Monday, August 16, 2010

Things That Scare Me: Case Study #12: Raiders of the Lost Ark

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. As an 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 #12: Raiders of the Lost Ark

I went into my first “viewing” of Raiders of the Lost Ark with such extreme prejudice that I kept my eyes closed and my fingers in my ears for, essentially, the entire movie. I’m not exaggerating. This “Things That Scare Me” feature is too therapeutic for me to waste time cracking jokes at my own expense. I’m not exactly sure where I got the idea that this movie might terrify me since my seven-year-old self knew virtually nothing about it before my mom dragged my sister, my grade-school best pal Antonio, and me to the theater. I do recall that my parents went on a married-couple date to see it before taking the kids. My guess is that there was some discussion regarding what effect the film would have on their highly impressionable and embarrassingly lily-livered son, which I most likely overheard. Such a conversation would have affected me not only because its topic was the possibility I would see something that might toss more fuel on the eternal flame of my nightmares but also because of the way it probably happened. I could imagine my parents having this discussion in hushed tones, believing themselves to be out of my earshot. These kinds of conversations always hit me as weighty, ultra-serious. What could this Raiders of the Lost Ark movie contain that would warrant such a talk? A graphic autopsy? Interspecies rape? A monster that turns to the camera and says, “Tonight, Mike Segretto, I’m going to kill you in your sleep.”

Little as I knew about the specifics of plot and horror content in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was fully aware that it was a cultural phenomenon. The other kids at school had all seen it. My parents loved it. My already tenuous ability to function socially hinged on seeing this movie. I also knew the movie starred Harrison Ford, and like most other kids born in the ‘70s, I had a serious Han Solo fixation. So, I agreed to go. But, as I already stated, I didn’t exactly see the movie.

So dreamy...

So, the “Things That Scare Me” element of Raiders of the Lost Ark had more to do with my interpretation of what might disturb me than the actual content of the film. I knew the movie hosted lots and lots of snakes, but snakes never bothered me. Perhaps this was my mother’s reason for thinking the movie might freak me out, since she’s terrified of snakes. I once trapped a garter snake in our backyard in a big Tupperware bowl. My mother was so bent on getting me to release it that she agreed to take me to the record store if I did. I may have lost a scaly pet but I gained Something New by The Beatles.

To the snake releaser goes the spoils...

The other scary elements in Raiders of the Lost Ark were more mysterious to me, and remained that way the first time I attended it. Had I done more research (or, say, opened my eyes) I would have known about Karen Allen getting molested by a horde of mummies (and not benign, bandaged, Karloff-style mummies; these things looked like rotting corpses) or the Nazis with the melting faces:

When I returned to Raiders of the Lost Ark after convincing my mom she wouldn’t be flushing more cash down the porcelain maw because I’d actually keep my eyes open this time, I was able to handle these horrors and the ample violence elsewhere in the picture. Like Gremlins, Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of those vicious ‘80s movies that did not shy from extreme violence even though it was largely marketed toward kids. A big, bald Nazi is chopped up in a plane propeller. Another bastard gets run over from crotch to skull by a truck. Alfred Molina gets pierced through the forehead and throat by a booby trap. Today, these scenes would be sanitized out of the film to avoid an R rating (yet, they probably could’ve passed unedited into an episode of “Lost”).

Al's got a little something in his throat.

The Verdict: Re-watching Raiders of the Lost Ark a couple of nights ago, I was once again struck by how violent it is considering its intended audience, even if the most disturbing thing about the film these days is its parade of nasty ethnic stereotypes (I still love it despite that, though. Does that make me a terrible person?). If the melting faces and pierced throats and snake-puking mummies had scared me, I’d say that I was justified in my terror. But I was scared by the idea that I might be scared. How the fuck did I become such a wiener?
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