Like many Stephen King fans, I found the Master of Horror as a child. I grew up staring in awe at my dad’s paperbacks lining a high shelf and pondered the haunting images emblazoned on their spines: a hand covered with eyes and bandages (Night Shift); green claws poking through a sewer grate (It); a crow man fighting a man I assumed to be Luke Skywalker (The Stand). When I finally gathered the courage to read one, I chose Night Shift. At just 326 pages, it seemed more manageable than the 1,000 page epics I would later fall in love with. The table of contents included evocative but familiar titles like “Sometimes They Come Back” and “Children of the Corn” and most of the stories were short, clocking in around 10-20 pages. How scary could they be?
I would soon learn that King saves some of his darkest work for short story collections. The brief format removes the need for comforting explanations and we rarely get close enough to a character to grow emotionally attached before a gruesome death. King’s earlier short stories often end on especially nasty stingers, implying brutality lurking just around the corner. One of the scariest stories in Skeleton Crew, “Gramma,” describes a set of reassuring headlights pulling into the driveway thus reestablishing the safety of an adult presence. However, like “Gramma” many of King’s stories offer no such relief. They simply end at the most dreadful moment, leaving us frightened and alone with our thoughts to imagine the worst possible outcome.
Browsing Night Shift’s table of contents, my eye immediately fell on two titles: “The Mangler” and “The Boogeyman.” Each promised the kind of classic horror movie scares I was discovering as a new fan of the genre and seemed limited enough that my young reader’s brain could digest them in a single sitting. The former follows the unlikely tale of an industrial folding machine possessed by a demon. The latter is a cruel story about a man haunted by a monster living in his closet. At ten years old, both stories thrilled and unsettled me. I devoured them along with the additional eighteen entries in King’s first collection. I even toted my copy of Night Shift to slumber parties and insisted on reading the stories to my terrified friends. My obsession with “The Mangler” and “The Boogeyman” bloomed into a devotion for King’s writing that would eventually change the course of my life. I fell in love with Night Shift as a child and I have never looked back.
The sixth story in King’s first collection, “The Boogeyman” recounts the therapy session from hell. Lester Billings meets with Dr. Harper to unburden his conscience by telling the harrowing story of his family’s destruction. Lester is a boorish young father who married his wife Rita out of high school and rules his home with an iron fist. When his three-year-old son Denny begs for a nightlight, Lester ignores his son’s insistence that an inky black monster he calls the Boogeyman is terrorizing him at night. Hoping to raise tough kids, he chalks this up to simple childhood fear, but notices that the closet door is open… just a crack. The Boogeyman systematically terrorizes and murders all three of Lester’s children, each time in occurrences that look like simple, but tragic accidents. Doctors rule the three deaths accidental, but Lester knows they’ve really been dispatched by the slimy creature hiding in his closet.
As a tween (okay, and all the way into high school and college) this story absolutely terrified me. I became obsessed with checking my closets before bed and even slept with a light on to guard against the creeping monster Lester hears from inside his children’s closet. Even now, I still feel uncomfortable with an open closet door. I tell others it’s because I don’t want to see a mess, but the thought of a door open–just a crack–still fills me with dread. The repetition of this simple phrase brilliantly achieves the effect of fireside storytelling in which the monster whispers an ominous catch phrase over and over again, just a little closer every time until the startling climax causes us to scream then dissolve into a fit of giggles. This story may not make us laugh, but it does capture the unsettling feeling that the Boogeyman is getting closer to our own closets with every page we turn.
First published in a 1973 issue of Cavalier, “The Boogeyman” is a near-perfect encapsulation of an era known as Vintage King. Generally referring to the first chapter of his career, this stretch of publications runs roughly from Carrie to It and can be characterized by external monsters hiding in the trappings of our everyday lives, often attacking flawed young fathers or children. Like most stories in Night Shift, “The Boogeyman” is terrifying, mean-spirited, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The conclusion hits like a bolt of lightning as we find out that Dr. Harper has actually been the monster all along. No closet is safe and there is no escape from this hideous beast once he’s decided to ruin your life. This twist doesn’t need to make sense. It simply rips the rug out from under our feet then moves on leaving us too concerned with checking our own closets for monsters to consider how on earth the Boogeyman managed to pull off this amazing disguise.
Like much of King’s fiction, “The Boogeyman” only grows more terrifying with age. Read through the lens of adulthood, Carrie becomes a story about bullying and religious abuse. Christine feels less like the tale of an evil car and more like a parable about the slow death of adolescent friendship. One of King’s most celebrated early novels, The Shining, transforms from a story about a haunted hotel into a horrific exploration of addiction. Reading “The Boogeyman” as an adult, it’s nearly impossible to sympathize with Lester. He may be grieving for three young children, but he exudes hatred and peppers the story of their deaths with racist, homophobic, and misogynistic language. He casually mentions assaulting his wife and speaks so dismissively about his children that his entire story about a monster in the closet starts to sound like a lie.
It’s possible to read the story as Lester’s confession to murder. The inky black monster could be a manifestation of Lester’s abuse and his fear, an admission that he is a danger to his family. When Rita takes an extended trip to visit her hospitalized mother, the monster becomes bolder and intentionally leaves traces of its presence around the house. Lester, a man who constantly complains about a woman’s place, would likely feel helpless fulfilling caregiving tasks in her absence. It’s not too much of a stretch to see him accidentally killing a toddler who won’t stop crying. Even if the Boogeyman is real, Lester still admits to using his youngest child as a decoy to divert the monster’s attention away from himself. Dr. Harper transforms into a Boogeyman after Lester agrees to regular sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays suggesting the real monster may be Lester’s terror of vulnerability and confronting his own guilt.
King makes no mention of this alternate reading in the text. “The Boogeyman” is a straightforward horror story which just happens to feature a despicable character. However the quality of King’s writing leaves room for interpretation especially when viewed through the lens of his larger body of work. King’s early writing frequently features men struggling with the task of raising young children and it’s likely the author was working through some of his own fears through fictional characters. The beauty of King’s story is that it functions on many levels. I read it as a child and checked the corners of my closet before falling asleep. I read it now as an adult and give my children an extra kiss before tucking them in at night. And then I check the corners of their closets.
Fifty years after first publication, “The Boogeyman” still packs a mean punch. It’s a deceptively complex story that feeds on fear and offers us little in the way of comfort. Though some of the ways Lester describes his children are dated (does anyone actually wear rubber pants anymore?), the fears of raising them in an unpredictable world are timeless. We probably all have a metaphorical closet hiding our deepest, darkest fears. What would happen if the door protecting us from our own boogeymen somehow found a way to open, even just a crack?
A new adaptation by Rob Savage takes the best of King’s original story and amplifies it, leaning into the creeping sense of dread and fear of parental responsibility. The Boogeyman may turn out to be the scariest film of the summer, though it will probably not contain the thrilling cruelty of King’s original text. And perhaps that’s for the best. If we look into the darkness of our very worst fears, how many of us will emerge unharmed?
The Boogeyman will be unleashed in theaters on June 2, 2023.