Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Scaredy Cat Chronicles: How I Was Emotionally Scarred by ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial celebrated its 30th anniversary yesterday.  For many, the film is a magical childhood touchstone.  Its sentimental portrait of friendship struck a chord with audiences the world over.  That is a testament to the skills of its writer/director, the legendary Steven Spielberg.  Though it hasn’t quite stood the test of time the same way that other classics have (As the slightly disappointing box office returns of its 2002 re-release proved), it still looms large in the public consciousness.  While its 30th birthday might bring about fond memories for some, it’s a bit of a downer for me.  It reminds me of a deep dark secret I have harbored for all these years.  As much of a Spielberg fan as I am, I’ve never really liked E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  In fact, as a child, I found it downright terrifying.

Now, before anyone decides to judge me (or think me a complete idiot), I should offer a bit of context.  As I stated last year in my 30th anniversary tribute for yet another Spielberg classic, Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was easily frightened as a little boy.  My fear was a byproduct of having a very overactive imagination.  I needed a night-light when I slept to protect me from the monsters that would surely come out of hiding in pitch Black darkness.  My mother was very conscious of this, and dutifully monitored my viewing habits.

Unfortunately, people outside of my family circle and household were not as concerned about my sensitivities.  One such person was the head counselor at the North Bronx summer camp I attended in the summer of 1982.  She was a mean spirited tomboy who arrived to work every morning riding a motorcycle.  Whenever the children under her charge frustrated her, she expressed her feelings by twisting their ears, just before using those same ears as a leash to lead them around by.  I was five at the time, and my personality quirks made me a prime candidate for such treatment.  I grew to hate that summer camp due to her very presence.  Strangely enough, her abusive behavior wasn’t the worst crime she committed against me that summer.  She nearly managed to turn me off to an amazing artist whose work I would eventually grow to cherish.

One day at camp, the counselors piled us all into a series of blue vans.  It turned out to be a test run for a field trip that was to happen the next day.  I can remember the van being extremely hot and sticky, with me and the other kids sitting arm to arm.  We drove through the Bronx until we reached our destination: a movie theater.  As we walked in, there were standees and lobby posters advertising the various attractions.  One was Annie, the other was had a title that I couldn’t pronounce.  Its poster was inspired by Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.”  Against the backdrop of space, two hands reached towards each other from either side of the image.  Their index fingers met in the middle.  One hand was clearly human, while the other was clearly not.  Just beneath this image was the film’s title: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  I had no idea what it meant, but that weird looking hand told me everything I needed to know: this movie clearly was not for me.  

The poster for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

One of my biggest childhood fears was aliens.  I found the idea of visitors from outer space to be horrifying, which is kind of ironic being that I was such a huge Star Wars nut at that age.  I avoided alien themed films like the plague, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was no different.  However, my camp counselor had other ideas.  Apparently, I’d be seeing E.T. whether I liked it or not.  To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t just open my mouth and tell my parents that I didn’t want to go see the film.  I just kind of hoped that somehow, we’d end up seeing Annie instead.  I went home on the afternoon of the test run, fretting what the next day had in store.  My fears were confirmed when me and the other kids were piled into that same series of vans the very next day.  This was actually going to happen.  We arrived at that very same multiplex, and began to file into one of the theaters.  To my horror, it was the one with a sign that read E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial above the doorway.  My fears were farther confirmed by the young usher that greeted us as we trailed in.  “Going to see E.T.?” he said with a smile.  To me, he might as well have been an evil clown inviting me through the gates of Hell.

Just as my luck would have it, I wound up sitting right next to that wretched counselor.  Once the lights went down, I realized that this experience might prove unendurable for my five year old mind.  My fear of the dark went hand in hand with my fear of aliens.  I was under assault.  As the opening credits began (I can’t remember if there were any coming attractions), things only got worse.  I saw that weird set of fingers emerge onscreen, set to the strains of John Williams eerie score.  Deep in a dark wooded area, a bunch of squashed-looking midget creatures milled about.  They all looked like turtles without shells. 

I was beyond terror at this point.  “I can’t look” I whimpered out loud as I covered my face with my hands.  My camp counselor, being the sensitive caring type she was, leaned into me from her seat and whispered “You better watch this, or I’ll wring your neck!”  Now I was not only scared of the movie, but of what she would do to me if I didn’t watch it.  I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Reluctantly, and with great anxiety, I watched the rest of the movie.

For a family oriented sci-fi movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has an exceedingly spooky first act.  A number of key moments were clearly meant to play as funny.  Instead, they made massive amounts of adrenaline rush through my body.  I spent the first half of the film in “fight or flight” mode.  A scene where Elliot and E.T. scare each other silly upon their first encounter burned itself onto my psyche.  While the rest of the theater roared with laughter, I wanted to hide under my seat.  The scenes were Elliot famously lures E.T. out of the darkness with a trail of Reese’s Pieces was equally traumatic.  When E.T.’s silhouette emerges from the fog outside Elliot’s tool shed,  I was like Elliot himself: frozen with fear and unable to speak.  

Gertie's reaction upon meeting her brother's new friend.  At five years old, I could definitely relate.

Yet another scene in which Gertie (Drew Barrymore) is introduced to E.T. hit me like an electric shock.  It reveals the creature to have an expandable, telescoping neck.  He also had a chilling, weird scream.  Yet again, the other kids in the audience were doubled over in laughter, while I felt like I had just seen the face of Satan.

As the movie wore on, I slightly began to warm to it, though the trauma of those early moments still lingered.  Afterward, we were taken back to day camp to discuss what we had seen.  The other kids did so enthusiastically, while I was just happy that the whole ordeal was over.  For months after seeing the film, some of its more frightening images lingered in my mind.  When I walked through the first floor hallway of our three level North Bronx home by myself, I’d often run through as though the place was on fire.  I was scared that I might bump into a weird looking alien who was hiding in the darkness.

As he had done with just about every big movie of my youth, my dad had bought me a few E.T. toys.  He had no idea about my relationship with the franchise, as I had never spoken of it to him.  For some reason, the toys never bothered me much.  I was actually quite fond of an E.T. action figure that came with a miniature replica of Texas Instruments Speak & Spell as an accessory.  I also had a tiny wind up E.T. that sped across the floor.  As much as I played with those toys, the trauma of that first viewing never fully left me.

Now, as a grown man, I have come to terms with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  Though I’m still not crazy about it, I can appreciate its place in the Spielberg cannon.  That guy knows how to communicate with visuals, and he certainly knows how to touch an audience.  Unfortunately, his gifts had the opposite effect on me as a child.  He was trying to delight me and capture my imagination.  Instead, he scared the shit out of me.  Despite that, I grew to cherish his body of work, and now consider him a primary artistic influence in my life.  I guess it just goes to show that God has an ironic sense of humor.   Hopefully that camp counselor got her comeuppance for being such a sadistic bitch.  She nearly turned me against one of the greatest filmmakers to ever step behind a camera.  Fuck her for that.

Steven Spielberg standing face to face with his creation.

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