Last year the Cult Film Club folks launched Crestwood House, a series of podcasts loosely based on the old Crestwood House books. You may not recognize these tomes by name, but if you went to a library anytime from the 70s through the early 90s, you’ve probably seen them. I’ve got a small collection of the books, rescued from a reading teacher’s classroom cleanout in the mid 2000s.
Listening to the Crestwood House podcast was a treat! I enjoyed watching each episode’s movie and then listening along as the guys discussed them. Some of the films were great, and some were not so great. The movie choices felt like a celebration of the spooky season, kind of like Monster Cereals and bags of candy.
All year long, I looked forward to the new season of the Crestwood House podcast. The first episode of season two dropped a few weeks ago: Carnival of Souls. I watched the film (it was just OK) and listened to the show (maybe it was better than I thought?). At the end, the guys announced the selection for the next episode, the 1932 film Freaks.
I had never seen Freaks, but the film had a profound influence on me as a kid. Let me explain why.
From an early age, I was a voracious reader. Books about weird things were my favorite: UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, and all that. Even when I moved from non-fiction shelves to fiction, I preferred strange stuff. Sci-fi and fantasy stories were frequent choices, as well as mysteries. In first or maybe second grade, I discovered the Crestwood House books, and they were perfect for me. I read every single book I could get my hands on. I even checked my favorites out multiple times, especially my #1 choice, Godzilla.
Not too long after I devoured all the Crestwood House entries, I came across the Three Investigators series. These were popular enough that I’m sure many of my readers are familiar with them. For those who aren’t, think “the Hardy Boys meet horror movies”. Jupiter, Pete, and Bob team up to get to the bottom of all manner of strange events. Alfred Hitchcock is an actual character in the books, which lent the series an aura of authenticity. Each of these books features a strange supernatural event of some sort, though by the end, these are explained away (most of the time, anyway). Titles like The Whispering Mummy or tThe Green Ghost or a personal favorite, The Invisible Dog, drew me in. I was hooked and consumed every Three Investigators book in my school library in record time. When I moved on and finished all those at our local public library, I was still unsatisfied. I wanted more Three Investigators!
Summer came, and with it, more time for reading. My mom took us to a different library branch one afternoon, and I was eager to hunt for new books. On these brand-new-to-me shelves, I found several new Three Investigators books! I was thrilled. Along with these treasured tomes, I found another book. My recollection of this is unclear. My memory of this new book is that it was an entry in the Crestwood House series. If it was, I’ve been unable to determine which one. It’s certainly not any of the ones I still own. Maybe it was just another book about old horror movies, but whatever this book was, it included writeup about the movie Freaks in it. And it also featured this photograph.
Spoilers for Freaks ahead: this new book summarized the ending of the film, where the sideshow performers attack the lady in the photograph, making her into one of the titular freaks. She becomes the Chicken Lady: legless, feathered, her arms and hands mangled, one eye blinded.
It is difficult to put into words how young me felt when I first saw this picture. It was almost certainly my first exposure to what I now know as body horror. I did not deal with it well. My guts went cold and my mind went into overdrive. My brain was filled with all the terrible things that I imagined the carnival folk did to this lady. I could not control these thoughts and they literally kept me up at night. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the Chicken Lady. I could feel all those terrible things happening to me, somehow. I was absolutely terrified. Nightmares had long been an issue for me and now they were much, much worse.
Every night, I tried and tried to be brave enough to at least stay in my own bed, but in the darkest hours after midnight, I couldn’t stand it. I somehow summoned the courage to walk into my parents room to wake them up and ask to sleep on their floor. After several nights in a row of this same sequence of events, my dad had enough. He wisely deduced that my fears had been sent into overdrive by what had recently been reading. He was right about this, but he was wrong about which book. Dad decreed that I could no longer read any Three Investigators books.
My emotions were a huge mess at this point. I was scared, and also ashamed that I was scared. I It made me feel like I was just a baby or something. Anger was a big part of the mix, too. I was mad that my favorite book series had been taken away from me. In hindsight, I guess I should have told Dad that it wasn’t a Green Ghost, Screaming Clock, or Haunted Mirror in my nightmares, but the Chicken Lady. For whatever reason, I didn’t tell him. The only explanation I can muster is that sometimes being a kid is hard, and dealing with complex emotions when you are little can be very tough.
Let’s fast forward now to the present. When the picture of the Chicken Lady came across the Crestwood House Podcast feed, that familiar chill washed over me, though it was not nearly as strong as it had been when I was a child. Would it be best to simply skip this week’s podcast? I still deal with nightmares as an adult, though not nearly with the same frequency as when I was a kid. Even now, I avoid watching movies that seem too intense or frightening. Was it worth risking bad dreams just to watch a film I had avoided for all these years?
I decided to do it. I’m 48 years old, surely I can handle watching a film that’s nearly a century old, right? Probably? Steeling myself, I watched Freaks in the brightness of day, on a small screen (no sense making it harder than it needed to be). I made it all the way through! There are some disturbing elements to the film, to be sure. And that ending scene is still terrifying! The scene leaves much to the imagination, which is why it’s so creepy. But the actual movie was far tamer than the horrors I’d conjured up around one picture and a small paragraph in a book I read four decades ago. I’m happy to report I’ve made it through four evenings with no Chicken Lady dreams at all.
So what about The Three Investigators? I’m not sure how long the book ban stayed in place, but I do recall that it was lifted at some point. Getting back to the adventures of Jupe, Pete, and Bob brought me joy. I reconnected with the series a few years ago, and read one of the books when I found the series available on Kindle. Sadly, the series seems to have been removed from the Kindle store, which is unfortunate since the books are sought after by collectors and not exactly cheap to obtain now.
I’ll close with a word of thanks to the guys at the Crestwood House Podcast. I appreciate you spurring me on to acts of bravery. It may seem like a silly thing to some, but the Chicken Lady and Freaks have occupied a bit part of my head space for years. “Getting over it” is something I never really thought I’d manage, and doing so feels like a major accomplishment!