Adulthood is weird. People who you’ve known to be children all your life are suddenly adults, and so are you. People, for instance, that you’ve seen do keg stands, or rail Adderall, do things like buy houses or procreate and make children. People who you know for a fact still sleep with a teddy bear are responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in commercial transactions each day. You know they’re not mature enough for that. You know YOU’RE not mature enough for that. But one day everyone older than you will be dead and so we are all collectively faking it until we make it.
Recently, my “adult” friends and I sat down in their new home to watch a scary movie, and in our newfound maturity, selected Wait Until Dark – an Audrey Hepburn thriller from 1967. Audrey Hepburn isn’t who you really go to when you think 60’s horror. Tippi Hedren, maybe, but Audrey was more of a romance gal, and when Wait Until Dark introduces her and her tension with her husband as they both come to terms with her blindness, it seems like this movie might not pull off “scary” the way we’re used to.
Based on a stage play by the same name, Wait Until Dark takes place almost entirely in one railroad apartment on the ground floor in NYC where Susy lives with her husband – and on the street outside. There’s a weird moment (that’s never addressed at all) where Susy breaks down and asks her husband if she “has to be the world’s most talented blind woman” and he just says “YES” and leaves. The tone, overall, is not really something a bunch of kids would settle in for on horror movie night.
But kids we are not. We are adults now. Just because a movie starts slow doesn’t mean we give up. Maybe it’s that we have homes to protect now, or that we know what it’s like to live life in a set of defined environments that rarely change. That we know now what it’s like to be randomly deceived, to end up on the wrong end of something for no reason other than coincidence. Or maybe it’s because we don’t know if we could take it on alone. If we were well and truly trapped – no phone, no neighbor kid, no eyesight – and we knew someone bad was coming for us – could we defend our home turf? No matter the reason, as the story grew long and twisted, and we the audience were trapped by more and more information that Susy didn’t have, we adults were silent and huddled together in fear.
Technically, what happened to Susy could happen to anyone. Her husband accidentally picked up a package meant for some bad people, and those bad people spun a story to try to get it back from her. But as they tried to break down Susy’s trust in her husband and took advantage of her lack of eyesight, they underestimated her and her ability to build a picture of her surroundings, and her ability to inspire trust and loyalty in others. Even one of the criminals comes to care for her in the end.
What follows is one of the best movie twists of all time. M. Night Shyamalan wishes he came up with how this movie ends. All of a sudden the tone shifts – instead of slowly and subtly building logical cases against her assailants, Susy has to rush and fight for her safety, in her own home, barred from leaving or calling the police, and with the knowledge that there’s nobody upstairs or outside who can help her. Susy’s clever untangling of the truth and adamant defense of the heroin-filled doll hidden in her home are both suddenly rendered moot and the movie becomes much more recognizable as a thriller.
Seated in a semi-circle around the television, in an otherwise mostly-empty mansion, my friends and I were more unsettled by Wait Until Dark than we’d planned to be. We all gasped, jumped, and cowered in turn together, listening to the wind outside. When the movie ended, we were uncharacteristically silent for a time, before bursting into nervous chatter together to fill the quiet space. We joked about how now, we all had to return to our homes, alone. How there might be a bad guy waiting behind the fridge or in the closet. How if nobody hears from us, they should assume we’ve been murdered.
But we weren’t really joking – we were scared.
Because unlike a lot of horror movies, there wasn’t a single unrealistic monster in this film. We could be trapped, perhaps not as easily, but as effectively as Susy was, and have to struggle with our attacker just to survive. We all have domains to protect now, and to a certain degree, have to rely on our own raw ability to do so. Could we?
Later that night, in my first-floor, railroad NYC apartment, my life overlapped in setting with Susy’s almost entirely. I looked at my home. Could I defend it? If I were being manipulated, would I figure it out? If I’d had the doll, and known it, would I have just turned it over, believed my husband had betrayed me and given in? This is a new kind of fear, an adult kind, and in facing it I’m mostly untested. In Susy’s place, I don’t know that I’d survive.