By Andy Dehnart
I was four the first and last time I saw “E.T.”
Actually, “saw” is a bit misleading, since the frames of the film I viewed were only those visible through the protective gauze of my interlaced fingers. They provided a sort of see-through shield from the horrifying images on the screen. As with most childhood memories, the details of that day are blurry; I see the events through a heavy haze with only isolated moments of clarity.
But I remember one thing: E.T. freaked me out big time.
“E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial” is returning to theatres for its 20th anniversary, complete with a remixed soundtrack, new special effects, and a few content edits born of hypersensitivity. Every mention of the film, in advertising or in casual conversation, seems to stress a happy-fun tone, as if all of us couldn’t wait to welcome E.T. back into our lives. Universal even wants us to “share why E.T. is important” via stories and photos on the movie’s web site.
When I saw the new trailer, my heart didn’t warm; instead, my hands involuntarily moved to cover my eyes. E.T.’s grayish brown, leathery skin; the telescoping, vacuum cleaner-like neck; his skeletal frame and osseous fingers; the expansive, sunken eyes on the opposite sides of his face; those echoing screeches. I’m nearly 25, and this PG-rated creature still haunts me.
In the summer of 1982, my grandparents took my cousin and me to see “E.T.” Before leaving for the theatre, they mentioned something about a boy riding a flying bike, and I remember wondering how that was possible, envisioning a complex system of ropes and pulleys. They also mentioned something about an alien.
While I was absorbing plenty of TV at that age, I’d never watched a movie in a theatre. Since going to see this production involved driving a fair distance, going inside a building, and sitting in springy folding seats, I initially thought we were attending a play; I had no idea that what we were about to see was essentially just television on a massive screen. The theatre had a heavy red curtain at the front of the auditorium that slowly parted as the movie started, and that reinforced the idea that what I was about to witness was real.
Either I’ve completely blocked out the film’s narrative arc or my four-year-old mind wasn’t yet ready to store such data, but whatever the reason, all I remember of the movie is a rapid-fire series of individual images and textures, not dialogue or full scenes.
The darkened shed where Elliott throws a baseball into the corner and something tosses it back. E.T. dressed in drag. His silhouetted frame in the forest. The red glow behind his translucent chest. Until I saw the trailer for the re-release, I hadn’t seen a single frame of the movie in 20 years, but each image remains as strong as if I’d watched it a hundred times.
Toward the end of the film, about the time when the family’s house was tented in plastic and people wearing bulky spacesuits were examining a traumatized Elliot and a pallid E.T., I completely broke down. My grandfather took me outside into the lobby of the theatre, where popcorn kernels burst behind grease-streaked glass. My sodden eyes blinked against the bright white streaks of sunlight that beamed through the door, lighting up the lobby.
I was confused—it was nighttime in the film, wasn’t it? Why was the sun still up?
That’s all I remember from that day. But I remember the aftermath, lying awake in bed and staring toward my closet, wondering what lurked behind the dangling clothes. Dark corners became hiding places, and lights scanning past my window from outside were clearly spaceships landing in our yard. I held my eyelids open against their will, too frightened of what might appear if I closed my eyes. I saw E.T. there in my bedroom, just as real as he was standing in the center of Elliot’s room.
My parents bought E.T. propaganda in an effort to dissolve my fear of that wrinkled, oddly shaped creature with the freakishly long, extendable neck and flat head. A stuffed E.T. figure was covered in short, velvety fur and had hard, plastic eyes; a small three-inch nightlight shaped like E.T. glowed red from the center of E.T.’s chest when plugged into the bathroom’s socket.
I’m sure there were other items, too, but they weren’t what I needed to dull my fear. Those toys were just objects—a stuffed animal, a nightlight—not an actual moving, talking, creature that interacted with real people, one that actually entered a house and hid in a closet and made Drew Barrymore scream. That was E.T., not these faux commercialized reproductions of the entity that still permanently lives in the back of my mind, if not behind the slats of my closet doors.
Over the years, I’ve shared this dark secret with some people. While I’ve most often received laughs—You were scared by E.T.? He’s so cute!—I have, among those my age, found a few kindred spirits, people whose psyches were similarly invaded by this extraterrestrial. I can’t imagine that anyone—not my parents nor grandparents nor the guardians of those with similar experiences—had any idea how scary this movie would be to a 4-year-old. After all, it’s framed not as a horror movie but as a family film.
A few years ago, I went to Universal Studios Orlando with my sister. Back in the northwest corner of the park, near the kid-themed attractions, is the E.T Adventure. Beth asked if I wanted to go on the ride, and I decided to face my fear. The queue wound through a dense, mildewy forest of fake trees. Boarding the ride, which has vehicles that resembled bicycles, we were lifted up into the air, suspended from a track, flying over the ride’s sets. Only at the end did E.T. himself appear in full form. Before we boarded, we’d given our names to a ride attendant, and that made it possible for E.T. to say “thank you” to each passenger.
While it may have been the decade-old ride technology that left E.T. a mostly immobile mannequin perched far away from the ride vehicle, seeing him and hearing him say “Andy” wasn’t scary at all. Actually, I laughed, since immediately after saying my name E.T. thanked a string of people named “Friend”—passengers whose names weren’t in the audio database.
Surrounding myself with constant input from lots of visual and audio sources, I consider myself hyper-media-savvy now, and of course I realize that E.T. is completely fake, a combination of actors in costumes and animatronic models. Yet the prospect of reentering the theatre to watch the movie again is paralyzing. There’s something about movies in particular that makes them so much more intimate than television, and even more real than a three-dimensional theme park attraction.
A larger-than-life image projected in a remote place makes for an entirely different experience, one that more forcefully blurs the line between reality and fantasy. With nothing but darkness in your peripheral vision, you’re entirely in the film’s world for its duration, assuming the movie isn’t terrible or someone’s cellphone doesn’t ring.
I will probably force myself to see the film, but I have little desire to be in the dark with E.T. for 120 minutes. Even though the movie has been edited—Steven Spielberg digitally removed weapons from the hands of the police officers and had an actress redub a line about a kid’s terrorist-looking Halloween costume—it’s still the same “E.T.”
That’s especially true since Spielberg has decided to leave in the truly frightening part: the four-foot tall extra terrestrial with the raspy voice who hovers invisibly now in the blackened recesses of my bedroom.