For two months as a kid, I stayed up all night, every night, because of one movie’s indelible impact. As someone from a lingering line of kin who treasure a good night’s rest, two months without sleep was a shock to the system.
It was the summer of 1979 and I was an 11-year-old finishing sixth grade at St. Monica’s School, a parochial institution in western St. Louis County.
For years, I’d heard about a notorious horror movie called “The Exorcist.” I was a budding cinephile, but hadn’t seen it. And I was under strict orders not to do so, particularly by my mother, who thought I was too young to handle it. But man, did I want to see that movie, for reasons including, but not limited to, my fascination with pretty much anything that was off-limits.
Warner Bros. Studios released the film the day after Christmas in 1973. I was six. Then in May of 1979, they re-released it. At that time, the only place you could see a movie was at an actual theater, unless you wanted a watered-down TV-friendly version. But “The Exorcist” wasn’t coming to TV in the foreseeable future. It was just too much.
My classmate and best friend, John, and I saw the movie’s re-release as a window of opportunity worth leaping through. We’d heard all the controversy: “Exorcist” audiences had reportedly fainted, vomited, sought psychiatric help, and so forth. An opportunity to see the movie would be an unmitigated treasure, but we’d need to be accompanied by an adult. Who would help make that happen?
Simply put, John was a spoiled-rotten brat, so enlisting his mother’s help was a no-brainer. She consented to taking us to see the film, and on opening day, we settled into our seats with popcorn, sodas, and Milk Duds, and soon I heard for the first time that haunting theme music most people my age can identify after just a few bars.
What unfolded for the next 122 minutes would forever change my view of fear, onscreen and off, of the known and the unknown. I left the theater mesmerized, electrified, and unable to do little but question everything in my world.
Could that happen to me? Am I already possessed? Will I harm myself or my family? Or the family dog? What should I do? Go to confession? No, the priest might tell Mom.
That first night, I laid in my bed, waiting for it to start shaking like the one in the movie. It didn’t, but I did. Half the night passed, and like most scared kids, I wanted my mom but I couldn’t confide in her about why I couldn’t sleep in my own room.
I quietly slipped into my parents’ room with my pillow and sleeping bag and fashioned a bed at the edge of theirs. There, I laid awake for the remainder of the night.
My dad arose every morning before 5 a.m. to attend church. That morning, a Saturday, he was surprised to find me in their room. I pretended to be asleep, said something about not being able to sleep in my own room, and got up to start my day on no sleep.
I didn’t sleep, not even a nap later that day. Too scared. As the daylight turned to dusk and bedtime approached, I was exhausted but fearful I wouldn’t sleep again. The film and its gruesomely realistic depiction of demonic possession resonated all too well with this Catholic adolescent. Long story short, the Devil was coming for me, and it was going down at night.
The solution was simple: stay up all night, every night, and nap during the day. School had just let out for the summer, so this plan would be doable. I didn’t know when the fear brought on by seeing that horrific film would finally pass, but it had to eventually. Until then, I’d outpace the night owls.
My folks never would have banned me from sleeping in their room and, in fact, they thought it was kind of cute at that age. At first. After a couple of weeks, though, it started to get old for them, and just plain weird for me.
But I didn’t want to be anywhere near my room at night, which led to my self-imposed nighttime exile in the TV room. I am the youngest of four, and my older siblings had moved out, save for my oldest brother Mark, who was discovering other ways to stay up all night and having fun doing it.
The TV room was in our finished basement, or “rathskeller,” as they were called back then. Our Zenith console television had spotty reception and no cable, so it often involved adjusting the antenna with each change of the channel to secure reception. But that TV would keep me company all night, every night that summer, and I was grateful to have it.
Each Sunday, I checked TV guide to see what time local stations went off-air. TV didn’t run 24/7 back then. When the handful of stations finished their programming, the national anthem played and that was it – nothing but color bars.
On a really good night, the TV would keep me company until 5:30 a.m. On a bad night, it went off around 2 a.m., at which time I was left to my own devices until the sun came up and it was safe to take a nap without some pesky demon taking ahold of me. On those nights when TV went off-air early, I snuck out of the house, took to the streets, and wandered aimlessly – the police didn’t really patrol our cozy suburban streets. Or I read magazines, old books, or the World Book Encyclopedia. It didn’t matter. Brother Mark made the occasional appearance, mainly after all the parties had run their course. But it was usually a quick “Hello,” followed by “Good night.”
I barely got enough sleep during the morning hours to sustain my heavy schedule of playing, wearing out my Six Flags season’s pass, and swimming. But living like that was worth it – nothing creepy could happen at night if I just stayed awake. So each night was the same: stare at the TV, prowl the neighborhood like an alley cat, or read. Just don’t sleep.
By early August, however, I got tired of being tired. I was always on the verge of nodding off. I was irritable and depressed. My appetite wasn’t right. I was always jittery, and I didn’t feel a lot of hope about the new school year that approached. And seventh grade was supposed to be a big one.
So one day, I finally resolved to stop the madness. It would take baby steps, I thought. I had been avoiding my room as much as possible, except mainly to change clothes, but it dawned on me I could just try taking a nap in my own room, in my bed, during broad daylight. So I laid down and shut my eyes, expecting to shift restlessly, but soon woke up from a nap.
When I awoke it was still light outside, and I was starved. I went to the kitchen to grab a bite to eat and check the time. It was 7:30 p.m., meaning I’d slept for a few hours.
My dad was in the kitchen, looking puzzled. He asked if I felt okay. I said I felt great, and asked why he’d questioned how I was feeling.
“Because you slept for almost 16 hours,” Dad said.
“Huh … what? I just took a nap.”
“Yesterday you took a nap. You just woke up from it. You woke up enough to talk, but just kept saying you were tired. So we just let you sleep,” Dad said. “Are you sure you’re okay?” But I was more than okay. I had slept in my own bed, all night, and I felt human again. And a little more like a grownup.
The next night was a watershed event; I went to sleep in my own un-possessed bed, in my own dark room, beaming with pride that I’d overcome my fear.
Fast forward six months, I’m watching television and am shocked to see a preview for the network television premiere of – you guessed it. “They’re actually going to show it on television, but that doesn’t mean I have to watch it and put myself through that again,” I thought to myself. Then again, aren’t all great movies even better with a second viewing? Let’s just say I slept that night.
To this day, I’ve wondered how one film could have such a profound impact on me. So I scoured the Internet for expert opinions and found validation.
Researcher Joanne Cantor, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Communication Arts is the author of a parenting book called “Mommy, I’m Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do To Protect Them.” Her thoughts crystallized what I’d been through.
Cantor says, “allowing children under the age of 14 to watch scary movies may cause them to have a lifelong irrational fear.” Children, she goes on to say, “are impressionable and have a much harder time differentiating between real and imagined threats. Most phobias adults have are believed to be direct results of a traumatizing experience, including a scary movie, had as a child.”
Truth be told, I didn’t develop any phobias (that I know of) and I don’t avoid scary movies. In fact, I eat them up. Every now and again I even watch “The Exorcist,” even though it wrecks me a bit. The difference now is, I know it’s just a movie, and when my head hits the pillow, it’s 40 winks or bust.