“The Scariest Movie Ever Made” is a Halloween series in which Film.com writers discuss and confront the most terrifying movie they’ve ever seen.
Some people grew up in a one-horse town, or a one-room schoolhouse town, or even a one Wal-Mart town (these towns are all in the Western part of the United States, obviously), but I grew up in a one video store town, and it’s that video store that is to blame for a decades-long fear of Steven Spielberg’s classic film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”
“E.T.” came out before I was even born, but my parents had seen the film on the big screen and quite enjoyed it (and, yes, our town was also a one-screen theater town), so by the time I was old enough to pick out my own kiddie fare at the local video store, my mother was prone to suggest we try out “E.T.,” which hit home video back in 1988, just around the time I was old enough to enjoy it. My interest in “E.T.” was, however, tempered by the existence of a large poster for the film that lived on the back of our local video store’s front door – and by “tempered,” I actually mean “completely horrified.” In my memory, the poster covered the entire door, obscuring windows, intruding on customers’ ability to turn the door handle, a terrific mammoth that made even leaving the store a terrifying endeavor.
It was a 3D poster, literally, with E.T.’s face poking out whole inches from the background, thin plastic, like a mask, staring down at pint-sized me. “We should watch that,” my mom said. “It’s about kids who find an alien in their backyard.”
Good luck coming up with a more shocking plotline than that, and still better luck thinking that pairing that with a giant, gap-eyed, dimensional portrait of an alien being is a good way to get a little kid invested in seeing a film. They find him in their backyard. At the time, we lived on a reasonably large plot of land (very “Little House on the Prairie”) that was at the top of a very long, very tall hill. In reality, it wasn’t very isolated, but it seemed like it was, at least in my kid brain, and it also seemed like the perfect place for an alien to land. And, while I didn’t know much about “E.T.,” I did know that the kids in it weren’t only children, they had siblings to help protect them from the alien invader, and I didn’t. It seemed pretty clear to me that if I even so much as watched “E.T.,” it would somehow summon cruel aliens to my backyard, where I would need to battle them on my own (and, yes, I was somehow convinced I would need to battle these aliens, it didn’t enter my mind that they could be cuddly and smart and silly).
I didn’t watch “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” for over a quarter of a century because I was afraid of a poster that portrayed it. Sight unseen, I was convinced that one of Steven Spielberg’s best films was the scariest film of all time and that it was decidedly not for me.
This belief didn’t let up when I actually saw the film – in fact, it went still deeper.
When I finally consented to a viewing of “E.T.,” I was shocked to discover that the film was both just as terrifying as I had always feared it was and somehow terrifying in entirely different ways than I had been anticipating. Kid me could never have imagined that the real terror of “E.T.” wasn’t actually E.T. (in fact, I audibly cooed when he first appeared on screen, instantly adoring the universe’s most charming alien, and immediate proof that my mom had been right when she thought that I would have enjoyed the film as a tot), it was the government. And adults. And reality. And all of the stuff that probably wouldn’t have scared me if I had consented to watch the film as a kid, but which utterly horrified me as an adult. (I am willing to admit that the ailing E.T. scenes destroyed me as a supposed grown-up, and would have probably sent me screaming, crying, and gasping out of the room as a child, but that’s simply sadness, not terror.)
“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” is the scariest movie of all time, not just because it makes for a hell of a poster image (the kind that burn into kid brains for decades), but because it wraps up real world issues into a surprisingly kid-friendly package that has the ability to scare across ages and entire years. As a kid, it may have been the gapping maw of an admittedly adorable alien creature that struck fear in the hearts of many (or just me, thanks, stupid poster), but as an adult, Spielberg’s film still has more than enough to say (yes, in terrifying fashion) about the ability for things far out of our control to change our lives in unforeseen ways, and that’s about as scary as it gets.