Traumafessions:: Maniac (’80) & Don’t Answer The Phone! (’80) By Matt Forgit Author of You Better Watch Out: A Christmas Horror Comedy

Picture this, if you will: A goofy, sheltered, nerdy, chunky, sensitive, and guileless ten-year-old boy who watched Scooby-Doo and read Nancy Drew and Choose Your Own Adventure books. This sweet, innocent ten-year-old wasn’t interested in sports or hunting, like the other boys his age, and spent his time listening to Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, and The Go-Go’s cassette tapes and roller skating. Shockingly, this super-cool boy didn’t have a ton of friends. Unbelievable, I know.

Surprise (to no one) twist!: It was me. I’m talking about me. I’m still pretty goofy and chunky. Sadly, I never outgrew either of those things. Anyway, back then, my mom had a friend named Joy, who had a son my age, a mullet-haired kid named Todd. Joy and Todd asked if I’d like to sleep over at their house (something I was not great at— most of my rare youthful sleepovers ended with me calling my parents to come and get me in the middle of the night). My mom encouraged me to go. Joy was a fun, loud mom who resembled Demi Moore and let us drink soda, eat sweet treats whenever we wanted, and swore a lot. She and Todd took me to my first video store and asked me what I wanted to watch. Although I suggested such classics as Clue and Sixteen Candles, my wholesome recommendations were ignored. Joy and Todd rented the double bill of 1980’s Maniac and Don’t Answer the Phone!

I had never seen a horror movie. I had never seen an R-rated movie. I had seen Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and found them thrilling and amazing, not scary (I even had a Gremlins metal lunchbox and Gizmo doll). I still believed there was a monster in the car wash that would eat me, since my older neighbor Rob told me so (eat a bag of fried dicks, Rob!) and that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were real. I was not prepared for the psychological terror, gore, special effects, and extreme horror of Maniac and Don’t Answer the Phone!

We started with Maniac. Joy turned all the lights off and we sat in front of their big, boxy TV as we were introduced to sweaty, creepy, tormented Joe Spinell as the titular madman. Look, it’s New York City! I want to go to there! Wait— what’s a sex worker? Why was everything so grungy and dirty? Where was Molly Ringwald when I needed her? Then came the scalpings. And the mannequins. And the exploding heads. No matter how much the victims begged, pleaded, or prayed for their lives to be spared, he gave them no mercy. There was nowhere for them to run or hide. He was always there. I knew nothing about SFX or Tom Savini back then, so every note felt real and true, especially since the movie was filmed in a very matter-of-fact, almost documentary sort of way.

I cried inside for the poor lady who Frank Zito chased through the subway to the bathroom and stabbed. I shuddered as Frank Zito slowly sunk his knife into the poor lady he tied up and gagged. I hated every second of it. My world of Care Bears, Thundercats, He-Man, and Pound Puppies died a little that day, along with every doomed victim of Frank’s rampage. I could not take my eyes away from the screen. Joy and Todd seemed to really into it and cheered and laughed during the scary scenes. I, on the other hand, had that pre-diarrhea feeling throughout the whole film. And if I hadn’t been traumatized enough, the presumed dead killer’s eyes opened at the end. He’s not dead. I could be next. He might be waiting for me under my bed. My bowl-cut hair might end up on a lady mannequin.

But Joy and Todd weren’t done. They clearly did not notice my expression of sheer terror. It was time for Don’t Answer the Phone! Right away, the movie featured talk and images of the Vietnam War, pornography, psychology, twisted religious ideology, and another psychopath (this one named Kirk Smith) with deranged connections to a dead parent and predilection toward killing women. I knew nothing of any of those things. All I knew was if any of the scantily-clad ladies in the movie answered the ringing telephone, they were going to be strangled, throttled, chased, and killed as they screamed bloody murder. Somehow, Kirk Smith was always easily able to get inside their houses. That meant my house was not safe. I was not having a fun time at this sleepover. Nobody was having pillow fights or putting the undies from the first person to fall asleep in the freezer. This was Sleepover Nightmare, my own real-life horror movie. At the time, I was no Sidney Prescott. I was, at best, Chunk from The Goonies. These were not gentle, easygoing scary movies to delicately introduce me to the world of horror. These were full-on, in-your-face, how-much-can-you-take splatter flicks. I could not take any of it.

Yes, like E.T., I phoned home. I called my mom and she had to come get me at midnight to take me home to my own bed, where I stayed up all night long, staring at the closet because Frank Zito and Kirk Smith were hiding inside of it. I stared at our rotary phone suspiciously. I would never trust that ear-piercing ring again. I would never visit New York City, because that’s where the scalp-wearing mannequins lived. It wasn’t until Jason took Manhattan that I was willing to discover NYC. I kept my nightlight on, wondering who liked these sorts of movies, and why would anyone make something like that. I still have this penchant for dramatics and imagination.

It would be the next year, when my dad let me watch Friday the 13th Part 3 on Fox Channel 5, that my love for horror blossomed. From there, I rented April Fool’s Day, Chopping Mall, Night of the Creeps, and Waxwork, and watched The Fog, The Howling, My Bloody Valentine, The Hills Have Eyes, Spookies, Night of the Comet, Killer Party, Black Christmas, The Changeling, and A Nightmare on Elm Street on cable television. I discovered great, strong, capable final girls who fought back, like Ripley, Alice, Ginny, Chris, Trish, Nancy, Laurie, Sally, Jess, Regina, Samantha, and the like. I met Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, Michael Myers, Billy, Andrew Garth, and Harry Warden, who were genuinely scary and threatening, but not so much so that I couldn’t sleep at night. Though I’d had a rocky, jarring initiation into the world of horror films, I just needed to find the ones that gave me my groove back. I got it. Scary movies are fun, entertaining, and can be extremely cathartic and exciting. And though I still love Molly Ringwald, I have seen Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre more times now than I’ve seen Pretty in Pink.

BIO: My name is Matt Forgit and my first novel, You Better Watch Out: A Christmas Horror Comedy, is available on Amazon. If you’d be so kind and forgive me for this shameless plug, I’d appreciate if you’d check it out (and buy it!). I don’t have a huge publishing company behind me, so any and all support is helpful and very, very appreciated!

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Ghastly1
Ghastly1
9 months ago

Awesome post about two of my favorite films, Matt.

It is always a joy to see good films being talked about. I saw Maniac when I was around the same age and a few years later saw Don’t Answer The Phone; another good one is Eyes of a Stranger. Like Unk said, I wish I knew people like Joy and Todd, but alas no one I ever knew or know (not that I knew or know a lot of people) was or is into horror, especially not the way I am.

Scooby-Doo was one of the early introductions to horror for me, it made it fun and I still love that dog. Music wise, I was always attracted to “dark” heavy metal; my taste was formed by Beavis and Butt-Head- Pantera, Type O Negative, Alice in Chains, Motorhead, Black Sabbath, etc. it was only later that I got into 80’s pop music.

Watching horror films has always been a solitary, hermetic endeavor for me. I’m probably really fucked up, but I feel a kinship with Frank Zito and Kirk Smith and all the other slasher characters in general. One thing George Romero said in Scream Greats vol. I is very true in my case; that horror films act as a safety release valve that keeps people from committing crimes. I don’t know where I’d be without ’em, but it probably wouldn’t be personally advantageous.

bathcrones
bathcrones
9 months ago

Great post, Matt! My parents were so laissez-faire about what I watched. “As long as you know it isn’t real,” my mother would say. Our house WAS the Joy and Todd house and my friends would come over to watch all sorts of sick stuff that they weren’t able to see at home. It’s wonderful to hear about the other side of the experience, and with two great movies to boot!

I remember my friend Chad coming over and watching his first horror film ever(Stir of Echoes) and he didn’t sleep that night, which I thought was hilarious at 9 years old. He came over another time when we were about the same age as you in this story(10 or 11) and we watched The Exorcist for my third or fourth time and his first. He broke out in hives and once again did not sleep, but from then on he was hooked. Mission accomplished.

Happy Holidays and thanks for the read!