Official Traumatizer:: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

There’s a re-do of the classic 1973 T.V. flick DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK right around the bend so let’s say we take a closer look at the original. There’s something about this relatively simple tale that allows it to forge a significant mark. The premise, a woman fighting for her existence against tiny, Smurf-sized fiends is on the surface silly and yet the minimal production hits an uncanny tone that feels as old as the hills and bewilderingly familiar. Tiny monsters aside, we’re dealing with a haunted house and a haunted house is usually a prop to depict a haunted mind. There is a bounty of horror movie titles that begin with the cautionary word “Don’t” but none whose suggestion is as difficult to achieve wholly. We can choose not to go in the basement, in the house or in the woods when titles warn against it but the human fear of darkness is planted in our DNA. It’s primal and it’s permanent even if what we dread to find in the blackness alters with age.

For many, the fear of darkness is born in their earliest of memories. It doesn’t come as a surprise that this film would have its strongest effect upon those who viewed it at a tender age. The thing under the bed and the thing in the closet are both given ample room to run and play here. In fact, we have sort of an all-star cast of classic terror instigators, an old dark house, whispering voices, howling winds and ink-black shadows that could easy ensconce our worst nightmares, they all make an appearance before the curtain closes (and when this curtain closes it closes hard.) The childhood horrors traipsing around in this movie are as plain as day, they scatter like roaches when the lights go on but what I think makes the film special are the larger adult horrors that lumber in the background. They’re reluctant, abstruse and somehow even darker.

Sally Farnham (KIM DARBY) seemingly has all of her ducks lined up in a row. She and her upwardly mobile husband Alex (JIM HUTTON) have recently inherited a dream home from her grandparents. While Alex is busy piling up promotions at work, Sally spends her day with her interior decorator, maid and handyman setting up house. Problems arise when Sally discovers her Grandpa’s study in which lies a bricked-up chimney. The handyman warns her that “some things are better left alone,” but she delves just the same. She opens the chimney’s ash chute and peers into an absolute abyss. Now she has inherited something new. Demons have been freed to taunt and take down Sally. Of course nobody believes these entities are real and soon her world is in shambles. Nothing has changed but everything has. Her husband seems suddenly a work-consumed jerk and the house she once loved grows smaller and smaller and darker and darker. Her ducks are frustratingly no longer in a row.

The prune faced whispering gnome gremlins of DBAOTD are certainly memorable but if you were to edit them out of the picture you’d have a story about a woman crashing face first into a wall of denial. I’m not discounting the trolls as nuisances but it’s interesting to note just where the fabric tears in Sally’s life occur and the many loaded symbols the mini-goons utilize to frazzle her.

First of all, it’s obvious that the Farnham marriage is not as perfect as once thought. It turns out maybe Sally isn’t feeling as fulfilled in her set-up as she originally planned. Alex is never around and when he is, he’s barking out orders, mineralizing her needs (and troll concerns) and critiquing her party hosting abilities. Holy crap, she’s a trophy wife in a gilded cage and why did she never realize this before? Spending her husband’s money to replace ashtrays destroyed by goblins doesn’t even fill the void! Sure Alex is on the fast track but where the hell is Sally going? At this rate she could end up trapped, growing old in this house forever! (Note: Alex has some reasonable fears too, like that his wife will pull him into the quicksand with her.)

“Some things are better left alone.” If Sally had just gone with the flow and refused to examine that which she was warned not to, would life had continued on a smooth gnome- free course? Are the walnut headed midgets that hand Sally razor blades, slip her sleeping pills and leave her with gashes in her palms the real problem or just creeps who want to accentuate those that already exist while forcing an accelerated outcome?

It’s easy to conclude that Sally’s “nervous” disposition masks resentment towards her authoritative husband and her unsatisfactory domestic life but that doesn’t explain why her grandfather succumbed to the same demons when he retired to his study. If we are to take the little monsters at their word then they have already explained what is at stake and what Sally needs to fear losing in the dark, namely her spirit. Sally ultimately fears the same thing from her husband, her house AND the creatures, that she will be consumed and lost within them. One might assume that she has not only inherited the knowledge of her dormancy but the dormancy itself. Whose life is she living?

Hope you’ve seen this because now I’m going to talk about the ending. It’s a favorite. Some folks might find Sally’s ineffectualness annoying, but it’s rather the point of the story. Sally looses. Drugged, she puts forth a somewhat valiant effort attempting to fight back by casting light (a camera flash) upon her darkness thriving tormentors and yet still she fails. She is dragged into the chimney and the aid of her husband and close friend are too little and too late. It’s not unlike the conclusion of THE HAUNTING or THE YELLOW WALLPAPER and frankly, I’m all for it. Horror stories are in no way required to be tales of empowerment and conquest. It’s not their job to boost your ego. Please pick another genre if you want to see your fantasies fulfilled.

DONT BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is about a woman who ostensibly has it all. She’s living the dream or at least the dream of 1973 and it’s not enough. The hubby is placated and the rooms are decorated just so but an emptiness, a “darkness” remains. She’s sold herself out really to stand in somebody’s shadow not realizing just how cold and dark shadows can get. There’s a Pandora’s Box element for sure with Sally daring to look where advised not to but what she finds is only the truth exaggerated (and miniaturized). In the end, Sally’s voice joins the chorus of the lost; her spirit forever trapped in a house living a life that is no longer her own. In a weird way though her dilemma is solved and her feeling of disconnect is no longer an issue. Depersonalization cures all. Now she is an integral part of something.

Many who return to DON’T after being traumatized by it as kids find it less than what they remember and there are those who, having heard tale of this flick, track it down only to find it laughable. I can understand that but I wonder if perhaps they are investing too much in the micro-ghouls as literal beings. If you instead read them as representatives of a privileged woman’s swept under the rug internal demons, this is an exceptionally strong outing (especially considering its 74 minute running time and two week shooting schedule.) In the alternate dimension of genuine reality, I don’t believe that Sally was dragged into the chimney to disappear forever but I do believe she indeed lost her battle to find a meaningful place for herself in the world and succumbed to a suffocating status quo, trapped, diminished and ultimately snuffed out like a candle. Whether it’s worse to shrink into a wrinkle-faced troll or transform into “the perfect party host” is up to the viewer to decide.

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Amanda By Night
11 years ago

Wow! Great review. I also think DBAotD is about Sally’s sanity, or moreso her oppression as a housewife, as this kind of lifestyle was really starting to fade, or become known as really unfulfilling, by the time this film rolled around. (longest sentence ever?) I’m sure we won’t see that in the remake, as it’s kind of outdated, but I can’t wait to see what they do. It’s a remake I’m really excited about!

11 years ago

In my review of DBAOTD, I mention how this movie scared the hell out of my mom when it originally aired in ’73, being home alone with two small kids asleep in their rooms. But watching it now…it still has its moments, but not as scary as it once may have seemed. Though I do like your take on Sally’s downward spiral, even when the little creatures aren’t giving her grief.

The Guillermo del Toro-produced remake of DBAOTD opens August 26, and I heard it will be rated R for “pervasive scariness.” Not gore, or language, but that it’s too damn scary? Here’s hoping…

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11 years ago

This movie scared ME when I originally watched it in the 70s as well, as a kid. I LOVE this review, it’s so perfectly worded….most of the 70s films have a similar feminist bent. Thanks!

11 years ago

As much as I love the original, I am very much looking forward to the Guillermo del Toro’s rewrite. Changing Sally’s character from an adult to a little girl is one of the best ideas in the annals of horror cinema.

Father Merrin
Father Merrin
11 years ago

I was in 2nd grade and alone at home the first time I saw it. Yeah, I was traumatized and never looked at the fireplace ash-cleanout in the basement the same way ever again.

Got the DVD last year and was surprised at how well it has held up.

11 years ago

I remember being a little kid and my grandfather telling us about this one the night after they played it. He said it was the scariest movie he had ever seen in his life.

Its funny looking back because everyone NOW acts like Im the black sheep of the family because Im “the only one who loves Horror”…but when i think back Papa was ALWAYS watching Horror! This was before cable, but he loved those Made For TV movies and the theater run ones channel 11 would play. I remember walking into his room when he was watching WAIT UNTIL DARK and him telling me he thought I could handle it so I watched that one with him. Also remember him watching PROM NIGHT and being a little more iffy about lettin me stick around. Hahaha. (I ran into ANOTHER room and watched it alone!) So yes, my Horror Love probably stems from him.

I didnt see DONT BE AFRAID OF THE DARK til I was old and married and could buy a bootleg on eBay. I had in on VHS and now I have it on DVD. I really love the Old School Made For TV Horror movies. Some of them were just as scareyas the **** that got released in theaters!

11 years ago

Great write-up on this classic bit of TV horror…

I’m also interested in seeing what the remake brings… but I’m not getting my hopes up.
It looks much more like a fantasy/fairy-tale… with the over-produced quality in so many genre movies these days. That makes it less scary for me right off.
I’m also skeptical about changing the heroine into a little girl… that seems like such an obvious move to me… and and easier one… but del Toro likes making movies about kids dealing with spooks.
One thing I especially like about the original is that so much of it is unexplained… whether Sally is losing her mind or not, there’s no elaborate back story about the goblins’ origins or how her grandfather first found them. I expect that wont be the case in the new one.
I’m a fan of ‘less is more’ and this new one looks like a whole lot of ‘MORE’.

David Young
11 years ago

Big time trauma here. As an adult, my sister was showing me around her new house – when we got to the fireplace that she couldn’t use yet, I whispered, “Ssssaalllyyy…” and she slapped me across the face and said, “Don’t EVER say that!” It was the only abuse that ever occurred in our family.