Paranoia Strikes Deep

Traumatized by a hellish New York City cab ride that conjured up memories of the gruesome abduction scene in The Bone Collector, Joe Queenan was forced to confront the irrational fears that big screen "entertainment" instills in us all.


Late one evening not long ago, as Poseidon capriciously chose to inundate Gotham with a rainstorm, I flagged down a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the train station. Realizing that it was too late to reach Grand Central Terminal in time to catch the 10:02 Poughkeepsie Express, I told the driver to cut them off at the pass by depositing me at the Metro North station at 125th Street in Harlem, where my train would pull in at 10:13. No sooner had I issued these instructions than I realized that there was something not quite right about the taxi or its driver. For one, the partition between passenger and driver was completely sealed off, making it difficult for him to hear what I was saying. Second, I could not actually see the driver's face, as it was submerged inside a hooded sweatshirt. Third, the taxi was hurtling along at a preposterously rapid clip. But what really unnerved me was when the driver suddenly veered off the main ' drag and headed down a dark, deserted side street. Suddenly a bloodcurdling thought crossed my mind. What if I were trapped inside a taxicab with a maniac like the sadistic killer in The Bone Collector?. If this were the case, some thick-lipped flatfoot would soon be excavating my surgically detached remains from a deserted factory in East Harlem where I'd been drugged, bound, and had my face gnawed off by famished rats. All because I'd gotten into the wrong taxi.

Luckily, the cab got stuck in traffic as we hit one of the main north-south streets. Jamming a crisp $10 bill into the tiny slot in the partition, I ripped open the door, clambered out of the back seat, and hurtled into the engulfing mistral without waiting for a receipt. Although I did not make it to the train station on time and arrived home hours later with my shoes and sports-coat completely ruined, I was determined to look on the bright side--I hadn't been abducted by a psychopathic surgeon and dragged to a forlorn industrial zone where no one could hear my anguished screams; I hadn't been forced to watch as a madman hacked off each of my fingers; and I hadn't gotten my face eaten off by rats. But it had been one close call.

Everyone who loves movies has seen at least one that has permanently altered his or her lifestyle by instilling a deep, irrational fear that transforms some everyday activity into a dreaded experience. Since I saw Psycho, I have never taken a shower in a motel without locking the bathroom door. Since I took in Jaws, I haven't been able to go in the ocean at night. Since I watched Fatal Attraction, I have never had an affair with a blonde woman. And since I caught Billy Crystal single-handedly sucking the charm out of Paris in Forget Paris, I haven't been able to set foot inside the City of Lights. One of my friends says that she immediately stopped dating men with garish tattoos after seeing what Robert De Niro did to Illeana Douglas's face in the remake of Cape Fear. Another friend says she will never again hike through the woods of rural Maryland after seeing The Blair Witch Project, though not so much because she fears being murdered by a sorceress or a pedophile as because she fears being trapped in the wilderness with someone as annoying as Heather Donahue. Yet another friend claimed that all woods were off-limits for her after she watched that obsessive-compulsive grizzly bear methodically hunt down human snacks in The Edge.

As long as people do not go overboard on this sort of thing, lessons derived from watching movies can play an invaluable role in shaping a sane, well-balanced personality. Pathologies only emerge when one begins to shape one's values, attitudes and behavioral patterns entirely in response to unsettling scenes from popular movies. Unfortunately, this is precisely what happened to me after my Bone Collector experience. I was so completely discombobulated by the event that I stayed home from work the next day, trying to shake off the willies.

Shortly after my children left for school and my wife set off for her yoga class, the phone rang. Ordinarily, I would have lifted the receiver after a single ring, but this time I was unable to pick it up at all. Grim memories of Drew Barrymore's fatal yakking at the beginning of Scream made it impossible for me to take the call. As the phone continued to ring, I retreated into the family room and began watching a popular game show. But then it occurred to me that by absentmindedly gazing at the screen I might inadvertently be sucked into a black-and-white parallel universe like Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire in Pleasantville, and never escape. So I switched off the television set and went into the kitchen to get a drink. The kitchen was definitely the wrong place to be. For starters I might find a dead rabbit in the fatally attractive saucepan. Or perhaps the butcher knives would come flying around the room the way they did in Carrie. And forget about drinking the tap water; if it was anything like the water in Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action, I'd have brain cancer or leukemia by lunchtime.

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