My history with scary movies is, at the very least, embarrassing. As I told my WWAC colleagues, “I have a long history of allergic reactions to horror: Couldn’t sleep with the lights off after Friday the 13th; slept in my grandmother’s bed for a week after Sixth Sense; vomited when the aliens first show up in Signs; couldn’t shower without someone else in the bathroom for a few days after The Grudge; and was kicked out of the Grudge 2 (the only horror movie I’ve ever watched in theaters) for screaming.” The movie that started it all was The Last Unicorn, a film that most people classify as a kid’s fantasy story, but which still gives me nightmares.
Spoiler warning (for a movie older than me) and content warning for a sick mom and discussion of evil and death.
In 1997, Blockbuster was my favorite place in the world. Every once in a while, the parental units would drive me there after dinner and allow me ten minutes of soulful gazing at the rows of movies before ushering me out with whatever inane children’s film I had picked. These nights were usually when my mother was in the hospital and my grandmother didn’t want me to worry. So, I escaped into the delicate worlds of Ferngully, Rescuers, and Miyazaki films. Most Disney and Land Before Time films were off limits, just in case my mother didn’t make it out of the hospital.
Then, I picked up The Last Unicorn. My child brain looked at the elegant form of the mystical creature on the front of the thick plastic VHS cover and knew it would be another delightful journey into lands yet unseen. How wrong I was.
The story follows the Unicorn, Lady Amalthea, captured by the evil witch, Mommy Fortuna, to be a sideshow attraction, break free to journey around to find the rest of her kind. But they’re gone, and she’s alone. Her traveling companions aren’t the same as being among those of her species, and even as a child I felt that. How isolating, how lonely. I curled farther under the sheets.
Do you know the feeling of someone sitting just behind you? The pressure of their silent presence? That is the existence of the Red Bull in my life. When people discover my aversion to this classic, they often assume it’s the evil human figures that scared me. Why would that be the case when the red bull is sheer terror? At this point in my life I was not yet Jewish, I spent some Sundays in Catholic church, vaguely aware of the eternal fires of damnation raging below my feet. The bull was the embodiment of every goosebump I’d ever felt, every bump I’d heard below my bed, every night spent with my mother hooked up to a heart monitor. This was death.
Amalthea temporarily escapes the Bull when transformed into a human woman, and this disturbs me now, as an adult. Is this, my womanhood, the end of my magic? Is my choice to be a beast, wild, free, magical, but constantly pursued or to be a woman falling in love with a man, mundane, but safer? As a child I don’t think, I hope, any of this occurred to me. I was hiding behind my fingers, fearing the return of ol’ Red.
The final battle is between the Unicorn, back in her true form, and the Bull, after he has slaughtered her Prince. She, with the help of all of the missing unicorns, defeat this evil. Perhaps this is a happy ending. Now I celebrate that she has learned to love, but is not tethered to it. She leaves the human world for her forest, her community. But as a weeun I was not convinced. The evil couldn’t be gone forever, the sea couldn’t defeat a monster that horrible. It would be back, probably for me, probably in my closet that night. And for many sleepless nights for years following.
A year later Oogie in A Nightmare Before Christmas would become the figure of my nightmares.