Childhood Terrors: Of Scanners, Spider-Man and Teeny Todd

Had a lovely interview over at Southend Radio at the weekend. Most of it should apparently be available soon over at the Horror on Sea Facebook page.

As I mentioned on air, the first time I ever went on the radio I was about seven or eight, and complaining about how much horror posters scared me. Particularly Scanners. There was something about the complete lack of context which utterly freaked out my imaginative child self. Something about the second-by-second breakdown of what will happen to you, without any kind of reassuring contextualisation to place it as a sci-fi concept. For some reason I got it into my head that Scanners was about medication; that somewhere there was a pill that if you swallowed it would make you explode. As a result, it was probably a right bitch getting my 7 year-old self to take a pill for any reason.

Scanners UK Quad

Scanners stayed with me, under my skin. It wasn’t, however, the biggest cause of childhood fear. That honour goes to Ronnie Barker in a blood-splattered dress.

When I was a little kid, I saw the Two Ronnies’ Teeny Todd sketch and it almost unhinged me with fear. It took me days to calm down, and only then because my parents took the time and care to reassure me that it was all just fun and pretend.

Unfortunately, I had a mischievous (some might say rather cruel) Gran. She waited until my folks were out of the room one day and hissed ‘He was real. The demon barber. Slit their throats, he did!’

As a result, I was terrified of getting my hair cut until I was about 11. And distrustful of pies. It wouldn’t take a particularly imaginative psychiatrist to suggest that the whole thing might have planted the seeds for an interest in comedy-horror which has been the focus of more or less everything I’ve done creatively for the last ten years. Weird the way stuff turns out.


There’s a video of me ranting about this over on the BBC website back in 2008, whilst ostensibly talking about the Johnny Depp Sweeney Todd. It’s an itch that I can’t seem to stop scratching. I also finally got the chance to see the sketch again a few years back, and I *still* think that it’s tonally genuinely fucking weird and I can see why it got under my skin so badly.

And, sod it, whilst we’re digging around in my psyche for the stuff that scared the piss out of me as a kid, we might as well go one step further.

When I was about six years old, in 1980, I bought a copy of Spider-Man Pocketbook. To this day, I can tell you the newsagent I bought it in and I can remember how excited and happy I was to have a new Spider-Man comic. Cover price of 15 pence, coughed up by my brilliant Mum.  I loved Spider-Man. He was my  favourite superhero and carried with him that odd sense of security that is such an important part of childhood. Kids like to know where the boundaries lie, and I felt I knew the rules with Spider-Man. I knew that his universe could sometimes have slightly scary bits. I knew that sometimes people died. But Spidey’s universe felt comforting despite the bad bits, because your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man would sort it out.

Sadly, that particular issue of Spider-Man Pocketbook wasn’t destined to be a good experience for me. It had an illustration in it that utterly freaked me out; a picture which has been hovering around the fringes of my consciousness ever since.
Here are the basics: a stage magician levitates a volunteer. The man in the air comes to pieces; head and arms floating off. The now-corpse has a horrible blank expression on his face, and someone in the audience shouts out that the man is dead. That’s the way I remembered it, and then last year I found the image and I was pretty goddamn spot-on.

The illustration is at the bottom of this page. To scroll or not to scroll? If you look at it before you’ve read what follows, will my memories become laughable? If you look at it afterwards, will it have been built up way, way too much? I almost feel weird posting it without some kind of warning. I realise that a warning would just be ridiculous; this is a site for grown-ups, featuring various unpleasant elements dealt with in an often frivolous manner. But, fuck it, I’m not going to be frivolous about the picture. I want to talk about it.

I find it a rather strange thing to look at. I found the picture again on Monday 16th April 2012. Prior to that date, I hadn’t seen it since (by my rough calculations) around April 1980, when I would have been six years old.

The picture massively upset me as a child. I can’t help wondering how long I must have looked at it for after opening the comic, puzzling over it, trying to work out what I was looking at. I was certain, before finding the image last year, that my memory must be exaggerating or playing tricks because it just didn’t seem to make sense. Why would such a panel be in a Spider-Man comic? It didn’t fit the universe. I Googled every different thing I could think of that might lead me to the answer. I Googled ‘Murder Magic’ (which is how I remembered the title; my six year-old self clearly missed the ‘by’), I searched for info on the 1980 pocketbooks (and could only find that they held reprints of classic Ditko Spidey), and pulled up nothing. Then, last year,  I found a copy of Spider-Man Pocketbook issue 2 on Ebay. I thought there was only about a 30% chance that it would be the right issue (I remembered the magician image clearly, the cover of the hastily-binned comic was vaguer) but thought it was worth a few quid to find out. I was laid up in bed sick the day the comic turned up, and thus the fact I was vaguely feverish when confronted with the image again after 30+ years may well have added to the impact.
But, there it was.

It’s a reprint of a Marvel Boy story from ‘Astonishing’ comic circa 1951, and was thus almost 30 years old by the time it comprehensively ruined my day in 1980. The fucking thing is *exactly* as I remember it, and still seems incongruous to my eyes in the middle of a very child-friendly Spider-Man comic.

Of course, finding out that it was a Marvel Boy story made it a lot more Google-able, hence the fact that I was actually able to find an interactive
preview of the original issue of ‘Astonishing’ which you can peruse over here (and it’s that version that I grabbed the image at the bottom from). The version in the pocketbook is black & white. I don’t think the colour makes it any more reassuring.

Most things that scare you as a child become cuddly to you as an adult. That Scanners poster that freaked me so badly as a kid was on my wall by the time I was at Uni. I can’t see myself clutching this one to my chest in the same way.

Truth be told, it still creeps me out, and it also makes me feel angry and slightly sad. Much like Teeny Todd, I can trace the threads of Murder by Magic in various creative stuff I’ve done over the years, so I guess it’s given me something back for that ruined afternoon in 1980.

Here’s the image, folks.

Murder by Magic

These things that upset us get carried with us, though, and ultimately become part of us whether we want them to or not.

Hope everyone had a brilliant Christmas, and here’s to an awesome 2013.

PS. Since writing this blog entry, I’ve started buying Spider-Man comics again for the first time in decades. Not sure why. I’ve also performed a live show about no-budget horror filmmaking called Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws and made it available online. There’s an embed of it below. Please check it out, and please spread the word. It’s a bit NSFW due to a bit or gore, nudity and bad language. Hope you dig it.

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