After the 'haunted childhood artefact' feel of Anodyne I wrote about; I thought that, in this bit of the run-up to Halloween, I'd write about an assortment of things that harrowed me as a young'un. An interesting subject, because I don't think - in adulthood - that we ever really experience in the same way that particular thrill of really feeling scared of a safe, constructed work of fiction.
Given the nature of childhood, some things I was scared of then are kind of dumb things to relate with fear (case in point: I remember an episode of Extreme Ghostbusters freaking me right out), but this list is mainly consistent of some legitimate (primarily) '90s-based recommendations (though, I'll warn you now, one of them is borderline impossible to find (save maybe through torrents or eBay or something)).
* * *
The Black Riders in BBC Radio 4's 1981 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings
I think the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, is my favourite part of J.R.R. Tolkein's influential fantasy saga; there's a smaller-scale mystery and creepiness to it all that, when contrasted with the cosy rural idyll of the Shire, creates a tone that I prefer to the later volumes' huge, epic-scale battles and quests.
One major reason for me having this opinion is probably down to my first exposure to the story being through the 1981 BBC Radio 4 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings -- which incidentally I had no idea was from 1981, having listened to it as a kid in the '90s (usually around Christmas time; and in the dark for extra atmosphere), thanks to them having been released on about a billion cassette tapes. I remember particularly my infant mind being creeped out by the Black Riders -- who really represent more than anything else this sense of the cosy warmth of the Shire being broken by the mysterious, evil goings-on in the outside world.
Part of it, I think, was the fact that, with this radio version, I had only the atmospherically rich sounds - the creepy voices of the Black Riders, the scared responses from the innocents they encountered in their search - to use in constructing an image in my head; in a way giving these characters this really effective sense of 'formlessness' in my imagination (the sort that's well-trodden ground in horror: think Lovecraft's descriptions of monstrosities impossible for the human mind to comprehend, and how Ridley Scott hides his own Lovecraftian horror creation from the audience throughout much of his 1979 classic Alien).
Unfortunately, I couldn't find a clip on YouTube -- but here's the theme music from the radio series (which is probably available in more contemporary formats than tape).
Sephiroth, from Final Fantasy VII
Playing Final Fantasy VII as a kid in the age where the Internet wasn't such a big deal (the slow-loading forest of GeoCities sites that it was) is - despite how utterly tediously nerdish a topic it looks on paper - something that I do find quite interesting.
To my eyes, Final Fantasy VII wasn't just a game. It was a three-disc enigma; a hugely immersive world filled to the brim with fascinating secrets, amongst them the creepily elusive Emerald WEAPON (I could write a thing about that, but it'd just be pretty much "saw a creepy-looking monster in the underwater depths, went up to it, died instantly, learned to respect the boundaries of this madly ominous beast") and the - to my childhood self, especially - mindblowingly deep layers of hidden backstory (I once got really excited because I thought I'd discovered a cut-scene that no-one else had found; I think I remember feeling very slightly offended at the juxtaposing ambivalence of my parents when I told them the world-changing news).
One mysterious enigma that really got to me when I first played it though, is actually one of the most major parts of Final Fantasy VII: Sephiroth.
I knew virtually nothing of the game or its settings and characters when I first picked it up and, reading the character list in the manual, I noticed Sephiroth's entry and how it's ridiculously vague - no picture, no age, a brief description of him having disappeared, and virtually nothing else. Then, gradually, this mysterious character sneaks into the story - bringing with him this huge sense of dread, frighteningly competent displays of violence, and twisted, tormented, borderline batshit motives for his world-threatening evildoing - and had me scared, as well as enthralled and immersed into the world of the game.
The extent to which I found Sephiroth scary can be seen in the instance when I woke up in a frightened jolt having, in my dream, come across what seemed to be Sephiroth's driving licence (or some standard form of identification, anyway).
Now, what the hell is that all about?
Assorted episodes of The X-Files
I remember that I impressed someone at school with the revelation that I'd been allowed to stay up and watch The X-Files. My Fonz-level veil of coolness at that point would have smashed into a billion pieces if I had revealed that I had resultantly been unable to sleep (more like refused to for fear of alien abduction / a Jersey Devil mauling) and that my parents decided I probably shouldn't stay up and watch The X-Files again.
For all the show's wit and humour, I think the main thing I got from it was the threat of imminent attack by paranormal entities. In the West Midlands. It turns out I may have had a point (though I probably didn't).
Not much else I need to say about The X-Files; stick to the early seasons for guaranteed quality.
The Realms of the Haunting
I think it's borderline impossible to find nowadays, but if you ever get the opportunity (getting past the whole DOS compatibility issues, etc.), I'd definitely recommend at least having a look at Gremlin Interactive's 1996 game The Realms of the Haunting.
The game is a first-person-shooter / horror adventure that puts you in the shoes of Adam Randall, who must explore an abandoned mansion in order to investigate the mysterious (and, as we find out, supernatural) circumstances surrounding the death of his estranged father.
There's a lot about Realms that's rather dated now - most notably the full-motion video cut-scenes (actually used a lot more effectively than many of its contemporaries) and the early 3D; but there's equally lots about it that stands up today and, in some cases, was ahead of its time. For example, there's the then-novel blending of the action-orientated first-person-shooter genre with the narrative elements and puzzling of the graphic adventure (this is two years before Half-Life received considerable acclaim for imbuing its first-person action with more sophisticated narrative elements); and the fact that the player has this expansive, haunting, excellently-realised environment of the house (and of the myriad strange places it leads you to) to explore, which is only really hindered by the fact that the player is required to switch between the four CDs irritatingly frequently in order to so.
My memories of playing it as a small child aren't exactly expansive, because I refused to exit one of the rooms out of sheer terror at the fact that I would be confronted with the game's first enemy; but, as I got older, I mustered up the psychological strength to soldier on and I can safely recommend this as a great, underrated and, unfortunately, largely forgotten game. Ideal if you're interested in seeing a relatively early example of an action game having the ambition to ramp up the atmosphere and story.
Dr. Fred's voice from Day of the Tentacle
Messed me right up.