My mum is planning on making my dad take her to see It for date night. This is notable for them in that my mum has a lifelong fear of clowns in part because of the original It mini-series, starring Tim Curry as Pennywise. I grew up with a keen awareness of her phobia, one I ended up inheriting, which made one primary School Christmas party especially traumatic. Yet my mum also has that It mini-series on DVD, and she’s watched it more than once, often with my dad who doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. She watched the trailers for the new It through her fingers and uses Facebook sparingly because my brother-in-law keeps tagging her into photos of Pennywise, but she still wants to see the new film, because, in her words, ‘I like being scared.’ This thing that haunted my mum as a teenager, this pop culture phenomenon that created generations of clourophobes, is now date night material.
That got me thinking about the pop culture that left a lingering impact on my psyche. As a lifelong and endlessly voracious consumer of film, TV, literature and internet shenanigans, I tend to remember the stuff that screwed with me as much as I remember the happy stuff that impacted me in the long-term, like Harry Potter, The Simpsons, the films of Billy Wilder, and anything by Rufus Wainwright. I’m a genre geek who’s also an eternal coward, so treading that path can be a treacherous task. What do you do when you adore classic horror, psychological thrillers and the collected works of David Lynch, but you’re also a screaming hysteric who cries as absolutely everything? Mostly, you tune in and hope for the best. You pick Friday and Saturday nights for viewing purposes so you at least have an excuse to stay up with the lights on for fear of a spontaneous monster attack.
Still, I occasionally like to be scared. I find catharsis in the thrill and it can work wonders for releasing pent up frustrations or tension that has no other outlet. Thinking about my mum’s clown situation led me to look up the pop culture that left the biggest marks. To say they ‘ruined my childhood’ is obviously an exaggeration, and I tend to be annoyed by frivolous use of that phrase because of its implications, but at the time, as a pre-adolescent who thought childhood would never end, it certainly felt like that! A lot of these are pretty obvious choices but some are more exclusive to the UK and took a fair bit of digging. Make sure you share your own childhood disrupting pop culture moments in the comments so I feel like less of a numpty for spilling out all my tragedies right here.
See How They Run
Like most British kids of my generation, I grew up watching a lot of CBBC. The kids’ programming bloc on BBC 1 - before all of that moved to its own separate channel - was prime viewing material for any kid after school and before teatime. The end of the bloc was obviously the best because it was aimed at older kids and this was where See How They Run was broadcast. I must admit, it took a lot of random googling of words to find the name of this show, which I have extremely distinct memories of but couldn’t for the life of me recall the title. The 6 part mini-series centred on a family sent into the Witness Protection Act after the father agreed to testify against the drug baron he had unwittingly worked for. In one episode, the family return from a shopping trip to find a note on the door that leads them to discover their dog has been poisoned. Animal abuse of any kind is a potent trigger for kids of any age, and this episode upset me for a long time. Looking back, the episode is actually quite naff and nowhere near the sophisticated drama my childhood memory had spun it as. The sight of the dog dead in the garden is still a sad one, but it’s clear that it’s just a very well trained dog who can lie still while the cameras roll. I remembered it being much more disturbing, as one’s brain is prone to doing.
The Demon Headmaster
Based on the series of books by Gillian Cross, this was another CBBC series that felt so delightfully adult and subversive as a child. It’s the exact kind of story you would come up with as a kid, especially if you had a proper dragon of a headteacher like I did. Who didn’t theorise at least once in their life that their headteacher was hellbent on world domination? Why else would you take on that job if not to wield a little maniacal power over a beleaguered populace? In The Demon Headmaster, new student Dinah finds her fellow schoolmates acting peculiar, and the source of the problem goes all the way to the top. I can’t remember distinct moments that scared the hell out of me. I mostly just recall the hypnotic star of the eponymous headmaster, a man so tall and foreboding that being an evil headteacher seemed like his only option in life aside from scary bellhop in a haunted hotel. The whole show had this menace surrounding it that kept me on edge, which is what makes watching it now so entertaining, because it’s very good fun for what it is but it’s also been softened to a kind of self-conscious camp after decades off the air. If the Stranger Things nostalgia boom ever makes its way to mid-90s British kids TV, I’d love to see a reboot of this.
It’s a Mystery
If you didn’t like CBBC, you could check out CITV, for ITV’s kids’ bloc of entertainment. I was generally loyal to the Beeb - they had Blue Peter, why would I go anywhere else? - but CITV tapped into my burgeoning interest in the weird. I was a Roald Dahl kid, after all (you were a Dahl kid or an Enid Blyton reader in my school. No backsies). It’s a Mystery was a precursor to decades of terrible conspiracy programming, the kind that the History Channel has now stopped trying to pass off as history, but where it differed was in teaching kids to solve riddles and question the unexplained. There were stories about unsolved mysteries, like the Loch Ness Monster, but also cases that could be solved with science and solid facts. That didn’t stop them from milking each segment for every scare possible, which proved too intoxicating for young me, even when I had to force my younger, more fearless sister to watch with me. The one episode that stuck with me involved a man in a darkened church who saw a spectre moving towards him. Even on a low-quality screen, it petrified me, and that fear didn’t dissipate when it was simply revealed to be a balloon.
Speaking of being a Roald Dahl kid…
No seriously, how did this get made? How did the guy who directed Don’t Look Now get anywhere near a kids’ movie? It’s not as of the source material is sunshine and rainbows - indeed, on top of those unnerving Quentin Blake illustrations, the book is actually the darker piece of material in many ways - but wow, The Witches was a life-ruiner. This is a movie that doesn’t mess about with its central thesis - witches will fuck you up, and they’ll make it hurt. The infamous scene where the gluttonous Bruno turns into a mouse in front of a braying crowd of witches was Cronenbergian levels of fucked up to me, and that still scared me less than seeing Anjelica Huston in full Grand High Witch prosthetics. Truth time - I’m 27 and I still can’t re-watch that film. I’ll take Pennywise any day of the week.
So my parents had a very casual attitude towards what my sister and I watched as kids. Basically, their ethos was ‘Well, you’re going to keep bugging us until we let you watch it so we might as well and it’s your own fault if you’re scarred for life so don’t say we didn’t warn you.’
That’s how I first saw David Fincher’s Se7en at the age of eleven (my sister was eight and a much hardier child than myself, having grown up watching Casualty every Saturday night at our grandparents’ house and revelling in the gore of surgery scenes). By this point in time, I’d already seen the Scream movies, Friday the 13th and The Nightmare on Elm Street, all of which had entertained me but done little in the way of scares, so as an eleven year old, I felt ready for a drama about a man who kills people according to the seven deadly sins. It was all fine for the first two sins, but when it got to Sloth, I totally freaked. The sight of that decaying body, ravaged by starvation and sores, surrounded by Magic Tree air fresheners, sent child up my spine, then created the jump scare to end all jump scares when he suddenly started coughing. I went to bed after that and didn’t see the rest of the film until I was about 22. The worst part? I spent a week without restful sleep due to nightmares and my sister was left unscarred by the experience! Seriously, nothing bothered her at all. I still kind of hold that against her. No offence, Daryl.