Nightmares in the Horror Aisle: Exploring the Movie Art That Traumatized You as a Child
I cannot tell you the year and I cannot tell you the location, but I can recall just about everything else. I'm young and I'm in a store and I'm looking at a rack of VHS tapes for sale. Wedged between the other titles is a cover that has caught my attention, chiefly because I feel like I caught its attention. It’s a movie called ‘Monkey Shines’ and the cover depicts a cartoonish monkey wielding a bloody knife, it’s eyes large and murderous and staring deep into my young, innocent, unblemished soul.
So I did what a lot of curious youngsters would do: I reached for that box. I needed to know what this was. I needed to know what the monkey wanted. I needed to know what this movie, ‘Monkey Shines,’ was actually about.
I actually managed to hold it in my hands for a few precious seconds before my mother noticed and snatched it out of my hands. Her statement on the matter was brisk: that was a movie for adults. It’s a scary a movie. I was not allowed to watch it.
But what she didn’t realize, and what she won’t know until she reads this article (hi, mom) is that her protective reaction quietly backfired. Now, the mystery of ‘Monkey Shines’ was not something solvable or knowable. it wasn’t just a scary VHS cover, it was the scary VHS cover of a movie so goddamn scary that I couldn’t even look at the back. For years afterward, that monkey haunted my dreams and the fact that my local Blockbuster didn’t carry it actually added to the mystery and the threat. It was a movie sooo frightening that my local video rental place didn’t have it. I was never going to see it, but I knew that the monkey, that blade-wielding monkey with the evil eyes, was going to kill me. I knew it deep in my heart.
Now, years later, I know that ‘Monkey Shines’ is a not particularly good movie made by director George Romero during one of the low points of his career. I know that the monkey on the cover (and the slightly less threatening one on the theatrical one sheet) are abstract representations of the murderous creature in the movie. I have gotten over my fear of the ‘Monkey Shines’ VHS because I'm a grown-ass adult with more awful things to worry about.
But while I’m over that fear, I will never forget that fear. That primal terror that sat with me for years. It seems so improbable and silly to me now. How did a piece of movie art upset me so much? Was this normal? Was I just a particularly sensitive child?
It turns out that I’m far from alone. A lot of movie fans, especially those who came of age during the reign of VHS, have similar tales of inexplicable, VHS-fueled fear.
“Despite an early introduction to horror (I saw ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ when I was 7), I was petrified of the ‘Alice, Sweet Alice’ VHS box cover and even as an older teen got unnerved by it and wouldn't watch it. Something about that pale, white mask, not unlike ‘Halloween's (which I had already been scared by) and the dead baby doll really freaked me out. When I worked at a Suncoast in the late 90s I'd turn it so the spine was out instead of the cover. I think I was like 27 or 28 when I finally saw it, discovering it was ... Okay.” -Brian Collins, Badass Digest
When I began talking about this subject with friends and colleagues, I found myself inundated with tales similar to my own. Many of these stories follow a very similar template:
1. Young kid goes to video rental establishment.
2. Young kid wanders away from his/her parents and into the Forbidden Land that is the “Horror” section.
3. Young kid gazes upon row after row of lurid and grotesque boxes depicting demons and murderers and monsters and all kinds of unknown, horrible nastiness.
4. Young kid, unable to actually rent these movies (out of his/her own personal fear or because his/her parents are never going to that happen) goes home with these images.
5. The imagination takes over, fills in the gaps, and makes up a story based on those images that is probably more upsetting that anything in the actual film. The nightmares begin.
“I was not allowed to watch R-rated movies until I was a teenager. Which meant I took every opportunity to wander the video store and absorb/scare myself with the "horror/thriller" section's terrifying cover art. ‘Silence of the Lamb's skull bee poster must have hit home for me, a child staring back like something was wrong. Creepy. And then there was ‘Jason Goes to Hell,’ with its demonic worm thing slithering out of that iconic hockey mask, brimstone erupting in the background. I still have nightmares where that fanged critter leaps out for my jugular.” -Matt Patches, MattPatches.com
Although everyone has that one particular cover or poster that upset them above all else, a few came up with great frequency. There were all of the usual suspects, like any movie starring Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger or Pinhead, but the more specific responses tended to me more telling (and a lot more fun to Google). Popular responses included ‘Evil Dead,’ ‘The Toxic Avengers,’ ‘C.H.U.D.’ and ‘Night of the Demons.’
But the grand champion definitely appeared to be the VHS cover for Peter Jackson’s ‘Dead Alive,’ which quietly united an entire generation in fear and disgust over what is actually a fairly silly gore comedy.
“I was frightened and traumatized by countless video boxes as a child, from the subterranean terror teased by ‘The Gate’ to the unholy vengeance of mother nature promised by ’Ants.’ However, the most unusual box art that haunted me was the VHS release of ‘Think Dirty.’ It was just a simple image of Marty Feldman, with his eyes bugging out in his signature style. Something about this photograph terrified me for reasons I couldn't (and still can’t) explain. The fear was completely baseless and irrational, but I would strategically maneuver through the video store in order to avoid even a momentary, accidental glimpse of Feldman’s face on that box.” -Josh Johnson, director of ‘Rewind This!’
Of course, being scared to death by movie art is not a phenomenon limited to the horror aisle at a video rental store. I heard tales of being rattled by posters in the lobby of multiplexes and one tale of a troubling newspaper ad.
What’s especially interesting is how many people forgot the name of the movie. They remember the picture, maybe even the font, but the title escapes them. Some people watch a scary movie and can’t shake it, but these are movies whose marketing materials people to their core. Sometimes, I would chat with someone until they remembered enough details to actually look up and find the movie in question. Most of the time, it was a movie that doesn’t come close to living up that cover.
Yeah, go ahead and let your nostalgia take over for a brief moment. It’s true: they don’t make movie advertising art like they used to.
“1989. I'm 8 years old. My parents are repainting part of my house and they've put down newspaper to protect the floor from splatter. One of the papers is from The New York Times' Arts & Leisure section; a page of movie ads. The ad I remember glancing at, and then fixating on, and then BEING FREAKED THE F*CK OUT BY was for Wes Craven's ‘Shocker.’ It featured a criminal strapped to an electric chair, with lightning bolts shooting off him in every direction. The tagline (which I didn't remember, but just looked up) said “On October 2nd, at 6:45 a.m. mass murderer Horace Pinker was put to death. Now he's really mad." To my feeble young mind it was doubly terrifying; the idea that (a) I might get electrocuted to death and that (b) if the electrocution didn't work, it might turn me into a lightning monster. To this day, I haven't seen ‘Shocker,’ so I have no idea whether or not Horace Pinker actually does get electricity powers. But honestly? I was so horrified by that image, I’m still in no rush to find out.” -Matt Singer, ScreenCrush
And while we’re on the subject of nostalgia...
Most of the stories (even my own) are recounted today with good-natured humor. As adults, we laugh about what gave us sleepless nights as youngsters. We look back, fondly, on the days when the key art from ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ was the most upsetting thing in our lives. However, I believe there’s more going on here than simply appreciating our (in retrospect) carefree childhoods. These stories are about something that so many young people today will never get to do. Anyone born after the year 2005 isn’t going to learn to love movies by wandering the aisles of their local Hollywood video. They aren’t going to accidentally stumble across a movie that sears itself into their brain. Going to the video rental place was a genuine adventure where you literally had no idea what you were going to stumble across. Unless you live in the rare place where brick and mortar rental stores still operate, it’s an adventure that died alongside the rise of the internet.
“I was petrified. I DID NOT want to see the trailer for [‘House’] while I was in the theater. I internally begged for them not to show it while I was watching ‘Transformers: The Movie.’” -Rafael Antonio Ruiz, filmmaker
Yeah, I know. I'm getting nostalgic for the ‘90s and there‘s nothing more pathetic than that. But I genuinely feel that wandering the aisles of tapes profoundly changed me. The curiosity and the fear that came from staring at covers to movies that I could never see drove me. They made me work up the courage to watch other movies, to dip my toe into horror and confront my fears head on. My wanderings, my adventures, made me into a budding movie fan and as I grew up, my fears transformed into knowledge and passion. Being terrified of the horror section made me into a better cinephile.
“Every Friday or Saturday we would get a pizza from down the street and a VHS tape from Video Paradise. We’d spend a ton of time wandering the neatly-arranged rows of tapes, driving our parents mental because there was pizza waiting to be picked up and eaten. I don’t remember ever being freaked out by very many actual horror movie posters or covers. I just naturally stayed away from those parts of the store. I knew they would follow me home, so I never game them the chance. We stuck to the comedies and to the family sections, because those sections would be safe from mutant horrors. But then I saw the cover to ‘Magic in the Mirror.’
There is something so nakedly ugly and horrifying about plastic attempts to replicate innocence and wonder. That poster for ‘Magic in the Mirror,’ with its giant duck faces and glaring eyes, with the image of the little girl wrapped up on the wrong side of the mirror, her face frozen in either laughter or the last second before gales of screams and tears, with the other little girl beginning to phase through into this land of chaos ... I mean what the f*ck?” -Brendan Foley, Cinapse.co
Netflix is an amazing service, but I’ll never forgive it for straight-up murdering the place where my most primal childhood fears grew into my greatest passion. With its scatterbrained organization and profoundly lacking library, it’s easy to get frustrated while browsing Netflix, but it’s impossible to get, well, lost. Those tiny images on the screen, laid out so cold and sterile, lack the immediacy of an actual shelf. Those thumbnails don’t leap out at you. They blend together. Instead of being captivated by something gruesome or original or scary, you simply keep on scrolling, eventually deciding to watch another episode of ‘Friday Night Lights’ instead of something new.
In other words, Netflix has made me a lazier movie watcher.
“So, when I was a kid, I was deathly afraid of anything remotely related to horror films, thanks to my stepdad forcing a viewing of ‘Creepshow’ upon me at an age too early to detect how cheeky that movie is (once I was terrified, he wouldn't let me leave). After that, I couldn't even flip past the ‘Halloween’ section of my Snoopy Encyclopedia because there was a full-page photo of a human skull sitting amongst jack-o-lanterns. My stepdad thought all of this was pretty hilarious, and he had his own macho views about toughing me up (most of which involved trips to rifle ranges or asking me to recreate drawings from Soldier of Fortune magazine).
I was involved with the theater at an early age thanks to my Mother. Sometimes rehearsals would run late on school nights, and on one of those nights Mom sent me right upstairs and directly into my bed. I got undressed in the dark, got under the covers, and something felt off. I could tell something in my room was different. I flipped the light switch on and these two posters - salvaged from a local video store and tacked to my walls without my consent - were greeting me:
The ‘Screamers’ poster in particular was so horrifying I could barely even look at it. Something I found out later - the warning on the poster is infamous amongst cult film fans, as ‘Screamers’ features zero scenes where a man is turned inside-out. I called my mother upstairs, who took the posters down and gave my stepdad an earful. He responded by calling me "titty baby" as a lasting nickname when Mom wasn't around. The ‘Screamers’ poster vanished, while some kind of compromise was reached on ‘Def-Con 4,’ since it adorned my three-year-old baby brother's room shortly thereafter.” -John Gholson, Movies.com
It doesn’t help that we’re living in an all-time-low era for movie art. Everyone makes fun of Hollywood’s penchant for floating heads, but the laziness goes far beyond that. We shrug when a new movie features lame photoshopped movie stars standing around a lame photoshopped environment. That’s just the way things are. But they take it too far when they start to infect the past with this nonsense. Will this DVD cover for ‘Monkey Shines’ invade the dreams of any unsuspecting youth? No. Of course not. It’s terrible and it doesn’t even have the nerve to be terrible in a particularly interesting or fun way. If rental stores still existed, people would walk by that cover without blinking an eye. I find that profoundly depressing.
“My brother had his room decorated with the monthly Fangoria poster inserts, so I was pretty desensitized as a child. However, the ‘976-Evil’ VHS cover freaked me out because Stephen Geoffreys gave me nightmares from ‘Fright Night.’ I watched ‘976-Evil’ with my brother and, sure enough, Stephen Geoffreys again became my own personal source of torment. F*ck that guy.” -Adam Charles, Film School Rejects
There’s a reason many film fans have embraced the work of the Austin-based poster company Mondo and the niche home video company Shout! Factory. Both recognize that movie art can be something more. They realize that a good cover, a good poster, should represent the heart and soul of a movie. Sure, their work appeals to a niche, but it’s the kind of niche where every member has a story of getting freaked out by a VHS cover.
Some will think that a world where fewer kids are exposed to things that give them nightmares for years on end is good a thing, but I, a longtime veteran of learning that I love the things that scared me as a kid, disagree. Our fears help define us and in the case of movies, they help cultivate our tastes and lead us to great discoveries. They even leave some people with a great story or two. The fact that my future children won’t have the opportunity to face that terrifying monkey breaks my heart.