Amazing Was An Understatement.

Pegged Jeans Nightmares 22

When I have to explain the 80s to future grandchildren, I think I’ll just tell them the only man they need to know about is Steven Spielberg.

From Jaws to E.T. to movies he produced, like Gremlins, no man captured the way it was like Spielberg did. He combined boyish wonder with lots of gore and made everything twice as majestic as any theater screen could hold.

He wasn’t content with just theater screens, though. He annexed our televisions with a production called Amazing Stories. Amazing Stories was such a grab bag of styles I can’t help but consider it disjointed. Some episodes were perfect for children, and others were perfect for scarring children. Some of the stories were whimsical flights of fancy, and others were so much darker.

Frankly, a lot of them are lame and dated now. You can catch up with the show on Netflix, where shows we remember from our childhoods are resurrected to embarrass us now.

The obvious episode to discuss of Amazing Stories was “Mummy, Daddy,” about an actor dressed as a mummy running into a real mummy on his way to the hospital, where his wife had give birth. It’s a good episode, and it has Spielbergian scary moments mixed with comedy. You should watch it.

Somehow, “Thanksgiving” ends up far scarier to me. Starring David Carradine and Kyra Sedgwick, the episode immediately drops us into squalor. Sedgwick wants to be free of Carradine, and they both think the strange creatures they found in their well might be their ticket to a better life. They send food down the hole on a rope, and they haul gold out of the hole. Carradine gets greedy and lowers himself into the well with a shotgun and a giant winch and . . .

I rewatched “Thanksgiving” to prepare this column, and it still worked for me. The final sun-drenched discovery is haunting, and the Spielberg humor makes the tension more perverse.

Maybe it doesn’t age well, but that Spielberg stew somehow stands the test of time. It might scare you, too.

-Axel

Cold, Flu, and The Stand.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 21

Yesterday, I wrote about how Edgar Allan Poe got under my skin during fifth grade. Two years later, Stephen King provided the scares.

I had the house to myself after coming home from the season ending pizza party for seventh grade football. We won exactly zero games. My cough was deepening, so I picked up the library book I had checked out and set up with some cough drops and Kleenex to read. As the world sickened I died, I grew sicker. It was like 3D for reading.

I read the book for three or four hours without stopping. I went through 17 cough drops and was too hooked to get up and get a glass of water. The pile of Kleenex beside me was half the height of the lamp.

If you’ve read The Stand – and you really should have by now – you know there are no zombies in the book. Still, The Stand gave me my first real zombie scares. It painted a picture of a world where corpses outnumbered people 99 to 1. Without society and power, life had to reinvent itself. The biggest difference? The Stand is much more likely to happen than zombie stories.

Don’t believe me? Read any medical journal.

The message I got from The Stand? Enjoy your hopes and dreams. Just remember, your biology and environment can squash them whenever they choose.

-Axel

Scarier Dead and Red.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 20

Not knowing the difference between “mask” and “masque” doesn’t mean you can’t be terrified by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of Red Death.”

In fifth grade, I pooled my cash together and talked my mom into buying me a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. I decided this would be my way of turning Halloween into a month-long celebration. Clearly, I have not forgotten this strategy.

Of all the stories in the book, which I read cover to cover, none scared me as much as”The Masque of Red Death.” The social commentary of Prospero’s saving the beautiful people in his castle while the rest of the world died was mostly lost on me. In my eyes, the story was about the insidious nature of contagion. Prospero tried to keep his world safe, but in the end could not stop the rot of death.

The image of the skull-faced specter stalking Prospero’s party haunted me deeply. The disease-spreading spirit spoke to my lifelong fears of germs and sickness before I was even aware I had those fears.

Some nights, when I was all alone, I used to imagine the Red Death was standing right behind the chair I was sitting in, blocking access to my bedroom.  Interestingly, I never imagined it killing me. I only imagined it staring at me: bony, bloody, and very dead. After that, the sickness would have me.

Really, is it there a more perfect place for the Red Death to lurk?

If there really is a Grim Reaper, I propose he will look like the Red Death looked to me.

-Axel

Beware Page Four

Devils and Demons by Eric Maple.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 19

On the fourth page of Eric Maple’s Devils and Demons, a children’s book about diabolical evil, the author demonstrates how to sell your soul to the devil.

A CHILDREN’S BOOK.

Artwork from Devils and Demons. All images copyright their respective owners.

Granted, the book didn’t offer a step-by-step tutorial on damnation. It did, however, say people who wanted to sell their souls “would use their own blood to sign a document like this.” The words were written backwards to either protect the innocent or add magical oomph. Either way, it didn’t take much effort to read the infernal writing.

I encountered this book in elementary school. It’s a little weird that a book tempted me with unholy power gained at a terrible price when I still hadn’t learned long division. In fact, at the time I encountered this book, I’m pretty sure I had forgotten how to tie my shoes due to a rabid Velcro shoe fad.

What if I accidentally made a pact with Satan for something stupid, like getting picked first for kickball or getting an extra cinnamon roll on chili day? What if another kid saw me reading the book and then HE made a pact with the devil? I didn’t need to have that on my conscience forever.

I bought the book years later, at the same library sale where I bought The Blob. And what was the first thing I did? Yup. Turned to page four.

As you already guessed, the book had no detailed guide to using black magic to conjure Lucifer. It had some spooky words in a tiny little graphic. The most awful secret I knew as a child was a weakly executed scare tactic. Still, it’s nothing I’d share with a kid. What kid wants to believe they have the power to destroy their entire life when they’re just starting to live it?

So what were the instructions?

Use your imagination.

I’m not going to share those. It’s more fun if you have to imagine it, like I did for all of those years.

-Axel

Unsolved.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 18

Here’s how Unsolved Mysteries became a childhood-destroying All-Star.

— They’re UNSOLVED mysteries. They might as well have just ended each episode with some silent meditation about which window the murderer would be using to enter your house that night.

— Robert Stack. No matter how corny the story was, he was deadly serious. When that show was on the air, he was the nation’s dad. If he told you Bigfoot and Satan were going to jump you in a parking lot, you believed him.

–Bigfoot and Satan DID show up in episodes of Unsolved Mysteries. In between factually documented robberies and murders, the show would wedge in a supernatural folktale. Because the rest of the show was real, and because Robert Stack was Grim Reaper stoic, these urban legends seemed like legitimate new stories.

Put it together, and you’ve got a show with something to scare everyone. If ghosts and monsters got under your skin, they had plenty of them to show you. More worried about real life? They’ve got a few axe murderers and crazed bank robbers to share with you.

It was an episode of Unsolved Mysteries that first introduced me to the idea that aliens could kidnap you and put you back where they found you, minus a few hours of time and all memories of the event. I was sure I was doomed to a lifetime of being abducted and returned. Whenever a strange light lit up the night outside my rural bedroom windows, I started checking clocks. It had to be true.

ROBERT STACK told me it was true.

-Axel

Bedeviled.

Devil Dog.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 17

At an academic camp I went to in for three years, from late junior high to early high school, I met a girl who said a cult met on the golf course across from her house on a pretty regular basis. I believed her without questioning.

Maybe they did, but I doubt it was like I imagined. Back then, I imagined a cross between the cult in Temple of Doom (which I had finally seen by that point) and an evening with the vampires in The Lost Boys.  Because of urban legends and fear of youth culture, it was common knowledge that powerful cult conspiracies hid just beneath the surface of every small town.

If this were really true, you’d think it would at least help those towns get a big enough tax base to keep their school systems afloat.

These rumors of vast conspiracies have surfaced again in response to the Harry Potter books, and have caused distress from the local level to big corporations.

In the late 80s and early 90s, fear of the devil took away a lot of options. There were bands with ties to Satan, from classic rock to heavy metal. There were companies to stay away from. There were parts of town you didn’t go near after dark, because of the evil graffiti. If you could put together a good song and dance about Satanism, you could make some money and get famous, even if it wasn’t true.

After reaching my junior year of high school, I stopped worrying about hooded figures hiding in secret places, plotting evil. I focused my worries on everyday people demonstrating their capabilities to hurt other people without lighting candles or chanting.

Weird as it sounds, it’s somehow more comforting to imagine magical evil. At least then there’s heroism in fighting against the forces of darkness, and clear lines between right and wrong when the bad guys tell you they’re bad right away.

If you want more about the history of this fearful time, check out Satanic Panic by Jeffery S. Victor.

— Axel

Some Fears Are Shameful.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 16

Sharing this particular childhood fear will not earn me any street cred with horror folks and monster kids. If you’re expecting me to understand and explain where this fear came from, I don’t think I can help you. All I can do is share the story and pause for laughter.

Sometime in elementary school, in the half-light of a child’s bedtime, I was staring at the walls of my bedroom and trying to sleep. My eyes focused on a small poster hanging on my wall. I can’t remember what was depicted on this poster, but I do remember what I thought this poster had turned into.

Yup. That’s a Looney Tunes character named Gossamer. Somehow, because I was half-asleep and it was dusk, I thought the poster was turning into Gossamer and running toward me.

I may have only believed this enough to be scared, but I clearly didn’t think this thing through. After five minutes of frantic sprinting, the Gossamer thing had gotten no closer to me. Because it was a POSTER. Also, when I finally gave in and turned on the lights, it was a poster. Most great scientists and philosophers would have concluded I was dealing with a poster and not the living incarnation of a fictional character.

I went to bed convinced I would just have to deal with a night of Gossamer jogging at me, but never getting any closer.

Why was I scared of Gossamer? Part of the answer might just be the cartoon’s blocky shape matched the poster well enough to suit my imagination. Beyond that? No clue. I’m not scared of Gossamer now, but I  still wouldn’t give him a ride if he were hitch-hiking.

-Axel

A Twisted Tail.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 15

Any time I was able to spend in Denver Elementary’s School Library was magical. It was a small room, and you had to walk down a slight decline to get into the room. If there were windows in the library, I don’t remember them. The library always felt cool, and it always smelled like old books. I remember an old “READ” poster promoting literacy. When it was book fair time, the new books would be displayed in here. The only time I didn’t enjoy it was when I was forced to put my head down on a table instead of going out to recess.

And except when the librarian decided to read us Tailypo.

Tailypo is the story of a hunter who takes the tail of a creature and eats it for his dinner. The creature comes back calling, and when he can’t get his tail back, the hunter is out of luck. It’s based on folklore, I have learned, which adds to its fear cred.

Tailypo made me nervous in a way I’ve never fully understood. Maybe the librarian really nailed the spectral voice of the stalking Tailypo. I remember her whispering and my goosebumps growing.

Maybe I was conflicted. The Tailypo creature on the cover of the book seemed like a friendly pet. Instead of friendliness, the Tailypo haunts the poor hungry farmer ,who had to eat SOMETHING. Years later, I would read an article in the City Pages about pets dining on their dead owners when left alone and unfed for too long with the bodies. Tailypo‘s the gentler version of that story. Cute things come to kill you, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

-Axel

Creepy Indeed.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 14

Creepy was light years away from the comics I was used to reading.

I stumbled upon Creepy, with its sister publication Eerie and a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland, at a baseball card and comic book show at the Crossroads Mall in Waterloo, Iowa. My friend’s family went for sports cards. Along for the ride, I had no interest in baseball cards and no money to spend. My friend’s dad took pity on me and gave me a few bucks. To stretch the money out, I went to the discount cardboard box under one of the tables and found the magazines.

Through my older brothers, I had already been introduced to Wolverine, X-Men, and Doctor Strange. I loved comic books and, when I had $.75 saved up, I would bike the mile into the town drug store to buy a new title, which I would read cover to cover at least three times.

Comics were safe. No amount of punching or smashing led to graphic gore or anguish. No preposterously-clothed lady would ever do more than chastely kiss a lover. No dialogue repeated out loud would lead to grounding. I didn’t realize it then, but I was being protected by the Comics Code.

Know what else I didn’t realize? Creepy published in black-and-white and in magazine format to AVOID being subject to the Comics Code.

The victims-to-be in Creepy were petty, filthy creatures. When they got what they deserved, it was dirty and gory. The artwork was detailed and realistic, so you couldn’t just pretend a mutant with superpowers would save the day in the next issue. If you were in Creepy, things usually ended very badly for you. I remember one comic where a double-timing acrobat falls to his death, straight into the waiting palms of Satan himself. I don’t know which issue this was in, so if anyone does, I’d love to be enlightened.

The magazines were so upsetting to me I couldn’t stop reading them. They’ve begun re-releasing the issues in hardcover compilations, and I’d love to spend an afternoon or ten staring at the art and breathing in that fresh nihilism smell.

In my post-Creepy world, it’s hard to get frightened of any big screen superheroes arch-nemesis. The Comics Code may not have the power it once did, but I know the moral universe most superheroes live in stays a pretty safe place. They can flail all the want to in their tights; we all know how the story ends.

Unless they start taking trips to the Creepy side of the street. Who knows what kind of trouble they’ll fall into there.

-Axel

(Thanks to Philip Lenssen and http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/creepy/ for helping  me track down old Creepy covers)

Pop Songs and Mortality.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 13

As a lifelong fan of 50s and 60s rock (Thanks, Mom!), it’s not like I hadn’t heard songs about dying before. “Last Kiss” is a sad, unambiguous number about shuffling off this mortal coil. “The Boxer” is about breaking down and being drained. “Eleanor Rigby” may be the saddest song ever written.

These three also have something in common — they’re great songs. The song that made me aware of my own mortality is not a song I’m particularly impressed with, but it had an effect on me, all right.

I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom (not sure why), and I was listening to the radio. Like most kids at that time period, I had a small boom box with a tape deck. A cassette tape cost at least ten dollars new, and you never knew how many good songs you’d get from it. In junior high, before I had built up my tape library and then turned it into a CD library that I still hold onto, even though most of the songs are on my computer now, you had to listen to the radio.

When the announcer said the next song was from Ozzy Osbourne and Lita Ford, I got nervous. It was common knowledge, at that time, that Ozzy was Satan. There were a lot of worries that rock musicians could make you first Satanic and then dead. Now, those rockers get reality shows and nostalgic reunion tours.

Lyrically, the song was mostly forgettable to me. I’ve reviewed the lyrics since then and remain nonplussed.

Until Ozzy starts wailing, “Close your eyes!”

Clearly, he was singing about dying. After all, Lita Ford had just sang she would close her eyes forever. Alone in my room, I realized I would also someday close my eyes forever.

For years, I’ve assumed most people have a weird Sixth Sense type moment where they wonder if they’ve already died and just didn’t know it because they continued dreaming. I held that death delusion for a few moments longer than normal, as the song faded out. I was human. I would die.

I guess they can’t all be love songs.

-Axel