Here is a movie that scared me so bad as a kid, I literally could not be alone in a room for a week. These words from Rakesh Satyal at vulture.com describe to a T my introduction to it and why it’s a favorite:
“Some movies come along and define the entire concept of terror for a whole generation of children, usually because elementary-school teachers decide that these films make for appropriate classroom distraction during the Halloween season. After all, what is more enticing to a group of rambunctious tykes than being handed plastic pumpkin-heads full of candy while being directed towards a TV screen? This was how, during the late ’80s, a number of my peers and I became privy to the particular nightmares of The Watcher in the Woods.”
“One of the things that people who were traumatized by The Watcher in the Woods love to point out is that it is, technically, ‘a Disney movie,’ in that it was produced by Mickey Mouse’s home. But such a designation seems laughable given the unsettling presence it still has in the minds of those who grew up with it.”
How can such a disturbing movie have an endearing quality at the exact same time?
Well, let’s examine the plot points, starting with the most disturbing. Exhibit A: Mrs. Aylwood–an old woman who lives alone in a huge house. When you’re 10-years-old, the wide age gap between you and an “old” person already creates an initial creep factor. But if the old person is Bette Davis, who behaves like a creep in virtually every movie she appears, then that creep factor chasm only gets wider.
Then, a family moves in with her, consisting of a mom and two daughters, the oldest of which begins “seeing” things, like “a thousand screaming, blindfolded Alice in Wonderlands.” Or a seemingly possessed little sister who writes “NERAK” on the windows, or how about the flashing blue circle that causes the youngest girl to fall into a pond? All these experiences eventually culminate with what can only be called a seance. Add all this to the old, victorian style country manor they’ve moved in to, already unsettling by itself. Does this sound like appropriate viewing for kids?
Like so many scary movies, the terrifying elements are only terrifying because they are not understood. The endearing quality of the movie is revealed at the end when the reason for all the spooks is explained. It was simply a young girl named KAREN (or NERAK backwards), who is reaching out for help. I won’t spoil the whole ending, but suffice it to say there is a strong connection between Karen and Mrs. Aylwood and a theme that centers on family. And after all, what’s more endearing than family?
Watcher in the Woods may have been shown to me at such an impressionable age, but one of the greatest lessons of rewatching it is that “Some of the things that scared us the most as kids can at least become something legitimately entertaining.”