Television programs and movies were so cliche in the 1980s that directors could have used cootie catchers to cast them. There was nothing to it. Adopted children on sitcoms were black, super-small, full of personality (and, in real life, had complicated medical histories) like this young man…
and this adorable little boy…
while villains in teen movies had feathered blond hair, cold, predator eyes, and strong chins like this guy…
and this intimidating fella.
To assemble a cast is to follow a formula, and formulas, as you know, are used in order to generate a consistent product. The product being manufactured then (as now) by movie directors was the audience member’s desired emotional response. The viewer watching the sitcom felt warm and affectionate toward the spunky, diminutive black child, perhaps even philanthropic for relating to the white family that had taken him in. The teen movie viewer felt satisfied to see his own revenge fantasy played out on screen – to see the handsome sociopath get his comeuppance square in the face; crane-style.
I was, as a child (and am, as an adult), generally okay with this sort of thing. Predictability is grounding when you’re sitting down for a little screen time. It is good at the onset to know what to expect. But then I saw my first horror movie, and I found out what all the tiny black boys and strong-chinned teen boys already knew: it’s no fun when your own appearance happens to fit one of the stereotypes.
I was not a particularly remarkable-looking child. I was not small and black like Gary Coleman, not hard-edged and dashing like James Spader. If there was anything striking about me, it was how very typical-looking I was. Average kids are the nuts and bolts of horror movies.
If directors want to evoke an emotional response from a viewer, and if the emotion desired is fear, than the perfect child to cast in a horror movie is an average child. Consider the Tobe Hooper classic, “Poltergeist:” when movie-goers see the Freeling family terrorized by ghosts, their fears are exacerbated by the fact that the family is so relatably average-looking. That could be us. That could be our son being strangled by a clown doll. Our daughter communicating with ghosts through the television set. Neither Gary Coleman nor a teenaged James Spader would have worked in that movie. Their appearances were too remarkable.
Anyway, “Poltergeist” was the first scary film I ever watched. I would have been seven years old by the time it ran on HBO in 1983, and why my parents let me watch it, I have no idea. I hope they are reading this now and feeling great shame. I hope the memory of letting me see that movie haunts them as much as that clown doll haunted me; that the thought of their neglect keeps them up at night, just as that demonic tree kept me up.
One Summer, and in the throes of my “Poltergeist”-induced PTSD, an obnoxious boy at day camp told me I looked like Carol Anne Freeling. To be quite accurate, he said, “You look like that girl on ‘Poltergeist,’ except fatter.”
“I do not!” I protested.
“Hey, she does!” everyone agreed. “Say, ‘They’re heee-re…'”
“I’m not saying that!” I tattled on my tormenters to one of the counselors, and he responded by agreeing with the stupid campers.
“Just say it, Ginger. Whats the big deal? Say ‘They’re here’ one time, and then we will drop it, okay?”
Not okay. I wasn’t about to say Carol Anne’s creepy line in an effort to get those kids off my back only to confuse the ghosts and get sucked through a portal in my closet. Force my mother to tie a rope around her waist and risk life and limb to come after me. Get covered in ectoplasm.
That is how it is when you have “one of those faces.” When I’m starved down I sometimes get told that I favor Reese Whitherspoon. Once when my weight was up someone told me I resembled Sally Struthers. A patient at the hospital said I looked like Sally Field, or rather “that flying nun.” Mary Chapin Carpenter, I’ve heard that quite a few times.
It doesn’t bother me anymore, getting compared to other people. I try not to worry so much about my appearance or how I look to others – that I am frighteningly common and familiar. I try, instead, to focus on how I interact. How I treat people. I can be uniquely kind. Remarkably friendly. (But Sally Struthers? The chick who said that is lucky I didn’t summons the evil t.v. spirits or set her house ablaze with my mind.)