There’s creepy, and then there’s truly scary. The Twilight Zone, at its best, perfected the art of capturing that distinction. A 1963 episode called “Living Doll” shows us how it’s done.
The creepy comes from the fantastical elements of the story, a menacing child’s toy that manages to speak, uttering consistently less-veiled threats as the story progresses. The truly scary, however, comes from the realistic. The truly scary character in this story is Eric Streator, husband of Annabelle, step-father to little Christie. Eric runs his home like a tyrant and, as his power is increasingly threatened, becomes ever more harsh and reactive.
Eric scares us because while most of us will never encounter a deranged, spiteful toy, most of us know someone, or worse, know how we could be someone, like Eric.
Living in a family means we fathers must do our parts to create peace and security. And that means defeating our inner Eric Streators. Here are three ideas about how we can do that:
1. Recognize that so much depends on the tone you set.
Things in the Streator household are tense from the beginning. When Annabelle and Christie get home from a shopping trip, Annabelle tells her daughter to run upstairs, hoping to conceal the purchase of a new doll from her husband. The plan fails. Almost as soon as they enter, Eric asks Christie what she has. Annabelle tells him it’s a new doll.
“She doesn’t need a new doll,” Eric says.
Annabelle counters that Christie’s had her eye on this one.
Eric says, “I thought we’d agreed….”
Here Eric make his first mistake. Perhaps they had agreed. Annabelle seems to indicate that she has, at some point before our story starts, agreed to curtail her spending.
If that’s true, she’s obligated to honor her word. Eric, however, fails to set a positive tone while holding his wife accountable to her promises. He yells. His face is full of rage. He seems oblivious to the fact that Annabelle bought the doll to comfort Christie against the ongoing tension of their life together as a family. Perhaps, had he been more of a comfort to Christie himself, Annabelle would have felt less need to buy her daughter a substitute.
Relationships are systems in which each person plays a role. Eric could have diffused the situation by injecting the system with more positive energy that showed a desire to balance frugality, accountability, and concern for others’ well-being.
Annabelle has broken her promise to cut back on her spending, but Eric has broken promises too. We soon learn that Annabelle and Eric are recently married, and that in spite of her calling him “Daddy,” Christie is not Eric’s biological daughter.
When Annabelle confronts Eric about his rough treatment of Christie, he mocks her. He accuses her of implying he is incapable of loving Christie because he is unable to have biological children of his own. Rather than listening to her, Eric projects onto Annabelle his insecurities. The truth is that he fears that Christie and Annabelle will not love him because he is not Christie’s biological father. Because Eric feels inadequate about not being able to produce biological life, he withholds his power to give life emotionally and spiritually to those who depend on him.
Both Annabelle and Christie make efforts to appease Eric, to comfort and to reassure him, but to no avail. His boorishness continues because it’s never really been a response to their behavior, but a poor response to his own internal brokenness.
3. Recognize that your unresolved insecurities will come out in damaging ways.
Had Eric had the courage to be honest about his insecurities, to confront his doubts, and to replace them with rational beliefs, sinister forces would never have entered his home.
Instead, he nurtures his sense of victimization, feeling taken advantage of by Christie, duped by Annabelle, and threatened by the shadowy figure of Christie’s biological father. When we meet him, his sense of victimization is so great, he feels threatened even by an inanimate toy. Eric’s goal isn’t to create long-term peace in the home through confronting his own shortcomings. His goal is to escape reality by withdrawing into a pretend world where he, the injured and neglected innocent, is at the center.
In the end, reality intrudes in the form of a devilish talking doll. Talking Tina speaks the truth that shows Eric who he is. He responds by withdrawing further into his sense of victimization. He engages in more and more outlandish attempts to destroy Christie’s new toy. His narcissistic withdrawal leads to the destruction of his family. The same could befall the family of any man who follows Eric’s pattern.
But Eric’s is not a pattern you have to follow. This episode of The Twilight Zone is excellent not just because it provides the thrills of a creepy, supernatural tale, but because it puts before us a picture of what is really scary in the human condition. It provides an excellent negative example of a family man, telling us clearly what not to do. See, Eric Streator, though he never plays with toys, is a man who never did the hard work of growing up. The man who would love his family, whether he plays with toys or not, can only do so if he puts away his childishness.
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