Tot Terrors: The Devil at 4 O’Clock

I often get asked about what influences my work as a writer. Inspired by the amazing website  Kindertrauma–which is right up my alley–I’m compiling all of my childhood (and some adult) terrors.

devil-lava-2

The beleaguered refugees in THE DEVIL AT 4 O’CLOCK watch lava overwhelm the spot in which they’d just been standing. 

I experienced many of my childhood terrors at my Grandmother’s house. We went down there every Sunday after church (and I do mean EVERY. SUNDAY!) for a large Italian meal and visits with the aunts and uncles, who would, after the meal, play cards or talked adult subjects.

I had two options: play with some ancient, seen-better-days toys (although I was good at bringing my own things to do), sneak into my cousin’s room to read off-limit Stephen King books, or watch anything I wanted on the kitchen television set.

When I say anything I wanted, I mean it. First of all, it was the 1970s. If your parents were busy, they didn’t give a crap what you were doing as long as you were quiet and out of their faces (what FREEDOM we had! These helicoptered kids today are missing out!) Second of all, it was the 1970s. There was always a local channel running scary second-tier movies on a Sunday afternoon: House of Wax, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Trilogy of Terror, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The UFO Incident, I Married a Monster from Outer Space. I was a sensitive child–my parents wouldn’t let me watch scary things because I’d be up all night–so Sunday afternoons were my only chance to see anything on the scary side.

Some of the movies the station ran weren’t what my parents considered frightening, so I was actually encouraged to watch them: The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Jungle Queen, The Ten Commandments, Moby Dick…and The Devil at 4 O’Clock.

devil-lava

Now I can see that the lava looks a little like poorly-colored pink frosting, but damn, this coming at me when I was a kid was horrifying.

I can guess I was seven or eight, because I was nine when Mount St. Helens erupted, and I know my experience with this film is part of what fueled my interest in that event, and, later, led to my fascination with Pompeii. I had no real understanding of volcanoes at that time;  maybe I’d heard about them in elementary school science class, but that was about it.

The Devil at 4 O’Clock was a 1961 adventure movie starring Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy. In it, sweaty convicts and a faithless priest try to rescue sick orphans trapped on an erupting volcano. For its time, the special effects were top-notch; footage from its eruption, earthquake, and panic sequences were used for years in other movies, and even in television shows like Tales of the Gold Monkey’s “A Distant Shout of Thunder” episode. It’s also considered, by most fans of the genre, to be the film which spawned the disaster movie as we know it.

 

The threat of being consumed alive by lava or burning to death was terrifying—especially since I had an all-consuming fear of dying in a house fire (this will be covered in another installment of this series). The images I witnessed still haunt me to this day, but exacerbating the situation was what I like to call the “Night Light Incident.”

I never slept without a night light, and that evening (wonderful timing!), the bulb. My parents didn’t have any replacements in the house, so they thought they were being extraordinarily clever to jerry-rig it with a Christmas bulb (remember those large glass frosted ones that got super hot? Fantastic! They fit in nightlights!).

The bulb they happened to choose was red. I was wide awake all night, staring at the ceiling, feeling as though the room was boiling, and unable to escape the irrational thought that my bedroom floor was actually lava, and the walls around me were aflame.

I consider it to be the most frightening night of my childhood.

devil-red-light-pic

The exhausted travelers get some rest overnight…seriously? You can sleep that close to an erupting volcano and not freak out?

devil-volcano-background-dying-men-2

Spencer Tracy is stranded here and we pretty much know he’s going to die. I wonder now, though, if someone could be that close to a violently-erupting volcano and not be dead already.

When I watch The Devil at 4 O’Clock now (as well as its strikingly similar predecessor, 1980’s When Time Ran Out, which I didn’t see until many years later), I only see the obvious lack of accuracy in its depiction of a volcanic eruption. Especially when compared to 2014’s Pompeii—which holds the title of being the most scientifically accurate depiction since 1997’s Dante’s Peak—it’s a complete joke: the animals are still around and the birds are still singing; the skies are still blue; there’s no ash falling anywhere. In all fairness, A, it wasn’t until Mount St. Helens erupted and significant finds were made at Herculaneum in the 1980s that we truly gained an understanding of how an event works; B, filmmakers didn’t have the technology to show then what they can now; C, it’s Hollywood. Besides, what did an eight year old know?

Enough to be scarred for life, I guess.

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About kristipetersenschoonover

A ghost story writer who still sleeps with the lights on, Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s fiction has appeared in countless magazines and anthologies. She has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, is a co-editor for Read Short Fiction, and co-hosts the Dark Discussions Podcast. Her work Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks; her horror novel, Bad Apple, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s also a member of the New England Horror Writers Association. More info: www.kristipetersenschoonover.com

Posted on March 6, 2017, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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