My fear of heights started in a movie theater on my fifth birthday at a showing of Superman II.
At first, it was all unreal fun—Lex Luthor had hair even though my dad told me that he wasn’t supposed to, and the crazy, short-haired Krypton lady with eye makeup and shoulder pads who looked like a Kryptonian real estate agent threw people around until folks wised up and kneeled before Zod.
And then came Niagara Falls.
A boy who was my age, my size and my hair length gets away from his distracted family. He investigates the waterfall through some pay binoculars for three seconds, then he decides to go hanging off the railing. He grabs hold, he lets go, and catches himself. He grabs hold, he lets go, and catches himself. It looked like a cool way to behave to me. And, like I would have, the boy yells, “Hey mom, look at me!”
Superman caught him, but later my dad told me that Superman was not real. I became a fan of guardrails and safety nets after that. I realized I was never going to leap tall buildings in a single bound. When I finally did go to Niagara Falls at 12, I didn’t use the pay binoculars.
But that scene also profoundly affected the way I experienced movies. A movie didn’t seem complete to me unless some child was hanging in peril from a great height. My favorite cliffhangers were literal ones.
The 1980’s were the golden era for dangling-children scenes. Annie climbing the railroad tracks on a raised bridge before she has to be saved by the guy in Daddy Warbucks’ helicopter, E.T. stopping those bikes from going off a cliff, Short Round hanging off the rope bridge in Temple of Doom, Carol Ann walking the ledge of the Sears Tower in Poltergeist III, a baby climbing out on the ledge in Ghostbusters II—kid-related cliffhangers were happening every week at the multiplex. At any moment, blissfully unaware, I could just plummet down an elevator shaft or off the side of a bridge.
I saw The Goonies five times in the theater. Partly because the poster and the cover of the movie novelization (which I read twice and still have) had all of the kids dangling one after the other – in order of star billing – from a large rock. It still bugs me that the scene never appears precisely in the movie, though they cross a number of narrow, wet bridges and walk a plank. It was my favorite. I related so much to Mikey in that movie that I wanted asthma.
I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to watch Adventures in Babysitting while I was visiting my dad in Chicago. First we watched the VHS as the little girl obsessed with Thor went out the window of that skyscraper. Then, my dad would take my brother and me outside to look at the actual building. I always looked for some sign that an errant child was hanging on for dear life.
My dad would tell me that most kids wouldn’t be able to hang on to window ledges for that long. My brother would dare me to go to the edge of the top floor or roof of every skyscraper we visited that summer. I only did once, and he grabbed me by the knees while I looked off the edge so that my stomach gave out and I thought I was going to fall. I never forgave him for that.
Something has happened to movies since then. They just don’t throw kids off buildings like they used to. The last time I remember seeing a small child fall to his death in a movie was The Good Son, and I guess they scorched the earth of that cliché after they tossed Macaulay Culkin. (Someone mentioned Antichrist to me while I was writing this, but I haven’t seen it. And Lars von Trier ain’t Hollywood.)
When Super 8 came out, I felt a pang of nostalgia for those kinds of movies, for that kind of thrill. I wanted to be a kid in danger again. Now I’m more firmly grounded in both my sense of reality and about how high up I will venture.
Although if I’m ever in peril, Superman can come catch me any time he wants.
Released in theaters June 19, 1981.