Today, watch the tv movie The Haunted with me, starring Sally Kirkland. There are some things your gated community can’t keep out.
We start with solemn white words against a black background which inform us that The Haunted is a TOTALLY TRUE STORY about the Smurl family you guys, and they are TOTALLY real people and all we changed were some names and dates, okay?
Which gets me curious, and it turns out that the real people wrote a whole book about how haunted they were, so I read it before watching the movie.
The movie starts in 1975. Sally Kirkland is telling us about how she and her husband – whose moustache makes him a dead ringer for Rick Simon of Simon and Simon – lost everything they owned in Hurricane Agnes and all they could afford was a duplex in a nearby town. The Smurls will live in one side of the duplex, and Grandma and Grandpa Smurl will live on the other.
As they’re unpacking, a woman in a housedress and slippers comes sprinting across three lawns like they’ve just announced they’re giving away free console TVs with walnut surround and breathlessly says, “I’m CORA! Cora MILLER!” and this scene reminds me so much of briefly living in corporate housing in New Jersey in pre-internet 1993 in this gated development and all the husbands would leave promptly at 8 AM and then no one would go outside again until 3 PM when THE MAILMAN came and all the women would run out of their houses dressed like this to their mailboxes and then they would trudge back to their fancy townhouses and screaming offspring.
The Smurls settle in. One day, Sally starts painting over a water stain while Rick hammers on the plumbing in the kitchen and the haunting OFFICIALLY BEGINS when Rick fiddles with the pipe a little more and reaches for his hammer and he can’t find it and he’s like, “Sally have you seen the hammer?” and Sally comes in to say no and when she goes back into the living room the water stain is fully visible again and the music goes crazy and so far the Horrors of this show belong on HGTV, not the ABC Monday Night Movie, any minute now someone’s going to say, “All I can see are dollar signs,” and “this twenty foot by twenty foot master bedroom is so TIGHT,” and meanwhile Rick still can’t find the hammer.
Sally’s voiceover says that they were really happy on Chase Street for years as we look at the house, fully renovated to upper middle class eighties splendor (SO MANY WINDOW TREATMENTS) and it bears absolutely no resemblance to the real Smurl house, I know this because there are photographs in the book.
I mean, imagine your weird uncle’s basement. Take away 3/4 of the windows. Add paneling. Everywhere. Even the ceiling. Panel the panelling with panelling. Stuff it with more armchairs than people and cover every level surface with Precious Moments figurines. Put thick maroon drapes over every window and complete with a carpet smelling of mildew and despair.
Sally’s voiceover says their luck seemed to change as the years went by. Grandma Smurl had a heart attack and barely left the house. The new boiler only lasted 6 months, the wiring had to be replaced three times. (“How could it ever be our Dream House? WE DIDN’T HAVE A SPA-LIKE ENSUITE!”)
In the book, the Smurls talk incessantly about how bad the house smells. (This is due to a) the broken sewer pipe that the neighbours had been complaining about for years or b) a hellmouth underneath the house. You choose.)
Now it’s 1985 and we’re in the basement of the Smurl house doing laundry with Sally. Flourescent lights flicker on and off (wiring had to be redone 3 times) and Grandma Smurl calls from the top of the stairs. “Sally? Sally?”
But when Sally goes to the top of the stairs, no one is there. She eventually goes around to the other side of the duplex and knocks on the door, where Grandma Smurl hollers that when was was there she heard Rick and Sally fighting and Rick was using foul language and “my son is a good Catholic and would never use words like that”.
(This is due a) to senile dementia b) Satan doing a little solo improv show and playing Sally and Rick to entertain himself. You choose.)
We smash-cut to the next scene, in which Sally is sitting on the porch frantically smoking a cigarette, looking like she’s just gotten off her shift waitressing on the Vegas strip and when Rick arrives home she runs to him.
Rick, justifiably, is like, “JESUS CHRIST ARE THE KIDS ALL RIGHT?” and Sally is like, “I… I… I had a fight with your mother,” and Rick is like listen lady you need to calm the fuck down, I had a hard day too, I’m chasing criminals all day and my brother A.J. is always snotting around about how HEEEE went to COLLEGE and he drives a CAMERO and Sally just keeps sobbing and sobbing and finally he gets her to go inside.
That night in bed Sally is lying there while dry ice comes into the room and stars being, ahem, inappropriate with her.
(This is due to a) DREAMING b) Satan scraping the bottom of the barrel for something interesting to do with his Friday night c) DREAMING A DREAM MADE OF DREAMS AT NIGHT IN THE BED WHERE DREAMS LIVE.)
Sally wakes Rick up and asks if he was touching her and he’s like no, and they both go back to sleep. In the morning, the Smurl girls (my multi-million dollar bubblegum pop band is going to be called the Smurlettes) are eating breakfast when Sally realises she was meant to have the church newsletter at the printer’s yesterday and Rick can’t find any clean shirts and Sally is like, “Do your own goddamn laundry, Rick,” (or maybe that only happened in my head) and a police siren goes by outside, one of the Smurlettes can’t find the tape for her school project, the phone starts ringing, the dog is barking and Sally is like CALGON TAKE ME AWAY but Satan ate all the Calgon for breakfast and Sally hands the phone to a Smurlette and finds the tape and lights her tenth cigarette of the day and looks clinically depressed.
I mean, HAUNTED HOUSE!
Later, the Smurlettes are rapt in front of the 19 inch colour tv. The oldest girl is on the couch with her very very gay boyfriend Joe. One of the Smurlettes asks Joe if they French kiss and then all of the Smurlettes have hysterics over the idea of open mouth kissing and I know, I KNOW things are better now, I mean, Reagan was never going to come out in favour of AIDS funding much less gay marriage, but this scene reminds me that there was a time when kids used to sit around giggling together and playing with, like, a stick and dried mud and not knowing what the internet was and I sigh sadly.
Anyway, Joe shoots death rays at the Smurlettes with his eyes and composes a love poem to the football quarterback in his had and Sally hands Joe a sheepskin coat and Joe is like, “Wow, thanks, Sally! That button fell off two weeks ago! I’ve been cold for two weeks!”
You know, feminists are always whining about how bad women had it in the eighties. But no one ever thinks of those poor motherless boys. And wifeless husbands. Contracting CHOLERA from dirty BATHROOMS. Getting hypothermia in the dead of WINTER! STARVING TO DEATH WHEN THEIR KITCHENS WERE FULL OF FOOD! It is a tragedy that no one wants to talk about!
Anyway, much later that night the Smurlettes are curling each others hair and giggling while Sally does the bills and she suddenly looks up and asks if the oldest sister came home early and the Smurlettes are like, “no” and Sally looks up at the ceiling asking if anyone else can hear the sounds coming from the bathtub upstairs.
The Smurlettes can’t hear anything. Sally says she’s going to go upstairs to check it out and one of the daughters is like, “Maybe you should wait for Daddy to get home,” because – whether it’s a burglar or a monster up there taking a bath, you should obviously have a MAY-UN take care of it. (MAY-UNS protect wimmins so the may-uns don’t die of dehydration waiting for someone to bring them a beer.)
We go upstairs with Sally. The noises from the bathroom are a lot louder up here, and she goes inside the pulls back the heavy flowered shower curtain (seriously, this thing could double as an eighties window treatment) to reveal an empty bathtub.
(This is due to a) plumbing problems in this money pit of a house b) Satan zooming his rubber duckie around in the tub with all his bubbles and whisking himself out of existence in the split second before Sally pulls the curtain.)
Sally runs to her bedroom and prays over her rosary.
After a montage of walking and smoking (that house smells like Glade Air Freshener, scrambled eggs, and stale Virginia Slims) Rick Simon comes home and Sally screams WHERE WERE YOU and Rick tries to explain that he was at the Lion’s Club and Sally is like IF YOU ARE SEEING SOMEONE ELSE I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL TAKE THE CHILDREN AND LEAVE and no offense, Sally, but Rick is not exactly a hot hot sexy sex man, not even in an era when Tom Selleck and his moustache were on the cover of GQ.
Sally says she keeps hearing voices (Grandma and Grandpa Smurl on the other side of the duplex), knocking sounds (see: plumbing problems), and doors slamming (the wind) when she’s in the house alone. Sally demands that they move, Rick refuses. Sally cries and smokes and cries and smokes and smokes and cries and Rick goes to bed and keep it up, Sally, you’ll die of lung cancer before the haunting gets much worse.
The next day, Sally is ironing in the kitchen when she sees a vague black shape in the corner and hears growling.
Sally runs to the other side of the duplex and is like, “Grandma Smurl I know you’re mad at me but I NEED you!” but oh ho, it turns out that Grandma Smurl saw the shape too but it disappeared.
(This is due to a) a carbon monoxide leak b) the dry ice wandering over to see who else it can visit and then being like ack, scary old lady, ew.)
At a restaurant, Sally and Grandma Smurl eagerly explain about the haunting to a tremendously skeptical Pa and Rick. Over a montage of research shots, Sally’s voiceover says, “No one would believe me and I just didn’t know where to turn. But I soon learned that other people, who are equally isolated, lonely, unhappy in their life choices, and attention-seeking, were having the same problems.” (Slightly rephrased.)
That night, Sally wakes Rick up to say she can hear whispering voices (Grandma and Grandpa Smurl talking to each other on the other side of the duplex) and when he puts his head on her pillow, he can hear them too. Rick throws Sally’s pillow on the floor like it’s got cooties and she uses his chest as a pillow instead. As they sleep, the sheets fall off and Sally’s skin ripples (muscle spasm) and she wakes Rick up who is like, “SALLY TOMORROW MY BROTHER AJ AND I HAVE TO GO SAVE AN ACCOUNTANT WHO I’M PRETTY SURE IS A SPY AND IT COULD COST ME MY LIFE SO LET ME GET SOME SLEEP” and Sally is all, “It is TOUCHING ME” (pro-tip: eating bananas helps stop muscle spasms that happen in your sleep) and Rick hollers “Stop it!” at Sally’s skin and this, THIS is what convinces Rick once and for all that they’re haunted.
Sally invites Father Larson from their church over for dinner, and after explaining what’s going on he says gently, “Sometimes what we perceive as Cloudly Growly Things are the demons inside ourselves -”
Sally hollers, “We do not have MARRIAGE PROBLEMS, we have DEMON PROBLEMS,” and the Smurlettes are, like, ten feet away and Father Larson sighs and half-heartedly blesses the house and eventually has to go home because he feels sick (broken sewer pipe).
But everything must be fine now and after everyone else has gone to bed, Sally and Rick toast their freedom from demons with wine in the kitchen.
Later, on a dark and stormy night in 1985, one of the Smurlettes in a Confirmation dress is whining about how she’s probably going to forget something and mess it all up while another Smurlette does her homework at the kitchen table. The chandelier above her rattles ominously.
Sally starts singing Amazing Grace to calm down Whiney Smurlette and and Whiney joins in and together they explore all of the possible keys that you can sing Amazing Grace in except the correct one until the chandelier, in despair, kills itself by bursting every bulb at once and falling to the dining room table just missing Homework Smurlette.
Rick runs in screaming, “I PUT THAT LIGHT UP MYSELF!” (always call an experienced electrician to install ceiling lights) and Sally tracks down Father Larson and is like, “THE CLOUDLY GROWLY THING ALMOST KILLED ONE OF THE SMURLETTES” and Father Larson is like, “Yeah, um, have you considered marriage counseling?”
Sally’s voiceover explains that she wrote letters to every parapsychology department in America and even THEY weren’t interested but that neighbour Cora told her that the Warrens (famous for their part in the Amityville Horror) are lecturing nearby. Sally is like, “One time? I had a muscle spasm in my leg? And our plumbing is really terrible? Rick did a terrible job installing our chandelier? There’s a broken sewer pipe? I can hear Grandma and Grandpa Smurl talking on the other side of the duplex (I may have rephrased this a bit) and so PLEASE WON’T YOU HELP?” and the Warrens promise to help.
That night, Rick falls asleep in front of the tv and I’m pretty sure he was watching Tales from the Darkside because suddenly he dreams – SORRY, EXPERIENCES – a blonde woman in a nightgown coming into the room who holds Rick down and – wait, did I forget to mention that the real Rick in real life had BRAIN SURGERY before he moved into the house because of water on the brain? – and then, on NETWORK TELEVISION right before your grandma and God and everyone the actor playing Rick Simon gets paid to screech while the blonde woman slash demon has her way with him. (We know she’s a demon because even though she looks like a Sears catalogue model she has really, really bad teeth.)
The actor playing Rick lies on the dingy beige carpet and wishes he could die.
And then, THEN, after the demon leaves, right before your grandma and God and everyone, Rick stares down at his private area and looks horrified. (Pro-tip: reading the classic Judy Blume book “Then Again Maybe I Won’t” makes dreams like this a lot less scary for the male half of the population.)
The next day, Rick describes the event (which the real Rick claimed happened a bunch of times) in excruciating detail to Sally and the Warrens while the Smurlettes play ten feet away and just a minute, I HAVE TO GO CALL FAMILY SERVICES.
Lorraine Warren investigates the house while Ed Warren asks Rick about his drinking habits. Rick is insulted and Ed is like, “To be honest, we often find drug and alcohol abuse in these situations, they are ideal entry points for demonic spirits,” (if by “entry points” you mean drug induced HALLUCINATIONS) and Lorraine goes upstairs and opens a closet and suddenly starts stumbling all over the place and retching. (Pro-tip: call a water main contractor to fix your broken sewer pipe. It may be frustrating to spend money on something you’ll never see, but broken sewer pipes only get worse over time.)
Lorraine sees two ghosts sitting on the bed and runs downstairs to inform everyone that there are four spirits and Miss Sears Catalogue Lady who is controlling all of them. They’re all drawing on the energy of the teenage daughters. (At the time, news reports explained that the “rapping on the walls” only ever happened to walls that were shared with Smurlette bedrooms.)
Can you imagine being Lorraine? Like, what happens when she wants to make a sandwich and she can’t find the mayonnaise? Does she decide demons did it?
Then we cut to a close-up of a Radio Shack tape player that’s playing tinny organ music. Sally, Rick and the Warrens are all praying and when they say “amen” Ed reaches over and shuts off the tape recorder. Lorraine suddenly senses the Sears Catalogue Lady and Ed grabs for the video camera. (The real Ed, by the way, when asked for this video footage was like, “Uh… I sent it to… a… church,” and when asked what church he was like, “a… church. I can’t remember the name or where it is or – STOP ASKING ME!”)
There’s a bunch of growling, the tv turns on, and the dresser starts shooting drawers in and out and Ed flicks some water at the dresser and everything stops. Sally and Rick thank the Warrens a thousand times, and the Warrens sternly warn that the Sears Catalogue Lady might be back and indeed that night the tv turns itself on (“The wiring had to redone three times!”) and we hear banging (from the wall shared with one of the Smurlettes) and Sally and Rick run out of their room and there are Smurlettes everywhere and the littlest one screeches, “A DEMON PICKED ME UP AND DROPPED ME” and their whole “make sure the kids are 10 feet away when we talk about the haunting” obviously is totally working.
Sally flails around the house with with water quoting lines from The Exorcist and eventually everything stops.
The oldest Smurlette is like, “WHAT IS GOING ON?”
Rick says soothingly, “Honey, there’s a demon trying to break us apart but don’t worry,” and the SCARIEST THING about these made for tv haunted house movies is ALWAYS the parents.
Can you imagine being a Smurlette IN REAL LIFE?
“Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
“I think there’s a monster under my bed.”
“Aw JESUS FUCKING H CHRIST – Wake up the other girls! You get the holy water!”
“Rick? RICK? WAKE UP!”
“I thought… my teacher said monsters weren’t real…”
“RICK GET THE BABY, MEET ME ON THE DRIVEWAY!”
Later, on a camping trip, everyone sits around the campfire roasting marshmallows as crickets chirp in the background and – SMASH CUT to the house! All the lights are on! There’s screaming!
Neighbour Cora and Mr. Cora are standing on the sidewalk looking on, horrified. Cora’s called the police. (In Lorraine’s kitchen, Lorraine is like, “I CALL UPON YOU GIVE ME BACK MY MAYONNAISE YOU FATHER OF LIES FOR I NEED TO MAKE A TURKEY SANDWICH”)
At the campfire, the growly growl of the Sears Catalogue lady starts up (for real, the least believeable part of this movie is that the Sears Catalogue Lady likes dull doughy Rick Simon enough to follow him to the living room, much less to a far away campground) and a smokey shape appears!
In the smoke.
I DON’T EVEN.
(The real version of this occurance went like this: they all went to a hotel to get away from the house and Sally freaked out when she started to hear rappings on the wall. The wall that had the oldest Smurlette on the other side of it.)
Everyone heads home filled with gloom and when they arrive in the driveway the neighbours come running over to explain that it sounded like someone was being tortured in the Living Room of All Panelling and they called the police but the police didn’t find anything.
Well. THAT IS IT. Sally and Rick decide to send the Smurlettes to friends’ houses until they’ve driven the Sears Catalogue Lady away and I bet that phone call was AWESOME.
“Hi, Barbara? This is Sally, Katie’s mom. … I’m calling because – I wondered if you could take the girls for a little while? We’re having some, uh… family troubles. … Oh! No no no, nothing like that. … Well, I mean a succubus and Rick – but that’s not cheating is it? … Barbara? …hello?”
At 3 AM the phone rings and it’s one of the Smurlettes, calling to say that she needs to come home because the Sears Catalogue Lady FOLLOWED HER – I’ll tell you what, if I were 9 years old and that kid were at MY sleepover, and woke me up to say she needed to call her mom because the Sears Catalogue Lady had followed her to MY house, I would immediately hand her her sleeping bag and push her out the front door, all, “Hope you can find your way home!”
(Lorraine, meanwhile, is like, “NO MAYONNAISE, FATHER OF LIES? THEN I WILL BURN THE HOUSE TO ASHES AND SALT THE GROUND!”)
The Warrens ask an ex-priest to exorcise the house and of course, OF COURSE, all the Smurlettes are there. The adults sit around the table praying while the house starts to shake and screaming emanates from upstairs.
(This is due to a) a heavy truck passing the house while a little kid happily screeches outside or b) it’s a… the Sears… you know what, I don’t even have a B, THERE IS NO B) The shaking and screaming stop, and there’s a smell of roses in the Living Room of All Panelling and Rick walks the ex-priest out to his van. The priest explains that God and the Devil are having a fight THROUGH the Smurls, which immediately explains why 400,000 people died of starvation in Ethiopia in the eighties, God was SUPER DISTRACTED, and Sally’s voiceover says, “Months went by without a single incident. Every few days we could smell roses again. We finally had our house back.”
And it is completely fine until the Sears Catalogue Lady pushes Sally down the basement stairs. (I bet THAT made for some awkward church supper conversation. “Hi Barbara, it’s so nice to see you again! I’m sorry about Katie asking to come home that ni – oh, my face? … I’m all right. A demon just pushed me down the stairs, you know how it can be. … No! Rick wasn’t even home! … NO, Barbara, we don’t have marriage problems, we have DEMON PROBLEMS!”)
Sally gets up and is running around looking for the holy water when she suddenly stops and says, “I tripped! I tripped. That’s all.” THE VOICE OF REASON! For ten seconds, until we cut to Grandma Smurl being terrorized by the Sears Catalogue Lady while she tries to vacuum. (I love haunted house movies as much as the next guy, but a fuzzy black puff of smoke growling while someone tries to vacuum hits the scary meter at about Unexpected Balloon Popping level.)
Sally tries to get the Catholic bishop interested, the Sears Catalogue Lady puts her hand over Rick’s nose and mouth while he tries to sleep (sleep apnea) and Sally gets levitated 6 feet in the air and thrown against the wall. (“Hi Barbara! How’s your – oh, my black and blue and yellow and purple arms? The demon was SO active last night. She – Barbara? Come back! You didn’t get any jello salad!”)
In the morning, Rick tells Sally and Grandma and Grandpa Smurl that the only way to get a real priest to come to their house is by going to the media. Meanwhile, Sally starts writing a book about their experiences.
The Smurls find hard hitting investigative reporters like Leesa Gibbons to interview them and reporters are camping out in their yard and crazy people are on their porch peering in the windows, all, “I see the Sears Catalogue Lady!” when SUDDENLY in slow motion this guy comes through the crowd, parting it effortlessly.
He’s got on long black robes, sunglasses, and a white collar. He bathes in holy water, he talks to Jesus and he is FATHER SEVENTIES COP and he is here to help.
Sally is so happy that Father Seventies Cop has come, and then there’s a montage in which everyone except the dog wears cardigans and does things like eat dinner and Father Seventies Cop waits in line for the bathroom with the Smurlettes and sits staring at the wall in the basement, he reads the Bible on the couch with Rick while Rick watches the game, he sits in a chair in the hallway during the day, he sits in a chair in the hallway during the night, he counts his arm hairs and Sally types her book on her typewriter and chain-smokes at him and looks anxious and Father Seventies Cop does the crossword and the phone rings. Sally says it’s for him, and then eavesdrops shamelessly and has to run back to her typewriter when the phone call ends.
Father Seventies Cop skips happily to the living room to pick up his already-packed suitcase and says, “I have to go! Sorry!” and Sally chain-smokes furiously at him and Father Seventies Cop is like, “Sally, sometimes we think we see things – horrible things – because we’re just not feeling very special in this world,” and I give him a standing ovation and then he flees the house.
Sally chases him into the front yard all, “Don’t let it kill my children!” and Father Seventies Cop is like, “Sally, I’ve done everything I could. Let’s not do anything we both might regret.”
(What the hell did he mean by THAT? “The last family that wasn’t haunted by a demon, well, let’s just say that no one could connect the blood on their driveway to me and leave it at that,”) And Father Seventies Cop wades through the mulletted and aquanetted lookers-on and the real townspeople, by the way, thought this whole thing was HILARIOUS and the real general store started selling Ghostbusters candy to the tourists the Smurls were generating.
Sally, defeated, goes back inside. By nighttime, both Rick and Grandpa Smurl are sitting on the porch holding shotguns to keep the reporters at bay (AMURRICA!) and in the distance we suddenly hear people singing a hymn. It’s all of Sally’s church friends carrying candles and looking smarmy. They come and sit in the living room and sing more hymns. Sally’s voiceover tells us that “that prayer lasted longer than anything else, but finally we were forced to move – not because of the demon, but because of the never-ending attention”. In a WILD coincidence, Sally’s book has sold, and their new bigger house is ready. We watch everyone move in, and Sally stands in her living room happily surveying the boxes.
She hears Grandma Smurl calling her from the other room and says, “I’m in here, mom!” and then the growly-growl of the Sears Catalogue Lady starts up and QUICK FADE TO BLACK!
White text informs us that supernatural activity continued in the new Smurl home until a church sanctioned exorcism in May of 1989 ended their ordeal. (Or alternatively the oldest Smurlette turned 19 and moved out. Also no one EVER SAW THE SEARS CATALOGUE LADY AGAIN.)
This is one of those moments when I tell the tv, as I always do during shows about haunted houses, that all you have to do is get two cats. Get two cats, and your problems are immediately solved because it doesn’t matter how weird the sounds coming from the other parts of the house are, you can ALWAYS blame the cats and then all of your worries about Satan trying to French kiss you with dry ice just… vanish.