Between a fish’s bone shaped like the crucifixion, an unopened set of twenty-year-old Pac-Man erasers, and a lapel pin embossed with the words “New Jersey and You”, my mother picked up a squat, brown plush figure with blue plastic eyes. A visit to your parents can mean a respite from life’s adult worries – or it can be a resurrection of your most childish fears. “Oh, look, you guys!” Mom said, holding out the toy. “Your favorite!” My brother and I froze.
I had joined my mom and younger brother, Brad, on their weekly trip to the local auction house. As the auctioneer’s assistant, hidden by the press of bidders, hoisted the objects high, it seemed as if the coin cases, antique model trucks, and cut-glass decanters were crowd surfing at a nostalgia concert. Brad combed through the laden tables, gauging eBay resale values like a bloodhound on the scent. I wondered who had stored these things in their homes, why the stuff had ended up at auction, and who in the crowd would be moved to give that “Family Ties” board game a new home. There were dusty oil paintings, an African wood carving, Ford and Coca-Cola memorabilia, a box of faux-jewel-studded broaches in the shape of giraffes, and a child’s ID badge from the 1965 World’s Fair. Petrified sharks’ teeth vied with weathered, amorphous civil war bullets, and tarnished candle-sticks straight from a haunted mansion presided over a stack of ragged three-foot dolls, limbs entwined in baleful bewilderment. I became engrossed in a book about Lucille Ball while my mother bid on a teacup painted with dogwood blossoms, my husband hovered over a camera from the 1950’s, and Brad amassed a box of autographed sports photos and a remote-control car.
There was something for everyone, in other words. But, as our mother very well knew, the detritus of a thousand attics, dining room cabinets and outgrown bedrooms will always harbor just as many things that are not for everyone.
I have to back up a bit to explain why the brown toy made our blood run cold. Please come with me from the auction house to the video store (or, nowadays, a nice Netflix session). Just like the auction tables, a buffet of movies reveals the endless variety of human tastes. Whether it’s inspirational racehorses, Katherine Heigl playing a buttoned-up woman in need of a roguish man to loosen her up, or hard-bitten young women trussing and torturing their former abusers, we can all find something we’re in the mood to rent. However, each of us can also find something we’d never watch in a hundred years.
Though my taste in movies is broad and eclectic (I like watching Lizzy confront Lady Catherine De Bourgh as much as I like it when Ripley duels the grand bitch alien of them all) there is a goodly list of things I just won’t watch. Movies set on submarines are out because I’m too claustrophobic to enjoy them, and, in my mind, a story set on a submarine has a substantially higher risk of incurring another situation I can’t abide, namely scenes of near-drowning in which water rapidly fills a small area where the protagonists are trapped. Other movies which need not apply to my DVD library are any that might have even one close-up, glistening, slow-motion treatment of the blood, sweat and saliva slinging from a man’s face after a boxer’s punch. Or, worst of all, movies where the dog dies.
Everyone draws the line somewhere. My mother refuses to watch anything with ghosts in it – bend your index finger and moan “Redrum! Red-rum!” and she just about loses it. One of my college friends had a phobia of mud, and it’s surprising how many movies this ruled out for her – she wasn’t bothered by the T-Rex in Jurassic Park: it was the mud he stepped in. My dad can’t abide Julia Roberts – he claims it’s the vein that pops out of her forehead when she emotes. And to my knowledge, there is only one film that my brother and I both refuse to watch under any circumstances.
Brad and I don’t have much in common. He ruled golf camp and I took art classes. He rode a unicycle while juggling in the high school talent show, and I was editor of the school paper. He played the keyboard and cornet, and I could barely squawk out a tune on my plastic recorder. He excelled at chess, while Monopoly made me hostile. But we both agree that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is the most terrifying movie we’ve ever seen.
As I recall, Mom and Dad were united in the suggestion: let’s rent E.T. tonight and watch it as a family. I remember my trepidation – somehow I had seen pictures of the alien in question and there was something ineffably sinister about E.T. – but Dad took me on his knee and told me how nice it would be to watch it all together, and I agreed to try it.
We got the VHS at the local Blockbuster. It was the beginning of a lifelong saga of fear and few things united my brother and me more. The magic of the supposedly touching intergalactic friendship was lost on us. We remembered the gravelly, otherworldly voice. We remembered the scrawny-armed, ungainly, pot-bellied figure creeping through the yard, eating Reese’s Pieces with nightmarish long fingers, one of which glowed fiery red at its bulbous tip. And the part where E.T. becomes sick and turns milky white and he and the little boy are laid in a horrifying hospital tent with plastic tubes for hallways – don’t even get us started. Brad, at five years old, never actually made it to the end of the movie. At twenty-five, he still doesn’t want to know how it ends. “E.T. phone home,” we’d intone when we wanted to scare each other. Home was a place where there were no E.T. videocassettes.
Fortunately, it was relatively easy to keep E.T. out of our lives. The closest I came to E.T on a regular basis was a plush version which loomed over the children’s section of our public library, which annoyed me not just because it was scary, but because I could not divine what E.T. had to do with literature.
But little did I know the cinematic purgatory that awaited us on a two-year streak of Thanksgivings spent with our otherwise beloved aunt and uncle in North Carolina. Our relatives were wonderful hosts with a pool and a TV room, and one day I even discovered an abandoned stash of Beverly Cleary books. After dinner on our first Carolina Thanksgiving, I went upstairs to the pillowy, cave-like TV room to ring in the Christmas season with the annual primetime broadcast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But apparently that wasn’t the only traditional airing – my aunt was waiting for her favorite movie to come on, the movie that always made her cry in the end; it was such a nice family movie, would we watch it with her?
When I realized that E.T. was about to come on, I battled with myself about the polite thing to do. The right thing would be to stay on the couch and watch E.T. along with my affectionate aunt. But by comparison, curling up with Henry and Beezus seemed like the Promised Land. I sidled out of the room, but cursed myself for my cowardice – was it really so scary? I made myself re-mount the stairs just as the young Drew Barrymore encountered E.T. hiding in a closet of stuffed animals. She screamed as the wide-eyed loaf of his head shot upwards on its accordion snake of a neck, and I fled the area.
Later that night, nestled in a sleeping bag on the floor and watching the open bedroom door, I imagined that E.T. crept on his knobby, ape-like feet down the shadowy hallway.
The next year Thanksgiving presented an obvious dilemma and I was preoccupied during dinner. If I went up to the TV room to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, would anyone remark upon my missing the annual horror show that followed? Could I depart unnoticed or would I be obligated to explain my childish fears? In the end, I decided to forgo Rudolph altogether so that my absence during E.T. could be attributed to a general disinterest in watching TV.
Perhaps the old public library had had a yard sale. Wherever he came from, E.T. was back, staring up at us from the auction table. Washed up on the auction’s island of misfit junk, there was a steadfast melancholy in those plastic eyes, and for the first time ever I thought about E.T’s side of the story: a weird but admittedly benign little creature alone in a strange world. Someone had hoarded – or maybe even loved – this plush E.T.: how had he ended up here along with the erasers and the Jesus-shaped fish parts? If I recall correctly, his live-action counterpart was finally whisked away in a Spielberg-esque spaceship of his peers (the little boy, inexplicably, seemed sad rather than relieved to see E.T. go). But I doubted that the E.T. in my hands could command the minimum five-dollar bid. Perhaps someone would throw him in with the pin from New Jersey, but either way, there was no going back for him.
I lost interest in the bidding before I saw who took E.T. home that night. I found a chair on the sidelines, did a crossword puzzle, and wondered if my brother would watch E.T. with me if I asked him to. As we’ve survived and even enjoyed movies like The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity (rich ground for apartment-related nightmares) in the intervening years, it’s unlikely that E.T. would stir the terror that it once did, and we could put the whole thing to rest. My mother (who barred us from watching The Simpsons because it was “crass”) would certainly appreciate an end to the teasing about how she scarred our childhood with E.T. But something told me that there will be no further viewings of The Extra-Terrestrial. Just like the childhood things we know our parents would never auction off, such a long-lived, luminous fear – particularly when it’s shared – may just be something we like to come home to.