In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) my adult infatuation with all things horrifying and horrific, I was scared of absolutely everything when I was a kid. A television commercial for a horror movie was enough to send me racing from the den in a sweaty-palm panic. In this ongoing series here on Psychobabble, I've been reviewing some of the things that most traumatized me as a child and evaluating whether or not I was rightfully frightened or just a wiener.
Case Study #10: The Poltergeist face-ripper.
The schoolyard is the campfire of urban and suburban kids. Stories are passed around, myths are related and created. Based on my own experience, most of these yarns involved horrific scenes in popular movies. I recall a friend seeing Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom for the first time and regaling me with stories about still-beating hearts being torn from chests, feasts of monkey brains, eel babies, and eyeball soup. “Nice try,” said I, “but you took it too far. No way am I going to believe that some family-film by Steven Spielberg contains such graphic grotesqueries” (actually, I probably said “gross shit”, as I was ten at the time). Alas, my friend was not having a tug at my leg, and the picture did, indeed, contain all these nasty images and more.
Pass the monkey brains, please.
As potent as the Temple of Doom stories were, I was a little too old at that point for them to deter me from seeing the movie. The same cannot be said of Poltergeist released two years earlier. Here we have another Spielberg-created dark fantasy aimed at a PG crowd (PG-13 didn’t come around until 1984, and was partially inspired by the aforementioned Indiana Jones film) replete with pull-no-punches shocks: a goopy kid-eating tree, a monstrous kid-strangling clown, droves of corpses rising from a swimming pool, JoBeth Williams’s ghost-rape.
Everybody loves a clown...
However, the only scene to really make the playground rounds was one in which a guy, apparently, tears his own face off with his bare hands. What this had to do with a ghost story wasn’t particularly clear to me (and, frankly, it still isn’t), but it conjured an image so punishingly violent and grisly that I couldn’t feature it really existed. At the same time, it kept me from watching Poltergeist for several years. When it debuted on HBO and the rest of my family was gathered around the tube to take in its sundry horrors, I was perched at the kitchen table upstairs with the lights off, terrified, listening to all the screaming and screeching emanating from the TV, watching the ample strobe effects from the screen flash through the kitchen like lightning. Why I put myself through this is anyone’s guess, but afterward my family confirmed that the guy-ripping-off-his-own-face scene was very much present and accounted for... as was the guy snacking on a maggoty chicken leg right before doing the deed. Observe:
The Verdict: OK, so the guy is obviously tearing pieces of latex off a dummy head, his hands groping as unnaturally as those of a Muppet. Still, this is some pretty heavy stuff, as the chunks of flesh splosh in the sink, the dummy’s eyes roll up in its head, and the actor’s fingers tear away at his mouth, revealing a skeletal grimace. There’s also the nightmarish inevitability of the act, that sense of being unable to stop oneself from doing something dreadfully self-destructive. And let’s not forget about that self-eviscerating steak. All in all, a sequence of visceral mutilation and surreal grottiness worthy of Buñuel, as well as a rare instance of a cinematic visual being every bit as horrific as any I could cook up in my overactive eight-year-old imagination. Had I watched this when I was eight, rather than cowering in the kitchen, my parents probably would have had to ship me off to the local kiddie shrink. In other words, I was justified in my terror. Quite justified.