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Sandy Banks

'The Exorcist' Scares Up Memories

October 15, 2000|Sandy Banks

I wake uncomfortably in the night, my body scrunched into a corner of the bed, impaled by three pairs of spindly legs.

There is one child curled in a ball near my feet, the blanket pulled so tightly over her head, I wonder how she can even breathe. Another is pressed against my back, her arm wrapped around my neck as if she were choking me. Their big sister lies along the bed's edge, clutching a teddy bear in her sleep.

They've learned, with practice, how to climb into my bed without waking me. And now every night, it seems, one or two or all three of my daughters are driven by imaginary demons to make their way in the middle of the night to Mommy.

I have already heard all their explanations. "There was this noise outside." "I had a bad dream." "I thought I heard someone on the stairs, but when I looked, there was nobody there."

But I know the real reason they wake up frightened: "The Exorcist," back to torment another generation. And my kids have seen only the commercials.

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I've seen "The Exorcist" only once . . . and once was more than enough. Almost 30 years later, I can still recall the spinning head and spewing vomit and that feeling of lingering terror that forced me to sleep with the lights on for weeks. I can't imagine lining up to see it again.

Experts say it is both our physical and emotional responses to terror that make scary activities--from horror films and haunted houses to bungee jumps and roller coaster rides--so appealing, even addicting to some.

Fear has the same adrenaline-producing effect as excitement, explains UCLA psychology professor Michael Fanselow. That rush "is very arousing, very stimulating," he says. "It's an autonomic response--something we can't control. Some people are drawn to [that feeling] and seek out ways to experience . . . the thrill." That's what has made the horror-movie genre a cash cow in the film industry, going back 40 years, when Alfred Hitchcock's $800,000 slasher film "Psycho" earned $40 million . . . and made women everywhere afraid of showering.

"The thing that probably is the scariest is the anticipation of something happening," Fanselow explains. "That buildup while we wait for the moment of terror . . . that can be more thrilling than the actual thing."

I don't like the way frightened feels. I get enough of an adrenaline rush when I find a parking space in the Starbucks lot in the morning. I don't do roller coasters, haunted houses, horror flicks. It's been 35 years since I watched Hitchcock's "The Birds," and my heart still races whenever I spot a flock of crows overhead; I'm convinced they're drawing a bead on me.

Fanselow says I'm just as normal as those folks who enjoy being scared. It's not that I'm a coward; my brain might be wired more delicately.

"There's a wide range in how strongly people respond to frightening stimuli, and our reactions are dictated partly by our history--we learn to be afraid of some things--and partly due to genetic differences," the professor says.

As my girls get older, they may shake off their mother's legacy.

Teenagers and young adults are more likely to gravitate toward scary things, Fanselow says. "That's a thrill-seeking stage, a time of life when we tend to be attracted to excitement, to the stimulation that fear provides."

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I think back on how "The Exorcist" stimulated me.

I was a sophomore in college, on my third date with a fellow who seemed nice enough but hadn't made my heart skip a beat.

When the movie ended, I could hardly walk, my knees felt so weak. He ushered me back to his apartment, knowing I was much too scared to spend the night in my dorm room alone. And he let me wear his T-shirt and tucked me in his bed, and sat up all night in a nearby chair, on the lookout for scary sights and strange noises.

I didn't sleep much, so we mostly talked. And by the time the sun came up the next morning, I'd decided that he was so nice, so brave, so caring that he just might be my Mister Right. I married him a few years later.

We never saw another horror movie together. And now, as our daughters crowd into my bed for comfort, I wonder if I was the only one frightened by that movie. Did he really stay up to comfort me, or was he--like me--just too scared to sleep?

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Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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