For five straight years of my pre-teen life, I spent each Saturday night at my paternal grandparents' home, glued to their pre-cable tube TV, absorbing the joys of Aaron Spelling's weekly double feature of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
The Love Boat, like much of late 1970s/early 1980s television, was frequently goofy but sometimes dramatic. Fantasy Island on the other hand, dealt with more primal, and often straight-up terrifying, matters. Even the theme music had a profound sense of melancholy and foreboding.
Episodes of Fantasy Island had two or three (usually unrelated) narrative threads in which guests of Mr. Rourke (Ricardo Montalban) and Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize) would visit the island to embark upon some kind of wish fulfillment journey, either remaining in a present-day alternate dimension or traveling to the future or the past.
One episode scared me so terribly that I repressed its existence until I ran across a description of it on the Internet. Season Two, Episode 7 contained three different fantasies, one of which was called "The Nightmare."
In this storyline, newlywed Janine Sanford (Pamela Franklin) is plagued by a nightmare from her childhood, one that has returned with a vengeance after her recent nuptials. She never makes it to the end of the nightmare, always waking up before discovering what it is she thinks she's supposed to learn.
Janine's husband not only believes that her fears related to the nightmares are well founded, he also supports her trip to the Island to deal with them. However, her father, business tycoon Colonel James Weston (Ray Milland), is skeptical, and worried that Janine's somnambulant searching might result in her death.
Mr. Rourke and his invisible coterie of insightful architects and interior decorators have recreated Janine's childhood home and her bedroom, right down to the toys in it. Janine lies on her twin bed and with the memory of Rourke's voice serving as an ersatz hypnotist, she falls asleep and immediately her nightmare begins.
You'd think a show that predated the TV Parental Guidelines by a couple of decades would be pretty tame, but you'd be wrong. All I could recall about this episode were the dolls, screaming and on fire, but it's so much more awful than that.
Perhaps the fish-eye lens is a bit hokey, but the creepy voice-over of a child talking to her dollies, in particular a marionette clown named "Toodles," is decidedly disturbing. When the dolls--including a cymbal-banging monkey toy--start moving around of their own accord and cackling, things take a turn for the worse.
"Toodles" becomes a life-sized, tongue-waggling clown, who lurches towards Janine so menacingly it freaked me out watching it on a computer screen during the daytime in the comfort of my own home. Eventually his head explodes. The wooden soldiers in the corner of Janine's bedroom are also suddenly enormous, and they advance upon her with bayonets raised. All the toys start exploding and catching on fire, and there's a tremendously weird close up of a doll's face melting. Janine tries to escape but is trapped by the fire and the terrifying toys. A giant skull floats into her field of vision, and in a distorted voice, shouts, "Help me! Jenny!" Janine wakes up screaming, like any sane person would.
"The Nightmare" displays elements of what Freud called "The Uncanny," in which things are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. This conflict instills a feeling of uneasiness, if not outright fear. It explains my lifelong fear of dolls and other inanimate, humanoid objects coming to life. You want to control them when you play with them; you don't want them to assert control of themselves.
Later, awake and back at the bungalow, Janine observes that something about the skull face was familiar. Colonel Weston doesn't want her to explore the nightmare any further, but Mr. Sanford accuses him of being "afraid about something she might find out."
It's all remarkably macabre, but unfortunately, the ending of the episode, in which Janine finally arrives at the end of the nightmare and determines its meaning, is a huge letdown after such a dramatic buildup.
Still, it's impressive how much the show was able to do with such primitive special effects. "The Nightmare" provides further confirmation that I will never have a clown marionette in my home.