I was always a scared kid. When my older brother and I watched the Saturday night monster movies on TV, I usually ended up behind a chair peeking through my fingers as the vampire or monster threatened the damsel in distress.
My brother and I often went to the Saturday matinees downtown where he was always charged with looking out for me. We usually sat in the balcony with our drinks and popcorn — having just enough money for the bus both ways plus the tickets and the snacks.
This particular time, the first film of the double feature was “The Beast with Five Fingers,” a complex cinematic jewel about a pianist who is murdered by his rival, and when they find his body, one hand is missing. Well, the story unfolded slowly (very slowly) in creepy black and white as the rival pianist gleefully played his grand piano in the gloomy mansion, completely unaware that the missing hand was slowly crawling behind the curtains to exact its revenge.
As the film progressed, I gradually slid down into my seat, hiding behind the box of popcorn we shared. Of course, my brother was hardly scared at all and sprawled in his seat in a manly fashion with his arms stretched across the back of both adjacent seats. On the screen, that crawling hand was approaching the base of the piano, out of sight of the pianist concentrating on his concerto, when the music swelled into a terrorizing pulse.
I was suddenly aware of something at the edge of my vision, a slight movement just out of view. Terrified, I slowly turned, and … there … inches away from my face … was the crawling hand!!!
I jumped, may have uttered some sound (surely, not a scream!) and the box of popcorn shot up into the air, scattering popcorn in a fountain of shadows across the movie screen. My extremely tolerant brother was completely understanding since it was his own drumming fingers I had seen on the back of my seat. After he quit hitting me and yelling at me in whispers, we watched the film in seething silence.
At intermission, we counted and pooled our money and I was dispatched to get another box of popcorn.
The second film was also scary — about some Vincent Price character who dissolved people in tanks of acid and reconstructed the skeletons for some evil purpose. (Could there have been a non-evil purpose?) I must admit that I was still a little shaken from the earlier experience and didn’t follow the film too closely, but I was quite affected by the spooky music, black and white dungeons and the … skeletons.
Once again, I was entrusted with the popcorn, and to better protect myself had scootched down even further into my seat as the story unfolded. I found that I could be in a near-fetal position if I put my feet flat up against the seat-back in front of me, and thereby more safely protected from the terrors unraveling across the screen.
Again, the music swelled into a terrorizing pulse and Vincent Price began doing one of his evil deeds in the shadowy darkness of the dungeon. The damsel was in high distress and she screamed as the ghoul extended his hand to reach for her.
Simultaneously, a hand reached over from behind my seat and grabbed my shoulder!!! I jumped. I may have uttered some sound (again, surely, not a scream) … and the popcorn shot up into the air again, scattering popcorn in a fountain of shadows across the movie screen.
As popcorn cascaded down over his head, a young movie usher peered down at me from the row behind, and said, “Please take your feet off the seat in front of you.” Needless to say, my brother was a bit upset. Of course, that was all the popcorn, and I didn’t dare ask for another.
We left the theater quickly that day.
Later, when I was 14-years-old, my family moved into a new house and since my brother and I were older, we took the old bunk beds apart and set them up parallel with the headboards along one wall. My brother had learned how much fun it was to scare me, and began sneaking up on me after we went to bed with some frequency. He would wait and, once the room was dark and I was asleep, he would roll out of his bed and slither under it, then over toward my bed. Pausing for effect and his own enjoyment, he would reach up, grab me by the throat, and make some hideous noise. I’m sure I made his effort suitably rewarding (but, surely, I didn’t scream).
I grew to expect this — except when I didn’t. We would go to bed, turn off the lights and I would lie still, listening as hard as I could for the smallest sound of his approach. Sometimes I heard him and could turn on a light to embarrass him splayed on the floor, but those occasions became rare. I had to stay awake long enough to hear his rhythmic breath or snoring to be certain I could safely relax and go to sleep — and, even then, had to be on guard for fake sleeping sounds, too.
Eventually, he went off to college on a University of Texas football scholarship and I was able to sleep with only the demons I imagined rather than the one in the next bed. When he returned home at winter break, he told us about dorm life and his new roommate, who was a big tackle from west Texas. My brother observed that the arrangement of their beds in the dorm room was similar to how ours had been back home, and it gave him an idea.
He waited until the lights were out and he heard deep sleeping sounds coming from his roommate. Slowly, he rolled out of bed. Slowly, he crawled … step by step … inch by inch … and then he reached up and grabbed him!
Immediately, my brother became aware that he was flying through the air across the room … then slamming hard against the far wall!
“You know,” he told me, “you were a lot more fun to scare than that guy.”
I could only smile to myself.
My big brother, Kenneth N. Tarlton, (Kenno) passed away last Sunday afternoon. Much of what I know about life, I learned from him. I miss him a lot.