Your childhood years are supposed to be the best of your life. You don’t have to worry about any adult concerns like bills, relationships, the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation, jobs etc, instead children are meant to be carefree and happy. Well, for the most part. I’m sure I speak for many of you when I say that there were some parts of my childhood that were downright terrifying. Whether they be TV shows aimed at my age group or something totally inappropriate I stumbled upon one night, these are the top ten works of fiction that scared me as a child and have continued to linger with me to this day.
This is a weird one. While the story of Rumpelstiltskin, a monstrous imp of a man who kidnaps a woman’s child and refuses to release them until she can guess his name, didn’t really scare me, the character certainly did. I don’t remember where I first came across the story but I know what happened afterwards. It was a sunny, summer day. About 12 am. Mum was at work and Dad was sleeping upstairs so to my childish mind I was essentially home alone. The character of Rumpelstiltskin struck such terror in me as a child that I hid in my downstairs bathroom for what seemed like an eternity out of fear that this freakish creature was in the area and looking to get me. I can’t tell you how long I stayed in that tiny little bathroom, but I think it could’ve been as long as half an hour. Imagine that. I spent 30 minutes hiding from this man despite the fact it was broad daylight. Looking back it was obviously ridiculous but I can see where I was coming from.
Rumpelstiltskin isn’t the typical monster I was exposed to in childhood, he wasn’t a giant or an ogre or a werewolf, he was tiny and sneaky and sadistic. I think it was the fact that he was something so different as well his sheer confidence and intelligence, that frightened me so much. My fear of Rumpelstiltskin may not have lasted as long as some of the other entries on this list but for half an hour in the summer of 2002, he was the most terrifying thing on the planet.
9) Wolves, Witches and Giants (1995-1999)
I’m willing to bet next to none of you have heard of this series. Wolves, Witches and Giants was a short series, with each episode tackling two or three fairytale stories. The show didn’t even frighten me so much as make me feel uneasy, like something was off, and I attribute this feeling to several things. Some of those fairytale stories could be quite dark, I can’t tell you how many featured people getting eaten alive or murdered. Really though, what it came down to was a combination of three things; the opening theme, Spike Milligan’s narration, and the animation. The intro music is dark and creepy, some of the most atmospheric stuff of any cartoon I’ve ever seen. Comedian Spike Milligan not only narrates the series but also voices all the characters, he’s a great fit because he sounds both kindly and creepy, like you’re being read a bedtime story by your kindly old Grandfather who might’ve done something terrible during the war.
The animation is pretty cheap looking but actually works in the shows favour, its bright colours and simple imagery contrasts heavily with the music and Milligan’s narration and together the three of them create a really off-putting tone that has stayed with me to this day. Wolves, Witches, and Giants feels like one of those Creepypastas about a lost TV show that’s filled with dark imagery totally unsuited for anyone. Frankly, it’s a classic but one whose tone was far from pleasant.
8) The Tent Scene from Dog Soldiers (2002)
How many of us have channel surfed as a child only to accidently find ourselves watching something wildly inappropriate for us? Well, I have, and one of them was Dog Soldiers, a film about a group of British squaddies battling werewolves in the Scottish highlands. It’s a fun movie with some great points but my first exposure to it was this scene:
A young couple getting intimate in a tent before being torn apart by werewolves. That was horrifying to me as a child. I think what really scared me was the lack of noise, there’s no dialogue, just frightened panting, growls and grunts. The image of the man being splattered with his girlfriend’s blood was something that stayed with me for years after I first saw it. The scene may be short and actually not that great looking back (gee I wonder if that silver dagger will come into play later) but at the time it really affected me.
7) Tipu’s Tiger (Circa 1795)
When I was a boy I spent a lot of time at my Grandparent’s house, and while I was there I did a lot of reading. On one occasion I discovered this image:
That is Tipu’s Tiger, a wooden, 18th century animatronic piece built for an Indian Prince and currently stored in the Victoria and Albert Museum. When I first saw that picture I was affected. Something about the way the man looked made me deeply uncomfortable and the concept itself was pretty scary. Things only got worse as I read on. At first I thought Tipu’s Tiger was just a small model, but no. Tipu’s Tiger is life-sized, and not only that, it makes noises. On the side of the tiger is a crank which, when turned, makes the man scream. That is horrifying. Tipu’s Tiger freaked me out so much as a child that even today I feel uncomfortable when I come across it. In fact, Tipu’s Tiger was featured on an episode of Antiques Roadshow a few years ago and my childhood feelings of dread came rushing back. Tipu’s Tiger is a fascinating piece of Indian history but is just as terrifying to me now as it was when I was a child.
6) Heroes of Might and Magic 3 Necropolis Theme (1999)
I’ve been a fan of Heroes 3 of Might and Magic since I was in primary school. It’s a well-made and creative game that I still play to this day and is certainly one of my favourite games. When I was a child I visited my friend Matthew Hoyle, who first introduced me to the game. On this occasion I decided to play as Necropolis, a faction whose army is made up of zombies, vampires and ghost dragons. As soon as I started, Matthew expressed how great he thought the town’s theme was and turned his computers volume up to max.
As much as I love the Necropolis theme, its scared me when I was younger. It’s dripping it atmosphere but its also creepy and threatening. I was taken totally by surprise when I first heard it and did everything in my power to resist the urge to turn the sound down. I have to credit that moment for helping Homm3 stand out in my mind as something truly special, and while I still love the game, every time I play as Necropolis I can’t help but think of my first ever experience with it.
5) The Toilet Scene from Deep Rising (1998)
Deep Rising is another one of those films I just sort of found one night as a child and one of the first scenes I saw from that movie was this one:
Looking back I see how silly this scene actually is, but at the time it really took a toll on me. At that age, about 9 or 10, I had seen a few monster movies, things like the Jurassic Park films, and I had seen people dying on screen, but I’d never seen anything this brutal happen to a woman before. Deep Rising was really my introduction to female death scenes in cinema and as far as introductions go, this one was especially brutal. What made matters worse is that I had no idea what movie this was, it was just a horrific scene I had stumbled onto late one night and it took me years before I actually found out the name of the film and watched it all the way through. I can’t imagine I would’ve been so haunted by one of the cruelest and unusual deaths in modern cinematic history if I had known where it came from. Instead, the question of this scene’s origin and the pretty gruesome image it contained stayed with me for years.
4) Childs Play (1989)
For the third time in this list we come to a film I stumbled on as a child. The fear this film inspired was so palpable that I remember exactly where I was when I saw it and even how I was sitting. The scene that really scared me as a child is one I’m sure many of you are familiar with:
Despite it seemingly a little silly nowadays, when I first saw this scene my blood ran cold, I was frozen to the spot and totally taken aback by what I had just seen. Now that I’m older and wiser, I understand how the scene works. The moment where Andy’s mother discovers that the doll doesn’t have any batteries in sets things up brilliantly and it’s a clever way to do it. What really matters here though is Chucky’s reaction. He transforms immediately from a smiling, benevolent children’s toy into a monster, his excessive use of swearing the look on his face, and the anger in his eyes all clash so heavily with what we associate with the type of toy Chucky was. Watching this scene when I was a child was about as jarring as humanly possible, I was taken aback totally by it and it played into a fear of dolls I carry with me to this day.
3) Doctor Who (2005-2008)
Contrary to the beliefs of everybody in Britain over the age of 40, I never found the Daleks that scary. For me they were more of an intimidating presence rather than a frightening one. No, the things about Doctor Who that scared me are the things that scared everybody of my generation and the first four series each had an episode or a two-parter that affected me as a young fan of the show.
In Series One we got this:
Which was followed up in Series two by this:
Series Three outdid them all with this:
And then Series Four decided to give us one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time with this:
I’d talk about all of these episodes independently but we’d be here forever because there is just so much to talk about and I’m sure you’ve all seen the episodes. Stephen Moffatt was not a good showrunner but if you give him one or two episodes a series to work with, he will give you some of the best Doctor Who episodes ever written. The Gasmask Zombies were really the first introduction to how terrifying Doctor Who could be for my generation and it shook us to our core, I know I wasn’t the only one who was affected by this because for the better part of a fortnight the phrase “Are you my Mummy” essentially became a national catchphrase and was the moment the Doctor Who producers realised they were onto something.
Series two’s Fear Her is not an especially strong episode, the concept is great but with little budget to push it through we lost what might’ve been one of the scariest episodes in the shows history. The childish drawings step very much into uncanny valley territory and while the horrific father figure never made a full appearance, he and the other living drawings affected me greatly.
Series Three’s Blink is one of the best episodes in the shows history and gives us one of the most iconic monsters Doctor Who has ever produced. Despite suffering from the same lack of budget as Fear Her, Blink’s concept works especially well her seeing as you don’t need to pay Freema Agyeman or David Tennant that much and the Weeping Angels don’t even move. The Weeping angels are a brilliant concept and the Doctor’s strict instruction not to blink was pretty haunting. The setting is terrifying, the monsters are terrifying, it’s smart and while I admire it greatly, I am also very much aware of the fear it inspired in me as a child.
Series Four’s Midnight often gets overlooked, mostly because it lacks a monster, but Doctor Who’s take on a classic scary story format is brilliant. The idea of something repeating every word you say and then turning you into a paralysed husk of a person is great, the knocking on the wall of the ship is great, the fact you don’t know what it is and never do is great, and the social commentary on what seemingly normal and decent people are capable of in extreme situations is stellar. Midnight was an experience for me, for 45 minutes I was totally captivated, it is storytelling at its finest and it completely and utterly terrified me. I cannot speak highly enough of Midnight, easily one of the best Doctor Who episodes and certainly the scariest.
2) Goosebumps: Night of the Living Dummy (1996)
For my generation, Goosebumps was one of our first introductions to the horror genre and while I always admired the creativity that went into most of the episodes, I never found any of them too scary to handle. That all changed when I saw the two-parter Night of the Living Dummy. I mentioned before that I have a fear of dolls and ventriloquist dummies and this is where that all started:
Unlike many of the other entries on this list, Night of the Living Dummy is here for one reason alone, Slappy’s design:
There is no ventriloquist dummy that looks like that, his proportions seem wrong somehow, like everything is too big, it’s an excellent example of uncanny valley. Slappy just doesn’t look right, his design is blatantly sinister and looking back he has paedophilic vibes that cannot be ignored, just look at the way he falls in love with some of the female child leads and tell me you aren’t creeped out. Slappy is where it all starts for me, everything about him frightened me, his weird head, his laughter, even the way he ran, a move obviously accomplished by putting a smaller person or a child in a costume, seemed weird and made me terribly uncomfortable. Goosebumps is a great show, but I can trace my fear of ventriloquist dummies straight back to that one story. Oh and before you ask, I think Slappy’s redesign for the Goosebumps film is terrible.
1) Jaws (1975)
Nothing can or will ever come close to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in terms of things that scared me as a child. I’ve heard it said that the brilliance of the film is that it affects an entire landscape with fear, and anyone who’s ever seen it will agree. I first saw Jaws when I was around 11, my mother bought a VHS copy of it for my birthday and we sat down in the living room to watch it. I remember the exact scene where I realised this was something special:
Alex Kittner’s death affected me profoundly. I remember distinctly seeing that boy disappear under the surface of the water amidst a churning pool of blood and feeling exactly the way Chief Brody felt. My blood ran cold, my gaze was totally fixed to the screen and it was all I could do to turn to my mother and give her a look as if to say “what the actual hell was that”. She looked me in the eye and replied with an expression that said “Yup”. From that moment on, I, like many others, had a fear of deep water. It didn’t matter if it was in Spain or Hunstanton, Greece or the local swimming pool, I always felt a sense of dread when I was in water. Jaws traumatised me as a child, there’s no other way of putting it. Jaws traumatises people who watch it to this day, Jaws even traumatised everybody who worked on it. There’s a story about Spielberg and a friend going on holiday after filming had finished and Spielberg was asked if he wanted to go for a swim. “No” he replied “they’re out there, and they’re waiting for me”.