Horror/Sci-Fi/Suspense Influences on TSJ Before the Age of Ten
I recently published a blog piece celebrating my fiftieth year on the planet. In the article, I wrote about the books I read as a child under the age of ten. The intention was twofold: to inform people about the books that inspired a young boy to take on the monumental goal of writing science fiction thrillers (a task which took decades to achieve), and to implore parents to always buy books for their children.
Some of the books I read included Mysteries and Sci-Fi, and others included non-fiction books about the planets, stars, and space travel. The article got me thinking about what movie and TV Horror/Sci-Fi influenced me in my early formative years. Specifically, what characters, scenes, storylines, and F/X fascinated and shocked me as a child? I’ve compiled a short list below, and today (Halloween) it’s more relevant than ever. If you’re around my age or older, you might recognize some. Perhaps I might inspire you to check others out. At the very least, the list might show you the effect that even the most innocuous bit of imagery might have on a child. All of these played a role in my passion to tell stories. Maybe an unconscious one — images or concepts fluttering about in my background brain — and some I might have been clearly remembering as I wrote certain scenes in my books. Note that these aren’t necessarily favorites of mine — they just made an impression on me at the time. I’ll try to let you know for each memory. Here they are:
The Twilight Zone: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1963) Age When Viewed: Five to Ten
This one stars William Shatner, whom I already knew from Star Trek. There were a few story threads that scared the living crap out of me. First, that an unknown beast of some sort could bring down a passenger plane. Second, that if only one person noticed what was going on, people might not believe him because the concept was so outlandish. And third, and most horrifying of all, that the whole incident was not even happening. It was a mind-bending episode of a series that I watched weekly, and one which shook me. It made a huge impact, and Shatner’s acting was stellar. I really felt that this man was falling to pieces. It was incredible, horrifying, and thought-provoking … all hallmarks of so many episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Doctor Who: The Daleks (1970’s) Age When Viewed: Five to Ten
There was no single episode that I recall in particular, but I found the Daleks and their desire to exterminate humans haunting. “Exterminate … exterminate …” It plagued me. I saw and heard it in my nightmares. I loved the show and Tom Baker is the Doctor I remember most fondly.
Space 1999: Dragon’s Domain (1975) Age When Viewed: Five
This show, like Doctor Who and Star Trek, played on television in the 1970’s in syndication and I saw repeats frequently. I loved Space: 1999, especially the setup. The series proposed a fantastic scenario of the Moon separating from orbit and floating freely through the galaxy — taking with it a human colony. The characters, the ships (Eagles), and the commander, portrayed with gravitas by Martin Landau, were all compelling. (Years later, Landau won an Oscar for his work in one of my favorite films, Ed Wood.) Dragon’s Domain was one of the scariest episodes. I even read the novelization at some point in the 70’s, though I don’t remember what I did with the book. The story revolves around a graveyard of vessels discovered in space, within which lives a tentacled monster with psychokinetic powers. The monster hypnotizes its victims, hauls them into its gaping and jagged maw, swallows and digests them, then excretes a mostly-dissolved cadaver only seconds letter. It’s horrifying. In hindsight, I imagine that as a young boy, I watched (and read) the story and it played a tremendous role in the gore and horror I infused into The Tanner Sequence, my claustrophobic murder mysteries. Watching it again (it’s on YouTube) I see that the effects are poor, but the concept is still scary, especially for a five year old!
The Light at the Edge of the World (1971) Age When Viewed: Unknown
I watched this Kirk Douglas/Yul Brynner movie on television sometime in the 1970’s. It was based on a Jules Verne story about a group of pirates who take over a lighthouse on Cape Horn to extinguish the light and lure ships to their doom. Historians call this strategy wrecking, and it appears frequently in storytelling. One prominent example is John Carpenter’s The Fog. However, while researching this article, it appears as though no one has actually used this in history, although salvaging a wreck was commonplace in the 1800’s and earlier. The pirates in this movie are vicious. They behead and torture people. I wonder if this played in my background brain while writing The Furnace, where many victims lose their heads, and not just metaphorically. The pirates even flay one victim in The Light at the Edge of the World. This scene in particular haunted me. They haul a man up the mast and peel his skin away. Kirk Douglas, watching from a distance, has a rifle and can shoot the villain, Captain Kongre, but chooses instead to put the victim out of his misery. This scene really affected me. It’s on YouTube, but watch at your own risk. I loved Yul Brynner and had seen him before as an actor (The Ultimate Warrior, 1975, and Westworld, 1973). There will never be another Yul Brynner. He could play hero or villain perfectly. In this movie, he was sadistic, heartless, and terrifying — a great pirate.
*** Note: There were many other films in the 1970’s I watched countless times on TV. Most were in the Science Fiction genre and played on Detroit Channel 7. I wrote about them here.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Age When Viewed: Seven
I loved this film, as well as the (now removed) theme park ride/experience in Disney World. The sequence with the giant squid terrified me. I found the notion of being crushed by a slimy appendage from the sea, or dragged under the water to drown, disturbing. I loved how the crew defeated the creature, and this sequence was a true nail biter.
Kingdom of The Spiders (1977) Age When Viewed: Seven
It’s another William Shatner story! I saw this one on TV, and hell, it’s about spiders taking over a small town. That’s terrifying. The final scene gave me nightmares. The film is in the tradition of nature rebelling against humanity, whether it’s ants or other mutated bugs, and this one is just jarring and stomach-churning. It still gives me shivers.
The Fly (1958) Age When Viewed: Seven
That ending. My god, that ending. I wrote about it here. I don’t want to dwell on it anymore, but I can tell you that it still scares audiences today.
Buck Rogers: Space Vampire (January, 1980) Age When Viewed: Nine
The vampire was a species called a Vorvon. Only the victim could see it, in this case Wilma Deering (Erin Gray), and as I write this I’m realizing that it might be a common thread in this article. I distinctly recall the creepy music and the beast with a misshapen head, ears, and eyebrows. It looks cheesy now, but at the time this thing terrified me. I loved the show and was sad when it ended.
Star Trek: The Man Trap (1966) Age When Viewed: Unknown
More Shatner! It’s his third appearance on this list. I saw this episode multiple times during my younger years. Coincidentally, it was the first Trek ever aired, and it is a case of yet another space vampire. This one is the salt vampire, a shape shifting species and “the last of its kind.” The way it attacked Kirk and the way Shatner screamed — in pain, in despair … he was a man helpless to defend himself against its mental assault — terrorized me.
It is also a case of The Imposter Theme in science fiction, which I love, and have written about extensively here, here, here, and I spoke about it on a radio show here. My first novel The Furnace features The Imposter Theme.
Flash Gordon, The Wood Beast Scene (September, 1980) Age When Viewed: Nine
Remember this? It featured Earthling Flash Gordon, quarterback of the New York Jets, shoving his arm into a dead tree stump and betting that a fanged beast wouldn’t sting him. It was a test of will and bravery. Timothy Dalton, later a James Bond, was the other actor in the scene. It terrified me! (A character does get stung in this way.) My older brother and his friends had won a radio contest and we got to see an advance show. (This was a recurring event — they also showed me The Thing when I was twelve.) I was mostly excited because Queen had done the soundtrack and I loved the film in all of its exciting cheesiness. It was epic with a great villain, massive stakes, a wonderful rock score, and a fun journey for the main character. What a ride! But that Wood Beast scene … !
Here it is, from Movieclips on YouTube:
Saturn 3 (February, 1980) Age When Viewed: Nine
This suspense/horror film took place on the “third moon of Saturn” and starred Kirk Douglas (his third appearance in this list!), Farrah Faucet, and Harvey Keitel. They were the only three people at the remote hydroponics outpost. There was a menacing robot in the movie that scared the crap out of me. It had an organic brain, and as I recall there was a scene of it being removed (held in a glass cannister) and reinserted into the robot. Keitel’s lust for Farrah Fawcett somehow becomes imprinted into the robot’s programming (these things tend to happen in the future, apparently). At one point in the story, the robot slices off one of the human’s hands and drags its victim through the station, leaving a trail of blood behind. That image tormented me for years. The theme of a menacing AI was nothing new (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey) but for some reason that organic brain and its associated human instinct to commit violence (and experience lust) affected me as a youngster. I had nightmares about this movie, especially that damned robot, FOR YEARS.
Alien (1979) Age When Viewed: Ten
I saw the chest burster via a VHS tape in a department store when I was in Grade Five. At lunch, my friends and I would go to the mall and we watched the movie, out of sequence, over a period of several weeks. We had heard about the chest-burster scene, and my God, everything was true. Terrifying.
* * *
Like everything I’ve seen, read, and experienced, whether in a book, film, video game, comic, or television series and more, it’s all interwoven throughout the tapestry of my creative journey. Each entry is but a single thread in the complete picture. Some had more impact than others (The Thing, Alien, Asimov) but all are important and now play a key role in my writing. I hope you enjoyed this incomplete list (I’ll probably remember more later) and if you do, feel free to reach out (or comment below) to tell me your story.
Other Noteworthy Entries:
These didn’t qualify for my list because I was slightly older than ten, but each made a violent impression.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) Age When Viewed: Eleven
The Intruder Within (TV Movie) (1981) Age When Viewed: Eleven
The Thing (1982) Age When Viewed: Twelve
The Exorcist (Book), Age When Read: Twelve
The Amityville Horror — Book, Age When Read: Twelve
The Amityville Horror — Movie, Age When Viewed: Twelve
Creepshow, The Crate (1982) Age When Viewed: Twelve
House (1982) Age When Viewed: Twelve
Poltergeist (1982) Age When Viewed: Twelve
Missing in Action, The Bayonet Sequence (1984) Age When Viewed: Fourteen
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