The Screams of Susanna Blush Will Haunt My Every Nightmare

Ahoy and a Happy Halloween to you all! Since it’s that special time of year, I thought we'd break the champagne bottle on the hull of this blog with a minor dissection of the very thing that introduced my young self to the notion of fear. And when we reference 'fear' in this space, I demand that you pronounce it in the theatre of your mind with all the weight and respect it deserves: fea-uh. 

‘The specter of mine words shall haunt thee until thou art consumed by FEA-UH!’ 

And when you say the above to your loved-ones, really slow-burn it like Alan Arkin, and then make that last bit a volcanic EXPLOSION of diction! It helps make your point, even if you don’t actually have one.

When I think back on it, I can only imagine my parents must have been baffled; there they were, exhausted by being a part of the early 1980s and looking for a solid hour-and-a-half of quiet time. Thinking they’d find it by putting their four-year-old in front of the television, they then cued up the Don Knotts masterwork The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Oh, they got their quiet time all right—I was completely engrossed by this cinematic triumph, as I was with almost anything that was on the television. But my parents could not have possibly predicted my sleeplessness, my all-consuming terror that demanded they sit on the foot of my bed until I fell asleep that night. I couldn’t deal with it, this collection of dreadful feelings suddenly stirring in my raw animal-brain, and I still remember and can be affected by it. 

Quality plot-summaries of this film have been posted elsewhere, so I'll direct you to one if you want to know what it's all about. Go ahead and read this one right now.

You didn't read it, did you. I get it, this is all a lot of words, so here's the briefest of recaps: 

Luther Heggs is a nervous guy with a heart of gold who is wrangled into writing a column for the local paper about spending the night in a dilapidated manor allegedly haunted by the ghost of a madman who once stabbed his wife in the throat with some garden shears before jamming on his pipe organ and throwing himself out a window. Luther's story is called into question since he has a reputation as a teller of tales, and he is brought to trial for libel by a relative of the deceased, where he is made to look like an idiot in front of seemingly everyone he has ever known. Um... hilarity ensues?

No, but seriously, this is a very funny picture, and one that I think holds up even now if you like the comedy of that era—the script got an uncredited punch-up from Andy Griffith himself, so it can't be that bad, right? It has laughs, but it also has frights—the haunted house, the ghostly murderer, the organ that plays itself—as adults we might make fun of these things as clichés, but they're clichés because they work. I mean, if you're a kid experiencing these things for the first time, this movie is a real grab-bag of creepy feelings.

So let's put ourselves in the mind of a four-year-old. Let's forget we know this is a comedy—the notion of genre has no meaning as it is partially defined by the repetition of tropes and themes. Let us pretend that our cultural memory doesn't exist, and our cognition is coming from the emotional vacuum of youth. If we view the film through this filter, the sight of Don Knotts does not conjure up memories of Barney Fife wearing that hat with the earflaps while he pretends to be a department store mannequin in an attempt to catch a shoplifting old lady; we do not naturally assume we are in for a comedy. Let us analyze the truly salient, scare-inducing moments found in the first three-and-a-half minutes of the film—three-and-a-half minutes which somehow stretched out into epic proportions in my four-year-old mind and ever since.

The fear begins immediately with the booming overture of Vic Mizzy's score, which blasts out in grand, brassy fashion over the classic Universal earth logo before pausing as we transition to an actual dark and stormy night. Now, whether you realize it or not, we all know The Miz (as he is referred to by no one), because The Miz wrote the Addams Family theme, but here he composes as though he has something to prove. The gaseous globe tension hook is soon resolved by a groovy-yet-menacing bass line that continually bounced around my head as a boy—it's pretty catchy, sitting a mere micron away from the Munsters' theme, thusly completing the nuclear ghoul-family ouroboros of the mid-1960s. It neatly compliments the spooky visuals of unknown headlights and lightning flashes before transitioning to the xylophone-laden Luther Heggs theme.

Here we find our hero, Luther, motoring into Rachel, Kansas, the perfect picture of a small-town rube. The hat, the bowtie, the vacant bug-eyes—it’s all there, the architecture of an everyman who will undoubtedly find himself pulled and manipulated by forces beyond his control. We laugh at him because he looks goofy and twitches with anxiety, but deep down that laughter is a false projection of bravado forever denying our own insecurities in the face of tumultuous events.

But before this guilt-ridden emotional lying, up comes the title card, written in one of the more unsettling mixtures of fonts I've ever seen—it’s angular, it's top-heavy, it has some wavy boldness happening; the notion of a font being scary might seem ludicrous, but do we not shiver and/or sigh at the sight of an email written in all caps? Are we not exhausted by a lack of punctuation? Something as simple as the lettering of an effective title card immediately sets the tone—it is off-putting without being overly-cartoony.

It also fills the screen, and this is key; the film was shot using a process called Techniscope, which was sort of a budget version of VistaVision, and creates an effect of very widescreen-ness. While this sort of canvas allowed for epic shot-framing akin to that of Lawrence of Arabia, it also meant that the televised versions of these films ended up being shadows of their former selves as they were cropped to fit the boxy aspect-ratio of television. To compensate for this, my in-depth research (I did a once-over on the first page of some Google results) revealed that Universal would sometimes maintain the original aspect ratio in order to preserve the credits as-is in order to keep them from being cut off mid-name. 

At this stage of home-viewing, with the advent of DVD and Blu-Ray, along with a greater respect for the medium on purely artistic terms and the subsequent trend of better preserving the creators' visions, we have become accustomed to the black bars that frame a film's proper canvas, but in the early 1980s, when I first saw the movie, this was not the standard. In this case, Universal would use an odd curly-cue design to fill the space later designated for the black bars. I scoured the internet for a screen-capture of this but was unable to find one, so we'll have to rely on my ancient impressions: basically, the curly-cue design reminded me of wrought-iron grating, or of a pattern found lining the bottom of a Victorian sofa—it was something of another time, and sometimes there is nothing so fear-inducing as being submerged in an unfamiliar era. 

The haunted aspect-ratio bars become representative of our greater chronological disconnect found in watching a film made in 1966 referencing ghastly events that transpired 20 years before that, in a haunted mansion presumably built long before that. Indeed, our sense of what scientists refer to as “the willies” is amplified to an extreme later in the film when our hero spends the night inside the dusty manor and finds himself surrounded by gaudy wallpaper designs and ornate fireplace andirons—it is a house haunted by excessive wainscoting as much as it is by the ghost of Old Man Simmons.

But to really put you where we need to be, consider: we’re less than three years beyond Kennedy’s death and across the pond the Beatles are being dosed with lysergic acid by a dentist of dubious medical ethics, but in small-town America things are just starting to transition into something hip and mod. This is a completely different time than our own. 

Some men still wear dress hats and walk with the posture of those who have defeated the Nazis, while women speak of their floral prints from Belsen’s at the local boarding house. Edsels roam the streets like underwhelming, migrant living rooms, and Susanna Blush falls asleep watching Lawrence Welk, who serves as the cultural mouthpiece for a generation that is about to be rudely shoved aside by a herd of long-hairs wearing aggressively tight pants and white belts with the buckles turned off to the side. 

Ah, Susanna Blush—until my last breath, I will remember her inexplicably bending out of her bedroom window, clad in a robe and curlers, nosing into everybody's business and watching as the town drunk (Mayberry's own Otis!) is clocked on the head by a mysterious two-by-four, which emerges from the bushes outside the Simmons Mansion. And whenever my dreams are tormented by night terrors, they will be filled with her screams of “Murder! MURDER! Help! A man's been MURDERED!” and so on and so forth, though really it's that last “HELP!” she draws out as she ducks back inside that is so chilling, so visceral, so true... to quote Luther himself, I'll never get over it as long as I live. Yes, we soon find out she's a very good comedic actress, but when she cries out in this moment, she is selling it. It is truly the sound of a person coming unhinged, and it is ghastly.

From there, the scene plays out in fidgety, Knottsian fashion, ending with a beat that made me cringe as a child: Luther hops back into his trusty Teletouch-trannied steed to roust the local law enforcement, and Susanna Blush—still waxy-faced and freaking out—slams the door on his hand. I don't think it's too much of a reach to say that kids, with their limited accumulation of human experiences and feelings, are kind of stupid, and as such may not be able to process some of the subtler nuances found in adult storytelling. But they sure as hell know that a 900 pound metal door being violently thrown into delicate bones and nerve endings will really, really hurt. The foley might not actually be there, but the imagined sound of Luther's phalanges snapping apart like so many dried birch twigs will echo through the darker recesses of my brain in perpetuum. 

From there, the horrors only continue—no one believes Luther's story about what he sees at the Simmons mansion, he is perpetually shamed and condescended to by his peers, and is even put on trial and made to look like a fool before the entire town. And that's not even including the actual 'ghost,' who plays a blood-stained pipe organ at midnight, recalling the details of a grisly murder-suicide spoken of with relish by the town's elders. Blood-soaked paintings and droning minor-key fugues? Fun for the whole family! 

I don’t know, maybe I just have an attachment to the thing because it really messed with my neural paths in those formative years, but I’ll leave it for you to decide:

Also, as a side-note for those of you who have seen this movie: I call no way on the Luther-Alma marriage—yes, the pickings might be slim in Rachel, Kansas, but seriously... no town is that small. Alma is not settling here so much as she is collapsing into a punishing sinkhole of regret. Though I’m sure if you asked most women, there’s nothing like the notion of winding up hitched to a noodly man doing karate to make you feel it—you know what I’m talking about… Fea-uh.