A Few Great Pumpkins III—Fifth Night: Salem's Lot

by robbiefreeling
October 29, 2008 7:35 AM
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Call this one: Tribute to a Face. This veiny blue monstrosity, the icon of Tobe Hooper's TV adaptation of Stephen King's best-seller Salem's Lot, took the Max Schreck template from Murnau's Nosferatu to its hideous endpoint. Crooked fangs, desiccated features, dead marble eyes. Pushing the boundaries of the term "human," this horrifying creation, embodied by actor Reggie Nalder, remains the most truly upsetting incarnation of the vampire ever created for the screen. And there he was, in 1978, in everyone's living room.

Or maybe this entry in the Great Pumpkins series is more a tribute to the power of television to instill fear in the viewer. Is it because we least expect it? Is it because we get caught off guard, while sitting, presumably safely, nestled in our chairs? Nearly all of the terrifying experiences I can recall from childhood were necessarily from network or UHF channels: these came not just from airings of theatrical films (though my first experiences with The Shining and Psycho arrived with commercial interruption, and for some reason that heightened the tension for me. How could something so emotionally disruptive come packaged with something so mundane as toothpaste and car ads?) but also from reruns of old television shows—The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery (see earlier this week), and, perhaps worst of all, that one terrible Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode about the female convict who attempts to break out of prison by stowing away in a casket . . . bad idea.

But Salem's Lot was maybe worst of all. And it mostly had to do with that face. In my household the story is apocryphal: a year before my birth, my mother was nonchalantly folding laundry while Tobe Hooper's hyped miniseries was glowing from the television in front of her. The creepy, but rather placid story was about an hour in. Horror visuals had been mostly relegated to some fog-enshrouded floating undead and cobwebby houses. But there had been talk of an absent "Mr. Barlow." And when he finally arrived, awaking a man in the shadows of a dingy jail cell, he certainly didn't disappoint. My mother's reaction, a blood-curdling scream to an empty house and a true momentary fear that a heart-attack might have been induced, followed by an abrupt turning off of the TV, remains as vivid an image in my head as anything in the film itself. (If you feel the sick need to watch this very scene, YouTube has made it handily available. But you really don't have to...) Even some years later, when I went through my supposedly fearless "horror movie phase," I would have to cover up the images of Mr. Barlow that graced the front and interior of my "Stephen King Goes to the Movies" fan-book.

Congrats to Mr. Hooper for so consistently decimating my childhood, making it nearly impossible to turn the lights out without thinking twice (between this, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Poltergeist, it's hard to believe that anyone could proclaim Wes Craven a superior horror craftsman and keep a straight face). As for the rest of Salem's Lot? Elegant, eerie, sometimes dull, sturdy, an always welcome James Mason. But who remembers any of that, when that face is there, lurking around the corner, waiting to pop out of some thick black shadows?

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More: Halloween


  • George K | October 27, 2009 3:40 AMReply

    Yeah I agree with Matt, the floating vampire kid at the window scratching to get in was stuff of nightmares. That tought me 2 things- always keep the shades closed, and never, ever look in the window at night.

  • robbiefreeling | October 31, 2008 6:42 AMReply

    You're right about the window scene....so much creepier and more unapologetically Horror than anything in the over-stylized Let the Right One In.....

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | October 31, 2008 5:17 AMReply

    Great piece about an undeservedly forgotten TV horror event. But I must object to your diminishment of the "fog-shrouded floating undead." Creepy as Barlow was, he didn't give me as many sleepless nights as the sight of that undead little boy hovering in the fog outside his friend's window and, blank-faced, tapping on the glass and calming asking to be let in.

    "Open the window, Mark."


    "Open the window."

  • Mark Asch | October 30, 2008 9:40 AMReply

    Keep in mind that this is coming from my mother, who also told me that she was the inspiration for Sally (who Harry met that one time), but, the facts are thus:

    Salem's Lot, by Stephen King, takes place in the fictional small town of Jerusalem's Lot in Cumberland County, Maine; not to get bogged down in trivial legwork but of the area towns that 'Salem's could be, North Yarmouth is the only one not mentioned in the book by name (some other details match up; others obviously are composited).

    The house I grew up in was an old farmhouse, separated by river, road, rail and lots of woods and undeveloped fields from any other houses, and unoccupied for several years and very run-down at time my parents bought it, in the early 80s (about 7-8 years after the publication of the book). I've seen pictures taken from the Hansons' driveway across the railroad tracks and through a line of bare trees: paint peeling; windows dark. No real specific historical incidents, but a general sense of creepiness.

    I'm told, and here we're relying more on Sal (to be fair that is what her sisters call my mother, and she did go to school with that movie's production designer), that prior to the writing of the book Stephen King had been taken to the house by someone from relatively nearby and that it stuck in his mind.

    Significant renovations and additions after I moved in so the spirits seem to have been uprooted. But when I was in eighth grade we all had to get shots after several rabid bats came inside, squeezing through the eaves I guess, to die -- one in my parents' bedroom, one falling into my younger brother's lap while he sat at the computer. I can still hear him shrieking.

  • robbiefreeling | October 30, 2008 8:26 AMReply

    Wait, really, Mark? Care to add any further anecdotes? Did Mr. Barlow make any house calls?

  • Mark Asch | October 30, 2008 6:44 AMReply

    Based on the house I grew up in in North Yarmouth, Maine.

  • Tom | October 30, 2008 5:50 AMReply

    And, fo course, David Soul of STARSKY AND HUTCH fame, which is what induced me to watch as a kid... It also lead me to a decade long fixation with Stephen King books... great post... I like the personal stories in this series...