(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
A lot of us are about to have the experience of opening our front doors to find witches, goblins, ghosts and those guards from "Squid Game" standing on our porches. Why? Because it's almost Halloween.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
So we decided this would be a good time to talk about what kinds of entertainment scared us when we were kids and maybe even whether they still scare us now. I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about some of our old favorite fears on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
Also with us, from his home studio, is Glen Weldon of the NPR Arts Desk. Hi, Glen.
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, Linda.
HOLMES: Spooky, spooky, very spooky.
WELDON: Spooky, scary.
HOLMES: And also here, of course, is our friend Aisha Harris. Hi, Aisha.
AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello, Linda.
HOLMES: Well, so I don't have much to kick us off here other than to go directly to Aisha and say, what scared the just living daylights out of you when you were a kid? I'm dying to know.
HARRIS: So kid Aisha was very much a basic kid. She was scared of the most basic of things. I would always get scared of the figures who were cartoon characters who I loved. Like, my parents waited in line with me for who knows how long to go see Darkwing Duck at this park. And then by the time we got to the - to Darkwing Duck, he terrified me because he was so big and huge and I was tiny, and it just felt weird. He wasn't a cartoon. But my most basic scaredy thing as a kid was clowns - hated clowns.
THOMPSON: Oh, sure.
WELDON: Straight down the middle.
HARRIS: They were unsettling.
HOLMES: You're one of those people.
HARRIS: Oh, I was one of those people. I did not like clowns. And so cut to a fourth grade...
HOLMES: Cut to the other day.
HARRIS: Well, yes, the other day, but also fourth grade, when I went to my very first sleepover. And at the sleepover, I saw this.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT")
TIM CURRY: (As Pennywise) Hi, Georgie. Aren't you going to say hello? Oh, come on, bucko. Don't you want a balloon?
HOLMES: No, no, no, no, no.
HARRIS: (Laughter) Linda's face - Linda knew exactly what it was. Glen looks confused.
HARRIS: No one can see it, but (laughter) - so at a 10th birthday party for a classmate of mine - I don't know why her parents thought this was a good idea, but her parents rented the movie "It" by Stephen King.
HARRIS: This was the TV movie from the early '90s, starred Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown. I was 9 years old. I already hated clowns, and then I saw this movie that I knew nothing about. And that scene - that opening scene where Pennywise just pops up in the middle of the sewer and says...
HOLMES: It's real creepy.
HARRIS: ...Hiya (ph), Georgie.
HARRIS: And then they have this back-and-forth, and it terrified me. Also, that kid is so dumb.
WELDON: Well, that's...
WELDON: ...A classic.
HARRIS: If you see a clown standing in the sewer, do not engage with the clown. And they have a full-on...
HARRIS: ...Back-and-forth for a few minutes before, then...
HARRIS: ...Pennywise convinces him to reach down to get his sailboat. Because his sailboat - the kid sees him because the sailboat got washed away into the sewer.
HOLMES: Make a new sailboat, kid.
WELDON: There's plenty of paper.
HARRIS: Yeah, my goodness. So yeah. We watched the first - because, again, this movie was a miniseries. So it was two parts, or at least it was on two VHS...
HOLMES: Yup, yup.
HARRIS: ...Because it was the '90s. And...
HOLMES: It was a two-part - it was one of those miniseries kinds of things.
HARRIS: Yeah. So I remember I made it through the first part, mostly with my hands over my eyes. I was terrified. And then they were like, OK, we're going to watch the second part of this movie now. And I was like, nope. And those of us who were - there were several of us who were like, nope, can't do it anymore. We went and watched "Now And Then" instead in the other room.
HOLMES: Good idea.
HARRIS: (Laughter) The great girlhood movie with Rosie O'Donnell and a few other people.
THOMPSON: Oh, yeah.
HARRIS: But, yeah, this movie...
HARRIS: I had nightmares for weeks - weeks - and it still scares me to this day. Like, even just pulling that clip to listen to...
HARRIS: ...I actually had to not have the screen on - up. I was just like, I'm not going to - I can't watch it. I will have to say that the remake of "It" that came out a few years ago - I did see the first part in theaters. And it wasn't quite as scary. I mean, it's definitely - has its moments and all of that. But I think I am a little bit older now.
THOMPSON: A little bit.
HARRIS: I still don't like clowns. I still find them unsettling. But because this is - the original was so tied to being 9 years old and nowhere near ready to experience that.
HARRIS: That is what scared me the most and gave me the most nightmares out of anything.
WELDON: Did the parents, Aisha, just say, all right, kids, bye. We're out. Or did they hang out there and - for counseling, just in case any kid needed it? That seems like abuse.
HARRIS: Oh, my God. Well, I think this girl whose birthday it was - like, she was a huge scary movie fan. Because the year after, she had another slumber party and we watched "Poltergeist"...
HARRIS: ...Which also has a clown in it...
HARRIS: ...But is not as scary.
HOLMES: It's not a clown movie in the same way.
HARRIS: Right, right, right. But, like, yeah. Afterwards, I was just like, nope. "Now And Then" it is. And I forever associate those two movies now because (laughter)...
HOLMES: Yeah, yeah.
HOLMES: Yeah, it's interesting. Stephen King, I think, is a - was a good one for scary network television adaptations sometimes because very often his ideas - some of them are very gory, and some of them are just creepy...
HOLMES: ...And weird, like the clown in the sewer. And it doesn't run afoul of sort of broadcast standards and things like that. And there's a whole thing about how in "It" - like, in the book, when you find out what It actually is, living under the ground, it's incredibly scary because it's infinitely big...
HOLMES: ...In your mind. But when you actually make it on screen, it's a puppet. And so it's - instantly is more manageable. So the things that Stephen King does that translate much better as creepiness to me are those things that are like - it's not about the monster or the blood or whatever. It's this creepy - you know, "It" also has a lot of stuff with, like, a floating balloon...
HOLMES: ...And all this - just those kinds of things.
HOLMES: That's very Stephen King, and it's very, like, creepy.
HOLMES: And so I think there's a good reason why, you know, a super scary TV adaptation was just as scary, if not more scary, than a kind of full-bore theatrical adaptation that can kind of do whatever it wants.
WELDON: On the screen, in movies and television, like, the scary parts of Stephen King kind of sneak up on you the way they can't in the book because your peripheral vision will always see the italics a little bit further down the page.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) They know something scary is coming.
HOLMES: Right, yeah.
WELDON: Italics - italics means scary.
HOLMES: Right, right.
WELDON: Better steel myself.
HOLMES: Right. And I'm actually going to go out of order a little bit here because I'm going to go next because I didn't know Aisha was going to talk about Stephen King. But I'm going to get to Stephen King in a second.
HOLMES: For me, when I was very young, what scared me was startles like - not jump scares, but, like, loud noises. I didn't like fireworks. I didn't like - you know, like, if somebody was in the same room as me playing with a balloon that I was afraid...
THOMPSON: Oh, yeah.
HOLMES: ...Was going to pop, I couldn't relax. I was very - like, to a really somewhat extreme degree, I would be very distracted by it. I couldn't stand it if I thought something was going to make a big noise.
THOMPSON: It's Chekhov's balloon. You just know that balloon's going to pop sometimes.
HOLMES: Right, right. And so I really became somebody who did not take in anything scary, partly because of that fear of loud noises. And I think - you know, Stephen and Glen have seen a certain number of movies with me in the last few years and will probably tell you, if I think somebody's going to get shot, I will have my fingers in my ears. I really, really hate it. It really bothers me still. That's still true.
So it makes some sense to me that what I became interested in when I was a kid - because it scared me, but it scared me in a way I could manage - was Stephen King books, right? I started and I read - you know, I read "It." You know, I would read the stuff like "The Stand." Not necessarily the most, like, horror-horror stuff. But also, of course, I was in, like, sixth or seventh grade, and you're super impressed with yourself for how long the books are that you can read.
HARRIS: Yup, and how fast you can read them.
HOLMES: And how fast you can read, like, all of "The Stand" or all of "It" or whatever. So I read a ton of Stephen King. And also, I read a ton of the short stories. I read, like, all the short story and novella collections because I always was fascinated by, like, his creepy ideas. So this was, like, my middle school formation of - the idea of pleasurable fear was always that Stephen King idea of creepiness, which is why - and I've talked about this before, but, like, this is why one of my favorite, like, horror movies is "Wait Until Dark" with Audrey Hepburn because it doesn't have as much...
WELDON: Yes, the best.
HOLMES: ...It doesn't have as much, like, outright gore. It has, you know, some things that are violent or whatever, but a lot of it is just this incredibly unsettling sense that something bad is about to happen. That's what I would get from Stephen King without - particularly when you're reading a book - without the loud noises, without the startle response that really was very not pleasurable to me when I was a kid and still isn't.
So that's - I mean, that's one of the reasons I don't watch a lot of horror to this day. That's one of the reasons I'm one of those read the Wikipedia summary of a horror movie if you're going to watch it at all so that you know what you're waiting for.
HOLMES: So it's interesting to me because I think Stephen King was formative to me because it was extremely scary, but in the way that I could process, if that makes sense.
HARRIS: I mean, to this day, I still have not read a Stephen King book, in part because "It" scared me so much. And I think the only other Stephen King movie I've seen is "Stand By Me," which is obviously a whole...
HOLMES: (Laughter) Yeah.
HARRIS: ...A whole other bag.
THOMPSON: Less gruesome.
HARRIS: (Laughter) Yes.
WELDON: Unless you hate vomiting.
HOLMES: Scary-ish - definitely has a horror - a little bit of horror element, but not in the same way that a lot of the other stuff does. So yeah, Stephen King - significant to me and Aisha both.
HOLMES: And I'm glad that we have discovered that on this day. Stephen, how about you? What scared you as a kid? I'm surprised. I feel like I don't know this about you.
THOMPSON: Oh, well - so to prepare for this segment, I wrote down a list of everything that terrified me as a child. It turned out to be a fairly long list, and I was trying to kind of cross-reference it with pop culture. And I found there's a real chicken-and-the-egg thing...
THOMPSON: ...That goes on here in terms of how pop culture - whether it is creating those fears or merely providing a conduit for them. Unfortunately, I have told this story on this show before. In our 13th episode ever of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, for Halloween, we talked about our pop culture fears. So my apologies for telling this story a second time, but it is the truest example of a childhood fear that really was born out of exposure to pop culture.
When I was right around turning 4, in the summer of 1976, my parents took me and my sister to Universal Studios and somehow had access to some VIP run through the "Jaws" ride. So we had tickets to this tram that instead of having the seats turned one way, the seats were really turned to give you a great look at this ride.
And so we're going through, and I'm sitting on my dad's lap kind of with my - I remember my feet sort of dangling over the side. They probably weren't, but I was really, really well-positioned on this tram to be rolling along. And I didn't know what "Jaws" was. I was 4 - barely 4. Riding along with my parents, the shark jumps out of the water - blaaargh (ph) - right directly into my terrified, gap-tooth, big-eared, 4-year-old face. And it was the most terrifying thing I had ever encountered.
I blacked out actual memories of this. For one thing, I was very, very young. But for years and years and years, I had no idea why I so viscerally did not want to see any movie with sharks in them and why I had had nightmares about sharks until my parents reminded me and kind of told me the story. Oh, no wonder you don't want to see "Jaws." You don't remember the time the giant shark jumped out of the water and literally snapped in your face when you were a 4-year-old and had no idea that such terrifying things existed in the world?
THOMPSON: So when I'm listing all of my childhood traumas, the one that most coincides with pop culture was my poor, terrified 4-year-old self meeting the shark from "Jaws" for the first time.
WELDON: Yeah. Listeners should know that as Stephen told this story and the shark came out of the water, his hand came to the Zoom camera...
WELDON: ...And kind of did a little biting motion, and then it withdrew. Something you're missing. It's a...
HOLMES: It's a visceral presentation.
WELDON: It's a visceral presentation.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I wanted to leave nothing to the imagination.
HARRIS: Wait, so was this the actual ride or was it a tour - behind-the-scenes tour of the ride?
THOMPSON: I think it was a "Jaws" attraction at Universal Studios.
THOMPSON: So you were kind of - you know how they always kind of have these promotional tie-ins. This was kind of an opportunity for - in case you wanted to, to relive the experience of being eaten by a shark.
HARRIS: Oh, yeah. I remember that ride. I went on it when - like - yeah.
HOLMES: I was just going to say, so that's the regular ride. And so you could have experienced that same horrible thing just as the regular ride. Do you know what I mean, Aisha?
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, I'm pretty sure we probably were on the same ride.
THOMPSON: Had you just turned 4?
HARRIS: No, I was definitely older.
HARRIS: And I was less scared of "Jaws" the movie when I saw it than I was of Pennywise.
HARRIS: So, yeah.
HOLMES: Well, let me ask you a question, Stephen. Are you now capable of watching, like, "Sharknado"?
THOMPSON: Yes. At this point, that fear of sharks has largely vanished and been replaced. Like, all of my nightmares now are based on poor choices that I've made in my life since.
HOLMES: Right, right.
HOLMES: That and death - who knows?
WELDON: The way God intended.
HOLMES: Well, Stephen, this is wonderful. I feel like I have learned a lot about you...
HOLMES: ...And also learned some things to avoid in dealing with you. I will not be bringing a shark to your house...
HOLMES: ...Which means one less fun thing for your birthday. Glen, I feel like this is the kind of episode where I always think, what's Glen going to come up with?
WELDON: Actually, what I came up with has a lot of crossover with a lot of stuff that you all have been saying, which I guess is why we're on a podcast together. But I want to start with an overture.
HOLMES: (Singing) Dun dun dun, dun dun dun, dun dun dun dun dun (ph).
WELDON: Now, I want to start with an overture. I want Jessica to play a clip that I have provided her. And while we are listening to this, I want all of us to be watching my fellow Delaware Valleyan (ph) Linda Holmes' face to see the pop of recognition that will surely accrue.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In the darkest reaches of the mind, there has never been anything like Brigantine, alive again, with even more surprises than before. From its lofty towers high above the sea to rat-infested dungeons and hidden graveyards, there's always...
WELDON: This, of course - well, you tell them, Linda. You tell them what it is.
HOLMES: Well, I don't remember that much about it because this is not the kind of thing I would have done as a kid or been exposed to as a kid. But, like, if you think about the fact that, like, New York City has the Cloisters, we had Brigantine Castle, which is basically, like, a haunted castle that you go...
WELDON: On the beach.
HOLMES: On the beach, yeah.
HOLMES: On the beach.
WELDON: On the beach - on the boardwalk in Brigantine, N.J.
HOLMES: Yeah. They really liked to kind of play up that, like, Vincent Price-y (ph)...
HOLMES: ...Somewhat campy sort of idea of what scary was.
WELDON: I mean, that was a - I'm going to say that's a better-than-average Boris Karloff that that guy's done.
THOMPSON: Not bad.
WELDON: And it being the '70s and Boris Karloff's career being the way it does (ph), I'm not entirely sure it wasn't Boris Karloff.
HOLMES: It might have been.
WELDON: There's a non-zero chance...
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.
WELDON: ...That that was actually Boris Karloff in his dotage. I'm not - that's not actually what I want to talk about. I just wanted to establish that. I was going to establish that as, OK, we agree that theme parks, then, are pop culture.
HOLMES: Oh, yeah.
WELDON: So here is my actual thing that I'm going to talk about. When I was 3 years old, my parents took me to - not a theme park, but to a kiddie park, the kind that has the low-rent little train that goes around the periphery of the park at two miles an hour...
WELDON: ...For your, you know, your tots to kind of give them a thrill.
HOLMES: Maybe there are some goats nearby.
WELDON: Maybe there are some goats. I remember there being some animatronic elements, but they were the bare minimum...
THOMPSON: Love those places.
WELDON: ...Like, low-rent kind. Like, I could - I remember thinking...
HOLMES: The bare minimum.
WELDON: Yes. I remember thinking, Mom, this park has certainly seen better days - my 3-year-old self.
WELDON: But we're approaching the end of the ride. And in the distance ahead, there is this building very near the tracks - too near the tracks. To my little 3-year-old OSHA inspector's eyes, I'd say...
WELDON: ...Way too near the tracks. It's this tall, narrow wooden building with a little peaked roof. It's like an outhouse. It looks like an outhouse. We're coming up to it, and I'm regarding it wearily. I don't trust this building. And just as we're approaching it - and this is what the overlap is with Stephen. Just as we're approaching it, a shark comes out. No, not a shark.
WELDON: A statue of a human figure who I've since learned is a signalman - he's a dude with a lantern thrust out before him - comes barreling out of that house at escape velocity with malevolent intent. Just - it was my first jump scare. I still hate them. And of course, I lose it. And by the way, the lantern comes within inches of my tiny strawberry blonde head, right? And I start bawling, and I do not stop bawling. And we have to go home early because I cannot be consoled.
And for the rest of the day, all the way home, I was just - at some point during the ride home, my fear and anguish turned into tiny 3-year-old righteous indignation. And I start demanding my parents tell me why'd the man came out of the house. Why did that happen? Why did the man come out of the house?
WELDON: Why? Why? And it was my first critical interrogation of a pop culture phenomenon.
WELDON: My need to deconstruct it, really - yes, it inspired a purely involuntary limbic system physiological reaction.
WELDON: But was it narratively earned, right? So that's what I wanted to say. What I actually ended up saying over and over again is, why'd the man come out of the house? Why'd the man come out of the house?
WELDON: And my parents put up with this for entirely too long. Over and over again, for days afterwards, my mom would say I would be staring out a window, and I would just turn to her all of a sudden and go, why'd the man come out of the house?
WELDON: Until finally, my mom just couldn't take any more of it. And she just turned to me, and she said, because the man came out of the house, which shut me up.
WELDON: Right? Because it's - A, it's baby's first tautology. It's like...
WELDON: It's like, OK - circular logic. What's going on there? But mostly - and I was trying to figure out how to say this. When I'm demanding, why'd the man come out of the house, why'd the man come out of the house, it hooks into me, right? Because it's part of a line of inquiry and it's fueled by...
WELDON: ...My tiny dudgeon. It's my tiny outrage. But as soon as my mom says, because the man came out of the house, he, like, manifests - boom - right in the middle of our living room in Edgemoor Terrace, Wilmington, Del. Like, boom, there he is.
HOLMES: There's no answer.
WELDON: Well, that's it. It's like I can say it over and over again, but as soon as they say it, it's like this psychological circuit breaker. And I go emotionally fetal as soon as they say...
WELDON: ...Because the man came out of the house. And my parents and especially my brother soon discovered this. And for entirely too long after that, all my parents, all my brother would have to do when I was not letting something go and demanding why - all they would have to say is, because the man came out of the house. And it would be like - I would just...
HOLMES: Oh, man.
WELDON: ...Shut the hell up. And, you know, some may call that emotional abuse. I...
WELDON: I think that's just family. I think that's just knowing what buttons to push.
HOLMES: You know, my sister - we used to go camping quite a bit when I was a kid. And we would camp in actual, like, tents. Like, we were an actual tent-camping family. And my sister and I, often of an evening, would be in the tent. My parents would not be in there yet to sleep. We would be trying to theoretically get to sleep, but of course, the two of us - she's three years older than I am. We would be in there, you know, jabbering and whatever.
And she had a thing that she would do where if you're inside a tent and you shine a flashlight at the ceiling of the tent and then you put your hand away from the flashlight and then you bring it down toward the flashlight, it looks like there's a shadow of a hand on the top of the tent that just comes down over you. I encourage you to do this at some point. It's really scary. And my sister...
HOLMES: This is the creativity of children and the simplicity of what's terrifying - my sister would do this while saying, and I quote, "big hand."
THOMPSON: There's a certain truth to it.
WELDON: Yeah, right? Can't deny it.
HOLMES: I thought this was so scary when she did this. I was always like, stop it, stop it. And I know it's her hand, right? I know big hand is just my sister.
HOLMES: I'm just impressed that my sister was the only one who was doing big hand when...
HOLMES: ...When I was a kid.
WELDON: Well, calling it big hand, that might be TM - TM your sister.
HOLMES: Big hand. Anyway, we want to know what scared you when you were a little kid. Come and find us at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to all of you for being here and talking about things that are so scary.
WELDON: Thank you.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
HOLMES: And we will see you all tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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