – the perfect place to sit down of an evening, for instance, and chill out with a terrifying tale of bees and hook-hands.
Obviously, I didn’t want to be disturbed by all that glorious view of the river, so I pulled the thick curtains shut, closed the door to the lounge, turned off the lights, and settled down. This was, looking back, a mistake. Now, if you’ve never seen Candyman, I won’t spoil it, but it involves a very scary Tony Todd terrorising the lovely Virginia Madsen after she stands in front of the mirror and says the following:
Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman.
Come the end of the film, I was terrified. It was a bit much for my young sensibilities to handle. Something about the film struck a deep and terrible chord in me, and I fled the lounge, pulling the door closed behind me, because that’s where the Candyman lived.
All alone in a dark flat, I tiptoed to the bathroom to go brush my teeth. Except, I couldn’t go in. That was where the mirror was, and Candyman lived in there, too. I couldn’t trust myself not to run in there, look in the mirror and blurt out: “Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman.”
Brushing my teeth in the corridor, I ducked my head in just long enough to spit and rinse, not daring to make eye contact with the mirror lest I find a hook-handed giant staring back at me. So terrified I could barely breathe, I went to bed, pulled the door closed and hid under my duvet. What followed were hours of fitful and restless half sleep. I dared not look out from the covers, because I was almost certain Tony Todd stood at the end of my bed, waiting for me to peek out.
At some point, I fell asleep, and that should be the end of the story. Except it’s not, because somewhere around three AM my bedroom door burst open. Petrified, I sat bolt upright, to be confronted by the sight of a towering, hook-handed monster, standing in my doorway, shouting at me to get up.
Except it wasn’t a hook-handed monster. It was my dad.
I sat up, confused and still terrified. My dad was not in the habit of waking me up at three in the morning, and he seemed pretty angry about something.
‘You’ve been smoking wacky baccy,’ he growled at me.
‘What?’ I legitimately responded. The party where a joint would be first waved under my nose was still a few years away at this point, and I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. ‘No, I didn’t.’ I might not have known what he was talking about, but I knew well enough to always offer a firm denial when accused by any adult of a crime or misdemeanour. (Now known as The Trump Manoeuvre)
My Dad must have seen the absolute confusion on my face, because his anger melted away. He explained that there was a funny smell in the lounge, but that they’d leave things as they were, and see if it still smelled in the morning. I don’t think he quite believed me fully, but he left me, heart pounding in my chest, still unsure as to the whereabouts of the Candyman but pretty sure he was under my bed by now.
The next morning, as I rose, bleary-eyed and shredded of nervous system, I held my breath as I left the room. I knew I was in trouble, but still didn’t really know why. But I’d made it through the night without the Candyman looming over my bed, and that wasn’t nothing.
I brought my breakfast through, noting that the curtains were open once more, bright daylight streaming through them and obliterating any lingering bad feelings I had toward the room. There was no Tony Todd hiding behind the sofa.
‘It’s okay,’ my dad said as I sat. ‘We worked out what it was. It was the new pot-pourri. Because the curtains and door were closed, it made the smell build up.’
‘Oh, good,’ I said, pleased to be in the clear, but slightly miffed that a bag of dried leaves and twigs were responsible for my 3am terror. Surely if I was going to be terrified by anything at that hour, it should be something on the scale of the Candyman?
I’ve never been able to bring myself to re-watch Candyman after all that, but it remains one of the scariest moments in my life, and all because of a bag of dried leaves.
What’s the scariest viewing experience you’ve ever had? Leave a comment below.