E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is one of the finest family films ever made. It's a seemingly magical movie not just about a boy with an out-of-this-world companion, but about family, friendship and trust. It's also scary as f**k.
To this day it is surprisingly difficult for me to watch Steven Spielberg's nightmare factory. I wish I could pinpoint the exact emotions I felt watching it as a child, but it's all such a vague haze of memories clouded by both time and PTSD. Of course, the most heart-stopping image in the movie is of E.T. laying in the creek bed, cold water rushing over his body with a raccoon circling his corpse, presumably to feast on his ghoulish grey flesh as soon as his head stops twitching in death spasms. But the trauma starts long before we even get to the creek of a thousand tears.
I suppose I should preface all of this by saying that I have a deep and apparently permanent fear of aliens. The thing is, though, that I honestly can't remember if E.T. damaged me so heavily as a child because I was already afraid of aliens, or if I'm afraid of aliens because of that squat little bastard who wants to invade your bedroom and touch all your stuff with his gross, leathery, probing fingers. Either way, I do recall the first time I watched it being really bothered by a few key images: the light coming out of the shed, the swaying swing and the knocked-over trash cans, for starters. We're talking about a little boy that is visited by a complete and unknown entity -- who is running from the law, I should point out -- that can enter and exit the premises as he pleases without any adults seeing him. Nah, no unnerving implications there.
Once Elliott befriends the monster with earthworm flesh, though, and spends more time with him in the somewhat safe light of day, tensions do relax a bit. The little alien does some cute things, I'll admit. His psychic violation of the little boy doesn't bother me nearly as much as the other stuff in the movie. Plus, E.T. watches TV during the day and drinks a few cold ones: desires that were foreign to me as a child, but that I can surely relate to as an adult.
Then he takes Elliott into that damned forest and it turns right back into a horror movie. Razor blades start flying through the air, spilling blood, while E.T. tries to call for reinforcements, presumably so they can do the invasion properly this time. And that demonstration of his kinetic mind powers might even be worth it had it resulted in E.T.'s death and thus the elimination of the threat, but it doesn't. It only results in his near death, and the discovery of his body is one of the most horrifying images I have ever seen. And I've seen A Serbian Film.
And yet still it gets worse.
As if his body laying in the creek, his unearthly fluids mixing with who knows what water source, weren't bad enough, that stupid older brother has to bring him back home to the family. Suffice to say, if I live to be 120, I will never forget the sight of E.T. laying on that bathroom floor, his mottled flesh the color of deep-sea creatures, reaching for those children, and his guttural, desperate shrieks for the boy he can't touch. I always feel a sigh of relief when the astronaut SWAT team bursts through the window, even though they never give me the respite I need by finishing off the alien for good.
And though I'm well aware I'm exaggerating things here, it's not entirely for comedic effect. E.T. does genuinely scare me. There was a period of my life, probably age seven to 15, where I would refuse to watch the movie. This is partly because I distinctly remember E.T. being on the TV in the other room one Christmas morning in the '80s. My grandmother had given me a stuffed animal E.T. -- which is forgiveable; she lived through the London Blitz, why would she think such fantasy would scare me so -- and as I held it in my trembling hands for the first time it peered right into my soul with those dead eyes and spoke.
Of course the doll didn't really speak. It just so happened that I picked him up right as he was saying, "E.T. phone home" in the movie on the TV in the other room. Divine ventriloquism or not, it was enough for me. I put on a brave face and thanked my grandma, but once she was gone I hid the doll behind a piece of furniture in my room and didn't rediscover it until we moved to Virginia in the late '90s.
Oddly enough, for as embarrassing as a fear of E.T. is, I've never actually been embarrassed of that fear. Whenever someone said they loved the movie, I'd be quick to point out that they were mistaken and it was actually a terrible, traumatizing movie and they were a bad person for not thinking as much. This did backfire, however, as once my friends knew I was afraid of E.T., they actively messed with me. And I can take a joke or playful teasing. Secretly owning a lifesize E.T. doll and placing it above me when I've passed out at a sleepover? Not cool, Joe. Not cool.
I'm in my late 20s now, though, and I can sleep relatively well at night without fear that there's an alien standing outside my window. I can now see what an inspired, marvelous film E.T. really is and not worry about it giving me nightmares. If I cry while watching the movie now, it's for totally different reasons. But, that inherent trauma hasn't gone away, I've just gotten better at dealing with it. Watching Spielberg's film on Blu-ray the other night for the first time in years, I wasn't so much bothered by E.T.'s arrival in the shed as I was struck by how damned gorgeous of a shot it is. E.T. creeping into his house was no longer a home-invasion horror movie, it was a trip down memory lane to see such a crucial time of my life captured in a time capsule on-screen.
And then, like clockwork, it got to the phone-home scene in the forest, and that familiar sense of dread crept up on me. I knew it was coming. I knew exactly what to expect. But still, as soon as Michael rides his bike over that bridge and the camera reveals that hideous, shriveled, grey body in the river, my stomach sank and I could physically feel my heart stop beating.
I hate you, Steven Spielberg.
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