Mine was, is, will always be, Jaws.
As I have been busily working away on my second novel I have been spending a lot of time contemplating what terrified me as a child.
My mother took me to see Jaws at a drive-in when I was five or six. That was probably the most profound 'entertainment' experience of my life. I am still, to this day, afraid of open water. Particularly at night. Now, being that I live a block away from one of the nicest recreation lakes in Canada this is actually a fear I often need to face.
But I love Jaws. It terrifies me now in the same way it did then. When I watch a horror today or read anything with a frightening villain, that is my high water mark. That is the experience I am hoping for, to be that frightened by someone else's imagination once again.
As a child, sharks were far from the only thing I was afraid of. My fertile young mind ran the gamut. Under the bed, in the closet, under the stairs, the dark, being alone and oddly tornadoes (not sure where that one came from). There were monsters hiding around every corner. As it should be.
I always loved the real life creepy crawlies. Snakes, spiders, bats, all the usual suspects don't frighten me one bit. For proof the second feature at the Drive-in was Kingdom of the Spiders. That just made me want a pet tarantula. Although, I am certain my mother found that show immeasurably more frightening than Jaws.
Now that I have four children of my own you would think I had a built in resource for what scares a child. Well, in this, kids today are quite different. Mine anyway. There isn't much that scares these kids. My children's ages are 8, 10, 13 and nearly 15. We all watch the Walking Dead together every week there really isn't anything in there that scares them as much as it scares me. They love fantasy, horror, sci-fi and the darkest, Grimm style fairy tales you can come up with.
I realize all kids aren't like this. My children were literally raised in a movie theatre. Their mother was a theatre manager for most of their lives so they slept under a projector as babies and grew up watching a broad range of films over the last fifteen years. As a result they have a very high tolerance for things that might otherwise terrify a child.
The one thing I do remember scaring the pants off them was the Pale Male from Pan's Labyrinth. That sets the bar pretty high for creating a terrifying villain if your target audience is the Milton children. That creature was frightening by any standard. You have to love a beastie that snatches fairies out of the air and eats them alive.
So I suppose as I work on my next novel, one that is full of villains and nightmares, that is my goal. I want to frighten my children in the same way that Jaws terrified me. If you can reflect back 35 years later and still feel like a child at the thought of something you read in a book or saw in a film; if you still need to look behind the shower curtain because whatever your bogeyman was may be lurking there; or you can't go swimming in water over your head even when it is an inland lake, then you have been good and properly scared.
As a writer, when you create your villain, that is the best you can hope for.
Brilliant Joker image created by K4II0