I’ve written a few articles for Black Gate about the films and novels of my childhood that inspired me to write fiction, and today I’m once again taking a walk down Memory Lane to visit the old Nostalgia Nook.
First, let me say it’s a safe bet that we all grew up with dinosaurs, aliens, mythological creatures, and certainly the film genres of horror, fantasy science fiction, and monster films. I think it’s safe to say that most of us identified with the monsters when we were kids. Who didn’t relate and empathize with Frankenstein and the Wolfman? Who didn’t feel sorry for King Kong? These monsters didn’t scare me. No, they were my friends. I was rarely scared or creeped out by monster and horror flicks when I was a kid, and I was in kindergarten when I first came into contact with Frankenstein, King Kong, the Wolfman, Dracula, the Mummy, and so many others. However, there were three instances where I was frightened by things I had seen and read, things which gave me nightmares and made me wary of things that lurked in the shadows. What’s weird about this, what sticks in my mind is that these three instances all occurred at roughly the same time.
The year was 1962. I was 10 years old. Like most 10-year-old boys, I was pretty fearless. If you dared me to do something stupid and even dangerous, I accepted the challenge. Sometimes I wonder how I ever managed to survive my childhood. Haven’t we all? I had already begun my “journey into the unknown” watching countless horror and science fiction films and TV shows like The Twilight Zone. (The Outer Limits would not make its television debut until1963.) From that point on publications such as Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein soon grew into a huge pile on the desk and bedside table in my bedroom, alongside my collection of Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Horror, Creepy, and Eerie magazines. On the dresser beside my bed were all the Aurora plastic models of Universal Pictures’ Famous Monsters I had so lovingly assembled and painted.
None of these things frightened me, you see. Monsters and aliens, ghosts and zombies . . . I couldn’t get enough of them. What nightmares I did have at the time involved failing grades and facing the wrath of the nuns in my Catholic grade school. But in 1962 three things all came together at the right time and in the same week to put a scare into me that lasted for several weeks, as I recall, and that period in my life is a memory I have never forgotten and never will.
First, I had already started collecting the Topps’ bubblegum card series, Mars Attacks! Comic book drawings though they were, they were pretty gruesome and graphic for those days, and made quite an impression on me. Anyway, I loved this grisly set of cards, although they were the first to launch my series of nightmares. Not only were there full-color “scenes” on one side of each card, but the flipsides of every card told the continuing story of an invasion from Mars. (It really saddened me that Tim Burton’s 1996 film was turned into a comedy that spoofed several older movies, including Earth vs the Flying Saucers. What an excellent and terrifying film could have been made, had Burton chose to follow the story already laid out as “storyboards” by Topps and their artists. But his Martians were pretty cool.) Perhaps someone will one day make a television miniseries actually based on the original Mars Attacks! bubblegum cards.
So, as the race to Mars has already begun, and I wonder what we’ll really find there, (Ghosts of Mars, perhaps?), I’ve flashed back to 1962, when Mars and aliens were constantly in my thoughts and dreams.
Which brings me to the second thing that happened in 1962: the first time I saw the original, 1953 film Invaders from Mars on television. As hokey as this film may seem today, it’s considered a classic of the genre. Its effect on me and other kids I knew was almost profound, to say the least. It scared the living daylights out of me. The film is told from the point of view of David, most effectively in the way director William Cameron Menzies set up his shot and camera angles. David is a kid about the same age I was at the time, who witnesses the landing of a flying saucer, which then buries itself in a field behind his house. No one believes him, of course, which is something a lot of kids go through: when adults just won’t listen to us! It takes on a darker tone when David’s father is captured by the Martians and implanted in the back of the neck with a device that allows the aliens to control him. The father becomes a cold, cruel man who in one scene gives David a fairly sound back-hand across the face.
Later, David’s mother is subjected to the Martian’s control device, and she, too, turns into a cold, uncaring automaton. This device, by the way, can be triggered by the Martians to explode inside the heads of their slaves, which is exactly what happens to a neighbor’s little daughter. Now for me, this was frightening — to see loving parents much like my own turned into heartless, unloving folks. The bulk of the film is about David’s attempts to convince other adults and the authorities that he is not “the boy who cried wolf.” Haven’t we all been in that situation at least once in our childhoods, where grown-ups just brush us aside and don’t pay any attention to what we have to say? Lucky for David, he finds some adults who do listen to him. This film gave me several bad dreams, and for weeks I was afraid of my parents, even though they hadn’t changed. I was always checking the backs of their necks for the red X that marked the spot where the Martians had implanted their control devices.
This brings me to the final part of my personal little trilogy of terror from 1962: the story of Betty and Barney Hill. The Hills claimed they had been abducted by aliens from the “Zeta Reticulli system” between September 19 and September 20, 1961. This was the first widely publicized report of Alien Abduction in the United States.
I read about this in some newspaper or magazine one night while my folks were watching The Jackie Gleason Show. Perhaps it was featured in the original version of the National Enquirer, or in some science fiction periodical. (In 1966 Look magazine did feature an excerpt from John G. Fuller’s book, The Interrupted Journey.) Anyway, the article fascinated and disturbed me. It was the first time I had heard about “alien abductions” and people undergoing all sorts of tests, procedures and invasive probing by said aliens. In fact, it was cited that their “experiences” were closely related to events in Invaders from Mars. As stated above, the Hills’ case was the first close encounter of the third kind to be well documented and investigated, and made public. The Hills drew a star map, talked about missing time, were hypnotized, and given the old third-degree. Betty had a series of dreams about the incident, and from what I remember Barney began having health issues, too. Their story has been well and thoroughly documented, and for all that it’s often been discredited over the years as nothing more than a “psychological aberration,” it’s a story I’ll never forget, and a story I’m convinced really happened. (Just call me Fox Mulder because I, too, “want to believe.” And speaking of Fox Mulder, on The X-Files, details of the Hills’ case were used in the episode Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. And there is somewhat of a connection to the 1964 episode, The Bellero Shield, from the original The Outer Limits series.)
Though the Hills have long since passed away, you can read all about their alien encounter in the 1966 book by John G. Fuller, The Interrupted Journey. In 1975 there was a very good and creepy television film called The UFO Incident, starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons as Betty and Barney Hill. You can also read more about the Hills on the Wikipedia page.
Thus, at the tender age of 10, in the space of 6 or 7 days and nights, I experienced being really scared for the first time in my life as these three things came together and tied into each other so well. It was like this all had been prepared and planned and executed by some alien force, to grab my attention, hold me in thrall and become one of those things that affected my childhood, one of those things I’ll never forget. I mean, not even the threat of nuclear war with Russia scared me as much.
By the way, I had once heard that Betty and Barney Rubble were named for Betty and Barney Hill, but I doubt it. The Flintstones premiered on September 30, 1960, one year before the Hills were abducted.
So, what scared you when you were a little kid?
Joe Bonadonna is the author of the heroic fantasies Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser (winner of the 2017 Golden Book Readers’ Choice Award for Fantasy); Mad Shadows II: Dorgo the Dowser and the Order of the Serpent; Mad Shadows III: Heroes of Echo Gate; the space opera Three Against The Stars; the Sword-and-Planet space adventure, The MechMen of Canis-9; and the Sword & Sorcery adventure, Waters of Darkness, in collaboration with David C. Smith. With co-writer Erika M Szabo, he wrote Three Ghosts in a Black Pumpkin (winner of the 2017 Golden Books Judge’s Choice Award for Children’s Fantasy), and The Power of the Sapphire Wand. He also has stories appearing in: Azieran—Artifacts and Relics,GRIOTS 2: Sisters of the Spear,Heroika: Dragon Eaters, Poets in Hell, Doctors in Hell,Pirates in Hell, Lovers in Hell, and the upcoming Mystics in Hell; Sinbad: The New Voyages, Volume 4; and most recently, in collaboration with author Shebat Legion, he wrote Samuel Meant Well and the Little Black Cloud of the Apocalypse. In addition to his fiction, he has written a number of articles and book reviews for Black Gate online magazine.