Lately I’ve seen several posts on social media asking questions such as “What was the first movie you saw in theaters?” or “What was the first horror movie you saw in theaters?” I think the words “in theaters” is the key to such questions. People want to know not just what movie you saw, but also what movie you saw in the company of other people. What communal experience did you have, and how did it stick with you?
Watching movies by yourself (which is how I watch most of mine) gives you license to edit, repurpose, disremember, or even fabricate what you saw when talking to others about your experience. “Oh, that movie didn’t scare me at all,” you can say, never letting on that you were hiding behind the couch for most of the film, or that you had every light in the house going at full wattage. (Of course, in theaters, where there are fewer places to hide. You slide down in your seat, put your hands in front of your eyes, etc.) We can say anything.
I’m not saying we always fabricate our true movie experiences, but when you’re alone, it’s easier to become your own editor, reporting the story of your experience as you saw it (or think you saw it). That’s more difficult to do when you’re in a theater with other people, especially people sitting next to you who can confirm or deny your actual reaction to a movie.
For years my mother warned her friends not to let their children watch Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Maybe she was trying to take herself off the hook since she was the one who accompanied me to the theater to see it. I couldn’t have been more than seven years old at the time. This certainly wasn’t my first movie to see in theaters, but I’d seen plenty of other movies (probably all Disney pictures) before the night that Bette Davis turned my seven-year-old world into a nightmare.
I’ve previously written in these “Growing Up with Movies” posts that my mom was a huge movie fan. I’ve also written that our local movie house, the Town Theater in Forest, Mississippi, rarely showed first-fun features, and they often brought back more popular titles from time to time, so I did not see this film when it was released in 1964. It was probably 1968 or 1969. (By the way, if anyone reading this has access to the Scott County Times archives and can find out the specific date, I would be in your debt.)
Since the film came out in 1964, my mother probably didn’t have an opportunity to see it during its initial release. For one thing, it would’ve played in Jackson (about an hour’s drive), and for another, I would’ve been a toddler, which would’ve meant hiring a babysitter. That certainly could have happened, but I can’t really see my dad getting too jazzed about driving to Jackson and back to see a Bette Davis Southern gothic horror picture. So I’m sure this was a movie she’d wanted to see for a few years, and here it was! All she had to do was bring the kid along and she could enjoy Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Joseph Cotten, and a young Bruce Dern, at least one of whom would meet a very bad end. But what did I know? I was a kid, I was going to the movies, and I was happy. For about 10 minutes…
I didn’t know it at the time, but the young man I saw onscreen during the opening was Bruce Dern, the same Bruce Dern whom I would develop an intense hatred for just a few years later after he killed John Wayne (sorry about the spoiler) in The Cowboys (1972). But this poor Bruce Dern character was about to undergo a rapid weight loss program at the hands of Bette Davis.
If you haven’t seen Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, here’s the set-up. (This won’t be much of a spoiler. The following happens in the first 10 minutes of the picture.) Dern plays John Mayhew, a young man who’s in deep trouble with an older Southern gentlemen named Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono). You see, John is planning on eloping with Big Sam’s daughter Charlotte (Bette Davis, whom we see only in shadows). The problem is, John is already married. Big Sam tells John in no uncertain terms that John had better break it off with Charlotte immediately, preferably at the upcoming ball scheduled for the next evening. (The big laugh of this whole setup is that Buono was 26 at the time, and Dern was 28.)
John breaks it to Charlotte as gently as he can, but there’s nothing gentle about her reaction, which involves a meat cleaver. Charlotte swings the cleaver like she’s spent some significant time in the back room of the local butcher shop, relieving John of his hand, then (gulp) his head.
Again, this happens in the first 10 minutes of a 132-minute movie, so I was terrified, but apparently not terrified enough to beg my mom to leave the theater. I was also old enough to know that what I was seeing wasn’t real. Younger people (usually my nieces) ask me how could I have watched a black-and-white movie with any level of believability, since the world is in color. We just didn’t think about this. Black-and-white was normal for us, even in the early 1960s. There were still plenty of black-and-white films playing at our local theater. So Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte didn’t feel fake, but then again, I’d never seen someone’s hand being chopped off, so (thankfully) I had nothing from real life to compare it to. But it looked real.
This is a power of image. It was believable enough for a seven-year-old with no prior frame of reference in these matters. The pain I saw on Bruce Dern’s face made it even more believable, as did the musical crescendo. I felt like I was witnessing someone else’s pain, but there was more to it than that. I also felt genuine sorrow for this guy, that he was never going to be able to use that hand again. (But I guess that really isn’t that big a concern when your head’s about to be the next thing to fall.)
I wish I remembered what I felt between this opening and the nightmarish hallucinatory scene late in the film. These two moments are separated by at least 90 minutes of people talking and moving around, so what was I thinking? I probably wan’t following the story, probably didn’t understand what all the talk was about, but what was I doing? Still dwelling on the missing hand, the missing head? Begging my mom for popcorn?
But when the hallucination scene near the end of the picture arrived, I was practically ready for therapy. The scene felt nightmarish (which was appropriate because it did give me nightmares) and other-worldly. In contrast to the first scene of mayhem, there was something truly haunting about the decapitated body in the hallucination sequence. I knew the handless Bruce Dern was going to walk/crawl away and didn’t want anything from me, but the headless guy wanted something. The body seemed confident, almost proud, but something more. Even though this was - or should have been, to my seven-year-old mind - a dead body, it carried a demanding, insistent stance, a body that’s not going to say no to anything. I think that’s what scared me, that when I went to bed that night, I might be faced with this thing that refused to go away. And he might be coming back, night after night after night.
That’s probably what was conveyed (verbally or otherwise) to my mom, which lead her to freak out even more than I was freaking out. That was such a long time ago, yet watching the full movie again for the first time since then, I felt the power of that scene, just a brief whisper of something at once scared me, but seemed silly now.
I’ve talked to other movie fans about what scared them as children watching movies. Sometimes it’s the things you’d imagine: horrific scenes, monsters, and images of violence seen too young. But often I find that what really scares people are the moments leading up to those scenes and images, that build-up that demands a resolution, a release. And often, once that resolution is reached, the fear is over. But not always. Sometimes those images linger.
Maybe we should, as adults, revisit the films that scared us as children. Maybe that might put some of those fears to rest once and for all. Maybe we’d look at those frightening moments with our adult minds and think, “It’s just a movie. It’s all fake.” Would that be liberating? Or would I continue to stay away from meat cleavers and scorned Southern belles?
Please feel free to share your stories.
Photos: DVD Beaver, TCM, Trailers from Hell, It’s Just Awesome, The Film Experience, Irish News