Alfred Hitchcock’s movie thriller, Psycho (1960), defined the word frightening for my childhood. I remember watching it in the dark living room of our old farmhouse. My parents were out, and my two older brothers were watching with me, making comments such as “Oh my God!” I screamed at the shower scene. I screamed when the P.I. climbed the stairs in the creepy house. At the climax, I closed my eyes and covered my ears with my hands, peeking out at just the right moment to see Mother in all her dead glory. The movie lingered in my dreams for months.
Recently, I read Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, upon which the movie was based. I was surprised at how well the movie tracked the storyline. I thought the book was well written and built tension beautifully, but knowing the punchline ruined the scare factor. In fact, what frightens me most about Psycho today is my memory of those nightmares.
The evolution of horror movies and horror novels since Alfred Hitchcock’s day has brought us stories with even stranger and more horrifying endings. The Exorcist (Peter Blatty, 1971), The Shining (Stephen King, 1977), and The Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris, 1988) are among the most dramatic. The Exorcist reveals the unflinching presence of pure evil in a young child. Jack Torrance’s mental deterioration in a hotel of ghosts turns into a quest to kill his family in The Shining. Thomas Harris shows another manifestation of pure evil in the brilliant character, Dr. Lecter, who destroyed my taste for Chianti.
All of these stories join Psycho as horror classics, but I’ve lived through decades and raised a child, so I know real fear. Sometimes, getting through the day is frightening enough, especially when your not-quite-twenty-one-year-old child decides to drive cross-country alone, or take a new job in a new state.
Perhaps the unknown is what scares me the most, and that’s why Psycho doesn’t bother me anymore. Still, I challenge horror writers to frighten me as much as my own child can, and she doesn’t even try.
A retired engineer, Ursula Wong writes about strong women. Her award-winning debut novel, Purple Trees, and her second novel, Amber Wolf, portray strong women struggling against impossible odds to claim a better life.
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