For some people, it’s Bambi. For my brother Al, it was ET and Pee Wee’s Playhouse—he must have had a psychic intuition about that Pee Wee Herman guy. But everyone can look back on childhood and recall—sometimes fondly reminisce, as I suppose I do —about the Movies that Ruined Their Lives. (In the comments, go ahead and mention the movies that traumatized you. It’s fun!) It’s not that I hate the movies or think that they’re bad. As Facebook would say of my relationship, it’s complicated.
1) The Shining
I remember the day that Brendan, Michael, and I watched The Shining at Irving’s house, I guess at some point in elementary school. Irving had the only VHS and, obviously, most neglectful parents. I think they were going through something. Supposedly, kids figure everything out and know what’s going on, but I was a confused, oblivious child. Danny, the boy with the title’s power, seemed roughly our own age, and when he talked to his hand decades before talk shows would emplore people to do the same, and called his pointer finger Tony, then spoke in a raspy voice as Tony, it didn’t seem funny, or campy, or kitschy, or cheap. It was fucking horrifying. So was the “REᗡЯUM” in lipstick on the bathroom door, which spelled out “MURDƎЯ” in the mirror, something that at 10 years old (maybe?) I DID NOT SEE COMING AT ALL. And that was nothing compared with the terrifying twin dead ghost girls. Like regular twins aren’t scary enough. And of course, the Naked Lady in the bathtub, who begins as beautiful (not that I noticed; see: oblivious) and turns into a shrieking, droopy-breasted hag as she chases Jack Nicholson down one of the million hallways in the film. The later scenes, involving Jack going crazy, hacking poor Scatman Crothers to death with an ax, and subsequently menacing and attempting to murder his wife and child, had little effect after the powerful childhood magic of Tony, REᗡЯUM, the girls, and especially the Naked Lady. Either that or I had no more unconscious recesses left in my brain the ruin. As Psycho must have done for a previous generation, The Shining made me scared to go anywhere near a bathroom for, like, a year. And for many years after, Michael and I would yell “Naked Lady!” to each other, a phrase which for other kids may have evoked laughter, or titillation. Bur for us it was like screaming Boo! Times a million.
I watched The Shining again about a decade later. I was an English major in college and wanted to see what all the fuss in my head had been about. This time, the movie was hilarious, a black comedy about writer’s block and isolation, less about Danny and bathrooms than Jack Nicholson’s madcap persona and the ridiculous haunted house conventions that had been beaten into everyone’s heads a hundred times by then. A hotel built on an Indian burial ground? Really? I laughed at the film, at Jack, at Jack’s stupid, frozen face at the end, and myself, for misreading the movie so badly.
And then I watched it again about six years ago. I was teaching a class about conspiracy and paranoia in literature and film and wanted to pair Diane Johnson’s excellent, underrated novel The Shadow Knows with a movie. And it was scary all over again, for new reasons. This time, I hardly saw anything supernatural or monstrous about it. Instead, it seemed a harrowing psychodrama about loss of masculinity and domestic abuse, the not- at-all-funny ways in which women and children are most threatened by, most likely to be murdered by, husbands and fathers, supposed protectors and providers. Without society or any kind of social arrangements, Jack has nothing to keep his rabid unconscious in check. I was disturbed all over again. Maybe I wasn’t as oblivious as I thought as a child.
2. The Fly
Not the 1950s Vincent Price classic, although I did see and love that movie as a child. No. In 1986, a few years after The Shining, I was at an in-between movie age and faced a choice: to see the Transformers (the cartoon movie that no one wants to talk about these days, featuring Orson Welles’s last role. Ah, cruel fate), or David Croneneberg’s remake of The Fly. Later in life, I’d grow to love many of Cronenberg’s films. Jeff Goldblum/Seth Brundle’s revolting and horrific transformation—no easy head-switcheroos here; the way Brundle snaps a man’s wrist arm-wrestling in a bar; the way the mutated Brundle-Fly uses his fly vomit to disintegrate a man’s limbs; the way Gina Davis’s push dislodges Brundle-Fly’s jawbone and with it, his last vestige of human resemblance; Brundle-Fly’s like-nothing-else-ever appearance at the very end, after he accidently goes through the teleporter alone, failing in his Shining-esque plan to use the machine to merge his own DNA with Gina’s and their in-utero child, and how he points the gun at his own head but in his hideously deformed state can’t pull the trigger and Gina has to do it for him. OH MY GOD. I can’t believe I ever saw another movie again. Or slept again. Or had children. But YOU WILL NEVER GET ME IN A TELEPORTER. This plot summary was written from memory and without IMDB or Wikipedia. Although I have not seen this movie in over 25 years, its images are burned into the internal plasma screen of my psyche. Unlike The Shining, I do not expect to see The Fly again.
3. The Elephant Man
Now, here’s the catch: not only have I not seen the Elephant Man since I was a child; I NEVER saw The Elephant Man. Although I added to my Netflix queue over a year ago in a failed attempt to cure myself through immersion therapy. Which counts for something, I guess. Even before The Shining, I saw a short clip of The Elephant Man on TV. The clip I saw, which, again, I remember vividly although it was over three decades ago, features John Merrick, as he was known in the film, wearing a pillowcase over his head and fleeing a mob, which rips his mask off only to shock themselves into stunned murmurs. Suddenly emboldened, Merrick bellows, “I am not animal! I am a man! A human being!” before collapsing from the exertion. Then I saw a Ripley’s Believe it nor Not (or something like that) episode featuring Elephant Man reenactments, although the disfiguring makeup was far cruder than the film’s and, if I remember right, kinda purple. No matter. I become obsessed with The Elephant Man, reading all I could about him while strenuously avoiding any pictures of him, or John Hurt in the movie, which was not easy. Even at the time, I had no idea what I was scared of. Was I going to run into him somewhere? I was kind of scared that I would, although obviously the odds of, say, being killed by Jack Nicholson were far greater. Would I turn into him? Um, no. I didn’t know what I was scared of. I still don’t, although the fact that I felt terrorized and traumatized by the clip is, as far as I can ascertain without having actually seen it, the exact opposite point of the film itself, which seeks to re-humanize, rather than dehumanize, the Man, not the Elephant. I should really watch it.
But I won’t.
Honorable Mention: Snoopy Come Home. In 1976, Snoopy, one of my childhood loves, ran away from Charlie Brown. Or something like that. Did he run away, or was he left behind? Was it a misunderstanding? If you need to know, go check Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snoopy,_Come_Home , which, unbelievably, has a significant entry on it. I haven’t seen this one again and don’t plan to. And unlike the others, I hardly remember it. Call it traumatic amnesia. All I know is that Snoopy was gone for like an hour and a half, and everyone is crying and crying and crying those big Peanuts teardrops from the sides of their eyes like water hoses, and then five minutes before the end, after everyone gives up, Snoopy Comes Home and it’s all OK. Well, Charles Schultz, it WAS NOT OK. The ending could not fix the feelings of loss that, when I close my eyes and psychically look back, I may not have yet gotten over.
Time: one re-traumatizing hour.