Looking Back on 'The Watcher in the Woods,' the Proto-'Stranger Things'

The eerie and surprisingly resonant 1980 film about a girl who gets sucked into another dimension is a forebear to Netflix's hit show.

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Oct 29 2016, 4:00am

Photo courtesy of 'The Watcher in the Woods'

As a kid, my life was a combination of scary and surreal. I was a child actor, so I spent many of my days trying to eat dyed-pink mashed potatoes and pretending they were strawberry ice cream. I was also the daughter of an alcoholic, so I spent many nights trying to be cute and obliging while pretending I wasn't freaked out. As a result, scary movies never had much appeal to me. I knew that everything I saw on TV and movies was fake, and I also knew that fear was something I wanted to experience less of, not more.

With 1980's The Watcher in the Woods, though, all of that went out the haunted window. The plot of the film is simplistic, if nonsensical, to the point where three completely different endings were made for it. The gist: About 30 years before the story begins, four friends were doing a creepy ceremony in a cathedral during a complete solar eclipse. Something went wrong, causing one of them, Karen, to be sucked into another dimension never to be seen again. Until, of course, decades later, when a nice family moves into the giant English manor where Karen grew up.

Karen's mother, thrillingly played by Bette Davis, still lives on the property. She agrees to let this nice family move in because the older daughter, Jan, bears a passing resemblance to her missing daughter. Jan immediately begins seeing visions of Karen in every reflective surface, trapped and blindfolded and begging for help. To amplify the creepiness, Jan's little sister, Ellie, begins writing backward all over everything and intoning indecipherable warnings with a cold, dead stare.

It might not sound that scary on paper, but I found it so affecting that thinking of certain scenes can still turn my blood to ice. This terror was echoed by many of my friends when I reached out to see if I was alone in my fear of this PG movie.

"I saw it at some day-camp or rec-center thing," recalled Amy Campbell, a 40-year-old singer-songwriter. "And I remember thinking, I should not be allowed to be watching this. How am I allowed to be watching this!?"

Emily Comeau, a 35-year-old visual artist, shared her incredulity, "It was a family classic at our place. At one point, there is a jump scare with a clown that made me lose my mind. I screamed for so long, even after they shut the movie off."

'Stranger Things.' Photo courtesy of Netflix

For the next three decades, The Watcher in the Woods was the only horror media I had an emotional connection with. I would watch it on Halloween every time I found a new person who hadn't seen it yet. But I still did my best to avoid every other scary movie or book or TV show—until this summer when I decided to watch Stranger Things. (Spoilers for that show ahead.) A quick skim of available plot summaries had made it sound like it probably wasn't nightmare fuel, and everyone I know seemed to love it without reservation.

It helps that Stranger Things is set in the 80s, when The Watcher in the Woods was made, but there are a lot more similarities. Both revolve around the mysterious disappearance of a kid who, it turns out, is trapped in a parallel universe. Both build a sense of dread through flashes of images and suggestion, rather than through prolonged gory scenes. And both feature a cross-section of kids/teens and adults working together on an issue.

Although I wouldn't have known it at the time, this last element is likely what caused my childhood brain to latch onto the movie so strongly. After some convincing, the adults in Jan's life do come to believe her when she tells them what she has been experiencing and what she thinks needs to happen in order to fix it. This was the exact opposite of my own experience growing up. My dangers were much more pedestrian, taking the shape of a volatile mother and a sexually abusive stepfather rather than a faceless monster or terrifying visions. But even so, every adult I worked up the courage to talk to was at best dubious and at worst unconcerned.

I'm aware of the ripple effects of these experiences, but I was still surprised by my strong reaction to a scene where the Stranger Things kids are hesitant to tell Sheriff Hopper what they think has happened to their missing friend. "You won't believe us," one of them sighs. "Try me," Hopper replies, and I burst into tears on my couch.

The Watcher in the Woods and Stranger Things had a similar emotional impact on my friend Beth Lewis, a 40-year-old policy advisor in Halifax, though for different reasons. "After The Watcher in the Woods, I remember obsessing for a really long time about the possibility that any of us could be transported to another dimension, and maybe come back," she said. "It made me think a lot about all the people in my life who had died, mainly my dad. When we started watching Stranger Things, it transported me back to that age and those anxious, but also hopeful feelings."

After my weird and perilous childhood, "anxious and hopeful" is sort of where I landed. I'm thankful that Watcher in the Woods and Stranger Things tell a story that shows those feelings can still be at the center of a happy ending. You just need people around you who will always believe you about your experiences, no matter how unlikely they sound.

Follow Audra Williams on Twitter.

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