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SCARED SILLY : What's Wrong With Us Anyway That We Pay Good Money to Have Bad Guys Jump Off the Screen and Frighten Our Pants Off?

October 28, 1989|PATRICK MOTT

She was green!!!

She had been horrible enough those first few times when she was black and gray, but now that the old Philco had been replaced by a new 1964 model RCA, that hideous apparition stepped out of that explosion of smoke, and she was green!

It was horrible, terrifying, ghastly, far worse than I remembered from the year before. It gave me nightmares.

But the next day at school, that's all anybody talked about: the Wicked Witch of the West in sickly, living, pea-green on color TV. Crawly and reptilian. Absolutely evil. Worse than ever. Awful, awful, awful.

How we loved her.

Margaret Hamilton, God bless her, was the worst thing any grade-school kid could imagine: that hatchet face, that hawk nose, those threatening buck teeth, those frigid dagger eyes, those fingers like talons. That voice. Straight from kid hell. And now, through the miracle of the latest video technology, she looked like brackish pond slime. It was marvelous.

We would have traded Dorothy for her in a minute, and her little dog too. We would have thrown in the Tin Man and the Wizard and Auntie Em and every Munchkin in the place in a heartbeat, just to see more of the Witch. And another flying monkey scene wouldn't have been bad, either.

She was as good a symbol of downright rottenness as we could imagine, and her timing was perfect, according to Orange County suspense author Dean Koontz.

"If the Witch hits you at the right age," he says, "she hits you as a symbol for chaos and evil and death, and that can stay with you. Whatever frightens you in childhood remains fearful as you grow older."

(For Koontz, who missed a complete screening of "The Wizard of Oz" as a kid, the witch took a back seat to Frankenstein's monster. "That stayed with me," he says. "That particular archetype of the man-made sort of creature that is uncontrollable remains a very frightening image. Maybe that's my Wicked Witch.")

We loved Margaret Hamilton as children (amazingly, she was a kindly and beloved schoolteacher before she took on the role of the Witch) because she scared the daylights out of us. And we love her still because we remember how much fun it was when she scared the daylights out of us. Many of us continue to creep into darkened theaters trying to find some adult incarnation of the Wicked Witch of the West so that we can continue to have the daylights scared out of us.

There are few things, it would seem, that we love more than a good soul-jangling fright. For some of us, it's better than baseball, better than pizza, better than Christmas, better than sex. We will gladly skip lunch and save the money to pay such people as Alfred Hitchcock or Freddy from Elm Street or Stephen King or the slasher du jour to get that adrenaline gushing.

Feed Robert Shaw to a shark, and you're a hero. Get Linda Blair to talk like George C. Scott with tonsillitis while her head spins around and you'll get rich. Give people a severe case of the creeps while they read alone, in bed, at night, and Letterman's ratings will dive straight through the floor.

What's the matter with us, anyway?

Nothing that a little feeling of superiority would not mitigate, Dr. Lee Gislason says.

"What happens in a horror movie, for instance," says Gislason, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry and human behavior at UC Irvine, "is that people know that the movie has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that in the end they'll come out of it alive. If you were

unsure of that, you probably wouldn't go in. It's a vicarious way of working through various horrible situations you might have been in yourself.

"I don't think it's so much the thrill of being scared as it is the feeling of mastery and of living through it."

Not that the thrill isn't fun. When he was a boy, Gislason says, "my buddies and I would watch the Frankenstein movies until late at night and then go sleep outside. We were a little scared watching the movies, but (sleeping outside) would add to the scare. Every little sound was frightening. Some of the guys would lose it and have to go in."

However, it remained for Hitchcock to hit Gislason where he lived.

"For myself," he says, "it was the shower scene in 'Psycho.' I was probably 16 when I saw it. I don't recall having a shower since without the door locked."

Things were not quite that visceral in 1931--a true watershed year for horror--when things were less gory and more Gothic.

That year marked the movie debut of a hideous, godless, rapacious, fiendish, evil, blood-sucking monster, a character so awful that he terrified thousands of viewers into heading straight home and bolting themselves in tight until daybreak.

Today, the Count teaches children how to count on "Sesame Street."

Of course, Count Dracula does not have quite the bite he used to. In his Muppet incarnation, the Count is positively cuddly, and his cheery pseudo-Transylvanian accent couldn't chill dry ice.

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