She often rode past the Regal Cinema on her bike, lovingly referred to as her trusty steed. She loved films and she was spoilt for choice. Apart from the black and white films she loved to watch on television with her family, in 1961 there were three cinemas in her little town, each of which changed their programmes twice a week. The Plaza, at the top of her street, had steps leading up to its foyer with posters behind glass promising future delights, each with an iconic picture from the movie. There was also the New Theatre in the centre of town with its balcony and café, which served frothy coffee throughout the day, and to which her father always took her and her brother to watch Disney movies on Christmas Eve. The name of every movie, its cast and director were written in a big notebook she had got for her birthday one year. Other children found her obsession strange but she told them what her father said, ‘Film carries all of our dreams’. That perplexed them enough to say no more.
Then, there was the Regal Cinema. It had nothing regal about it. It had a tin roof. So noisy in a rainstorm it shut off the sound. She rarely went there except when a film she was longing to see was only shown at that venue. She often cycled past, however, checking out what was being shown, if on her way to her aunt’s house. One summer, her mother asked her to deliver some shopping her aunt needed, and she set off on the trusty steed. As she passed the Regal cinema, she took her eyes off the road just to glance at the posters. She was horrified to see that the poster was larger than usual in lurid colours of red, yellow and blue and showed a huge head showing an empty eye socket and strange threads holding his lips together. Or maybe they were worms. She quickly took in an empty coffin and the man’s claw-like hands. She managed to take in the words ‘scare the living daylights’, before she saw no more as her wheel hit a pot-hole and she found herself on the road with the bike on top of her. A man across the road called across asking her if she was hurt. She jumped up feeling a sharp pain in her knee, clambered on the bike and pedaled off as fast as she could, avoiding looking at the posters and figure. Her aunt took the chipping out of her knee with a needle but she told her nothing about the posters.
On the way back, she paused before reaching the cinema and gathered her strength. Then, she pedaled as fast as she could past the cinema, staring straight ahead, but still getting a small glance of the creature. As she pulled away, the heavens opened and by the time she got home, she was soaked to the skin.
Later that evening, she felt shivery and her throat felt sore. Her mother insisted that she go to bed, and when she complained of feeling cold, pulled out a red flannel blanket and tucked her in. It was still summer and even with closed curtains there was light. She drifted in and out of sleep, feeling her limbs heavy and her head aching. She could hear children on the street as she glided between states. Suddenly, she opened her eyes and coming towards her out of the dark was the face with the dark eye socket and squirming threadworms, she had seen outside the cinema. She closed her eyes and pulled the red blanket over her head. She lay there several minutes with her eyes shut tight. Then, slowly, she opened her eyes and saw nothing but the darkness under the blanket.
She felt tense with fear and her heart quickened as she heard the television downstairs and a thought came to her that her family could be transformed into the monster with the empty eye socket and lips sewn shut. She lay stiff with worry, sweating now with fever, but unable to discard the red flannel blanket. The phrase ‘living daylights’ played in her head. What did it mean? She thought it meant eyes and that made her think of the missing eye of the poster. She hovered between sleeping and waking, seeing images of her family without an eye or feeling for her own eye and finding a dark hole. Daylights, lighting the day, she thought, opening her eyes to pitch dark. She heard someone’s footsteps on the stairs and imagined the tortured man from the poster climbing steadily past the creaking stair on the penultimate step.
But, the footsteps went down again and she lay in horror. She had been traumatised as a child by viewing ‘Quatermass’, a television programme. The very sound of the music’s discordant beats gave her chills. Her parents had always argued about who should take her back upstairs if she had ventured down announcing her fears. Once her mother had said, ‘Oh come down, it’s really not frightening.’ As she remembered it, aliens could be spotted in the programme by a mark on the face, and in the episode one of the characters, she had really liked, had turned slowly to reveal the scar. She had screamed and her mother had taken her out, talking soothingly. But it had left her with a fear of transformation, of people not being who they said they were.
Lying, under the red blanket, she had been thinking of her mother, father and grandmother transforming as they watched television into the creatures, which had knocked her off her bike. The fever and the heat of the blanket made her think of herself as being in a red room, hemmed in, unable to escape. She was in a bath of sweat. She heard, at last, the adults locking up and coming up the stairs. She was terrified that their transformed selves would come in and stand around her bedside. She could hear her grandmother’s voice saying goodnight and then a light shone through the blanket and she heard her mother ask, ‘How are you now?’ She muttered something but her mother pulled down the blanket and felt her head.
She kept her eyes shut until her mother said, ‘I think you are a bit better. The fever has broken’. Slowly, she opened her eyes, blinking against the light. Her mother’s kind face looked down on her. It was as if a spell was broken.
After that, she avoided horror films. Avoided looking at posters of horror films. Avoided going to see them. The Regal often showed them but she preferred the Plaza or the New Theatre. She had never seen the film, ‘The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake.’
Jude Brigley is Welsh. She has been a teacher, an editor, a coach and a performance poet. She is now writing more for the page.