The year is 1984. It is morning again in America, or so the President claims. Born in the U.S.A. “Like A Virgin.” Purple Rain. The Mac revolution begins with a hammer blow to Big Brother. A panic of Satanism and child abuse shocks the nation. The year’s top grossing movie teaches the world to sing a question: When there’s something strange in your neighborhood… Whoyougonnacall?
Constance Langdon – one year after shooting her cheating husband, Hugo, and grinding his corpse into dog food – is passed out drunk on the couch. Bills she can’t pay are piled on the table, next to the solitaire game she hasn’t finished. Soon she will lose this house built by abortionist and monster maker Dr. Charles Montgomery. Before then, she will lose her son’s heart to that dead man’s dead wife. Oh, well. Gotta cut that cord sooner or later, right, Constance?
Tate Langdon, age 7, lonely and neglected, pushes a yellow toy dump truck through the living room where years earlier two God-fearing nurses making a night of watching Peyton Place and Laugh-In were stabbed to death by a stranger they dared to help. On this night in ’84, with his pickled mother making like Sleeping Beauty and his big sister Addy MIA, Tate has Bob Newhart playing television babysitter. In this particular episode of the actor-comedian’s second hit sitcom, Dick Loudon – the “mild-mannered everyman” who “exists in an illogical world” filled with “oddballs” and “run by rules that elude him” (Wikipedia; sound like someone we know?) – is rambling on about redemption. “You always give a guy a second chance,” Dick tells his wife, Joanna. “That’s, like, the golden rule of guys…” The TV fades away as we hear Joanna say “It’s hell being a guy, isn’t it Dick?” and Dick responds: “It’s no picnic…”
Tate plays. The future mass murderer, psychotic homophobe, and rapist pushes the toy truck through the house. Out of the living room. Down the hallway. To the stairwell that descends into the basement. The door opens on its own. Tate should walk away. He doesn’t.
Tate peeks into the darkness. A mischievous thought takes hold. He sets his dump truck at the top of the stairs, sits down next to it, pushes. The truck pinwheels down the steps, lands on its wheels, forward rolls into the gloom of the Murder House underworld. Tate follows. He pushes the truck again. It wheels through a corridor of stuff. How much of it belongs to the Langdons and how much of it belonged to previous owners, we don’t know. Lots of dolls. Addy’s? A story for another season?
Tate has lost track of his truck. He’s about to give up when he spots it under a table. Tate gets on his hands and knees. Tate crawls. Tate is heading straight toward a close encounter of the Infantata kind. The boy reaches for his toy. The overgrown mash-up of sewn-together human parts reaches for him. Tate screams. The Infantata pulls him close. Charles Montgomery’s patchwork progeny – now a rodent-gobbling senior citizen – is about to mess his rumpled funereal gown with Tate’s guts with those claws for hands and that bloodstained mouth filled with jagged rotting teeth…
When Norah Montgomery snatches Tate away and raises a halting finger to her hideous child’s face. “No! Thaddeus! Go away!” she commands as she pulls Tate away. Like a well-trained dog, the Infantata heels, obeys, and retreats into shadow.
Norah comforts shaken Tate. She gives him some advice – the proper protocol for shooing away the monsters of the house. “If Thaddeus comes back to scare you again,” she says, “shut your eyes and say ‘Go away.’ Do you understand, Tate? He’ll mind you. Because I’m going to protect you.”
Norah strokes his hair. Tate feels something he rarely feels, if never. “I wish you were my mommy,” Tate says. Norah, warmed, hugs him back. “Now dry your tears, child,” she says. “Life is too short for so much sorrow.”
It is 27 years later. Tate, now Forever 17, is in the basement and discovering anew the yellow dump truck that brought him to the first woman he ever loved. He picks it up. Smiles. Remembers. Then he gets to business. He finds Norah Montgomery as anyone finds her these days – distraught and scatter-brained. “Who are you?” asks the weepy, holey-headed ghost, clutching her silk kerchief.
“It’s me. Tate.” He tries to cheer her up with a lie she once told him. “Life’s too short for sorrow.” Norah snaps. “You’re wrong. It’s an eternity. Endless days night of longing. Where’s my baby?!”
Tate says, “That’s what I want to talk to you about.” He tells his spectral surrogate mom that he can no longer keep his promise to give her what she wants. He can’t sacrifice the child that he made by raping the mother of his girlfriend. “Everything’s changed,” Tate says. “I’m in love with Violet. I just can’t take her brother away.”
It’s a breakup. A son pulling a leave-and-cleave with his parent (minus the leaving part). But Norah will not be ignored. Norah’s regains some of that old steel and tells Tate how it’s going to be. She can take Vivien’s boy. And she will. “That baby,” she says, “is mine.”
Lady, take a number.
NEXT: What Bob Newhart and Ben Harmon Have In Common