Growing up, we lived next door to an older couple who were raising their grandchildren. The couple’s son and daughter-in-law—the kids’ parents—had been killed in some sort of accident that none of the adults talked about when we kids were around. The two grandchildren were both in high school when my siblings and I were still in elementary school, so we never really hung around with them. But whenever they got bored with games or videotapes or books, their grandma would give them to my mom to see if they’d be suitable for any of us.
Being a reader, I kept a lot of the books. Most of the movies we had already—animated films from Disney, and random comedies. This was before DVD’s, and so these movies were videocassettes in official covers. Most of our own tapes were of shows and movies we’d recorded off of TV, or a copy of something that an aunt or uncle made for us. One day, though, one of the tapes we got from the neighbors was in a plain white box, with no writing and no labels on the tape.
Thinking it was probably a blank tape that hadn’t been used, we put it away in a junk drawer and forgot about it. My parents went out one day, leaving me and my siblings at home for a few hours—it was the middle of a summer day, and I was eleven years old. The twins were nine, and building a fort in the dining room with chairs because we weren’t allowed to swim in our pool with no adults around.
I was in the living room, and watching TV when I saw that the next movie coming on was going to be “Three Men and a Baby.” I didn’t like the movie itself so much as the legend about the ghost of the little boy that’s supposedly in it. Excited, I ran to get the blank videotape so I could show it to my friends later (okay, and to scare the twins with it, because they believed anything that I would tell them).
The reel inside the cassette showed that it had been partially played, and I rewound it so the movie would be at the very beginning of the tape. I had a few minutes before my movie started, so I decided I’d check the tape to see if I was actually recording over something else.
I pressed “play,” and the video started with a lot of static and lines running through it. Being a pro at it, I used the VCR remote to adjust the tuning until the picture became steady. There was nothing but black screen for a few moments, and then the picture came on to one of my favorite old TV shows: “Full House.”
There was no opening intro or credits, but the show itself started up right away. With one eye on the clock to see when the movie would start, I just wanted to know which episode this was; I had seen them all.
From the beginning, the episode didn’t seem right. There was only one camera being used, and so it literally moved from room to room on the set. The picture was shaky, too, as if the cameraperson wasn’t too steady. This episode—one I’d never seen before, to my surprise—involved the annoying neighbor, Kimmy Gibbler, and her crush on Uncle Jesse. She invited herself over to have a slumber party with DJ, but spent most of the time following Jesse around.
The actors weren’t right either; everyone said their lines very quietly and sadly, looking into the camera often as if pleading with the person behind it. They took pauses at the right moments to allow for audience laughter, but there was only silence as if they were taping on a closed set. In one part, the little girl Michelle had delivered a joke about the pizza they were eating. She paused for laughter that never came, then looked right into the camera and said, “I want to go home! Please?”
The show quickly became what I, even back then, recognized as inappropriate. It was night, and Kimmy tiptoed out of the girls’ bedroom into Uncle Jesse’s. She turned his light on and took off her robe to show her bra and underwear. Kimmy was shaking, and had tears running down her face as she said her lines. “I want you to be my first, Jesse,” she sobbed. “I’ll be so good for you. I promise.”
“Jesse” stood up and slowly moved toward her, as if to take her in his arms. At the last minute, he grabbed her robe from the floor and wrapped it around her, showing away from him. There were tears in his eyes as he looked into the camera and said, “I can’t, man. Come on. Please. We can’t do this.”
I jumped when the screen suddenly went black, as it had been at the beginning of the tape. The movie I wanted to tape would have been about fifteen minutes in, but I was no longer interested in watching that—or anything. I reached over to eject the tape, but as I did the picture came back on.
Now the entire family was in the Tanner family’s living room: Danny and Joey sitting in armchairs, DJ and Stephanie on the couch, and the twins who played Michelle were in a playpen. All of their mouths were covered with duct tape, and the men’s hands were tied behind their backs. DJ and Stephanie were tied to each other. The twins huddled in the playpen, holding each other and crying.
Kimmy was standing up, her arms in front of her—her wrists were taped together, and even more tape secured a large, shiny knife to her hands. She was looking into the camera again: “Please, don’t make me do this… I don’t want to do this!” The camera panned over to where the front door was; Jesse had had what must have been a sharpened broomstick stuck through his stomach into the door. Blood dripped down from his body onto the entryway.
Panning back to where Kimmy was, the camera went to a close-up of her shaking hands as she went up to first DJ, then Stephanie, and Joey and Danny, and shoved the knife deep into their throats, one by one. They thrashed and struggled, but the only sound was Kimmy’s hysterical screaming and crying. No words, only incredible fear.
Only the twins were left now, and they were staring wide-eyed and silent as Kimmy came closer to them. She screamed one last thing: “Why did you make me do this?” Awkwardly twisting her hands around, she shoved the knife deep into her own stomach and then collapsed on the floor. The tape went to black, and then to static.
Feeling sick, I pressed the fast-forward button, wanting to see if that was the end. It must have been a joke, or a prank of some sort—maybe a scary Halloween episode that they’d decided not to air?
Grateful that there was nothing else on the tape—and that my younger brother and sister hadn’t seen it—I took it out of the VHS and hid it in my bedroom. Later that night, when only my parents were awake, I brought it out and gave it to them. “This is something you gave us from (the neighbors),” I said, and started to cry. “I don’t like it! Please tell me it’s not real!”
I wasn’t the kind of kid who scared easily, so my parents were shocked to see me like that. “Of course movies aren’t real,” my dad said, giving me a hug as my mom went into the other room to see what was on the tape. She was only gone for a minute, and returned with a sickened expression on her face.
“It’s his,” she said to my dad cryptically, breaking the videocassette open and yanking out the actual tape as I stared. He seemed to understand what she meant, and, taking the tape from her hand, went out into the garage where his workshop was (to burn the cassette, I realized later).
My mom had me sit on the couch, and gently told me the story about the videotape. The man responsible had been our neighbors’ son—their grandchildren’s father—and had worked as a TV writer and cameraman for a long time. When the kids were in elementary school, the dad had started showing some signs of mental illness. His doctor believed it was just exhaustion from being overworked, and so the man took a vacation with the family that had seemed to help him relax.
It didn’t last long; after only a few weeks of being back at work, he was becoming irritated and emotional at everything. He was paranoid and believed that everyone he worked with was conspiring to “keep him down,” even demote him from his position. He felt that his contributions to the show weren’t appreciated, and that if only they would follow his vision they would have a guaranteed number one, every season onward.
One day, he snapped and held the cast and some of the crew hostage to make the episode that I had just watched. Everything had sure looked real to me, but my mom reiterated that all the blood and violence had been special effects. I guess it must have been… the show went on afterward, right?
The network suppressed the entire incident, and paid to have the man sent to a private psychiatric hospital where he could recover (if possible) in peace and secrecy. His wife went to visit him on a day when he was feeling low, and he killed her and then himself. That was how his kids came to live with his parents, who were mortified by the whole thing.
More than anything else, my mother made me promise to never mention the tape to the neighbor kids. They believed that the dad had died in a medical hospital with a contagious illness, and that the mom had been killed on the drive over to visit him. I would have slept a lot better the next few months if I’d been able to believe that too!