How I Conquered My Fears Of Chucky (And Became A Better Movie Fan For It)

(Welcome to Nostalgia Bomb, a series where we take a look back on beloved childhood favorites and discern whether or not they're actually any good. In this edition: with Cult of Chucky out today, Matt Donato revisits the years when the Child's Play movie series terrified him.)

I remember the exact moment. Sitting there in my pajamas, October of 1998, watching a recorded copy of the previous night's WCW Nitro telecast on VHS because my dad was cool like that. Gene Okerlund was conducting an interview in the ring with Rick Steiner when a cackle erupted from the arena's PA system. I'd never heard this wrestler before. Who was about to present themselves?! My heart began to race. First from excitement...then something else.

On the megatron appeared this mangled children's toy whose face was stitched together like Frankenstein. Then he started to talk. To me. Like, not actually to the child frozen in front of his television – the doll insulted "Mean Gene" and Rick while defending Scott Steiner – but I felt its voice pierce my soul every time the camera cut away from both confused WCW personalities. At the time, I had no idea who Chucky was or that he terrorized an entire Child's Play franchise – all I knew is I couldn't stop the tape quicker.

The Horror of...Horror

This "Chucky" – who I eventually learned to be the possessed vessel of serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) – would continue to haunt my days and nights. Maybe at a neighborhood sleepover spliced into Universal's horror promo before 1999's The Mummy began (on VHS). Maybe in syndication, when I couldn't enter rooms because Child's Play 3 was playing. A quick flash of Chucky's angry face during AMC Halloween bumpers, home video covers in Blockbuster, chatting politics on SNL's Weekend Update (Colin Quinn, a canonical survivor) – I couldn't escape the Chuckster. He'd be a prominent feature in my nightmares for years to come, where I'd be hunted or forced to accompany him against my will. People loved his films, but not me. No. Everywhere I looked was Don Mancini's pint-sized pain-inflictor who I thought I'd never escape – but we'll get to that later.

It wasn't just "fear," mind you. I'm "afraid" of spiders, but love the movie Eight Legged Freaks. This was a paralyzing clutch that spiked my heart rate. A slight light-headedness would set in and either hand might tremble slightly. Just at the glance of a picture – we're not talking a whole scene or film. Chucky's headshot was enough to cause a fit of chills to shoot everywhere as I lost all rational thought. This wasn't just nervousness in the dark or common uneasiness. This was a fear people bring to psychologists or specialists, all because of a glorified criminal-turned-toy Hollywood prop who killed. Even Seed Of Chucky. A comedy. Nope. Didn't matter.

As you can assume, I wasn't a very adventurous child (ask my Mom, who'll still tell you what a little weenie I was at Disney World). I kept risks minimal. Most things scared me. I hated not being in control and feeling like something bad could happen. My anxiety got so bad that for about a year of my life I'd ask my parents daily if I was going to throw up (among other visible nervous ticks). No rhyme or reason. I'd just be in a car (or anywhere), feel a slight tickle and that's where my head would go. I never actually upchucked, but that's how far-reaching my paranoia became. The slightest twinge or pain and I'd be in the nurse's office with a stomach ache because I was afraid of barfing in public. Does the whole traumatization via fake, fantastical voodoo transference and a living dummy sound somewhat more attainable now?

Horror movies became an instant no-no in my cinematic world once Chucky appeared that fateful night. More so than 9-year-old me already decided. Good luck getting Lil' Matt into a haunted house or even the costume aisle at Party City before then. I avoided the "Horror" aisles in rental stores like the title characters on each sleeve would come alive as I passed. My parents weren't really movie nuts – let alone horror watchers – meaning spooks were easy to avoid. So I sat there, dodging images of Chucky even through high school. Why take the risk? I could live a happily "nah, not today" life in my comfort bubble lined with Adam Sandler comedies and Invader Zim. My bubble was safe, no one messed with it.

Facing the Doll Once and For All

Yet here we are, today, my life devoted to films (of the horror persuasion especially). How did we get here?

Fear controlled so many years of my life. Fears of failing. Fears of being embarrassed. Fears of death and the unknown causing me to hyperventilate in bed because "what if?" Fear became a constant state that I felt no urge to fight because even that scared me. Little did I know that Chucky, the physical manifestation of all that'd controlled my life to that point, would play the biggest role in overcoming all these demons that prevented me from fully enjoying our human experience in all its uncertainty. For better or worse (depends who you ask).

Horror found its way into my life thanks to college, Netflix and [REC]. I'd sit in my dorm room watching rentals recommended by my film major roommate (me, the business management major, still playing it safe). The night I popped in [REC] for the first of many times, an appreciation of horror films began to grow. I'd never felt so scared and so alive. From that moment on I started to explore every icon, deviant and psychopath the horror genre had to offer. A seismic shift began that unleashed an avalanche of love to for things bloody, dreadful and wet-your-pants terrifying.

All except Chucky.

Fast forward to my first gig as a "real" film blogger – a Curse Of Chucky news piece. Of course. Karma wouldn't initiate my second career any other way – sifting through header images of a doll who, picture by picture, seemed to be laughing at me. I logged the headline as quickly as possible. Out of sight, out of mind.

About a year after began reviewing lesser-known horror releases on the site. As I made my way through indie titles like Pac-Man on Level 1, Chucky remained off my priority list. Then the invite came – interview the cast of Curse Of Chucky. Not only that, but review the film as well. And rank the entire franchise. Hello darkness, my most hated friend. Time to meet my maker.

Fears, Faced

Trudging down the creaky set of wooden stairs I took to my parents' basement, I selected Child's Play from an expansive VOD menu. This was it. Hovering over the "Play" button, thinking about how I let fear control my life for years because I wasn't [insert reason] enough to do anything about it – but tomorrow's never guaranteed. Screw it. I pressed play and so began Tom Holland's toonish horror flick about Charles Lee Ray, Chucky and a legend born from scorched innocence. And you know what? I loved it.

No stopping there. Child's Play 2 came next, then Child's Play 3. The Good Guy toy factory act, all the military school kills. It couldn't possibly get better could it? Considering how Bride of Chucky will always be one of my favorite horror movies, it did. Then Seed of Chucky, which, say what you will, has some extremely fun throw-away moments, and finally, Curse of Chucky – a dark icon reborn. Every single Child's Play movie in two days. Talk about facing your fears like Andy Barclay, right?

It was more than that. It was a realization that all these things I'd avoided for so long could actually bring me joy if I just tried them. Chucky – a giggling cinema prop who pretend-killed victims – helped push me out of my comfort zone for the first time in...ever? I could feel ripple effects as simple as finally riding a rollercoaster or swallowing my stage fright before a celebrity interview on camera. Nothing is ever as bad as our minds may trick us to believe and Don Mancini helped me realize this. So many years spent hiding from something that now brings me immense joy. It's the adrenaline from fear that makes us feel most alive, and that acceptance shattered the steel bars of my own mental prison. A symbol of all I hated now a goddamn addition to my personal crest. Life's funny, sometimes.

These Movies Are Still Pretty Great

Circumstantially, you'll agree that I can't compare a first Child's Play watch to a second-go some years later – since, you know, I couldn't stomach more than two nanoseconds of Chucky at a time. Instead, my reaction is based on whether Chucky was worth all those sleepless nights as a youth. My first watch was technically in the latter half of this "Nostalgia Bomb," but it's still an impactful one given how Child's Play remains – in my eyes – the strongest horror franchise to date.

From zero to hero. Isn't that how all good redemption stories go?

Acknowledging that the first three Child's Play movies all occurred before 1991, puppetry and effects withstand the rust of Father Time. It's like Jurassic Park and how Steven Spielberg's T-Rex still looks infinitely better than 99% of mainstream CGI today. Chucky's ability to wander without a master is eerily human even by 2017's standards, due in large part to a mixture of cable-connected puppeteers and human, physical actors (Ed Gale/Debbie Lee Carrington). Mechanics are fluid, facial recognition emotive. His eyes especially. At the time of my first Chucky encounter, this is what made him so horrifying. As an adult, it's more a recognized achievement in bringing life to the lifeless.

Although, the pitter-patter of murderous feet only accounts for half a character. You still need a personality, voice, and all the vitality that comes from having a (blackened) soul. Now close your eyes and imagine Chucky without Brad Dourif's tone. Doesn't work, right? Of course not – Brad Dourif is Chucky just like how Robert Englund is Freddy or Warwick Davis is the Leprechaun. Chucky's cackle belongs in the Horror Hall of Fame and Dourif's devious line-chewing spits the best kind of insults. Whether Chucky's threatening Andy or trashing Martha Stewart, Dourif loses himself in the rubbery form that comprises his dolly alter-ego. Not even Seed Of Chucky could dampen his spirits. Dourif has been perfecting his vocal craft for years, and Mancini should be eternally grateful.

Like the greats, each Child's Play film advances creative deaths and evolves in some way. Mancini and his team were never happy with wiping the guts off a tired slasher formula and hitting "Replay." Child's Play is about shocking, tension-driven thrills that remind of a Saturday Morning cartoon drawn up by Charles Manson. Child's Play 2 and 3 go the more routine slasher route, indulging in creatively varied kills like the assembly-line eye replacement or Chucky's disappointed face after a no-fun heart attack. Bride makes for a perfect horror comedy, Seed a less-than-perfect example, and Curse gets back to the terrorizing nature of Tom Holland's original – ambition has always been paramount for Chucky. My appreciation for franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th immediately downgraded as I held a constant buzz throughout my Chucky marathon.

Long Live Chucky

There's a reason why Chucky is a mainstay horror heavyweight after all these years, as Don Mancini's serial slasher ages with wisdom, reinvention and a sinister sense of humor. Maybe it's that "Damballa" magic, but even "Chunky Chucky" brings the thunder (some jokingly commented on his Curse physique). Or maybe it's that my (now) beloved Child's Play franchise has something for everyone; shattered innocence for the kiddies and genre jubilance for adults. Both reactions are heartily enjoyed, only increasing appreciation for a collection of movies that can be newly appreciated as a viewer's taste in cinema changes. Never forgotten, only rediscovered with a new perspective. If that's not a testament to quality over decades, I don't know what is.

Chucky's not just back, Jack – he's never going away. Young Donato would have ran screaming at the very thought, but now I'll never be able to thank him enough for slashing away the strings that controlled me for far, far too long. Me and Chucky, friends to the end. Score another one for the Good Guy(s).