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First Scary Movies

You can sleep with the closet light on, you can crawl into your parents’ bed, but you can never forget your first truly frightening horror movie. Our staff and readers agree.

Each month, we pitch a new question to our staff and readers. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, email it to us. This month we asked: Tell us about the first time you saw a horror movie.

Mike Smith

June 19, 1998. We watched Scream after barbecue and birthday cake. A friend’s mother saw no problem renting an R-rated film for her 10-year-old son and his friends—it was a special occasion after all. We were excited, knowing most of our parents would never let us watch it. I don’t remember being scared by the film, but it had the exact effect on me that many parents feared. After it finished, we scattered in search of more food and Coke, and I hid in an alcove. As the birthday boy passed, I jumped out, brandishing a knife, screaming. Later, buzzing on caffeine, unable to sit quietly through Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, we all began wrestling. I fell and hit my head on the concrete floor, and was up most of the night being sick. It was perfect.

James Jackson

Event Horizon was the very first horror film I saw. I was 12 when it came out back in 1997, and it still terrifies me to this day! The worst part was the fact that I had no idea it was a horror movie when my cousin (who is three years older than I was) rented it one night when it was just the two of us. Alone in the house. Here we are, two young, naive kids, expecting something similar to Star Wars, and instead we get a movie out of our worst nightmares. I think the worst part about the movie was the fact that we never truly discover what the “evil” is; the gradual unease that builds throughout the movie is based largely on the crew’s paranoia and anxiety. We tried to laugh it off in true tough-guy style once the movie was over, but it was truly terrifying.

Rosecrans Baldwin

I used to have a knack for embarrassing myself during slasher movies. My first horror movie was Children of the Corn. I almost threw up on a girl’s neck. This was at my first boy-girl party, and I had to leave the crowd—the only one upset by the film—and take a walk. I was humiliated. My second horror movie, Nightmare on Elm Street, was at my second boy-girl party. I was nauseous again, I left again, and somehow I lost a girlfriend in the process. How people watch those Saw movies on a full stomach is beyond me. I can’t even watch Child’s Play. Give me a plate of fried coxcombs and the new Lars von Trier movie and I’m happy, but slasher films are my archenemies.

Tobias Seamon

I don’t remember my first horror movie, but I remember being scared witless for the first time around 10 years old, when my younger brother and I watched The Amityville Horror on TV. My mother was at a night class and we were alone in the house, and it was a good thing the movie was edited for television because we barely made it past the part where the gunman blows away his sleeping family. At some point the landlord called, and I was so relieved when my mother finally got home that I actually remembered to give her the message, joking that the landlord was going to kick us out of the pretty little cottage with a pond behind it. The next morning he did kick us out, saying he didn’t want to do it but his son was just out of jail and needed a place to live. The landlord at our next house was a total douche whose roving dogs killed one of our cats, and I’ll always blame Amityville karma for that next awful house, which my brother and I egged every Halloween for years after we’d moved away.

Rumsey Taylor

For years the scariest movie I’d ever seen was Harry and the Hendersons, viewed for the first time when I was eight. At around the 15-minute mark, Harry—a just and benevolent Sasquatch—is tied to the top of the Hendersons’ station wagon (they had inadvertently injured the beast, and opted to see to his aid). Without any cue whatsoever, the eight-foot-plus composite of fur and stench, framing the most disarmingly enormous smile you’ve ever seen, thrusts his head violently downward into the composition and screams. I erupted in tears, stood, and pleaded with my mother to leave. She refused, and the ensuing years have failed to occasion something as singularly thrilling as this scene.

H. Manon

I grew up in the boondocks of Western Pennsylvania. At some point in the early 1970s, one of the local Pittsburgh TV stations included the now iconic Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film as part of a news broadcast. I was probably seven or eight, and to me the bogus footage looked realer than real—an effect amplified by the fact that it was presented as news. (The next story was probably about a labor strike, a house fire, or a fluff piece about laundry detergent.) Whereas The Exorcist TV spot with the bouncing bed was nightmare inducing, I wonder how many rural kids actually avoided the outdoors for fear of a shaky-cam Sasquatch attack in their backyard.

Meave Gallagher

I was around 10, staying at my friend Danielle’s house. She was like my alter ego, my evil twin; we were both little red-haired, blue-eyed girls, but where I was generally sweet and polite in public and a terrible brat in private, she lived free of societal constraints, exerting her will whenever and wherever she chose. This had in part to do with her parents, who had (to me) really weird rules—like, they didn’t seem to care what anyone watched on TV, ever.

This particular Sunday afternoon, Danielle and I were cooking up some Top Ramen in the kitchen while her mother and eight-year-old brother watched Candyman a room away. I remember Danielle and I walking into the den to watch TV while we waited for the water to boil, and I remember looking at the television; then I remember a woman in a slip, looking in the mirror, and a hook, and then I blinked and then there was blood, dripping through the ceiling, and my stomach revolted.

I couldn’t move until Danielle did, though, as she was always in charge and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of her by acting scared; thank goodness she heard the water boiling in the moment of silence between movie and commercial break. We returned to the kitchen, fixed our soup, and carried big bowls of it back to the den. I spent the rest of the movie staring at my bowl, unable to eat, the image of the hook and the blood forever tied to the smell of Top Ramen, ever since a stomach-curdling stench.

Bridget Fitzgerald

I remember watching The Exorcist on an oversized couch, with a blanket pulled up within hiding distance, but completely unable to actually close my eyes for any of it—even when I wanted to. It took a few years before I realized that scary movies were not my favorite, and now I know to save my Netflix space. That said, I still have very fond memories of watching scary movies with a bunch of girls at someone’s parents’ house, going into the dark backyard afterwards, screaming our heads off, and having the cops show up to inform us we were disturbing the neighbors.

Erik Bryan

Mom didn’t let us see almost anything growing up. No movies rated higher than PG; no MTV even. By the time I was 10 or 11, I hadn’t seen anything approaching a horror movie. Then one night I stayed over at my aunt and uncle’s and watched the conclusion of Stephen King’s It—the TV mini-series—with my younger cousins, who hadn’t been raised as delicately as myself. I hadn’t been allowed to watch the first half, but all my friends at school were gleefully talking up its goriness. My introduction to horror, then, was this idea of an omnipresent, mutable evil that could appear to its victims as whatever they feared most, often Tim Curry as a child-killing clown. Afterward, my unfazed cousins fell right asleep, but my mind got stuck racing around a fright-induced/inducing loop. The goddamn thing uses your own thoughts against you. Stop thinking! I eventually bit the scared-shitless bullet and asked to sleep in my aunt and uncle’s room.

Giles Turnbull

I have never watched a horror movie. Not one. I flinch at the thought of gore, and I’ve never once understood the appeal of being frightened for fun. You can go watch your horror movies, I’ll just stay over herewith my warm real ale and a good book. Oh, and are they my slippers? Excellent.

Cole Baty

It wasn’t exactly a horror movie, but when I was about seven my mother took my brother and me to see Jurassic Park at the movie theater on the Navy base where we lived. The base had been dredged up in the middle of the San Francisco Bay in the ’50s and wasn’t very large, so we walked to the theater. Walking home afterwards, I was convinced there was a velociraptor behind every building, every trash can, every car. I was afraid to go number two for a week for fear that a T. Rex would gobble me up mid-bowel movement. I did try to spit poison in people’s faces, but that only got me grounded. These days, it takes more than some scary looking robots to get me worked up like that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to feed the decoys. Did I say decoys? I meant goats.

Tom Keiser

It’s been more than 20 years, and it’s just come back to me: the trauma associated with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? At the age of four, I thought that all cartoons were the same. Lucky me. I was exposed to murder, deceit, stereotypes, and hideously bad “special effects,” and then Christopher Lloyd turns out to be some scary-as-crap psycho toon. I watched some of it again today, and can only sigh, and wish my parents took me to see Beetlejuice instead.

Bob O’Keefe

On one of my family’s annual camping trips, we discovered a drive-in theater not far from the state park where we were staying. Disney’s The Love Bug had been on the marquee all week, but when movie night finally came, we found that The Night of the Living Dead was showing instead. Despite my mother’s protests, my father insisted we stay. Had I gone home that evening to four walls and a warm bed, my nine-year-old psyche might have quickly recovered. But my lodging that night was a tent in the middle of the woods. Every animal rustling through the underbrush, every shadow cast against the side of the tent, every pinecone tumbling down through the branches became a ravenous zombie intent on devouring me and my family. I did not sleep that night, nor for many nights thereafter. To this day I will not watch a horror film.

Lisa Brennan

Sweating through an August afternoon punctuated by a horror story of my own, I was dragged, hoarse, to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My father had chosen the film; he had chosen to toss me into a pool hours earlier. The two decisions were made after careful consultation with Old Grand Dad—the bourbon, not the benevolent—and the three members of his family were made to submit to his will. Having gasped and sobbed myself into a sullen silence, I sat with an aching chest and a throat as raw as a freshly skinned knee. I stared blankly at the screen as my mind replayed the drama of the trauma. I remember nothing of the film because I couldn’t shake the shock of my unwilling plunge into the pool. I still recall the burning in my throat.

Jeremy Watson

I’m sure this wasn’t my very first experience with a horror movie, but it was the first one I really remember and the best experience I’ve had with one. In high school I was in the marching band and we would have Halloween parties each year, normally at the same guy’s house. We’d do all the requisite Halloween party stuff, like a costume contest and bobbing for apples, but the best part of the party was always when we settled in for the long haul and a night of horror movies. The entire band would be gathered in one room on his massive couch and in chairs and on the floor, couples paired together but everyone crammed together in a sort of mass cuddle.

The first year we did this our first movie was The Exorcist. Even though it’s a bit hokey by today’s standards, we had kids from 12th grade down to 9th, I believe, and the whole atmosphere of the group was this delicious tenseness. You couldn’t help but feel a thrill of fear run down your spine at some points in the movie, like the time the girl crawls backwards down the stairs. Almost all the girls, and a few of the guys, screamed at that, and both the scream and the movie made everyone jump. Then there was the release of tension through nervous laughter at everything, and the slow build-up began again. They may not have been the most amazing parties, but I’ll always remember those times at Halloween and those movies.

Lauren Frey Daisley

Horror films and I are not on good terms. I seem to do a poor job at distinguishing play terror from real terror. That said, my relationship with the genre started out looking much more promising. In junior high, I went to see one of the Freddy movies, Nightmare on Elm Street: Part XII or something. It was the one where, at one point, lots of tiny faces of dead people emerge through the holes in Freddy’s sweater and writhe around. I also recall a faucet handle coming to life and grabbing the hand of an unknown actress before she met her ketchuppy demise. All this to say it was hard to take seriously. I almost enjoyed it. It felt like a community center’s haunted house, the kind where they make you touch peeled grapes and tell you they’re eyeballs.

More recently, long after I swore off horror flicks, I went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Not far from its display of real Cosby sweaters was Freddy’s sweater—the one the faces popped out of. The special effects team had it knitted really big so full-sized people in scary makeup could portray the tiny-seeming faces. One more reason to pity the extras—and a very palpable, literally larger-than-life reason not to fear the Freddy franchise.

Zan McQuade

You know that nightmare you have where you’re running away from someone, but you’re on ice so your feet keep slipping out from under you? In mine, I’m always running away from Peter Lorre and a disembodied hand. We didn’t own a television before I was five. My parents rented one for the 1980 Olympic Games, and then, once we started having babysitters who couldn’t live without their General Hospital, they eventually accepted a hand-me-down black-and-white TV from my grandparents. I became obsessed with the TV, and would sometimes sneak downstairs late at night for a fix. Which is how I managed to see the terrifying The Beast With Five Fingers at the tender and easily spooked age of five and became forever terrorized by the idea of a hand scurrying after me in the dark. Also, the reason I have yet to get through Casablanca in one sitting.

Lea Treese

The scariest thing about Tripods—the BBC series about our world dominated by aliens in three-legged spaceships and thrown back into pre-industrialism—was the intro: Simply the title Tripods turning around until it became a green maze into which you were drawn, with mean, gloomy music in the background. My parents were watching the show. I sat on the couch with them. I was five.

Leah Finnegan

It was a Saturday afternoon in 1998. I was an underdeveloped 11-year-old with a predilection for dollhouses and stuffed snowmen. I wandered into my parents’ room to bug them about one thing or another and completely lost my train of thought when I saw multiple pairs of augmented breasts on the TV screen. I had not learned about the wonders of plastic surgery in human science class.

But this is not a story about porn. It is about Private Parts, Howard Stern’s foray into feature film. My parents, vocal fans of the shock jock to everyone but me, had bought the movie on video almost immediately upon its release.

In a strange twist of fate, they didn’t shoo me from their room as they had done previously during screenings of Schindler’s List and racier episodes of Thirtysomething. So I ended up watching the nearly NC-17 movie in its entirety with my parents when I was 11. I still recoil whenever I hear Stern’s voice.


I was six when I watched Dracula with my some older cousins at a family gathering. The adults played pinochle and the kids watched Dracula on television. (This was the pre-VCR ’70s.) It was the 1931 Bela Lugosi version. I was scared from the first scene, a long carriage ride in the dark. Was it storming? In my memory it was storming. My parents were busy playing cards and didn’t notice me cowering on the sofa. I had nightmares for six months afterwards. I eventually had to give up my turns to sleep in Mom’s bed when Dad traveled. I was too scared to sleep. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were closed or open but empty and she appeared to grow fangs and retract them over and over. Also, I don’t trust mirrors to tell me if there is someone behind me. (Yes, still. Don’t tell anyone.)

Neil Robinson

I must have been eight or nine years old when I sat down on the couch next to my dad and watched Alligator. Here’s what I remember about the film:

  • Boy gets baby alligator.
  • Boy flushes baby alligator down toilet.
  • Alligator not only survives but thrives in sewer system.
    • Possibly because of radiation?
    • Or maybe pharmaceuticals?
  • Alligator emerges from sewer system to terrorize city.

Here’s what I remember about my reaction to the film:

  • Boy cannot sleep for days.

Looking up the movie on Wikipedia, I see that:

  • I was wrong about the human protagonist’s gender.
  • I was wrong about who flushed the alligator.
  • Yeah, it was drugs.

I also see that Alligator was written by John Sayles (genius) and stars Robert Forster (solid). I should watch it again. I will not watch it again.

Cleo Hayes

My dad worked night shift when I was seven, and on weekends my mom was fond of taking me and my two-year-old brother to double features at our local drive-in theater in rural Kentucky. The final movie in a Halloween scary movie triple feature was the original 1979 The Amityville Horror, and I had drank just enough RC Cola to fuel my bravado and remain awake for the entire film. For me the scariest parts were scenes involving the oozing walls, and to this day I find seepage mildly unsettling, but I still loved it. We got home well after midnight, and to our shock, my mom and I realized we had the same wallpaper in our living room as the oozing living room from the movie. My mom grabbed my sleeping brother and we headed to our local 24-hour restaurant for pie and wait for my dad to get off work.

TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers