The Three Movies that Traumatized Me


For some people, it’s Bambi.  For my brother Al, it was ET and Pee Wee’s Playhouse—he must have had a psychic intuition about that Pee Wee Herman guy.   But everyone can look back on childhood and recall—sometimes fondly reminisce, as I suppose I do —about the Movies that Ruined Their Lives.  (In the comments, go ahead and mention the movies that traumatized you. It’s fun!)  It’s not that I hate the movies or think that they’re bad.  As Facebook would say of my relationship, it’s complicated.

1) The Shining


I remember the day that Brendan, Michael, and I watched The Shining at Irving’s house, I guess at some point in elementary school.  Irving had the only VHS and, obviously, most neglectful parents.  I think they were going through something.  Supposedly, kids figure everything out and know what’s going on, but I was a confused, oblivious child.  Danny, the boy with the title’s power, seemed roughly our own age, and when he talked to his hand decades before talk shows would emplore people to do the same, and called his pointer finger Tony, then spoke in a raspy voice as Tony, it didn’t seem funny, or campy, or kitschy, or cheap.  It was fucking horrifying.  So was the “REᗡЯUM” in lipstick on the bathroom door, which spelled out “MURDƎЯ” in the mirror, something that at 10 years old (maybe?) I DID NOT SEE COMING AT ALL.  And that was nothing compared with the terrifying twin dead ghost girls.  Like regular twins aren’t scary enough.  And of course, the Naked Lady in the bathtub, who begins as beautiful (not that I noticed; see: oblivious) and turns into a shrieking, droopy-breasted  hag as she chases Jack Nicholson down one of the million hallways in the film.  The later scenes, involving Jack going crazy, hacking poor Scatman Crothers to death with an ax, and subsequently menacing and attempting to murder his wife and child, had little effect after the powerful childhood magic of Tony,   REᗡЯUM, the girls, and especially the Naked Lady.  Either that or I had no more unconscious recesses left in my brain the ruin.  As Psycho must have done for a previous generation, The Shining made me scared to go anywhere near a bathroom for, like, a year.   And for many years after, Michael and I would yell “Naked Lady!” to each other, a phrase which for other kids may have evoked laughter, or titillation. Bur for us it was like screaming Boo! Times a million.

I watched The Shining again about a decade later. I was an English major in college and wanted to see what all the fuss in my head had been about.  This time, the movie was hilarious, a black comedy about writer’s block and isolation, less about Danny and bathrooms than Jack Nicholson’s madcap persona and the ridiculous haunted house conventions that had been beaten into everyone’s heads a hundred times by then. A hotel built on an Indian burial ground? Really?  I laughed at the film, at Jack, at Jack’s stupid, frozen face at the end, and myself, for misreading the movie so badly.

the_shining_ Jack frozen

And then I watched it again about six years ago.  I was teaching a class about conspiracy and paranoia in literature and film and wanted to pair Diane Johnson’s excellent, underrated novel The Shadow Knows with a movie.  And it was scary all over again, for new reasons. This time, I hardly saw anything supernatural or monstrous about it.  Instead, it seemed a harrowing psychodrama about loss of masculinity and domestic abuse, the not- at-all-funny ways in which women and children are most threatened by, most likely to be murdered by,  husbands and fathers,  supposed protectors and providers.  Without society or any kind of social arrangements, Jack has nothing to keep his rabid unconscious in check. I was disturbed all over again.  Maybe I wasn’t as oblivious as I thought as a child.

  2. The Fly


Not the 1950s Vincent Price classic, although I did see and love that movie as a child. No. In 1986, a few years after The Shining, I was at an in-between movie age and faced a choice: to see the Transformers (the cartoon movie that no one wants to talk about these days, featuring Orson Welles’s last role. Ah, cruel fate), or David Croneneberg’s remake of The Fly.  Later in life, I’d grow to love many of Cronenberg’s films.  Jeff Goldblum/Seth Brundle’s revolting and horrific transformation—no easy head-switcheroos here; the way   Brundle snaps a man’s wrist arm-wrestling in a bar; the way the mutated Brundle-Fly uses his fly vomit to disintegrate a man’s limbs; the way Gina Davis’s push dislodges Brundle-Fly’s jawbone and with it, his last vestige of human resemblance; Brundle-Fly’s like-nothing-else-ever appearance at the very end, after he accidently goes through the teleporter alone, failing in his Shining-esque plan to use the machine to merge his own DNA with Gina’s and their in-utero child, and how he points the gun at his own head but in his hideously deformed state can’t pull the trigger and Gina has to do it for him. OH MY GOD.  I can’t believe I ever saw another movie again. Or slept again.  Or had children.  But YOU WILL NEVER GET ME IN A TELEPORTER.  This plot summary was written from memory and without IMDB or Wikipedia.  Although I have not seen this movie in over 25 years, its images are burned into the internal plasma screen of my psyche.  Unlike The Shining, I do not expect to see The Fly again.

3. The Elephant Man


Now, here’s the catch: not only have I not seen the Elephant Man since I was a child; I NEVER saw The Elephant Man. Although I added to my Netflix queue over a year ago in a failed attempt to cure myself through immersion therapy.  Which counts for something, I guess.  Even before The Shining, I saw a short clip of The Elephant Man on TV.  The clip I saw, which, again, I remember vividly although it was over three decades ago, features John Merrick, as he was known in the film, wearing a pillowcase over his head and fleeing a mob, which rips his mask off only to shock themselves into stunned murmurs.  Suddenly emboldened, Merrick bellows, “I am not animal! I am a man! A human being!” before collapsing from the exertion.  Then I saw a Ripley’s Believe it nor Not (or something like that) episode featuring Elephant Man reenactments, although the disfiguring makeup was far cruder than the film’s and, if I remember right, kinda purple. No matter. I become obsessed with The Elephant Man, reading all I could about him while strenuously avoiding any pictures of him, or John Hurt in the movie, which was not easy.  Even at the time, I had no idea what I was scared of.  Was I going to run into him somewhere?  I was kind of scared that I would, although obviously the odds of, say, being killed by Jack Nicholson were far greater.  Would I turn into him?  Um, no.  I didn’t know what I was scared of.  I still don’t, although the fact that I felt terrorized and traumatized by the clip is, as far as I can ascertain without having actually seen it, the exact opposite point of the film itself, which seeks to re-humanize, rather than dehumanize, the Man, not the Elephant.  I should really watch it.

But I won’t.

Honorable Mention: Snoopy Come Home.  In 1976, Snoopy, one of my childhood loves, ran away from Charlie Brown. Or something like that.  Did he run away, or was he left behind? Was it a misunderstanding? If you need to know, go check Wikipedia,_Come_Home , which, unbelievably, has a significant entry on it. I haven’t seen this one again and don’t plan to.   And unlike the others, I hardly remember it.  Call it traumatic amnesia. All I know is that Snoopy was gone for like an hour and a half, and everyone is crying and crying and crying those big Peanuts teardrops from the sides of their eyes like water hoses, and then five minutes before the end, after everyone gives up, Snoopy Comes Home and it’s all OK.  Well, Charles Schultz, it WAS NOT OK.  The ending could not fix the feelings of loss that, when I close my eyes and psychically look back, I may not have yet gotten over. 

Time: one re-traumatizing hour.  


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19 thoughts on “The Three Movies that Traumatized Me

  1. Amy B says:

    Like your brother, ET was probably the most traumatizing film for me as a child. I wept with soul-shaking sobs both when ET was left behind and the beginning, and when he left Earth at the end. I was so wrecked by that movie, I was terrified to ever see it again. So I have, to this day, never seen it again.

    And yes, Snoopy Come Home was pretty sad. But nothing compared to ET.

    Oh and I am just now remembering, I was never able to make it past the scene in Dumbo where his mom is rocking him through the bars of her prison cell. So I don’t even know if Dumbo has a happy ending. Because IT WAS ALL TOO MUCH and I just couldn’t handle all the (sad) feels.

    • Hourman says:

      Thanks for writing, Amy. I think that you and Al are close in age, so that makes a lot of sense. It’s like Snoopy Come Home, but it’s upsetting whether ET stays or goes, like the Clash song.

      Dumbo is another issue. I don’t think I saw that until I was an adult and mostly noticed the weired racial semiotics of the movie, which I guess is the topic for another blog.

      • Hourman says:

        Oh, and rereading I see that in my haste I wrote Pee Wee’s Playhouse when it should be Big Adventure. Upsetting for different reasons I suppose.

  2. Andy Zuckerman says:

    1). The original “Halloween”. Michael Meyers wearing that expressionless, colorless William Shatner mask, hacking apart all those sexed-up teenagers. And then, at the end, after Donald Pleasance shoots him to pieces and saves the day, and we look down on his motionless corpse, and….He’s. Not. There. That’s not how horror movies are supposed to end! And the soundtrack….
    2). “The Amityville Horror”. I saw this too soon after “Halloween”. I thought I was older, more mature, tougher. I had read bits and pieces of the book. It was still hyped as a true story. I wasn’t ready.
    3). “House of a Thousand Corpses”, last year on IFC, home alone, my wife and kids gone for the evening. I thought I was older, more mature, tougher. And we don’t have Cinemax. I wasn’t ready.

    • Hourman says:

      Thanks for sharing, Andy. I saw Halloween around the same time as the Shining and it didn’t have the same effect on me. But I saw a special on TV about Amityville Horror (what was it with TV in the 70s and 80s?) that was so scary that I would never see the movie. Amityville was maybe a half hour drive from where I lived, which made it seem real. And I agree that i am not ready for House of a Thousand Corpses. Rob Zombie’s music is scary enough for me.

  3. ballerina95 says:

    Snoopy, Come Home. – Until now, everytime I see a Snoopy comic, I remember the movie and everything about Snoopy is colored by the sadness I felt when I watched that movie. I can’t even remember what exactly the movie was about. All I can remember is the sadness I felt. And I cried buckets with Dumbo too. I saw it again 2 years ago, and I still cried buckets. i vowed never to see it again.


    • Hourman says:

      I’m glad I’m not alone in Snoopy Come Home. In retrospect, those Peanuts comics and cartoons are pathological. Yet everyone from my generation loved them. There’s more to write about this.

  4. lissyann says:

    ‘It’ would have to be the creepiest most awful movie I ever watched. I was too young and it gave me terrible nightmares. I think it was based on a Stephen King novel? Most people from my generation agree it was terrifying, if we watched it now it would possibly be humorous, but it’s always stuck in my mind that it was pretty much the scariest movie of my life! Also, ‘cold Mountain’ and any war movie makes me feel horribly sick sick sick and I can’t handle them. I usually prefer fluffy rom-coms, action, or fantasy 🙂 I’m glad there’s other people who have been traumatised by fictional movies and the impression they’ve left on them! 🙂

    • Hourman says:

      Thanks for writing, lissyann. I didn’t see either of those, but It, like The Shining, is based on a King novel. I’m going to guess that a lot of psychologists owe their livelihoods to Stephen King and Charles Schultz.

  5. Jaime Brown says:

    I’ve never understood how ET is supposed to be heartwarming. That creepy little guy and those creepy adults in plastic suits scared the bejeezus out of 4 or 5-year-old me. As did Friday the 13th, Child’s Play and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I still have issues using the bathroom at night because I managed to convince myself that Thriller lived in the toilet. What the hell was wrong with my parents?

  6. Hourman says:

    Jaime: Child’s Play! Another movie I could not see. I had a brief fear of marionettes as a child that still has some residue. Even as a kid who liked ET, I didn’t doubt his creepiness. As for Thriller, I wonder if, like my brother and Pee Wee Herman , you were psychically in tune with something Michael Jackson was putting out there. Thriller today looks like a desperate cry for help from a young man who thinks he deserves to look like a monster.

  7. Laura says:

    Mostly as a kid I was able to avoid scary movies – my parents wouldn’t let me go see them, and they generally didn’t let me go to movies with other people. The two movies that scarred me as an adult were “Kids” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover”. There are a couple of scenes from “Kids” that still turn my stomach if I really think about them, and TCTTHWAHL was just so wrenching in terms of the deliberate cruelty people can inflict upon each other that it makes me despair.

    • Hourman says:

      Thanks, Laura. Guess there are all different kinds of scary movies. I have TCTHWAHL (whew) in my Netflix queue as well. It's like an alibi for not having seen something.

  8. Kyra says:

    Who needs to go back to childhood? I had to sleep with the lights on for 2 weeks after I saw the Ring. The movie within the movie was so disturbing, and I couldn’t even explain the details of why. Augh! *shiver*. After having children, Dumbo became awful.
    Elephant Man! I only HEARD my parents talking about it as a child, and was deeply scarred. Your blog brought back all that young child confusion and unsettled terror. 🙂
    But the real destroyer of my young soul? Nightmare on Elmstreet. And I only saw part of it. But to this day, I am so thoroughly terrified by the idea that the monster could get you in your dreams. As if the dreamworld wasn’t unnerving enough…. “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.” 😦

    • Hourman says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Kyra. Sorry about bringing back unsettled terror, etc. For me, I guess movies from my adulthood don’t scare or upset me in the same way as the movies I wrote about here. The only movies I try to avoid are ones about kidnapping or featuring Adam Sandler.

  9. V.E.G. says:

    In real life, people are crying and the Peanuts Characters are crying due to the death of the Creator, Charles Schulz. Schulz died ironically, one day before the final release. God had planned that way.

  10. V.E.G. says:

    Believe it or not, the singing voice of Snoopy Come Home, is none other than the world famous Tony the Tiger voice, Thurl Ravenscroft. Thurl is gone now, but he will be remembered by his children Ron and Nancy.

  11. Hourman says:

    Thanks, VEG. I did not know all of this Snoopy backstory. As long as I’m commenting, I’ll mention that the blog has been on hold for a few months now, but it’s nice to know that people are still finding, reading, and commenting on it. Thanks!

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