E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is a beloved family classic, the tale of a lonely young boy and a lost alien who form a deep, psychic connection and who, ultimately, have to say goodbye. Sweet, right? Touching. Tears. For Ronald Malfi, however, the film was a harrowing experience, akin to other Spielberg horror classics like Jaws or Poltergeist. Who knew that weird little alien with the glowing finger could be so terrifying?
Malfi is a Maryland-based author of horror, mystery and thriller novels. He is the recipient of several awards, including two Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Vincent Preis Horror Award. His works include 2011’s Floating Staircase and 2016’s The Night Parade. His latest book, Bone White, is out this month.
(Interview conducted by John Brhel)
CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: What is your “first fright?”
RONALD MALFI: Okay, first fright. My God, when I was a kid, I was scared of everything. Seeing E.T. in the theaters terrified me (I was around 5, I think). The guy in the Planter’s Peanut Man costume on the boardwalk was a thing of nightmares. And don’t get me started on clowns!
E.T. scared me, too.
It was that scene in the cornstalks! Where you first see E.T., and he screams and waves his arms. Goddamn, I watched the rest of the movie through my fingers.
The beginning is really spooky. You said you were around 5?
I was around 5 when E.T. was in the theaters. Funny thing: it was actually the first movie I “saw” in the theaters. I was born in ’82.
So what about E.T. scared you? He’s a cute alien…
Well, so, funny thing about E.T. Like I said, I was scared of everything when I was little. Who knows why? Yet I still loved horror stuff. I remember seeing a commercial for the old Creature from the Black Lagoon movie that they were going to show on TV, and it was going to be in 3-D, and you had to get glasses from McDonald’s or someplace. Well, I thought that was cool, and the creature was too stiff and fake-looking to be scary, so I ran to my mom and said I wanted to see “3-D.” Not knowing what I was talking about, my parents assumed I meant E.T. instead of “3-D,” and took me to the theaters. And as soon as the movie started, I knew it wasn’t the right one. And then when E.T. screams, I screamed, and nearly hit the roof of the theater.
I had a handprint on my face when we left because I watched the entire rest of the movie from between my fingers. Yet even though I was so scared, I was somehow drawn to it, too, and wanted to collect all the E.T. toys that came out around then, etc.
Funny that you wanted to see an actual horror movie and got afraid of this family sci-fi movie.
I know, right? But I think I wasn’t prepared for the realism of E.T. That’s like my daughter, she’s 6, and she loves the first two Ghostbusters, but was too frightened by the commercials of the new one to see it. To her, all that CGI crap looks real. It’s what resonates with her generation, while to her, the Marshmallow Man was like a muppet.
Do you think it was because it was about a family and took place in a suburban neighborhood? Like it could happen in your own backyard…
In hindsight, I think it was because I could really relate to the boy in the movie. I don’t recall how many other films put you in the shoes of a child until then, particularly in that type of film. I also think that’s why it has become such a classic and still resonates.
And even the camera angles—all those shots are low to the ground. Other than the mom, you don’t see another adult’s face until the end of the film. Like a Charlie Brown cartoon. But again, I screamed when my parents took me to see the first Muppet movie in the theater, so maybe I’m just a pussy.
Has your daughter seen E.T.?
Yes, she loves it. She’s seen it like 20 times.
She’s not scared of it?
No, she isn’t. She was terrified of Labyrinth, though. It’s always interesting to see which ones will scare her. I’ve showed her the first half of Gremlins a few times. I turn it off just before they turn bad.
So you think E.T. is still scary now? Or do you just look back and think, “Oh, I can’t believe I was afraid of that?”
It’s not scary now, I love it now. But I can certainly see why it was scary to me back then. Just look how terrified Elliott is in that movie. Man, I just related to it so much, that I felt that terror. It’s one of my favorite movies and I definitely get creeped out by the beginning still. Those dark woods, that eerie music.
But really, I think things like that are scary not because of what they are, but due to the person watching it. My mind always turned toward the dark side of stuff, the “what ifs” that creeped me out.
So why did this thing creep you out but also kind of intrigue you?
I think that’s how it is for some people—like gazing at a terrible car wreck. It’s horrible but you gotta watch. If it didn’t scare me, it wouldn’t have resonated as much as it did. It’s such a primal emotion—a reaction, really—and you don’t get more base than that. It’s pure.
What about E.T. the character. Was he scary himself?
At that age, anything different was scary. This creatures that looks real and acts real but is so strange, I couldn’t reconcile it. Not to belabor E.T.—I don’t want to bash the poor fellow—but that movie was only like one of a million that scared me when I was young.
Any more comments on E.T.? Anything you’d like to add?
Just that I wish I’d bought the original on DVD, and not the version Spielberg added all that digital shit to.