“Go to the Places that Scare you.” — A Review of Scary Scenes in Childhood Films

This evening I got thinking about the unconscious, as is perhaps easier to do late into the night when the silence and darkness are more conducive for letting out the “unseen” both physically and psychologically.

I started to think about Joe Frank’s interview with Lester Nafzger called “Lynchpins”, which you can listen to on Hearing Voice’s (an NPR production) website. Nafzger talks about a moment early in childhood when he had the thought, “I will remember this”, starting when his brother was born, and how this moment created a series of life-reference points. Sometimes these “jolts” come through him when he has the sense that he will remember something. He calls them lynchpin moments that thread his life together. It can almost be like a “soothing mantra,” he says. I have written about my own experiences in relation to this in my blog post “Total Presence” (sorry for the self-referencing).

At the same time, I was contemplating the connection between film and memory. Can film actually appear like memory by showing slightly rough and incomplete features, which might in a sense “accurately” depict the mode of appearance of the mental imagery of memories? Or is it the other way around; that is, do we reflect on our own memories differently based upon contextual relation to the degrading nature of old photographs and film from our childhood, for instance? Does film actually teach us how to perceive (or teach us more about how we perceive a priori), understand the visual experience of a memory, and imagine? The latter is a much bolder question, but still to me seems still a rational and valid inquiry. This is, of course, not to claim that film would be the only medium that teaches us how to perceive, remember, and imagine — literature, oral storytelling, fine art, etc, might also do this.

I started thinking about the scenes in films that affected me the most strongly as a child. I realized that I would have a sensation while watching certain films of being scared and fascinated at the same time. A blog post entitled “The Most Unintentionally Terrifying Movies of All Time” discusses a list of really psychologically intense scenes present in children’s films. Specifically notable for me are the donkey-transformation scene in Disney’s Pinocchio, which is not altogether too different from the sense of psychological horror induced in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. This character (I forget the character’s name) transitions from boy into donkey, one feature at a time and is unaware of it as such until he looks into a mirror. His own character faults (specifically, lying) turn him into an animal.

Another one of the scenes in this list that fascinated me as a child was the Princess Mombi scene in Return to Oz. The “Hall of Heads” in this scene is referenced in the show Futurama. In this scene, Princess Mombi brings Dorothy into her grand hall gallery of various heads that she wears. She removes one and replaces it with another, and then threatens Dorothy to steal her head once she gets older.

In The Never Ending Story, there is a scene where Artax dies in the Sea of Sadness. In the “Quicksaaaand!” episode of Radiolab, Dan Engber reports that children today are not as fearful of quicksand than children of past generations. One hypothesis as to why this might be is that there are a lot fewer films that depict scenes of quicksand sinking. Again, there is this strong psychological undertone to the notion of quicksand as something that can swallow you whole in a gradual process of sinking.

The things that we see that scare us as children stay with us. This is almost certainly the case with scenes in films. However, the psychological complexity of these scenes and what they might represent metaphorically also can become deeply sewn into the fabric of how we think about ourselves, others, and the world.

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