When I was a little kid, I was completely horrified by “Clock Tower” on PS1. I was scared way beyond reason and the ‘Shwing’ sound of the killer’s garden sheers scraping together is tattooed on my brain. I was recently cleaning some stuff out of my mom’s house and I found a bunch of first and second grade notebooks. It felt like I had just reminded everyone about Freddy Kruger. Page after page was dedicated to Clock Tower and I had filled those books with doodles and nightmares. Flipping through I remembered how scared I was playing that game. I realized it’s time to write about my personal boogieman that began terrorizing me Thanksgiving night, 1997.
To set the date of this story, Clock Tower (Clock Tower 2 in Japan) was a horror/adventure game that game out in October 1997 in the States by HUMAN entertainment. It was a point and click you controlled with the PlayStation d-pad (this was pre-analog stick) and had to slowly drag the cursor around the screen to solve puzzles and escape a killer chasing you with giant scissors. People got very frustrated with the limited, clunky controls. I love and appreciate them now, as a child I was too terrified to notice.
Before Clock Tower slapped me out of my care-bear innocence I had managed to avoid all the other classic childhood traumas that spooked kids my age. A certain child eating clown from the sewer was always just a clown to me, and the Pet Semetary VHS box meant little more to me than Bunnicula did in my elementary school library. So many Boogiemen for kids were born from a ‘wrong channel at the wrong time’, but I had been lucky. I had always managed to sleep peacefully with no particular shape to visualize and scare me when looking around my bedroom at night.
Traditionally my parents used to take my brother and me to a wealthy families house for Thanksgiving dinner. Their son Adam and my brother were best friends, and their family owned a beautiful old five story brownstone in Brooklyn. The dinner party would take place in the first floor dining room while the kids all would scurry upstairs to play games. I remember being so impressed that they had to buzz the upstairs rooms on an intercom system from the kitchen to call people down to dinner.
The stairs felt endless as a kid, and each floor on the way up was surrounded in darkness from unoccupied rooms and studies. I remember going up those stairs as quickly as possible, scared to look around me, listening to the comforting sounds of party chatter get further away and the creaky steps getting louder in the quiet of the house. I remember being scared by those even before the Thanksgiving night I saw Clock Tower for the first time.
I was lucky to hang out with the older kids. Adams room was on the 4th floor, a giant wooden room with a bunk bed all for himself. In the middle of the room there was a folding chair in front of a dumpy tube TV with grey square play station sitting under it on the floor. I remembered just the year before scrambling up those long four flights to marvel over “Battle Arena Toshinden”. We still had a Super Nintendo in our house, and PlayStation with its 3D games felt like we’d jumped into the future.
Adams parents gave him the classic treat of a couple game rentals for the long weekend, but there was no discussion on what we would play. He held up Clock Tower excitedly and all the violence hungry teenagers were sold. It had just come out, and he waited for this night with all his friends (and me unintentionally) to start it. The PlayStation booted up as we passed around the box and booklet. Right away, I had that unique childhood feeling that something was “too old for me”. A bandaged man held bloody scissors menacingly and a box quote promised we would “search for the most horrifying serial killer known to man”. The room was made totally dark aside from the TV glow. Sitting on the wood floor amongst 5 of my older brothers friends is where I was introduced to my childhood terror Scissorman.
Right off the bat, the bizarre opening and ominous piano menu music unsettled me. I remember thinking how unnervingly quiet everything seemed. Voice acted characters were still a fairly new concept to me and their B-movie performances didn’t feel cheesy at all. It felt removed and distant, a creepy aspect of PlayStation horror games that I didn’t fully enjoy until much later. Characters footsteps echoed and were so loud, even on carpet, and it’s often the only sound you would hear in the game exploring long dark hallways. I couldn’t help but hear the same loud steps going up and down those flights of stairs when I would take a bathroom break.
There was a lot of violence in Clock Tower, but those early 3d graphics have your mind fill in a lot of the gruesome details. Characters faces were never quite clear on an old CRT and the bodies were often abstractly gory. Early in the game, you find a corpse under a sheet on an exam table. She’s just a white lump with a red stain, a large spike sticking out of her. You never pull the sheet down to see her face. I’ll never forget your characters reaction was to stumble back into a wall, and vomit from the horror. Games that let you really feel awful moments with that much detail were very rare. The actions in Clock Tower are slow and heavy, and you watch every moment of it.
There are plenty of jump scares of course- Scissor man popping out of a locker early on had the entire room scream. The music going from dead silent into its intense chase theme would put me into a full panic. Those moments got my heart pounding, but the slow unwavering pursuit of the killer and the feeling of entrapment is really what dug its way into my little boy psyche.
Scissorman was a shark in a dark ocean, and you were hot blood. Sometimes without any “pop out” or horror event, you would begin to hear a faint sound. Slowly, the sound of scissors would open and close far away. Shwing. Swhing. Shwing. It grew louder and louder as Scissorman got ever closer. He would chase you from room to room, through loading screens, something I had never seen done before. You had to hide or find some way to defend yourself, otherwise you were brutally killed. Often you knew you were in a room where the direction out was where Scissorman was coming from or the only hiding spot was one you’ve already used and been discovered. Clock Tower is more the feeling of dread than shock. Panic clicking around the room to find a defensive item or a place to hide felt truly desperate.
I don’t remember Thanksgiving dinner or anything else that night. All I remember is closing my eyes in bed and hearing that Sharp Shwing sound getting closer and closer. The damage had been done- Scissorman became my boogieman. I had nightmares for years being stalked by a killer with those garden shears.
Just a month later we got a PlayStation for Christmas. I was delighted by Parappa the rapper, and fully invested in FF7s story as I watched my brother play. Even though I wish I could forget it, I kept thinking about Clock Tower. It scared the hell out of me, but I also became obsessed. I used to rent it weekend after weekend and try to dare myself to play more, getting scared and shutting it off with a fresh new batch of nightmares to torture myself and my parents with. I got a random sputtering of bad endings here and there, but none of them cured me of my nightmares. I remember going to our local video rental store and finally being told by the guys behind the counter “Your mom told us you can’t rent that anymore, that it’s too scary for you. Would you like to pick a different game?”
I got cut off. But I never stopped thinking about it. I still wrote about it constantly.
I don’t think there has ever been a game that captures the feeling of paralyzing fear, the loss of control from panic as well as Clock Tower. Having scissor man pop out at you while you desperately tried to drag the VERY slow mouse cursor across the screen, trying to click on a box or bed to hide under is incredibly intense. Yelling at the screen when your character walks the wrong way, not moving quick enough to hide before Scissorman invades the room… it made the player feel so powerless. It made the characters seem panicked. I think part of the reason these games had trouble moving into the PS2 era was the standards of left analog Control becoming so rigid. Control, even limited (or arguably bad) can be a storytelling and game play element. In Clock Tower, its restricted controls are a huge part of why it felt scary and helpless. It’s one of the game’s greatest strength.
I never got over my Clock Tower obsession. I dressed up as Scissorman for Halloween last year, complete with scissors that made the shwing sound when a button attached to a speaker was pressed. The stiff controls, distant voice acting and murky violent details give the game such a surreal quality. It feels like a nightmare you’ve woken up from that’s difficult to explain. It’s a weird feeling that stayed with me.
Happy Halloween! I can’t help but wonder if anyone else had a video game boogieman.