In the practical joke system, there are two separate yet equally important groups: the perpetrators of practical jokes and the victims of those jokes. This is one of their stories.
I am not one for practical jokes, but when you attend military school with 150-200 other adolescent males, practical jokes are a way of life. Having a practical joker (PJ) for a room mate meant never being able to let your guard down, always coming back to your room as though you were entering a mine field or a small Viet-Cong-controlled village. After a while, this can wear a bit on the nerves, and homicide is contemplated.
If you want to avoid spending your formative years banged up in a juvenile corrections facility, you must deter the PJ, either by being eternally vigilant until he gets bored and searches elsewhere for victims, or by giving as good as you get.
The first strategy can be time-consuming. In a military school with few options for entertainment, the PJ has lots of incentive to to keep himself entertained at your expense. The second option carries the threat of escalation to the point of “mutually assured destruction," meaning you both wind up in the commandant’s office, followed by 30-50 hours of marching and a couple of hundred demerits a piece.
The only way to win using the second option is to retaliate at the first practical joke with massive overkill. Metaphorically speaking, this means responding to cross-border name calling with a squadron of ICBMs, leaving nothing but a smoking crater where your PJ was standing. This thwarts the desire of the PJ to escalate the war, since he really doesn’t want to find out what the next step up on the retaliation scale will be. Better yet, done in front of witnesses, this strategy makes other PJs think twice before engaging you, sending them in search of easier targets.
This was the strategy I adopted. I never went after anyone first, but I bloody well left terror and despair in my wake if fired upon.
I was a patient opportunist when applying this strategy. The PJ was always on his guard following any assault upon your dignity, and immediate counterattacks were contraindicated. I never made an elaborate plan for the response. I was simply patient and waited for the an opening, then improvised.
A friend of mine learned this first hand after subjecting me to a prank which, I must admit, was simple but effective.
I changed my underwear and waited my turn.
The year was 1976, and it was a cold November Saturday night. I was at the movie theatre.
Being a “day student” at my school meant I got to go home in the evenings and on weekends, whereas everyone else in school was constrained to the barracks, unless they got “town leave”. This was easy to obtain, providing one had not broken any of the myriad rules and regulations that are the epitome of military school life.
The movie was Carrie, and I loved horror movies.
I got this fondness for the macabre at an early age from my mother, who loved nothing more than a good scary movie. Easy on the gore, but buckets of blood was fine. From the age of literacy I had a steady diet of House of Mystery, The Phantom Stranger, Ghostly Tales, The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves, etc. TV was filled with episodes of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Sci-Fi Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and my all time favorite, The Night Stalker.
A few parents were horrified (sorry) by my tastes, especially when I told them I only got to read the comics after my Mom was through reading them. Other parents took their kids to Disney movies, but if there was an all-night horror fest at the drive-in, Mom and I were there.
Alas, Mom wasn’t with me that night, as she had to work that weekend. She was annoyed that she was going to miss Carrie, but movies in our town ran for only a week (this was in the days before “multi-plexes”). We had one theatre, and it showed a different movie every week. Occasionally, a really popular movie would run two weeks, but that was rare.
Mom gave me three dollars (I said it was 1976. A movie ticket was $1.50, drinks and candy $0.75, or three times the going rate outside the theatre. Some things DON’T change).
Where was I?
Oh, yes, at the 7:00 show, watching Carrie by myself.
Now, if you have never seen Carrie, you should go and rent it (or stream it), before reading the rest of this tale.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
. . .
This was the first Stephen King novel to be adapted as a movie, and I (and my Mom) had somehow missed reading any of his books up to this point. But when Carrie was released, people were excited. Stephen King was scary, really intense, and this movie was supposed to be a faithful translation of the King novel.
And it was.
Especially the final scene. A last-second “gotcha” scared the wee wee out of you (this was before such things became cliche), by lulling you into inattention with a bright and cheery scene, then literally leaping at you from the grave.
If we delve into the Stephen King oeuvre, we see that King’s stylistic use of imagery. . .
Wait a minute! You! Yes, you on the left, behind the Control Panel icon. You didn’t go watch the movie, did you? You just went to YouTube and watched this clip:
Sigh! Folks today are SPOILED by the Internet.
What that clip doesn’t convey is that the movie segues from Carrie’s burning house, following a night of some pretty vicious people getting their due (any movie which kills John Travolta is OK with me), to a very bright scene with soothing music. Sue (played by Amy Irving) is the only person to survive Carrie’s vengeance, as she was the only person who treated her kindly. She walks to the site of Carrie’s burnt-out house, carrying flowers to lay in front of a “For Sale” sign shaped like a cross. But even in death, someone has mocked Carrie, scrawling “Carrie White burns in Hell” across the sign. Sue ignores this, then bends down to place the flowers.
That’s when Carrie’s bloody hand reaches out of the ground and grabs her. We cut to a hospital room, and Sue is screaming in her bed, while nurses try to restrain her.
Like I said earlier, this scene was really scary at the time, because no one else had done it before. These days every third horror flick pulls this stunt, and it only scares the teenyboppers who haven’t broken the parental controls on the cable box.
But back then, we didn’t see it coming.
Bright cheery scene, soft focus, lilting music...
BLOODY HAND REACHES FROM THE GRAVE AND GRABS THE HEROINE'S ARM!!!
People in the audience, men and women, screamed in abject terror. When the lights came up, people were pale, nervously trying to laugh off the fright.
More than one pair of bloomers were soiled that night, my friend.
Movie over, nothing left to do, but head out into the frigid November night and start for home.
Then, as I entered the lobby, I saw my friend (we'll call him Dave) at the ticket counter with his girlfriend.
Opportunity had knocked.
I faded from the lobby, retreating to the bathroom, and bided my time until the 9:00 show had started. I then returned to the theatre, sitting in the back, looking for my friend. The 9:00 movie played to an audience that took up a third of the available seating. Since people weren't forced to sit next to each other, they had formed little clumps of humanity, interspersed amongst the black Juju Fruit speckled seats.
Dave was down in front, three rows back, and in the center.
As the movie progressed, I noticed his girlfriend holding tighter to his arm, as the plot became darker and spookier. This was good, the perfect setting.
The movie reels spun on, and I watched the movie up to the point where I estimated I had ten minutes left. I slipped back to the bathroom, turned on the cold water tap, and let it run.
As I mentioned, it was a very cold night, and snow was still on the ground from a storm on Thursday. The bathroom pipes must not have been well insulated, as the water was COLD -- so cold, in fact, that my hand became painfully numb after a minute under the tap.
I gritted my teeth and kept the hand under the icy flow for a good five minutes, then stole back to the theatre.
I moved quickly down the aisle, slipped into the row just behind Dave, dropped to the sticky floor, and crawled to a spot just behind him.
And I waited.
As the last 45 seconds of the film started, the theatre shifted from darkness to near daylight, and Amy Irving walked across the yard to place her flowers. She bends down, and I wait for the sound I know is coming: The mass inhalation of an audience about to shriek in fright.
And then I grabbed Dave's leg.
I had snaked my way as far under the seat as I could and, as cautiously as possible, moved my hand up his pant leg without touching him. I wanted the area just above his sock, for my glacial, vice-like grip.
From my vantage point, I did not get to see how he moved, but I certainly heard him.
I have never to this day, ever, heard the sound he made come from another human being. It was more ululation than scream, kind of like Xena's war cry, but it went on for about seven seconds. Simultaneously, I heard the sound of something I also have not heard since: An audience taking a break from one shriek of terror, to start another, completely different one.
I am told by witnesses (his girlfriend) that his leg shot forward and he launched from his seat, vaulting over three rows, before careening onto the floor, trying to get away from his own leg. No slouch at moving from point A, to point B, while not actually transiting the space in between, the girlfriend moved perpendicular to her now departing boyfriend and wound up across the aisle and sprawled over three seats.
My friend is screaming.
The girlfriend is screaming.
The vox populi find their vox, with feeling.
Amy Irving is screaming, but I don't think anyone notices.
The audience has cleared a blast zone around my friend that is 15 rows deep with folks on the left and right section hugging the wall and each other.
Pandemonium erupts as people try to figure out what is happening.
I arise from my cramped position and behold my handiwork. My friend has not an ounce of color in his face. He looks up at me and the tumblers tumble into place. He raises a hand and points at me.
"YOU!" he hisses, with some considerable heat.
I chose this time to start laughing.
It was a full-throated, howling laughter. The type where your sides hurt, your eyes water, and you actually get a headache (though that may have been from my friend trying to kick the Oreos out of me when I collapsed to the floor in hysterics).
The audience reaction to the matter was confused and disorganized. Some folks figured out what was happening, and started laughing. Others were somewhat, shall we say, vexed. Actually, most were vexed, to be honest.
"THAT'S NOT FUNNY!", one fellow shouted several times. His companion, thought otherwise and wheezed out, "Yes, it is," as tears ran down his cheek and he held his side.
A couple of less-than-sporting types thought the police should be summoned, and I took that as my cue to depart via the exit door, stage right, Dave still beating on me into the night.
I think it was some time after the Christmas vacation before Dave saw the humor in the situation. From that day forward, he always looked for me when he entered a room, making sure I never sat behind him.
And for some reason, he took an irrational dislike to Stephen King.
David Allen is the Chief Minion of Dr. Miguelito Loveless, and is writing this stuff under duress. He is a professor emeritus of Computer Debuggery, and chair of the Department of Broken Home Economics at Miskatonic University (Go fighting cephalopods!). He holds a Masters in Computer Anger Management, and a Bachelors in Applied Computer Telephone Tech Support, with a minor in "Have you tried turning it off and on again?"