Imagine it is 3:42 in the morning and sleep is beyond reach. You put your book aside and turned the light off just after midnight and since then you’ve been waiting for sleep like someone waiting for a package to be delivered. You didn’t want to get out of bed because you knew sleep was close and if you moved, if you tossed back the covers and left the bed, that’s when the delivery would finally come and you wouldn’t be there to receive it. But now, after three, you give up and get out of bed.
You take a thick terrycloth robe from the hook on the back of the bedroom door and go into the living room where you can make out the shape of your dog on the sofa under the windows looking out on a motionless street. Your dog looks up and watches you cross the room to the television set in the corner and turn it on, because you are not only imagining that it’s 3:42 in the morning, you’re also imagining that this is a morning before cable television and remotes.
The television warms up and the screen is filled with frantic blue and white confetti because you are also imagining a time when television stations “signed off” at some point, rested for a few dark hours before beginning the next day. You see yourself reaching for the station selector and you turn it, “thunking” through the stations and finding other screens full of luminous confusion and the forgotten shower sounds of white noise. The world is asleep, except for you. You’re the only one awake and this thought frightens you.
Another thunk and there is a picture on the screen and music from the speaker under the picture tube. The image is vague, folded over on itself. You take hold of the twin antennas, the rabbit ears, on top of the television cabinet and just touching them makes the picture clearer. Something about you helps bring it into focus.
You see blue gray sky and the darker blue gray of rocks and sand. Moving the antenna makes the image clearer, clear enough to see that the film is in bad shape. A forest of scratches hula across the emulsion of what looks like a muddy second or third generation print. The soundtrack hisses and pops. Thick splices thump through the gate as multiple reel cues pulse and strobe in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The image wobbles from the torn sprocket holes and careless abuse the film has suffered over the years.
You’re looking at something you’ve seen before. Not the movie, but the location. Rocks and hills and a lopsided opening in the face of a cliff. You recognize it as the place of Roman soldiers and Cavemen and wagon train assaults, a scene of lunar exploration and Bedouin camps. The place has a name, but you don’t know it. It’s called Bronson Caverns and it lies just inside the entrance to Griffith Park on Canyon Drive north of Hollywood Boulevard.
You back away from the television, watching to make sure the image doesn’t complain at your withdrawal, and sit in the chair that once belonged to your father. Your dog turns on the sofa and curls up with his back to the screen. He sighs.
The light from the television set fills the room like blue fire. A 1958 Ford Thunderbird convertible pulls up to the cave entrance. The driver's door opens and a pair of very nice legs comes into view. The owner of the legs steps out of the car.
She looks vaguely familiar to you the way people in old movies often do. She is twenty-four-years-old, fair of face and comely of figure. She has platinum blonde hair that frames her face with carefully sculpted waves. Her cheek are round, almost like a child’s. Inside the blue box in your living room it is 1958 when women had shapes. This woman has substance. She wears a tight white sweater over a bra with distinctly conical cups, a tight, belted skirt that cuts her at the knee and high-heeled shoes with straps circling her trim ankles. The perfect outfit for spelunking.
Her name is Dorothy Marie Kollinsdorf, but on those rare occasions she is listed in the credits of the films in which she appears, she is identified as Dottie Colliers.
You sit there with your dog and it all seems tantalizingly familiar; the girl, the cave, the thinly orchestrated music of foreboding. It feels like a remembered dream. Which it is. It’s a movie.
Dottie turns toward the camera then reaches into the car and takes out a shotgun. She squares her shoulders and heads for the cave.
Now the image is from inside the cave, Dottie’s approach is framed by the ragged opening in the rock.
Something is happening to the image. The more you focus on the girl whose name you don’t know, the more you study her face, her fully made-up lips which you assume most be bright red, the more the quality of the print starts to improve. It’s as if your attention to her is restoring the movie that contains her. The soundtrack is getting clearer, the image more stable.
Dottie pauses at the mouth of the cave, her face fearful, but determined. She listens to the moaning wind and the echoing drip of water. It’s not safe. You don’t want her to go in there. You don’t want anything to happen to her. Because in the space of barely a minute you have fallen in love with this pretty girl who for all you know is long dead by now and certainly no longer looks the way she does in this movie, this image which seems to be expanding in your living room, growing beyond the blue television screen and taking on more detail.
Dottie breaks open the shotgun and checks to make sure it’s loaded, then she closes it and steps into the cave, darkness swallowing her.
The cave forms itself in the shadows of your living room as Dottie makes her cautious progress and soon the room you thought you were in is gone. You have grown smaller. Not just smaller, younger, and you are looking up now, looking up at Dottie and those remarkable breasts looming over you as she reaches a fork in the passageway and chooses one of the branching tunnels.
You lose sight of her for a moment. You’re looking at the rock face she’s just passed when you see the shadow on the wall of the cave. The shadow of a terrible claw, something from a grotesque Lovecraftian crab. You see this in frightening detail because the footage has continued to improve. The scratches are gone and the contrast is much better; you can see a million different degrees of gray.
She is alone in the cave and you are alone with her. There are others around you in the dark, other kids. Mostly boys. But you are alone with her with that blonde hair, those beautiful mascaraed eyes, lips the color of dark sweet chocolate, that remarkable shape.
A noise. Dottie turns. Her eyes open wide.
You see it now, the thing behind her in the cave. The thing between her and escape. It’s a squat, eggplant of a creature with arched eyebrows, impossible fangs, arms terminating in those awful claws. It has no visible feet and shuffles toward Dottie as someone inside the costume pushes this concoction of rubber and papier-mâché forward.
You might think the thing foolish, a scarecrow, and nothing to fear…except for Dottie’s reaction to it. It might look like a funhouse gargoyle to us, but Dottie sees it as the living Satan. She opens that beautiful mouth into a marvelous lipstick defined “O” and lets out a terrific scream that caroms around the cave as the soundtrack blossoms. Her scream chases away the last of the print damage and locks your hands on the seatback in front of you.
Dottie brings up the shotgun and lets the menacing cucumber have it with both barrels. The gun has no effect. The monster holds out a wobbly claw. You watch Dottie take hold of the claw, ostensibly to fight it off, but it looks more like she has to help the beast put the deadly pincer around her own neck.
Dottie screams, the monster shudders. You want to run, you want to save her, you want to save her so she’ll be forever grateful to you, but you can’t move. And even if you could, how would you get to her, how would you get on the other side of the screen? How would you be able to get through and get close to her and discover that the only perfume she wears because of allergies is a drop of vanilla extract behind each ear?
You lean forward, wanting to reach out to her, and it is at that moment the screen goes black, followed by a blast of white and the rude raspberry of empty soundtrack as numbers and letters flash by too fast to read as the tail leader of the reel runs through the last cogs.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.