I guess this is a retro edition of TRAUMAFESSIONS, since my own childhood somewhat predated the ‘80s horror boom and cable TV. When I was just a wee Monster Kid, I could happily sit through any number of Universal classics, atomic monsters, CORMAN‘s Poe pictures, Italian gothics, and HAMMER films without flinching, but I always had trouble with dark comedies — the cruelty underlying comedy always hit me deeper, and movies like LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS or THEATRE OF BLOOD really disturbed me when I was in elementary school. Which brings me to the one moment of pure, abject horror that struck something deep within me when I was about five years old, and triggered a lingering existential dread that has dogged me my whole life.
I am speaking, of course, of the episode of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER where Beaver and Whitey are trapped in a giant novelty coffee cup. As you may recall, Beaver and Whitey were fascinated by a new billboard that featured a giant, 3D coffee cup with real steam coming out of it. How did it work? Where did the steam come from? Various theories were advanced, all of them unsatisfactory. There was only one way to settle the matter — climb the billboard and look inside. But the giant coffee cup was larger than it looked from the street, and the steep sloping sides made it impossible to escape once inside. It is the stuff of Beckett and Sartre — existential horror for the kiddies. When Beaver fails to come home for dinner, Ward and June are understandably worried — the unspoken fear of abduction, rape, and murder by some pedophile haunts them like a spectre, and leads to the police getting involved. Meanwhile, Beaver and Whitey, trapped in the cup, unseen and unheard, contemplate their own death by slow starvation. They question the commitment of their parents to finding them. Are they not loved sufficiently? And most of all, Beaver — the viewer’s surrogate — explores his deep sense of shame that his own overweening pride blinded him to the stupidity and shortsightedness of his actions. When the boys are rescued the next morning, it is not through their parent’s love, or the efforts of the authorities entrusted to protect society, but a mindless coincidence.
It is that heady mixture of horror and shame that has stayed with me for forty-odd years, lurking behind my failed relationships and crushed ambitions. Whenever my plans go awry, whenever I say or do something stupid, whenever I find myself abandoned and unloved, I think of Beaver and Whitey in the giant coffee cup, and I realize there is no way out.