In the winter of 1986, my family was in a bit of a transitional period. We were in the middle of a move from Riverside, California (just east of L.A.) to the desert about a half hour north. We had managed to sell our old house before our new house was finished being built, so for a few months we stayed with my Grandmother, who also lived in Riverside. There were a lot of things going through my twelve year old mind that winter: having to move away from my friends, trying to make new friends at a new school – the usual concerns any kid would have when they move. There was one thing in particular, though, that crept into my head every night during those months at my Grandma’s house, and kept me absolutely petrified.
Richard Ramirez was a brutal serial killer who terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles area for months in 1985. The majority of his crimes were break-ins or “home invasion” style crimes. In many cases, he killed his victims in their bedrooms, some while they were still asleep.
Since my parents and I were in an already occupied house, sleeping arrangements were a little different, especially for me. My parents got the spare bedroom, while I got to “camp out” in the formal living room. For the sake of practicality, my little air mattress was placed on the far side of the room – under the large picture window.
By that winter at my grandmother’s, Richard Ramirez had already been captured. That was of little consolation, though, as I lay nightly under the large picture window in the living room of a house that had already been burglarized once. Ramirez terrified me. Would tonight be the night he escaped custody and broke into my Grandma’s house? It may sound silly now, but to a scared twelve year old that was perfectly plausible.
By this time I had already begun a steady diet of horror books and film, and they were scary in their own right, but this was different. This was tangible – a real, deep down fear of something quite real that could (theoretically) actually happen. This wasn’t a burnt-faced boogeyman who haunted people’s dreams like Freddy Krueger, or a hockey mask-wearing slasher with a machete who killed campers like Jason Voorhees. This was a real person, who really did kill people with a machete, in real life. It was fear on a whole new level.
I still love horror stories and always will – the monsters, the zombies, the slashers, etc. But nothing ever seemed quite as scary after that winter sleeping under the window, wondering if I would be the Night Stalker’s next victim.
I bring all this up for a couple of reasons. Since that winter, I’ve always had an admittedly morbid fascination with serial killers. What could possibly be wrong with their brains to make them do the horrible things they do? Some acted out of pure impulse, while others were extremely careful and calculating. When I think of what could really scare someone, put the fear of god in them, that’s what I think of. Not monsters or demons or vampires, but another living, breathing human being who is perfectly capable of taking a life, and you never know who will be next. It could be anyone. It could be you.
I just finished reading a relatively old book (1989), The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum. The book tells the story of a teenage girl in 1950’s rural America who is abused, tortured, and eventually killed by the relatives she is sent to live with following the death of her parents. It’s a work of fiction, but the horrifying part is that it’s loosely based on a true story. Ketchum makes up the methods of torture and adds fictional characters for the sake of adding context and drama to the story, but it really happened. That’s what makes it truly scary.
One of the most unsettling and disturbing movies that doesn’t always get talked about is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). It’s loosely based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The unflinching depiction of violence, especially one scene in particular of a family being murdered and Henry and his partner Otis watching the videotaped recording of the killings over and over on their couch later, is downright chilling. That scares me more than any made up monster.
It relates a bit to what Stephen King has said in some of his many interviews regarding the pressure he feels with his latest novel, Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. To paraphrase, he said that he understands that many of his fans were kids when they read The Shining, and it’s a lot easier to scare a kid than an adult. As I’m finishing up my latest rough draft, I find myself grappling with the same thing – is it going to scare people?
It’s a thriller/mystery/detective story about serial killers with a bit of a ‘meta’ edge to it. There is talk of serial killers past in the book, and my killers want nothing more than to instill fear in everyone in the city as they increase their body count. I think it’s a pretty damn scary concept; now I just have to revise and edit to try and make sure it scares people as bad as I was, lying under that window in January of 1986.
I want you to tell me what scares you. In a great bit of irony, as I let this story I’m finishing sit and “breathe” a bit, so to speak, I have another project to go back to – one that involves monsters and the supernatural. So I want to hear the scariest stories you know, real life or otherwise. Be they books, movies, creepy pasta (do any of you read that stuff?), urban legends, ghost stories you heard around the campfire…what makes you afraid to turn out the lights?