Saturday, June 02, 2007
The Pea Soup Follies
You wouldn't think a movie like "The Exorcist" could call up happy memories, but for my family it brings back one of the best.
With the strong exception of my father, my mother and the rest of us loved old scary movies.
Not the young-virign slash 'em up garbage like the "Friday the 13th" series, but the older flicks, what my mother and my aunt liked to call "a good creepy."
We liked to sit around the TV and watch all the old Universal horror films, like "Frankenstein," "The Werewolf," and, of course, "Dracula."
"Children of the night," my mom would say in her best Bela Lugosi, "what music they make."
My father was the lone holdout in this happy mix, loudly declaring his disdain for the horror and science fiction genres at every possible opportunity.
Whenever we were watching TV and a good creepy came on, my father would loudly declare "that's me!" get out of his chair and stomp back into the bedroom. My dad would not be caught dead--or undead--seeing a horror movie.
I always nursed this fantasy of my father being abducted by aliens and being forced to tell the authorities what the mother ship was like.
But my dad could have run into Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster in the same public men's room and still wouldn't have believed what he was seeing with his own eyes. He would have claimed that we were playing a trick on him.
My dad had played a trick on my mother and my aunt when they had gone to see a Frankenstein movie. I don't think I had been born yet, but according to my aunt, my father started banging the doors after they had gotten home from the theater.
The Devil You Say
My aunt and sister were in the bathroom and when she grabbed the doorknob with both hands to keep whatever was out there on the other side, she turned to see my mother trying to climb out the bathroom window. I think my dad really enjoyed that trick.
So when "The Exorcist," one of the hottest movies of the day when I was about 17, came to the nearby Fortway Theater, there was no way my mother would miss it and no way my father would take her to see it.
Seeing movies with your mother can be awkward for both parties, especially the sex scenes.
When my brother and I went with her to see "The Howling"--we didn't even think of inviting my father--she nearly freaked during the part when the heroine's husband does the wild thing with a lady werewolf and the two of them get naked while sprouting fangs and fur.
She was sitting between us and when the juicy stuff started happening she put one hand in front of each of our faces, even though we were adults by then.
When the movie "Blue Velvet" came out on video, my parents asked me if it was good, since I had seen in the theater. I had liked the film, so I said, yes, it was, not thinking how my mother would react to Dennis Hopper's psychotic assault on Isabella Rossellini.
Then the scene unfolds in our living room, with Hopper gnawing on Rossellini's robe and moaning, "ooo,baby wants to fuuuuccckkk!"
As Hopper sucked on his oxygen mask and smacked Rossellini while screaming "don't fucking look at me!" I looked--over at my mother.
She was frozen. Her mouth open, her eyes bulging, it was like a still photograph. She didn't even blink. Maybe renting this movie hadn't been such a good idea, I thought.
During "Deliverance" my mother was naturally horrified at the rape scene. And when Burt Reynolds pulled his arrow from a dead hillbilly's chest, placing one foot on the body and repeatedly tugging--my mother grunted with each pull.
While we were staying at my aunt's house in the Berkshires, we went to a double feature of "Deliverance" and "A Clockwork Orange" at a theater in Amherst--why anyone would put these two flicks together and why the hell we went as a family to see them I don't know.
It might have been my idea, since I hadn't seen "A Clockwork Orange" and I'm a real movie freak. We came in late for "Deliverance" and then watched as Malcolm McDowell went on a tear with a giant phallus sculpture.
After we came out of the theater, I asked my mother what she thought of Stanley Kubrick's film.
"Hideous!" she wailed, throwing her head back, and some of the college students around us started to laugh.
These violent films always seemed to catch my mother off-guard. Years of watching those old black and white spook flicks had not prepared her for what she was about to see in "The Exorcist."
The picture was a nightmare for her. The head turning, the pea soup flying in all directions, the kid floating in the air and Jason Miller's suicide leap, it all just blew my mother away. I don't think she made a sound during the whole time and when the lights came on, she looked shell-shocked.
I literally had to pick her up out of her seat and guide her up the aisle, one arm around her shoulder, as I held her forearm with my other hand; it looked like some bizarre version of the tango. The theater aisle took on the bad dream dimension as it seemed to stretch on forever.
People coming in for the next screening just stared at us at we came limping out of the theater, clearly thinking what the hell have we got ourselves into?
I remember one man in particular who stopped dead in his tracks with his bag of popcorn held high, looking at us in disbelief.
I always regretted not making a deal with the manager of theater, where I could stand outside the theater with my mom and drum up business. See how scary this movie is, folks? Come on in!
We walked home from the Fortway, my mom muttering the whole way. We got to the house and I walked her up the alley to the kitchen door.
I've always liked my sister's point of view in this portion of the story, where she was in the kitchen, completely unaware of what was going on.
All of a sudden, the kitchen door flew open, my mother came hobbling into the house, and declared in a loud, trembling voice, "I am shadow of my former self!"
We eventually calmed her down and everybody went to be bed, except me.
Now, to be honest, I wasn't particularly scared by "The Exorcist." I had read the book so I knew what was going on and I thought the film was a little cheesy.
I didn't think it had an underlying sense of evil; it was just more of a collection of scary, disturbing scenes.So I decided to re-read portions of the novel to see how they differed from the film.
And that's when I got scared.
It must have been the combined effect of the movie and the novel, but when I looked up, alone in our living room and I was terrified. I was stranded in the living room, afraid to turn off the light and walk to my room in the dark.
I went through the house and put on a series of lights and then went back and turned each of them off, so as not to be trapped by whatever came out as soon as the lights switched off.
I went to bed, in the room I shared with my brother and I could not sleep for anything. I find demonic possession particularly frightening. The idea that you or a loved one can be invaded by some horrible spirit and forced to do all sorts of evil made my skin crawl.
At least with vampires you had wooden stakes and with werewolves you had silver bullets. What do you do when the monster is you?
Somewhere in the dead of night I switched on my portable radio and tried to distract myself. My brother muttered in the lower bunk about the noise, so I turned the volume down to a whisper and hoped I'd find some solace on the FM dial.
I came across a touchy-feeling talk show boob who had this little ditty about calling upon people during troubled times. You were supposed to say the person's name and ask that they "share with me this gentle night."
Yes, I know, it's stupid and corny, but I had scared the living crap out of myself and I was desperate for some kind of relief.
So I said the name Mary, this alleged girlfriend of mine who had gone out with me only because she had a crush on this alleged friend of mine.
It took a long time for me to figure out that they were both no goddamn good, but I'm a slow learner. And if saying Mary's name could prevent me from puking pea soup, what the hell? No pun intended.
So I lay there in bed, clutching my radio and a little flashlight, chanting, "Mary, share with me this gentle night."
The deejay said that often the person you're talking about will come back into your life after saying this little item. Well, he was an idiot. Mary never did come back into my life and for that I am truly grateful.
She was nothing but trouble and I was well rid of her. I just needed to borrow her name for a couple hours until the sun came up.
I got through the night without the devil getting hold of me. For years we told the story about my mom's Exorcist breakdown and laughed, but I rarely repeated my late night experience. And I never told anyone about calling up the spirit of Mary.
My mom's gone now and the Fortway was shuttered two years ago. I see now her way reacting to these movies was one of the many reasons why I loved her so much.
And some days I miss her so badly I feel like a shadow of my former self. But we did have a heck of a time together and whenever I think of "The Exorcist," I can't help but smile.