Tag Archives: spooky

Tete-a-tete: Terrifying toys make childhood memorable

People have designed some downright terrifying things with the misguided belief that they’ll be enjoyed by children and well-meaning parents have purchased them, blissfully unaware of how their child might respond. Indeed, there are several unsettling toys and books from my childhood that have left their imprint on my psyche and cemented my status as “the practice child,” the affectionate nickname my father bestowed upon the oldest of his four children.

The first terrifying toy I can remember is a plush Gizmo, the original mogwai in the dark comedy “Gremlins.” I thought Gizmo was adorable until I found out that if you got him wet, he could spawn other mogwais, who would then turn into horrifying monsters if you fed them after midnight. Not exactly what a four-year-old is looking for in a cuddly bedtime companion.

Speaking of which, I’m a little fuzzy on how a four-year-old managed to find out these details about the movie. Perhaps Dad made some sort of joke about banning Gizmo from my tea parties.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time one of his jokes backfired. At age 3, I asked my freshly-shaven father where his mustache went. He cheerfully informed me that he had put it in the closet. I refused to go near the closet until he proved his mustache wasn’t really in there.

You can therefore understand why, when Gizmo was deemed too scary to remain in my bedroom, I put him in the closet. Not my closet, of course – Mom and Dad’s.

Dad’s father worked for a book publishing company and often gave us books and book-related items that were lingering in the stockroom, including a set of four plush toys based on the characters from “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.

The only one I found remotely tolerable was Max, the protagonist, who was clad in a wolf costume. The other three creatures were, as best as my young eyes could discern, a bull/gorilla hybrid, a bumblebee/lion hybrid and a cross between a chicken and a terrifying elderly aunt. I wanted nothing to do with them.

“But they’re so unique!” my parents protested. “They’ll be collector’s items someday!”

That’s nice. Someone else can collect them, then. Into the closet they went. By this time, Oldest Younger Brother was on the scene, so I put them in his closet.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure if Oldest Younger Brother ever knew I did this. Either way, I apologize for turning your closet into a chamber of childhood horrors.

Another of Grandpa’s more questionable bestowals was “Fever Dream,” a glow-in-the-dark picture book. I remembered the title from my childhood but not the author. As soon as Google revealed that the story was penned by esteemed sci-fi and horror writer Ray Bradbury, I questioned the sanity of my grandfather and my parents.

Here’s how Amazon summarizes the book: “A young boy’s illness comes alive, taking over his body bit by bit until he dies – but the virus remains alive in his body. A portion of each illustration glows in the dark.” What better bedtime reading material for your eight-year-old daughter?

Such a story is obviously ripe for interpretation and analysis, but my prevailing memory of it is the protagonist crying to his mother that he no longer has hands, just stumps, and his mother telling him it’s just his imagination and he’s overreacting.

My guess is that neither my grandfather nor my parents took the time to read the book before giving it to me. The fact that it came in a set with glow-in-the-dark versions of “The Speckled Band” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and “The Golden Touch,” a retelling of the tale of King Midas by Nathaniel Hawthorne, may have given them a false sense of security. My parents have always been big on the classics.

None of these stories appealed to my eight-year-old self as bedtime reading material, especially after I encountered the illustration in “Fever Dream” that depicted the young boy being entirely consumed by glow-in-the-dark flames. All three books were speedily relocated to Oldest Younger Brother’s closet.

And last but not least, there was Teddy Ruxpin, who ended up being an unintentional source of terror. Essentially a teddy bear with a cassette player inside, Teddy Ruxpin’s eyes would move and his mouth would open and close in time with the narration on the cassette so that he appeared to be telling the story. He had his own storybooks and even a cartoon show that chronicled his magical adventures in the land of Grundo.

Everything was sunshiney and pleasant until his mechanical innerworkings began to break down. It started off as a slight distortion of the voices on the cassette and devolved into a metallic grinding, making it look like Teddy Ruxpin was gnashing his teeth and rolling his eyes in fury.

I’m just relieved my parents didn’t buy any of the cassettes on which Teddy Ruxpin sang lullabies – I already had plenty of fuel for nightmares. He too took up residence in Oldest Younger Brother’s closet.

The unintentional receipt of creepy toys and books from well-meaning adults is a part of childhood and one that continues to resonate with us as grown-ups. Horror movies like the “Child’s Play” series are popular for a reason. They allow us to revisit those scary memories at a safe distance, secure in the knowledge that these things can’t really hurt us.

Just don’t go in the closet.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Oct. 5, 2017


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Tete-a-tete: When your worst fear comes true

It has been said that 90 percent of the things we’re afraid of will never happen. This is comforting until you realize this means that 10 percent of the things we fear actually will happen.

And this 10 percent isn’t restricted to the more typical fears, such as being in a car accident. Nope, the completely irrational fears are fair game, too.

Take mine, for example. I have a very specific form of mottephobia, or fear of moths. This is due to coming across the movie “The Silence of the Lambs” on the shelf at our local video rental store when I was a child. To refresh your memory, the cover features a close-up of Jodie Foster’s face with a terrifying-looking moth where her mouth should be.

Ever since then, whenever I see a moth, I get a little panicky and I automatically close my mouth, rolling my lips inwards. My body seems to be under the impression that if the moth can’t see my mouth, it won’t try to land on it or fly into it.

Over the years, my family has tried to convince me that moths are far more interested in cozying up to the nearest light source than in attacking my face. But that’s why it’s called an irrational fear – it’s not supposed to make sense.

You can therefore understand my consternation when I walked into my bedroom a few days ago and discovered an enormous black moth that resembled Darth Vader’s helmet clinging to the wall above my bed.

I enlisted Mom’s assistance in exterminating the unwanted insect, but by the time we returned to my room, it was nowhere to be found. Mom assured me that it had likely flown out of my room and would turn up elsewhere in the house.

She was, shall we say, slightly incorrect.

The next night, after I had turned off my lights and was nearly asleep, I heard a sound like the flapping of wings. I quickly turned on my bedside light and scanned the ceiling. Nothing.

I turned off the light and tried to fall asleep, telling myself it was only my imagination. And then, I heard banging coming from the large Japanese lantern above my bed. I turned it on to see what could be causing this noise, only to discover I had angered the lurking Moth Vader.

It flew out of the lantern, banked in the middle of the room, and then flew directly at me. More specifically, it dive-bombed my mouth.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to scream with your mouth closed. It doesn’t really work.

I shot out of bed, and the moth came to rest on the wall above my bed, settling in just high enough that it would be hard to reach with the fly swatter that I keep behind the dresser for such emergencies.

This was one of the rare occasions I was glad that my eyesight is not the greatest. Without my glasses, I was spared the high-resolution version of this winged terror as I tremulously tried to mash it into the wall with my well-used – and somewhat mangled – fly swatter.

I succeeded in crushing it enough that it left a ghastly black smudge on my wall, but not enough to kill it. It crumpled to the floor and scuttled off under my bed to lick its wounds. Like their less threatening cousin the butterfly, some moths do have tongues.

I quickly came to the dreadful realization that the moth had retreated so far under my bed that I couldn’t have another whack at it unless I crawled under the bed with it. This would give Mothra another chance to barnstorm my face, with the added bonus of triggering my mild claustrophobia.

There was absolutely no way I was getting back into bed until this issue was resolved, so I did what any self-respecting adult would do: I walked up the stairs from my apartment to see if my mommy and daddy were still awake.

I don’t think I have ever been so happy to see Mom washing dishes. With grateful tears in my eyes and the occasional horrified shudder, I brought her up to speed on my eventful evening. She listened sympathetically and kindly agreed to never refer to my peculiar mottephobia as an irrational fear again.

Armed with the heavy-duty fly swatter from the kitchen, Mom crawled under the bed and vanquished Mothra on my behalf. It took two napkins to dispose of its remains.

After thanking Mom profusely, I snuggled back into bed and stared at the ceiling in wide-eyed terror until the sun came up and I finally drifted off to sleep.

There’s something about surviving one of your worst fears that makes you a little braver. I’m still terrified of moths, but I feel more confident that I can handle the worst case scenario if, God forbid, it needs to happen again in order to fulfill my 10 percent quota. Granted, my response may still involve requesting parental backup, but I will do so in a stronger, less quivery voice.

There is definitely something to be said for confronting your fears head-on. Just keep your mouth closed.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Oct. 2, 2014.

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