It started early with me. I was eight. I had insisted that my brother take me along when he and his pals went downtown to see the new 3-D “Horror Movie”, The House of Wax. On the street car to the theater, my brother jostled my delicate sensibilities with verbal previews of the scary moments I was about to experience. A closet door would open, and the movie being in 3-D, a dead body coated in wax would be falling directly into my lap.
We bought our tickets, and went inside. But by that time, I was so worked up, I stubbornly refused to go into the theater. Since I was unable to negotiate a return trip on my own, I was required to spend two hours waiting in the lobby, until the movie ended and my brother emerged to take me back home.
What I had learned from the experience was that I am overly sensitive to frightening images, and, especially if I’d been primed with advance knowledge that they were coming, I am physically incapable of watching them.
I am in my mid-twenties, serving on a panel (of three), participating in a local television show, where the panelists are sent off to see movies, returning later to debate their merits on the air.
The series was ending, and they had hired me to fill in during the final six broadcasts. If the show had run longer, I most certainly would have been fired. And here’s why:
One of the movies we were dispatched to see was The Godfather (1972.) I had already read and enjoyed the book, and since the movie faithfully followed the book’s plotline, I knew in advance where the “scary parts” were, most especially the scene where a guy wakes up to discover his prized horse’s severed head lying beside him in the bed.
I could feel that moment coming as I wriggled in my seat, agonizingly torn. I had a job to do. I was a movie commentator. We would be discussing The Godfather on the upcoming broadcast, the “horse’s head” scene being one of the most memorable sequences in the picture. I had to watch it, didn’t I?
Well, I couldn’t.
The camera moves slowly into the bedroom, and I’m racing out of the theater, finding safety once again in the blessed sanctuary of the lobby. As after returning to my seat, I would do second time, bolting from the theater when Michael emerges from the bathroom with the pistol, moments before he blasts multiple bullets into the two guys in the restaurant.
On the subsequent broadcast, I was not particularly illuminating about The Godfather. Though, if I’d been queried about the lobby’s carpeting, I’d have wowed them with my expertise. It was pale yellow. Thick. Decorated with spiraling circles. I could also identify the stain pattern. To this day, I have not seen The Godfather in its entirety.
Last week. I am now in my late sixties. And, if anything, I am a bigger “‘Fraidy Cat” than ever. Which is unfortunate, because I miss out on movies I might otherwise enjoy, like Django Unchained, whose satirical sensibility I’d appreciate, if it weren’t for the multiple whippings and other forms of, for me, “way over the line” mutilations and annihilational mayhem.
Forget Django Unchained (2012.) Not long ago, I was seriously challenged by Mrs. Miniver (1942.)
Though Mrs. Miniver is a World War II picture, it is visually anticeptic, devoid of the anatomical graphicity of, by contrast, the Spielberg World War II picture (and bloodbath) Saving Private Ryan (1998.)
As with the Godfather example where I wimpily took flight, I knew when the upsetting part was coming. (I had watched Mrs. Miniver before, and was only able to survive the upsetting part because I didn’t.)
I was familiar with the plot sequence. There’s a “Flower Show” scene, culminating with an “Awards Ceremony.” Then, an “Air Warden” breaks in, informing the attendees of an imminent German air attack, and instructing everyone to return immediately to their homes.
Mrs. Miniver and her new, sweet, young, new daughter-in-law set off for home, during which, as a result of heavy aeronautical strafing, the young daughter-in-law is struck by shrapnel, hangs on for a few minutes, and then dies.
I dread the moment when she “gets it”, even though there is no blood, or any apparent great pain involved. Compared with the gratuitous splatter of today’s movies, the wounded woman’s response to her injury feels less like someone being penetrated with flying shrapnel than like someone accidentally sitting on a thumbtack.
There’s a surprised, “Oh!”, some final moments, and she’s gone.
Tame as it is, however, I still find the scene excruciating to sit through. Though on this viewing, I am mightily determined to try.
In our bedtime routine, Dr. M falls asleep with the television playing, while I struggle to do the same, though my preference is to fall asleep to the natural sounds of the deepening night. On this occasion, as she has not as yet dropped off – after which it is okay to turn off the TV – I am confined to lie there, listening the tony dronings of Mrs. Miniver, moving inexorably to a moment I would greatly prefer not to experience.
I instruct myself to fall asleep before it happens. But I can’t, partly, because the TV is playing. But also because I am anticipatorily distressed by what I know is inevitably on its way.
This is exactly what I do not want to hear. And there’s nothing I can do about it. Because it’s coming.
I instruct myself to relax, reminding myself that I am not that impressionable kid anymore. Also who knows? Maybe Dr. M will fall asleep first, and I can turn it off before it happens.
No such luck. She’s enjoying the movie. Because of that – and, because I am unwilling to explain why – the option of changing the channel is unavailable to me.
There is no way around it. I will have to “go the distance”, and, like the Brits in the “Blitz”, I must steel myself to that certainty.
Mrs. Miniver moves inexorably along. They are announcing the “Flower Awards”, which I know comes directly before “The Moment.” I can feel my heartbeat speeding up. I try to get it under control, reminding myself “It’s only a movie”, it is (comparatively) not that bad, and that I’ve gone through it before and it didn’t kill me.
After some controlled yoga breathing, my heartbeat returns to a regular ba-bump. But then the “Air Warden” breaks into the “Awards Ceremony”, informing the attendees of an imminent German air attack, and instructing everyone to return immediately to their homes.
My heartbeat is racing once again.
I am counting the seconds, now aware that it’s going to happen, and that somehow, I am going to have to get through it.
Okay, fine. I’m resigned. Bring it on. I’m a big boy. I can handle it.
They get in the car. I hear the car doors slam shut. I hear the ignition turned on…
And I’m up, sweating, out of bed, and racing out of the bedroom, not to the lobby – our house is not equipped with a lobby – but to solace and protection of my nearby office.
From eight, to sixty-eight.
I have not changed a bit.