Fear. It is the most base of all of mankind’s emotions… next to hunger, and love of puppy-related Internet memes. And although fear is a phenomenon shared by all people, it takes many forms — tangible and intangible. Rational and irrational. Horror movie-inspired and not horror movie-inspired.
Hollywood has been adhering dreadful connotations to otherwise innocuous entities for generations now. In fact, today marks the 30-year anniversary of one of the film industry’s most dastardly ruinations: Poltergeist — the movie that made TVs horrifying.
Before Poltergeist, television was the escape from late night terrors. When you found yourself kept up through the morning by a howling wind, creaking floorboard, or the ever-present threat of a forthcoming nuclear winter, you could flick on the television and ease your mind with comforting Nick at Nite reruns. At least that’s what I did. Life before the 1990s must have been dark.
And then, Poltergeist found its way into my life. It wasn’t my first foray into horror films. By this time, I had endured countless of losses at the hands of the genre. Psycho ruined showers — a particularly trying endeavor for a kid already struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hausu ruined cats. Carrie ruined my impending teen years.
But Poltergeist crossed the line. I had always turned to my Sears Sanyo to get me through pitch-black anxieties about any approaching doom, in whatever form I had most recently learned that doom was capable of taking. And my imagination was expansive then. I was afraid of everything: birds, dolls, mirrors, the moon, hallways, vampires, my parents, ghosts, my bedroom walls, Grover, snakes, robots, Hulk Hogan. But once my mother had accepted the fact that I would never grow out of needing the television’s company through the night, I found my cure. Cartoons and Mary Tyler Moore.
And then — bam! Someone let me watch Poltergeist. A movie that robbed me of the only source of comfort I knew in my childhood years. I couldn’t zone out in unblinking bliss at the electronic friend that would tell me stories of gambling-addict cavemen and Minneapolis-based women trying to have it all. Now, my watching hours were laced with a new anxiety. “What if it suddenly turns to static?” I’d think. “What if the ghosts start flying out? What if they’re heeere?”
I remember the decadent period of nights with my back turned to the still-on TV set, vying ardently to fall asleep before any sounds of static caught my ears. I remember experimenting with the television turned off for a while… a few minutes, maybe, before the hostile silence began to pierce my brain incessantly. I remember trying nightlights, devising long and elaborate stories in my head, and, out of desperation, actual sheep-counting. But none of it was as effective as TV had been.
I had to devise a plan. I needed my friend back. I missed sleep, and Rhoda. So, utilizing the logic only an emotionally damaged 7-year-old could so adamantly employ, I set out to beat the curse. I sat up one night, eyes locked with the imposing screen of a long estranged comrade, and watched every minute of the after-hours broadcast. I watched Herman and Grandpa Munster search for their lost pet Spot; I watched Murray Slaughter profess his love to coworker Mary Richards; Felix and Oscar got stuck on the subway; Paul Lynde said something covertly sexual on Bewitched. I watched every instant of the all-night broadcast until it the sun shone in through my window, comforting me with enough light to finally drift off to sleep… for the brief half an hour before I had to get up for school. But that didn’t matter. I had won the war, and beaten the curse. Television was mine again.
And it would be for the next eight years… until I took it upon myself to join my friends to a late-night screening of The Ring. But by then, the war was easier. We had HBO.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.