I’m writing in a sort of “immersion therapy” way; an effort to purge this from my nightmare bullpen. It won’t work. Re-watching it helps in the way that when you watch something like Hitchcock’s The Birds, you think, wow, that looks kinda silly, was I ever really that numbingly terrified of this movie as a kid? Did I believe at one point that Tippi was being attacked by real birds, because suddenly now as an adult who once took a film class, it's not really that scary and I’m just noting Hitchcock’s directing cuts and camera angles.
The object of my most memorable cinematic childhood trauma is Trilogy of Terror, a 1975 made-for-TV film anthology starring Karen Black, based on three short stories by Richard Matheson (sci-fi/horror writer who influenced Stephen King). Don’t ask me why a film that included three stories with themes of adultery, incest, and brutal murder were allowed on daytime tv or why I as a first grader watched them, but it was the 1970s, and as a GenXer we’ve been indoctrinated not only to embrace but also to brag about our latchkey upbringings regardless of their traumatic effects.
The first vignette, Julie, was about a teacher spiking a student’s drink so he can bring her home to sexually assault her, but the joke’s on him because she ends up being a serial killer. The second short film, Millicent and Therese, is about the sexual hijinx, voodoo dolls, incest and murder-suicide of identical twins who turn out to be the multiple personalities of one person. (This is what I was watching instead of The Flintstones or The Brady Bunch). The sorta googly-eyed Karen Black plays the main characters in all three short films with an oddly combined lack of panache and screechy overacting you'd expect from a cult classic film actress; she's most famous for movies like Easy Rider and The Great Gatsby but also starred in Invaders From Mars and House of 1000 Corpses.
It was the third Trilogy of Terror short that terrified me the most. Amelia was an adaptation of Matheson’s better-named short story Prey. The story revolves around Black’s character Amelia, a single woman in a high-rise apartment who purchases a horrific aboriginal warrior doll equipped with razor-sharp pointed teeth and yielding a spear, for her anthropologist boyfriend’s birthday.
In the first scene we hear Amelia on her dial phone with the only thing more terrifying than the doll, her full-length horror film of a mother, who scares her more than any voodoo doll ever could, with enough passive-aggressive gaslighting, guilt-tripping and toxic dysfunction to fill a mental institution.
We see Amelia ignore the warning signs like the doll's entire wooden coffin sarcophagus and also a red-flag of a scroll that declares it contains the actual spirit of a Zuni hunter named "He Who Kills,” complete with a gold chain adorning the doll that "keeps the spirit trapped within"; should the chain be removed, the doll will come alive, eat your soul, and kill people you pretend to love. Shocker, the chain falls off.
It’s predictable, hokey, and as an adult watching (you can watch the short film on YouTube) even laughable with the special effects of this little doll running around Amelia’s apartment stalking and stabbing at her with a one-inch knife. But when you’re a six-year old watching? That shit leaves a lifelong impression.
So many haunted-doll films have followed—from Chucky to Annabelle to Megyn, and whenever they came out I’d think, sure, but were you six, watching TV after school and witnessing a haunted aboriginal Zuni doll chase, stab and possess a bitch who then crouched down, razor-sharp teeth grinning, knife stabbing the floor to a beat, ready to slaughter its/her toxic mom? If you weren't, you’re on amateur hour.
-Read more articles by Mary McCarthy.