So far in this series, we’ve spent quite a bit of time showcasing the lighter side of Halloween. The candy, the costumes, trick-or-treating, and just being a kid at heart, no matter your age. Today’s entry, however, highlights another aspect of the holiday that’s truly just as much fun, and arguably creates just as many fond memories: HAVING THE SHIT SCARED OUT OF YOU!!
If there is one thing that I have learned in my six years of running Horror And Sons, it’s that the topic of today’s post is responsible for doing just that for an exceptionally large number of people, especially those that first witnessed the film while it was new. Of course, as stated in the title at the top of this page, today’s film is 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
Demmie Von Grimm returns to our series to cover this influential piece of prime-time horror, sharing with us some of the terror that it brought to her. While frightening at the time, those horrors that she experienced watching the film led to what are clearly some fond memories, not only of the film, but also of the rush that comes with being scared. I assure you, you won’t find that in your Trick-or-Treat bag. Well, not unless someone gives you a bunch of Mary Janes this Halloween. Those things are just gross!
ORIGINAL AIRDATE: October 10th, 1973
“The seventies were a magical time”, a phrase you often hear uttered by older horror fans. Most younger horror fans have been desensitized by jump scares, slashers, and gore galore. It’s common knowledge that Elders pine for long-ago eras of entertainment and the nostalgia of their “yesteryear”. That’s nothing new.
However, I would argue that in the “golden era” of 70’s television, made-for-TV horror films not only embodied the atmospheric mystery of those classic horror films, but also made it palpable and brought it under your bed and into your closet, mixing the monsters of old with the boogeymen you were already afraid of.
On weekend afternoons, or sometimes late at night when we were supposed to be in bed, we would be simultaneously enthralled and terrified by these dark movies. We knew we weren’t “allowed” to watch them (at least not in my house), but that was part of the allure; the “forbidden”, which was the “gateway drug” for many of us horror fans.
These movies taught us to appreciate special/practical effects, to savor the “slow burn”, and these films often had great underlying messages (don’t walk home alone, don’t talk to strangers, don’t go digging up graveyards, etc.) Many Gen-X horror fans can regale you with tales of their first, just as they could a first love.
For me, it was 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. As a juvenile, I remember it being a cool, weekend autumn afternoon. I remember having to stay home because “family” was coming over. The adults were visiting in the kitchen, and American Bandstand had just ended. I remember being immediately drawn in by the slow creeping theme music, and the glowering big silhouette of a massive house, and lightning. At that time, like most kids, I WAS afraid of the dark. I thought maybe this would help me get over that fear. Oh, naiveté!
A likable young woman named Sally (Kim Darby) had recently moved into a big house with her busy workaholic husband. She becomes curious and opens up a boarded up fireplace. Strange things start to happen. At first, it would be little things that happen to all of us, relatable things. You begin to think perhaps Sally is just hallucinating out of loneliness. Until one fateful night, while she’s showering, she sees them. Those things we think we hear in the dark? They’re real, and they’ve come for you!
At that age, you keep waiting for that happy ending. For everything to be okay. This was the first film I ever saw where that did NOT happen. Rules had been broken, and consequences had to be paid. I can guarantee you that those of us that saw this movie still kinda flinch, just a little, at fireplaces, and shiver when we hear the name “Ssaalllyyy…” Because of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I certainly learned not to go messing with stuff in anyone’s house ever. Ever.
It’s films like this that stick with you; that genuinely settle in your soul for years to come, not because of one particular scene or particular creature, but because of that whisper you heard behind your bedroom door, that feeling of dashing out of the room after you turn off the light, or that thing that unexpectedly fell off the table. The slow burning horror as Sally tries to futilely escape is just one of the reasons this gem is an underrated classic.
What many newer horror aficionados tend to miss about the low-budget genius of films like this is that it was no longer mythological monsters in some far away place on a silver screen, but the very horrors of your own worst nightmares, straight from the devil, hiding behind your bedroom door. All of it there and worse than you thought! The thrill of the adrenaline rush, the “high” from the constant tension and suspense… all of it a rollercoaster ride that stayed with you. It’s a forgotten art form, in the back of that old graveyard, but those who seek it out are rewarded with a deep appreciation for creation of tension, influential pacing, chilling and trauma-inducing suspense.
My fear of the dark *never* really went away.