Re-exposing yourself to something that creeped you out as a kid - is this a good idea?
February 3, 2010 7:47 PM   Subscribe

Re-exposing yourself to something that creeped you out as a kid - is this a good idea?

Recently MeFi had this discussion on TV logos of all things. A fair number of people responded of being children, who were creeped out by strange images crossing their TV screens, with weird sounds and music at the same time - of being profoundly disturbed by something that, all things being equal, ought to be harmless - a TV logo...

I think it's safe to say that most people have had experiences like this in childhood - seeing or hearing something innocuous on TV for instance - which, for some reason, really creeped you out.

Now, my question: how should you cope with such a creep-out, decades later as an adult?

Suppose you saw an image for instance, or a scene in a film that upset you profoundly as a tyke. Would it be helpful, in a catharsis-therapeutic sense, to re-expose yourself to such an image or scene? Would it "help" you?

I've read assertions that this would assist in catharsis of the feelings.

For instance, as a pre-kindergarden toddler I saw an image in a book, of a not very photogenic person that I found hideous in a disturbing, unpleasant way. Even now, three or four decades later, the memory of this still disturbs me. Would re-viewing that image "help"? (But at the same time I think I'd rather get my teeth drilled for another two or three fillings, than seeing that picture again...)

I could give maybe another example or two from my childhood, but you get the idea...

what got me thinking about re-exposing yourself to something that upset you as a child, wasn't really the logophobia as much as this:

This is an article by Glenn Erickson on his DVD savant website [, connected to DVD talk, both worthy sites IMO if you are unfamiliar with them]. This particular article is a discussion of educational films of past years shown in school, and on their actual impact on the youthful viewers - which often was nowhere near what was expected.

Read comment #3 (scroll to the very bottom) and see Glenn's response. Basically a lady was freaked out by an 'educational' children-beware-of-strangers-offering-you-candy film in her early childhood. She emails her traumatic thoughts on the film. Glenn gently suggests she re-view it as a way to get it out of her system. Would you agree this advice, to re-view it, makes sense? Why, or why not? Wouldn't it just trigger another unpleasant flashback, with the memories renewed in your mind? Or would you say, oh it's just all bunk, how silly!

Does anyone have experience with dealing with a situation like this? I know YANAP (you are not a psychologist)...
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I do this all the time, mostly with horror films that seriously creeped me out whwn I was little. For me, it's interesting to see how funny and ridiculous these things are from an afult perspective. I don't think I would call it cathartic because those childhood experiences seem so distant and detached from me now. It's more just fun.
posted by Lobster Garden at 7:57 PM on February 3, 2010

Forgive the typos.. writing from my phone.
posted by Lobster Garden at 7:57 PM on February 3, 2010

I was ├╝ber-creeped out by the character Murdock on MacGyver when I was a kid. I recently had a burning desire to watch an episode that featured his acid-scarred face. I didn't find one, but I am almost certain that I would have said, "Huh. That guy is kind of creepy, but why the nightmares?"

I suspect it depends on what sort of person you are. Probably not helpful, but there you go.
posted by nosila at 7:58 PM on February 3, 2010

My significant other spent a large portion of his life terrified by the clown in IT. He finally went to a therapist who worked him through understanding and confronting the terrifying clown. Yes, the therapist finally had my significant other re-watch IT. Doing so, my SO was able to realize that the clown really was just kind of silly. Nowadays, while he still doesn't like clowns, he isn't haunted by them anymore.

So, yeah, it is a technique used a lot of the time to help people.

However, it seems like, even moreso, you want to know if it's a good idea for you to find that photo that disturbed you so much as a child. I really don't know if you have given enough information about that for anyone online to help you -- you told us more about the theory behind confronting images that are scary than about your own circumstances. If you are really disturbed by memories of the image you saw, then it probably would be a good idea for you to talk to an actual therapist about your situation. You say you'd prefer having your teeth drilled than see it -- that sounds like an indication to me that maybe seeing a therapist could help you with that. If, on the other hand, you were exaggerating a little and don't like the memory of the picture but aren't haunted by it too severally, sure, go find the picture again and look at it. It probably won't be nearly as bad as you think.
posted by Ms. Saint at 8:00 PM on February 3, 2010

In my experience, it's not traumatic, but also maybe not super helpful. For instance, when I was very young, I was convinced that this PSA was Satan talking to me through the TV. I happened to see it again by accident on a blog post a couple years ago and was shocked by the fact that I can both remember vividly how frightened I felt back then and watch it without feeling anything now. Watching it isn't traumatic at all, and it's sort of comforting to know what the video really was, but the memory of my childhood experience still gives me chills even if the video doesn't. I've had this experience with a couple other childhood TV/movie memories.

One other thing--I think it matters what the original content was--was it something intended to make adults uneasy, afraid, or repulsed? If so, revisiting it might not be a great idea. Otherwise, I don't think it would hurt.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:13 PM on February 3, 2010

When I was little (5 years old?) my older brother read the first chapter of Jaws out loud to me. Gave me one of the most vivid nightmares of my life - though I had no memory of the words of the book itself, it was the dream that I could recall in exact detail (it was the image of the shark from the book cover, swimming through the floor, then launching itself at my torso). So, yeah, one day when I was in my late teens I decided to read the book, and it was kind of cathartic to finally see what had traumatized little me. And nowadays I end up watching Jaws whenever it stumble upon it on cable.

While there are things I've watched as an adult that I'd prefer to un-see (that damn tub-girl picture, for one), I definitely think there's a benefit to re-watching movies that were childhood scares, because the reality is often much milder than our memory of it.
posted by oh yeah! at 8:15 PM on February 3, 2010

You know how when you visit your old grade school or kindergarten class, you see how small everything is...when you remember it as being huge. Same thing here.

Time has convinced you that the scary thing you remember is really bad. You might not even remember the stimulus, but you sure do vividly remember the response.

So let yourself revisit. You might find that the fear is like your old 1st grade desk, a lot smaller than you remember.
posted by inturnaround at 8:24 PM on February 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Almost all therapies for phobias, regardless of how they are designed and rationalized, boil down to repetitive desensitization.

So the short answer is yes -- it's a good idea to re-expose yourself. But I suggest you seek professional help about it.
posted by randomstriker at 8:57 PM on February 3, 2010

Exposure and response prevention is one of the most consistently empirically supported treatments for people with phobias. However, you don't seem to have a phobia, and you don't have a therapist helping you through this. That said, if you do it responsibly, I don't see the harm in it.
posted by emilyd22222 at 9:31 PM on February 3, 2010

This does help. It happened to me not even on purpose. When I was very little, I was absolutely terrified of Mr. Rogers. Of all things. He'd be on the TV and I'd scream and scream and hide my head until someone turned him off. I can't remember exactly what about him scared me so much, but really, until I was about fourteen or fifteen, even thinking of him just gave me this weird creepy feeling. Then I saw him on TV one day, and after the initial "AHH it's him," I decided to sit and figure out what was so bad about him, and while I didn't manage to figure it out, the spell was broken.
posted by millipede at 9:45 PM on February 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I do this all the time, so I think it works. In fact, the only way I can work on my clown punching problem is to repeatedly expose myself to "bad clown" imagery (mixed in with not-as-bad (but still disturbing) clowns). Now I get way less shuddery and gutted when I see clowns moving around or tucked onto shelves in shops.

The thing is, you don't know until you try if something is going to be more powerful in reaction than you expect, so maybe let someone know you might need help calming down if it's more difficult.
posted by batmonkey at 10:29 PM on February 3, 2010

As a kid, I was terrified of...

Gonzo. Not the genre of journalism, the muppet. Remember sometimes on the beginning of the Muppet Show all kinds of smoke would come out of his ears and stuff? Like a huge amount of smoke? Scared the crap out of me. I would literally go hide in the other room.

Watching it as an adult, I just laugh, because it's a muppet with smoke coming out of him.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:17 PM on February 3, 2010

Well, I just watched the Evil PBS Logo Thing again--and it made me get tears in my eyes and my heart jump. Ugh! Thanks a lot, it still sucks.

*At least this time I didn't run out of the room screaming. Progress!
posted by aquafortis at 11:39 PM on February 3, 2010

Exposure therapy.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:53 PM on February 3, 2010

I was always haunted by an episode of a TV show I remembered where a ghost train crashed through a house to pick up the Grandfather who was supposed to have died years before, and he was so anxious to get on this train that they actually drugged him to calm him down.

A lot of searching led me to find the episode of Amazing Stories. I was very shocked that not only was the episode not scary at all, but that the visuals... the house, the train... were completely different from what I remembered. I had a very distinct picture in my head of what they looked like, and I must have made them up because it was entirely different colors, angles, etc.

I think re-exposure might also help us as adults to realize that things aren't always the way we remember them.

FWIW, another silly thing that scared me as a kid was during the song Under the Boardwalk where they would sing "under the boardwalk...BOARDWALK!"... I always hugged my teddy bear tight during the loud part. It certainly doesn't scare me anymore.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:16 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had nightmares for a year after watching Gremlins when I was little. I still like to avoid seeing them if I can. Mr. emkelley keeps advocating that we watch the movie, because it's really not a scary film. We'll see. There will have to be chocolate and cuddling involved.
posted by emkelley at 6:01 AM on February 4, 2010

Re-exposing yourself to something that creeped you out as a kid - is this a good idea?

Based on my recent re-encounters with the clown from Poltergeist and the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang I'd have to say no.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:30 AM on February 4, 2010

It helped me. Slim Goodbody really freaked me out as a kid. He still does but not in the same manner.

What's up with PBS freaking out kids in the 70s and 80s?
posted by yeti at 7:32 AM on February 4, 2010

When I was a wee one, the scene in the Muppet Movie with the evil doctor hooking Kermit into the electric chair to fry his brain freaked. me. out. Totally terrifying.

Recently I rewatched the movie and was mortified to find that it was Mel Brooks who caused such terror in me. Oh, the embarrassment.
posted by Aznable at 8:00 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Interestingly enough, I was traumatized by that same child molester movie mentioned in the comments section of your link. No, I didn't write that letter, but I could have a few years ago. We were shown that film in school when I was in the third grade, and it so frightened me that I still think of the summer after 3rd grade as my "Summer of Fear." I didn't understand that child molesters picked up kids on the streets/playgrounds/wherever for sexual purposes; I just remembered those dead bodies at the end and thought there were scary men waiting to breaking into my house at night and murder me. I was afraid to go to sleep at night or be alone in the house. I remember I was wearing faux go-go boots which were actually rubber galoshes that slipped over my shoes, and they had a distinctive rubber-y aroma. Twenty years later if I ever got a whiff of a similar smell, my mind flashed back to the bodies of those little girls and I had to get away from the odor ASAP. Just a few years ago I found the film online and screwed up my courage to watch it. I involuntarily shuddered the moment the "Hop like a rooster..." song started to play, but I was eventually able to relax and concentrate on the extremely bad acting and hopelessly outdated clothes. The final scene was still gruesome, but it no longer scared me. Maybe years of true crime shows and gory movies had something to do with lessening the "shock value" of the whole thing. So, anyway, I think confronting my fear did help; when we were shopping for tires recently the rubber aroma didn't fill me with dread.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:32 AM on February 4, 2010

One word: Wheelers.

Rewatching Return to Oz helped, but the unease is still there. What's really hard to shake is the memory of feeling terror. That really persists even if - rationally - I'm not scared of the thing itself anymore.

On the other hand, some of the most profoundly traumatizing experiences in my childhood were not what one could define as "scary," just weird, unsettling, or simply hit me during a rough time. I am still deeply troubled by the film Amadeus. I haven't been able to fix that.
posted by lydhre at 1:27 PM on February 4, 2010

When I was very small, I somehow saw the scene in The Shining (1980) where Jack Torrence follows a lovely woman down the hall, she gets into a bathtub, and she comes out as a crone, covered in (what I remember as) lesions. I was immediately hysterical. For most of my life, entering a bathroom with the shower curtain drawn made me really nervous. In college, I finally rewatched The Shining and experienced what seemed like an inordinate amount of dread and fear throughout - but especially leading up to that sequence.

I don't think the re-exposure helped me much, although I can deal with shower curtains now.

Return to Oz is another one that was front to back terrifying for me, and I still find it deeply unsettling as an adult. I find that a lot of these sorts things still provoke almost physical feelings of dread or fear in me, even though I can evaluate them differently as an adult. But I've always had an over-active imagination, and I was a kid who had night-terrors. So maybe that's just in my make up? Either way, seeing them again doesn't alter my fear response.
posted by dryad at 1:47 PM on February 4, 2010

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