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The Scariest Things in the Stephen King Universe

As ‘It’ approaches, let’s face our greatest fears and relive the author’s most haunting moments

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

On Friday, the nation will once more be haunted by the mind of Stephen King, this time in the form of It, a movie about a killer clown who frequents sewers. For the occasion, we asked staff members to face their greatest fears and relive moments of sheer terror in order to determine the scariest things in the Stephen King(dom).

The Langoliers

Ben Lindbergh: When he’s in horror mode, Stephen King excels at dreaming up monsters that make you afraid to look in the mirror when you’re alone at night — not only because of what you might see standing behind you, but because of what you might see in yourself. Even a phrase like “low men in yellow coats” is enough to evoke a deeply disturbing mental image, and that’s before you find out that those “men” have rat-like, lice-ridden heads lurking beneath human masks.

The Langoliers, the eponymous adversaries of the novella from Four Past Midnight, aren’t that kind of cringe- or jump scare-inducing creature. They inspire a deeper dread. As King describes them, the Langoliers are eternally hot on the path of the present day, consuming their surroundings and converting stale, leftover space-time into a formless, featureless infinity. They’re the universe’s cleanup crew, and they annihilate whatever’s in their way. On film, the Langoliers are laughable, at least in the 1995 TV miniseries that made them look like lousy CGI Chain Chomps. On paper, though, they’re the physical embodiment of nightmares and worries we all have — that something unstoppable is on our tail, that everything is impermanent, that our hopes and loves and works will be forgotten.

Another King strength is cementing scenes from his books so strongly in our imaginations that they come to mind whenever we find ourselves in similar situations. In The Langoliers, a jetliner’s sleeping passengers are transported through a time rift to their encounter with the void. Ever since I read the novella, I’ve been unable to fall asleep on a plane without wondering whether I’d wake up from my nap in a much emptier cabin, the sound of static and nothingness swelling in my ears. So far, I’ve evaded the Langoliers, but none of us outruns them forever.

Stephen King  Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Maine

Claire McNear: Have you ever been to Maine, the backdrop of most of Kingology? Not some “Bar Harbor is lovely in August!” or “I had some great lobster in Portland once!” nonsense. Have you ever really been to Maine? Let me lay out some facts for you: Much of the state is uninhabited and probably uninhabitable forest. There are, according to my estimates, approximately 0.2 humans per square mile. (OK, actually 41.3, but you get the idea.) It is winter there for approximately eight months of the year, a time during which the few humans who have decided to stay up north — out of bravery or masochism or outstanding warrants — are essentially snowed in together. “Offseason lobsterman” and “ex-lumberjack” are viable professions. Would you like to know what the real inspiration for The Shining was? It was literally any town in Maine.

The outside of Stephen King’s home in Bangor is covered in wrought iron spiders, and yet it is still significantly less creepy than everything else in Bangor, a city in which you can rent a hotel room featuring an enormous purple satin ballgown that may or may not have been the inspiration for Carrie positioned at the foot of your bed. (I have done this.) Maine is terrifying, and not to be underestimated. It’s no wonder the state’s most famous author is the way he is.

Randall Flagg

Sean Fennessey: Here’s a disturbing montage:

That’s four minutes of the actor Jamey Sheridan inducing stigmata, maiming innocent people, murdering others, and transforming into various demonic figures set to the strains of Polish death metal band Decapitated. Here’s a slightly less disturbing montage:

That’s 10 looped minutes of Sheridan singing a brief snatch of Larry Underwood’s song “Baby, Can You Dig Your Man?” In both cases, Sheridan is portraying Randall Flagg in Mick Garris’ miniseries adaptation of King’s epic novel The Stand. In this pair of handmade YouTube curios we can see the two sides of Flagg: the rage-filled embodiment of pure evil and the charming, seductive serpent.

Flagg might be the single most important figure in the King universe, a shamanistic necromancer who also looks like a cool dad in a jean jacket. Flagg appeared in eight more novels since first arriving in 1978’s The Stand, and has sought the end of the world in each. And Flagg is almost never a sympathetic figure — he sows destruction, preys on fear, and mines the vulnerabilities of the weak. Maybe he’s Satan, or maybe he’s a cable news executive. One of the fun things about Flagg’s mythology is the myriad names and identities King has granted him through the years, more than 25 in all. Here are some of my favorites:

The Walkin’ Dude
Nyarlathotep
Old Creeping Judas
Ramsey Forrest
Legion
He Who Walks Behind The Rows

This summer, you could — though you shouldn’t — see him as Walter Padick, portrayed by a dashingly gaunt Matthew McConaughey, in the disappointing The Dark Tower adaptation. Though Flagg goes by many names, he is always merciless, a chancre on society. King’s universe is not linear or logical — one of the wonders of his stories is the scattered math he employs. Nothing is connected, really. But Flagg transcends — he’s a spectre, the thing that pushes people to do terrible things, one who influences by manipulating what makes us small. With his crooked grin and wavy mane, Sheridan has always been an eerily malevolent performer — I’ve never trusted a single character he’s played, in any scenario. Perhaps that’s a product of first meeting him as Flagg, singing that sweet song, stirring such trouble in a decrepit world.

Room 237

Kate Knibbs: Most times when I cower while watching a scary movie or reading a spooky book, it’s not because of the monster itself. I cower in dread of the thing. Fear is anticipation of horror, which is why I’ve always felt Room 237 (or Room 217) in The Shining is so perfectly scary. Danny and Jack Torrance spend much of the film and novel drawn to the room without actually entering it. When they (Danny in the book, Jack in the movie) do finally go inside, there’s so much built-up vertiginous terror that it’s almost a relief for a dead woman to rise from the bathtub.

“Strawberry Spring”

Jason Concepcion: Stephen King was my gateway drug to books. This was around the beginning of middle school, when my now-natural taciturn nerd personality was just beginning to take shape. The first King book I read was Christine. It’s fine. The first book that I read that was more than 800 pages was The Stand. It’s objectively incredible (with the exception of its deployment of an iconic version of the “Magical Negro” trope) up until the very end (when — spoiler — the literal hand of God reaches down to smite the villainous Randall Flagg) at which point it becomes pretty ridiculous. Hey, my dude was nursing a pretty serious drink and drug problem at that point.

Anyway, during that extremely angst-ridden, puberty-powered era of my then-young life, I read pretty much everything Stephen King had published. The stuff I loved the most was his short story work. “Strawberry Spring” is my favorite of these tiny terrors. It appears in Night Shift, the author’s first short-story collection. The title refers to a fictional period of unseasonably warm weather which falls in late-winter; an Indian Summer in reverse. The onset of the Strawberry Spring spurs an unnamed narrator to an elegiac reminiscence of a similar spate of warm March weather eight years earlier when he was a student at New Sharon College in Maine. Melting snows brought thick nighttime fog, which cloaked a serial killer who was never caught. I won’t spoil the rest, but this is a story that hits right in the middle of what I consider King’s wheelhouse. It’s not the gothic-inspired horror of his mid-career work, but a rumination on the monster that lurks within. And it takes on a poignancy when viewed through the lens of his then-unconquered addictions.

Jack Nicholson (Warner Bros.)

Jack Torrance

K. Austin Collins: Stephen King has never been a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1977 bestseller The Shining, and a lot of that’s because of Jack Nicholson’s iconic take on the book’s villain and protagonist, Jack Torrance. “In the book,” King told Rolling Stone in 2014, “there’s an actual arc where you see this guy, Jack Torrance, trying to be good, and little by little he moves over to this place where he’s crazy. And as far as I was concerned, when I saw the movie, Jack was crazy from the first scene.”

I have to admit, I never really saw Nicholson’s Torrance as crazy. Supernaturally violent, yes. Crazy, no. Since the very first time I saw the movie as a teenager, I’ve seen Torrance as an abuser. And I’ve always seen and responded to The Shining as a funhouse nightmare about domestic abuse — which is why I’m so afraid of Jack Torrance.

As is the case for so much horror, what’s scariest is often the stuff that’s truest to life. For me, it isn’t “Here’s Johnny!” or the fact that Torrance is apparently chummy with long-dead mountain resort ghosts. It’s the story of him drunkenly dislocating his son’s shoulder, which we hear early on from Jack’s wife, Wendy, and which colors our entire perception of the guy. It’s in the way Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall) tells that story, narrating it carefully with a tone of, “I know how this sounds,” as she would to a worried friend. It’s in how Wendy and Jack interact throughout, in the sense that Duvall’s famously chipper and shrieky performance shows a woman who’s overcompensating for some private misery.

There’s a lot of fear in this movie, and only some of it has to with the ghostly unrest in the Overlook Hotel. The rest was already there, in the everyday lives of Wendy and Danny.