My list of seven scariest movies—those that scared me most— started with The Thing and Invaders from Mars, both of which I saw as a child. Before I get to the third film, a word about “slasher movies.”
This sub-genre is all about immortal maniacs who violate the bodies of (mostly) young females and other innocent people with all kinds of sharp and deadly instruments. I think of them as “slice-and-dice” movies, and I don’t like them at all. Certainly a couple of good ones have been made, such as the original Nightmare on Elm Street, but mostly they deal in craven excesses of blood and guts.
Ironically, the next film on my list may be the granddaddy of this genre, but the scares are not drawn from buckets of blood or the removal of body parts in 3-D Technicolor. It was filmed in black and white; only two people are killed; and the scares come from the acting, the cinematography, and the superb editing. It is Alfred Hitchhock’s Psycho, which I saw when I was fourteen years old.
It was during the summer of 1960. My dad was on a two-week vacation, which meant my family was staying at a small hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains, home to dozens of small hotels and about a half-dozen major ones. The Catskills as I knew it —at that time also known as “the Jewish Mountains” and “the Borscht Belt”— is now just about completely gone. But when I was a kid, the dirt and hardscrabble roads revealed small enclaves around almost every turn. And so it was that my father thought it would be good to walk from where we were staying to a slightly larger hotel about a mile away, which had a movie theater and was showing Psycho. Some exercise and a first-run movie before bed. What could be better?
Did I mention that these mountain roads were unlit? If there was no moon out, you walked by starlight and flashlight. On this night, the moon shone and so no one thought to bring a light. We left our hotel right after dinner, and it was still light out. Walking home, having been totally traumatized by Anthony Perkins and Alfred Hitchcock, clouds drifted over our neck of the woods. It became very dark. And my father thought it would be great fun to fall back a bit and then come up fast and say “Boo!” I believe that was the first time I ever soiled my pants after graduating from diapers.