Mary thinks there is something alive under her bed. Mary is right!
Hoping to recover from the death of her older sister, young Mary and her family move into a new home for a fresh start. Things go horribly wrong on the very first night, however, as Mary begins to hear disembodied voices and her bed erupts in flame. It isn't long before Mary discovers the source of her troubles is the restless spirit of her dead sister Jennifer, an apparition which no one else but Mary can see. As the rest of the family begins to question Mary's sanity, eventually sending her to a psychiatrist, the dead Jennifer changes her tone, becoming Mary's confidant and co-conspirator. Her mental state deteriorating under the ghost's influence, Mary is ultimately convinced to murder her grandmother, brother, and father through a series of staged accidents. Finally taken to a mental institution after threatening her mother with a pizza cutter, Mary is diagnosed with multiple personalities and is committed indefinitely. With her family decimated, Mary's mother is left with nothing but to return to the now empty house, mourn her lost loved ones, and wonder what she could have done to save her little girl from this sad mental state. But as the mother is to learn, while her youngest daughter may indeed be insane, she may not have been lying.
"There is no end to the old houses, with resounding galleries, and dismal state-bedchambers, and haunted wings shut up for many years, through which we may ramble, with an agreeable creeping up our back, and encounter any number of ghosts, but (it is worthy of remark perhaps) reducible to a very few general types and classes; for, ghosts have little originality, and "walk" in a beaten track." Charles Dickens wrote that, and for the most part, he was right. Who am I to tell Dickens he doesn't know anything about spooks?) Ghost stories have been around as long as man has, and it seems to be getting harder and harder to make them effective, much less original. (One more dead wet Asian girl and I just might swear off the sub-genre forever.) So when I tell you I actually found a ghost story that is, for the most part, both effective and original, I wouldn't blame you for doubting me. Especially since the story in question comes in the form of a mostly forgotten made for broadcast television movie featuring Valerie Harper and Dennis Weaver. (A horror movie starring Rhoda and McCloud; yeah, that sounds exciting.) But keep in mind that Don't Go To Sleep comes from the 70s/early 80s, an era which, while certainly not golden, was much less craptacular than the present day when it comes to made-for-TV fare. Rather than being stuck with modern debacles like, say, Man-Thing, you once could turn on the tube and catch a solid B-movie with decent acting and the occasional unexpected twist.
Now despite that, Don't Go To Sleep actually does cruise along for awhile as your standard seen-it-all-before haunting scenario (angry ghost terrorizes clueless family) with requisite creepy whisperings and inexplicable accidents. Even when Mary's bed erupts in flame, the family doesn't quite seem to catch what's going on. ("Kid shouldn't have been smoking in bed." quips the reliably uber-crotchety Ruth Gordon as the grandmother.) It's only when the spirit of Jennifer inexplicably turns friendly that things start to get interesting. From that point on two things happen. One, you learn that the family which seems to be crumbling apart since Jennifer's death may not have been in too good a shape before the accident. And two, you start to wonder if Jennifer's ghost is really just a figment of the imagination of a little girl who might just be nutty as a fruitcake. This is mainly because you never really see the ghost do anything, it's Mary who carries everything out. She puts the iguana in grandma's bed causing the old woman to have a heart attack. She opens the window which knocks her brother off the roof. (Robbed of using gore by the restrictions of television, the movie not-so-subtlety cuts from the boy falling to his mother dropping a watermelon on the kitchen floor with a thudding wet splat.) She tosses the radio into the tub and electrocutes her father. And she sure as heck is the one who terrorizes her mother with a pizza cutter. The movie holds out the real possibility that Mary is psychologically scarred from the troubles which were present in her family long before Jennifer met her demise.
It's those familial troubles which are the real heart of the movie because, as we come to learn, they're the reason Jennifer died in the first place. How so? Well, it goes something like this. Grandma kept the family out late one night while feeding dad drinks, a really bad idea since dad was kind of an alcoholic to begin with. As the family finally leaves grandma's house, the old buzzard heaps love and praise on Jennifer while apparently oblivious to the existence of the other two children. ("No kisses, no kisses!" Mary laments later while strapped in her strait jacket.) Mom ignores all of this because, well, mom ignores any problem she doesn't want to admit is real, and so she doesn't even offer to drive home. Mary and her brother, meanwhile, decide to play a prank on the favored Jennifer by tying her shoelaces together as she sleeps. This would be harmless enough if only dad didn't (you guessed it) wreck the car. Jennifer gets tangled up trying to get out and Mary, getting in one last dig, slams the door in her face before she can yell for help. And then the car blows up and Jennifer dies a horrible fiery death. Basically, what it boils down to is that every single member of the family has a part in Jennifer's fate. It's kind of like the old Peter Seller's movie A Shot In The Dark in which every single person but the actual suspect ends up being a murderer. Except this one isn't played for laughs.
Of course, we don't learn any of this until the last fifteen minutes of the movie. All of this comes out as Mary is already safely tucked away in a rubber room (and that's no cliche, she's in an actual rubber room) being interviewed by a psychiatrist. And I have to say that little Robin Ignico, who plays Mary, looks about as unhinged in this scene as a person can. (One fixed glare from the strait-jacketed Mary and a dozen dead wet Asian girls would flee in abject terror.) In fact, if it weren't for the last 30 seconds of the movie, in which Jennifer rises at the foot of her mother's bed with a gleeful "Hello, Mommy!", it would be easy to accept that there never was a ghost at all, just a seriously disturbed little girl driven to murder her family due to neglect and guilt. But even with the reveal that the ghost exists and has been exerting some influence on Mary, there's no getting around the fact that the real reason the little girl ends up in the nuthouse is because of the state of her family.
The best way I can think of to accentuate this point is to compare the family in Don't Go To Sleep to the family in the theatrically released Poltergeist from the same year. (An apt comparison, not just because of the haunted house scenario, but also because young Oliver Robins plays the orthodontically challenged little brother in both movies.) The family in Poltergeist is set upon by a legion of ghosts, some of which physically assault them, and yet they manage to emerge relatively unscathed. In contrast, the family in Don't Go To Sleep has only one ghost to contend with, one which never touches them, and yet they all die. (Except for Mary, of course, but her exile to an asylum is no victory.) Why such two disparate endings? The biggest difference appears to be that the forces amassed against the family in Poltergeist all come from the outside rather than as a result of their own actions. The haunting only serves to bring the already solid family even closer together, which in turn gives them the strength to weather the assault. In Don't Go To Sleep, however, the threat is internal, a direct consequence of the broken relationships already present within the household. Each individual family member is so absorbed in their own despair and so eager to escape any personal blame for Jennifer's death that no effort is made to come together and confront the problem until it's far too late.
Viewing the two movies side by side, you get a pretty powerful statement on the importance of strong family relationships and the need for unity in times of trouble. (Powerful enough that Poltergeist II, made 4 years later, would to a certain degree ape the "disintegrating family" storyline of Don't Go To Sleep, right down to the drunk father and indecisive mother. Of course, Poltergeist II had a much bigger budget and didn't star Dennis Weaver's mustache, so chances are you probably remember it instead of Don't Go To Sleep.) "There is no family that does not know how selfishness, discord, tension and conflict violently attack and at times mortally wound its own communion: hence there arise the many and varied forms of division in family life." wrote Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Exhortation entitled Familiaris Consortio. "But, at the same time, every family is called by the God of peace to have the joyous and renewing experience of "reconciliation," that is, communion reestablished, unity restored... The family communion can only be preserved and perfected through a great spirit of sacrifice. It requires, in fact, a ready and generous openness of each and all to understanding, to forbearance, to pardon, to reconciliation." All of these things are noticeably missing in the family in Don't Go To Sleep, and the final consequences are devastating.
It's not a bad idea to keep in mind the Pope's suggestions for preserving our families from the inside as there are many in the Church who feel that ALL families are already under attack from the outside. Take Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. for instance. He writes that "The Catholic family in super-developed countries like the United States is on trial for its existence... The signs of disintegration of once-flourishing family life in the Western world are so clear that only the willfully blind can fail to see them. The divorce rate in countries like the United States is astronomical. The birth rate is below survival level, with zero and less than zero population ratios becoming commonplace. Millions of couples are simply co-habitating, without exchanging marriage vows. Contraception has been reduced to an exact science, and infidelity has become a fine art. Fornication is no longer considered a sin, and sexual love-making in courtship is minutely described in sex-education programs indoctrinating millions of children and young people in our schools." Later on his essay, Fr. Hardon also throws in same sex sexual relationships and abortion into the mix just to make sure he's covered all the bases. The good Father makes no mention of angry, revenge seeking ghosts (not even the ubiquitous dead wet Asian kind), but it's still a pretty impressive list of threats to the concept of the traditional family.
Well, at least to the traditional family as Catholicism defines it. The Catechism matter of factly states that "a man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family." Obviously, these days, this "narrow" definition is rejected by a significant number of secular philosophies, non-Christian religions, and even some Christian sects. The modern challenge to Catholics is to make a convincing argument that the larger pluralistic society benefits more from keeping the traditionally defined family intact than it does from expanding the definition. (The Catechism seems to think the benefits are real. "The importance of the family for the life and well-being of society entails a particular responsibility for society to support and strengthen marriage and the family. Civil authority should consider it a grave duty "to acknowledge the true nature of marriage and the family, to protect and foster them, to safeguard public morality, and promote domestic prosperity.") But how to make that argument?
Well, using facts is usually a good approach. Take Peter Wood, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Boston University and the author of the book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, for example. Discussing the traditional family in the July 28, 2003 issue of the American Conservative, he points out that his chosen field of Anthropology "guards a treasure house of examples of what happens when a society institutionalizes other arrangements. Want to know what it really means for a society to recognize “gay marriage”? Or for a society to permit polygamy? Or when the stigma on out-of-wedlock birth disappears? Care to know what happens to a human community that tolerates sexual experimentation among pre-adolescents and teenagers? Are fathers and mothers really interchangeable? Anthropology actually has a large amount of empirical evidence on all these matters... Humanity has been experimenting with ways to organize itself into viable social groups for many millennia. Almost any combination of sexual partners has been institutionalized somewhere and often in multiple places." After noting a few lengthy examples of cultures which approved and promoted non-traditional marital relationships, almost always to the detriment of women and children, Professor Wood concludes that "the anthropological evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of those who argue that large social consequences follow from a society’s decisions about which sexual practices are legitimate. The rules that govern marriage and sexual relations are, directly and indirectly, the basis of family life and have enormous influence over the formation of good [or bad] character in children. Marriage channels the primary relations between the sexes and the generations, and it is the template for most other relations in society. This is true not just in the United States. It is true everywhere. Alter the rules of marriage, and society will reshape itself around the new situation. But it doesn’t necessarily reshape itself in the ways that the reformers hoped." (I can't imagine how many times a day, an hour even, God must sigh, "See,I told'em so.")
The individual family, it seems like such a small thing. But the state of the family is the state of the world. Even Confucius noted long ago that "to put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right." (Smart guy. You think he would have been able to do something to prevent all those dead wet Asian girls.) Bringing it a little closer to home, Fr. Hardon puts it this way, "Where the Christian family - the Catholic Christian Family - is strong, the Catholic Church is strong. Where the family is weak, the Church is weak. Where the family is struggling for survival, the Church is struggling for survival. Where the Catholic family is dying, the Catholic Church in those cultures and countries is dying." With that kind of responsibility riding on how we conduct ourselves within on our on homes, we have to maintain constant vigilance over ourselves and our familial relationships. Don't go to sleep!
As I'm finishing up writing this, the Fox Network is continuously running advertisements showcasing the Moment Of Truth episode in which some moron (purposely?) ruins her marriage on national television for a chance to win one million dollars. Anyone want to try to convince me the institution of marriage still holds the respect in this country it once did?