I had an ambivalent relationship with spooky stuff as a kid. It was equal parts fascination and terror, and favored bite-sized doses over longer-form material. I didn’t have the patience to read novels or watch a full-length movie, so most of my chills and thrills came from various Scholastic Book Club anthologies, various clip shows, and movie trailers that my impressionable mind would extrapolate into something far more disturbing than what actually made it onto the screen.
Real-life horrors had a particular allure to me, conveyed in factoid (and highly fanciful) form through the Book of Lists or themed omnibus editions covering things like shark attacks or shipwrecks or the paranormal nonsense that became a mass mania during the Me Decade. A 2500-word M.R. James story written in dense, affected English or a 100-word entry about a poltergeist attack that “really, truly happened” — it’s pretty obvious which one a TV-damaged six year old is going to gravitate towards.
That didn’t change until I hit early adolescence and started reading Twilight Zone Magazine on a regular basis. The initial draw was a monthly/bi-monthly assortment of short stories, but the book reviews and articles eventually goaded me into expanding my horizons a bit. Even so, the first book TZM convinced me to buy was Stephen King’s Different Seasons (a collection of novellas) followed up by his Night Shift anthology.
My movie viewing habits followed the same track my reading ones did. The main vector for spooky-themed material was Channel 56’s Creature Double Feature, which ran on Saturday afternoons and thus forced some serious kid-level introspection about time management. Time spent in front of a TV was time not spent tooling around the neighborhood with friends or accompanying my indulgent grandparents on their weekly shopping trips.
The decision was made easier by the quality of the material featured on the program — lesser kaiju flicks and slow-moving monochrome jobbers from the Fifties and Sixties. In both cases, the promised spectacle was buried under long budget-sparing scenes of folks spouting expository gibberish in the confines of some office or similar meeting space. Even when I did make an effort to watch an enticingly titled offering, there was a fairly good chance I’d lose interest and wander off to more diverting pastures before the first commercial break.
The few films I did watch from beginning to end were in the company of my mom, who had a unexplained fondness for old-school giant creature romps. She was a big fan of both the import and domestic forms of the genre — Godzilla and Rodan as well as various Harryhausen and Bert I. Gordon flicks. Her favorites were Earth vs. The Spider and The Deadly Mantis (which inspired her to keep a praying mantis as pet when she was a kid) but the one that stuck with me was 1955’s It Came From Beneath the Sea.
In Young Andrew’s world, sea creatures occupied the same psychic space that dinosaurs occupied in other obsessive tykes. Picture books of whales, sharks, and other marine animals filled up a good portion of my playroom bookshelf. The books also had a decent number of vintage illustrations featuring giant cephalopods in fierce battle with other creatures or dragging hapless vessels and persons beneath the waves with their suckered tentacles.
I knew Dracula wasn’t real, but I’d seen real-life octopuses in both an aquarium tank and on PBS wildlife programs. And they freaked the living shit out of me. A giant stop-motion incarnation of one of those strange beasts was able to snare my attention where other monsters failed.
It has been decades since I last watched the film and my memories of it have all but evaporated, apart from the a scene where the monster unfurls a tentacle and crushes a line of pedestrians. It gave me nightmares for weeks and made me keep well clear of the shoreline when my dad dragged me along on one his fishing trips shortly afterward.
Recommended listening: Syd Barrett – Octopus (from The Madcap Laughs, 1970)