That Time The Waltons had a Poltergeist

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The Waltons, you ask? Wasn’t that boring as shit? Let me stop you there. Yes, it was, which makes the sudden appearance of crazy occult doings all the more wild. Forming somewhat of a cultural double-act with Little House on the Prairie, both were tales of olden-days people living through hard but good times at the family homestead, with a supporting cast of bumbling townsfolk and stern old ladies who peered over the top of their spectacles. The Waltons particularly, was an institution of family-friendly dullness, and a byword for the happy, stable family unit we should all aspire to be. President Bush Sr famously name-checked the show as the familial ideal when vilifying the Simpsons, however for viewers like myself at the time, an English child during the 80s, the only thing it inspired was a desire to psychically pull a meteor from the heavens and have it crash through the ceiling and destroy the television, even if me and my entire family was killed in the process.

Occupying that same Sunday lunch at grandma’s spot as Little House, it fell firmly in the ‘boring people talking’ genre that older relatives seemed to love, which had the young me restlessly squirming in my seat, wishing The A-Team was on. Occasionally, these shows would throw an exciting plot bone to gnaw on, like when Michael Berryman appeared in Highway to Heaven as the Devil, or the Heartbeat where a copper got abducted by aliens, both of which I will be covering here eventually. In one of those stats I find endlessly fascinating, The Waltons produced 221 episodes and a stack of TV reunion movies, and in hundreds of broadcast hours, its lone legacy is the phrase “goodnight, John-Boy!” But among these hours were a tiny handful that took jarring forays into the paranormal, back then giving me something to cling to, and today, a reason to revisit.

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I promise, unlike Baywatch, Noel’s House Party, and all the other bollocks I get into on here, I will not be falling down a Waltons rabbithole and end up compulsively dissecting dozens of episodes, because it truly is just as dreary as I feared. Visually, it’s the brownest show ever made, with everything from dying trees to clothes to the wooden buildings, the same dismal earthen hue, like a world that moved so slowly it rusted. Even the Waltons’ hair, as a family of gawky redheads, evokes a perpetual autumn; perhaps the only thing that is fitting when the show randomly decides to insert ghosts, as it did in 1978’s episode, The Changeling.

The story focusses on youngest daughter, Elizabeth, on the precipice of her 13th birthday, and struggling with the approach of ‘womanhood’ while wanting to remain the baby of the family and do stuff like talk to her dolls or play hopscotch; an act which sees her best friend drop her for being so childish. This bubbling broth of girl-hormones and angst is the classic set-up for poltergeist activity, but what’s shocking is how quickly and fully the show embraces it. From the opening scene, it swerves from its regular tales of homespun wisdom in the great depression to full-on horror. A tense discussion with Mama about not wanting a birthday party has a distinct undercurrent of “she’s not my little girl any more!” and as Mama leaves the room, Elizabeth’s long red hair starts billowing as though blown by a great wind — a recurring motif — while the piano in the corner strikes a loud, cacophonous chord all by itself.

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What follows is part Paranormal Activity, part Carrie, with each of Elizabeth’s moments of emotional turmoil physically manifesting in ghostly activity. When overhearing her siblings discuss possible birthday presents — pillow cases instead of a doll, now she’s a big girl — a vase on the mantle levitates before smashing on the floor, which she gets the blame for, and is made to sweep up. Soon, paintings are going wonky, mirrors misting over, and even the telephone becomes haunted, repeatedly ringing with nobody on the other end. Later that night, Elizabeth’s woken by the sound of pebbles hitting the roof, before a large stone floats through the window and flies across the room when she goes to touch it. Her screams cause the family to run in, giving concerned looks as she swears “I saw it, I saw it!

At this point, her parents are troubled by all the attention-seeking, having to fix a rocking chair that lost a leg when it hopped up and down, and Elizabeth’s agitation is increased by nobody believing her. The tedious b-plot sees the jug-eared brother get a job as a radio agony aunt, but when everyone sits around to listen, the radio cuts to hard static every time Elizabeth gets near, causing the family to finally put two and two together. Soon, local gossips are chattering about the “poultry geist” up at the old Walton place, even referencing a similar incident in a nearby town involving another young girl and a ghost that chucked stones and crockery about.

03

The incongruity of a poltergeist in The Waltons is like having a Little House on the Prairie where Michael Landon sees a Bigfoot, or if Eastenders did my idea of a Halloween storyline where a bloodied Ian Beale wakes up in his pants on Arthur’s Bench amidst a spate of mysterious ‘dog attacks,’ leading to a live episode on the 31st, where Phil Mitchell has to flush Ian’s head down a silver toilet before the rise of the full moon. Oddest of all in The Changeling is that no alternative explanation is ever put forward. There’s no sceptical voice or suggestion she’s imagining it all, or is the victim of a prank. Poltergeists are real, and caused by moody tween girls, and that’s that. It’s science.

Once the p-word is invoked, events escalate rapidly. Mama’s taking occult guidebooks out of the library and a creepy rag doll stalks Elizabeth across the bedroom, all leading to an utterly bonkers finale at a slumber party. Throughout, Elizabeth’s ghost is seen as self-perpetuating, with Mama giving her a talk about not “sassin’ people” or keeping all her anger bottled up, and everyone blaming her for what’s happening, in turn making her more stressed, in a kind of telekinetic ‘stop hitting yourself!’ The rage-bottle explodes at the sleepover, resulting in a chaotic scene. The lights go out as a piano plays itself, a chair flies around the room, curtains billow, a glass of milk is drunk by an invisible mouth; it’s like that bit in Matilda. Huddling from howling wind and the crashing sounds of ghost jazz, Pa tells Elizabeth he can’t stop it, “only you can,” like he’s Professor X trying to talk Dark Phoenix down from psychically bisecting Jim Bob. Only when she accepts “I’m afraid” does everything fall still. Cut to her birthday, where everything’s fine, and the narrator (grown up John-Boy) tells us nothing strange ever happened again.

04

Airing in ’78, it’s not hard to imagine the writer was influenced by the story of the Enfield Poltergeist, which was first reported in the worldwide press 14 months earlier, and still ongoing at the time of shooting. The notion of a pubescent teenage girl at the root of poltergeist activity had already been a popular theory, but got absolutely bolted down in the wake of Enfield, and the episode has a number of similarities, although stopped short of having Elizabeth talk in the voice of an elderly man to call someone a “fucking old sod.” There are shades of another famous case, and though not inspired by it, having pre-dated it by 20 years, as Australia’s stone-throwing polt of Humpty-Doo is echoed by the scene where pebbles rain down on the roof.

The Changeling wasn’t The Waltons‘ first venture into the occult, as four years earlier, in an episode titled The Ghost Story, America’s most wholesome family began whiling away their evenings by holding séances. By the year the episode was set, in ’34 or ’35, the spiritualism fad was running on fumes, though had it featured in Little House on the Prairie — set in the table-tapping heyday of the 1870s — the blind girl would have had ectoplasm pouring out of her mouth like the waters of the Mississippi.

05

Though it genuinely starts with two blokes whittling and having a lethargic conversation about pleurisy and mutton towel poultices, Ghost Story soon kicks into gear as another super weird aberration of the Waltons oeuvre. Adult John-Boy narrates a series of unexplained events, which begin when they add to the already-crowded dinner table by fostering a little boy called Luke, while his dad’s away, after the death of Luke’s mom, who was Mama Walton’s oldest, bestest friend. At the local store, John-Boy happens on comic relief spinsters the Baldwin Sisters conducting a séance with a ‘spirit board’, which is “all the rage in New York City,” and takes it home. John-Boy gets the Ouija board out at the dinner table and starts mucking about with it, in a hilariously casual way for such a sanctimonious family, who happily start communing with the dead in a way that would’ve made Bush think twice about throwing them his endorsement.

With what follows, the episode plays like one of those creepypastas about lost TV episodes that turn the viewer mad; a Sesame Street where they find Oscar dead inside his bin, or rumours of a banned Star Trek that makes Shatner cry if you ask about it, and when you watch it on a found VHS, it’s just static, except George Takei now lives inside your closet, and he’s got no face; that kind of thing. As John-Boy gets obsessed, in each of the many séances, the board repeatedly spells out ‘LUKE’ with a warning of ‘LUKE MUST NOT’, which is interrupted by Mama bursting in and calling them all heathens.

06

Mama’s been on edge this whole time, with talk of mysterious happenings at Luke’s birthday party that she doesn’t want to talk about, but eventually reveals to be the spectral stink of the dead woman’s favourite flowers, and the sense of a ghostly presence, watching. As the kids use the Ouija board for everything from finding out who’ll they’ll marry to suggesting names for the new puppy, still it keeps insisting it has a message for Luke, who’s soon to head off on the train for a new life with his dad. Another séance, revealed through a nicely voyeuristic shot through a half-open barn door, giving it a ghost’s-eye-view feel, sees the board spell out ‘TRAIN’, before the planchette falls onto the floor, and ghostly happenings conspire to keep Luke from his journey. First his mom’s photo goes missing, as does his train ticket, and finally, on the drive to the station, Pa sees something in the road and swerves into a ditch, causing them to miss the train altogether. You can see where it’s going, and sure enough, they get home to a special radio announcement that the train’s derailed, and just like that, it’s Waltons canon that ghosts are hanging around watching us all the time, probably even when we’re on the toilet.

07

This is a show so grounded in folksy charm that legitimate dialogue by Grandpa during this episode includes the phrases “you young dickins!” and “darn tootin’!” But here, we’ve got John-Boy talking about ESP experiments, the mysterious apport of a dead woman’s photograph, and a moment where Elizabeth comes downstairs to announce “Jim Bob says there’s a ghost in the closet with no clothes on his bones” which is pure Candle Cove. The closing narration asks “but who is there to say that the strong bond of love that existed between a mother and her child had to be severed by death?” Perhaps most notable in their use of the Ouija board, particularly to the kind of flakes who say “I’m a sceptic, but even I wouldn’t mess with one of those!” is that nobody ever closes the séance down. No wonder they ended up having a poltergeist; that place is probably filled with wraiths.

They did have one final experiment in genre-wandering, in 1977’s The Grandchild, a double episode which took in everything from a stillborn baby prophesied by a dead bird, psychic tea-leaf reading, and Mary Ellen encountering a spook light, but you could point me to a Waltons where Grandpa whittles a Hellraiser puzzle box and the Cenobites show up to lash chains around his dick, and I still wouldn’t return to this fetid old puddle of a show.

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~ by Stuart on November 13, 2018.

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