The legend of the demonic, incompetent babysitter
Saturday, July 18th, 2009
If you’d somehow failed to notice that babysitters have a bad rep, this Salon.com interview with Miriam Forman-Brunell about her new social history, Babysitter: An American History, is a splendid reminder.
Forman-Brunell is a woman who has clearly spent days watching and re-watching When a Stranger Calls, the 1979 horror movie that she says represents a certain culmination of an urban myth known as “The Babysitter and the Maniac”:
[In this legend], the children are upstairs usually asleep, and the babysitter gets a phone call asking her if she’s checked the children. She gets that phone call three times. After the third time she calls up the police to trace the call. He calls back and they call her to tell her that the man is in the house and that she has to get out of the house immediately. What usually happens is that she runs upstairs and finds the kids have already been murdered.
…That story gets circulated very widely, from coast to coast during the 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Kids actually contribute to the spread of it at summer camps and they share it as a true story. And finally by the end of the 1970s it gets made into a movie, “When a Stranger Calls” [starring Carol Kane as the babysitter]…
When I saw this film, I was quite impressed both by Carol Kane ability to bug out her gigantic eyes to convey fear. Lacking Forman-Brunell’s awareness of babysitter urban myths, I was also blown away by the originality of the twist. The Call, you see, was not just any call….
Sgt. Sacker: Jill, this is sergeant Sacker. Listen to me. We’ve traced the call… it’s coming from inside the house. Now a squad car’s coming over there right now, just get out of that house!
From inside the house! This made quite an impression on me. Partly because my brother, sister, and I did not have a bug-eyed babysitter who might conceivably drift off and let a killer infiltrate our Pleasantview split-level. The stalwart Judy, a future doctor, was a formidable teen who popped popcorn in a iron skillet and rarely, if ever, chatted with seductive strangers on our wall-mounted phone. Many years later, after ensuring that we did not get murdered, she married a man named Wyman. And still dropped by every Christmas with a box of Black Magic chocolates.
You know, I never questioned the the idea of chocolates called Black Magic until now. Maybe Judy was not so benign after all?
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