A month or so ago on Just Dread-full, I wrote about my unfortunate collision with the famed chipmunk song as a child, which I categorized as my first fright. I then invited Michael, author of My Comic Relief and frequent contributor to my site (and, okay, my boyfriend) to write about his first fright, which happens to be the Ghostsbusters II movie. While I ultimately hope to have other contributors augmenting this series with their first frights (ahem, ahem, if you’re reading this, I hope you know who you are), in the interim, I thought I’d continue the theme by writing about another one of my earliest memories of fear, though technically it’s my second fright (but let’s not get caught up on technicalities). I was absolutely petrified by Large Marge’s dreadful tale and awkward transformation into an animated character in Pee Wee Herman’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
You know how when you’re a kid you can watch the same movie over and over again? If you weren’t that sort of child, trust me, I was (with movies like Beetlejuice, The Little Mermaid and Hocus Pocus along with Pee Wee). On crisp summer evenings when the sun was dangling beneath the sky’s lowest cloud, beginning to hide beneath the horizon, my childhood friend (who I’ll call Martha) and I would pop a good ol’ VHS in the VHS player. For a considerable period of time, that VHS was Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure. We sampled what Pee Wee Herman had to offer in other movies, but felt ourselves notably disappointed by films like Pee Wee’s Big Top. Still, we could watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure over and over without wanting for enthusiasm. I hate to take an unnecessary stab at Pee Wee, but he was undoubtedly eccentric, and, in retrospect, I’m not surprised that five-year-old Kalie (I’m estimating my age) regarded a specific part of one of his films with substantial unease.
So what part of the film did I find frightening, you ask? Well, I’ll preface this explanation by admitting that I haven’t seen the film in many years, so I don’t recall every scene. But at one point in the film, our intrepid adventurer (that would be Pee Wee) finds himself alone alongside the highway, and he must hitchhike to get where he needs to go. After some time holding his thumb in the air, a gruff, surly trucker with curly gray hair who introduces herself as Large Marge picks Pee-Wee up. (After seeing the film once, I would run upstairs whenever Large Marge appeared on the scene).
Now, to be fair, I think any child with the slightest awareness of the world’s possible dangers and the ugliness of tragedy and death would be afraid of this part of the film. Large Marge begins to tell story about a major accident she witnessed. As an adult, I guess this scene is supposed to be comedic, but from a child’s vantage point it’s simply terrifying. She talks about how dark and portending the evening was and how horrendous the accident she witnessed was. The entire time, her brows are furrowed and she has an unfriendly grimace on her face, tinted with a subtle, insidious, knowing grin (at least, that’s how I remembered her before re-viewing the clip below). Her unnerving monologue concludes with an account of some men pulling a body from a wrecked truck. Tension is clearly mounting, and we’re more afraid as the story continues. When she begins to describe the body, she suddenly morphs into a crazy cartoon with whacky eyes and makes a series of startling sounds. The insinuation seems to be (at least, this is how I always understood it) that Large Marge’s body was the one pulled from the truck, and the ghost of Large Marge now holds Pee Wee captive to tell her story. The video below may elucidate the terror more.
As an adult, I’m starting to become immune to being startled because I love horror so much. When I first started watching horror again more avidly after a sort of hiatus, jump scares terrified me. The first time I saw Woman in Black I closed my eyes throughout virtually the entire film. I’ve realized lately that I don’t scare as easily as I used to. But as a child, I startled easily and I loathed being startled. Large Marge always seemed a little unnatural, a little, if you will, evil, so her character just frightened me, period. And when her horrifying story ended with such a terrifying startle, well, the situation was simply too much for me. The Large Marge scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure constituted my childhood definition of unbearable, though I may never have used the exact term.
Now, I wasn’t too tough as a child, but I also wasn’t a complete wimp. Instead of abandoning the film in its entirety – or proclaiming one view sufficient – I continued to watch the film, with the aforementioned Martha, and, as I stated earlier, as soon as Large Marge picked up Pee Wee with her truck, I would run upstairs to my bedroom. This three-minute chunk of time seemed like a melancholic eternity. I think, as I waited for Large Marge’s story to unfold, I may have become a bit depressed at the horror of her words. I remember standing in my bedroom, staring out my window at the myriad stars dotting the jet black sky in an array of different shapes, glimpsing the red light of a phone tower mocking me in the distance behind a suburban neighborhood and an expanse of woods. Sometimes for those three minutes I would lament the reality of eternity (really, as a child it bothered me indescribably that time went on and on without ending. I would cry over that, too, and the realization that there was no alternative to eternity). Then, with marked relief, I would hear Martha’s warm, giggling voice calling me downstairs. Kalie, the Large Marge part is over, she would shout.
I would run downstairs with relief, ready to re-enter the otherwise comforting universe that Pee Wee’s Big Adventure provided. In anticipation, I thought of my favorite parts that would be coming up. But, alas, as I entered the family room, as I glimpsed the television, I slowly came to the realization that Large Marge was still on the screen. Indeed, she was coming to the end of her story, and, before I had the time and wherewithal to turn back around and run out of the room, her dreaded transformation to the crazy cartoon occurred, and I was flung into a temporary state of abysmal and abject terror. After this, Martha fell into hysterics, immeasurably pleased by the joke she played on me. If I’m to be perfectly honest, my parents thought Martha’s scheme rather funny, too.
Zamierowski family lore posits that this incident happened over and over again. Allegedly – and I emphasize, allegedly – every time Martha and I watched Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, I’d retreat to my bedroom during Large Marge’s scene, Martha would call me downstairs early every time, and I would fall for her ploy every time. Why my parents allowed this unchecked insanity and mild to moderate torture to occur continuously is beyond me, but ostensibly, they did. Now, personally, I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, and I have my doubts that I fell for this joke repeatedly. But my parents insist I did. As for myself, I can say that I recall it happening at least once.
Time passes, and movie tastes change as we age. To be sure, I haven’t sat down to a full viewing of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in, well, probably over two decades. But I’m impressed that such a quirky, awkward 80’s kid’s movie managed to concoct such a macabre, unsettling tale. It has all the elements of good horror: a brutal death that must be avenged, a malevolent ghost, a frightening re-telling of the story, and a horrifying jump scare. For that, I salute Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, because it so cleverly parodied the horror genre (for indeed, I think that’s what they intended to do), and because it gave me my second fright, a fright (or a series of continuously recurring frights) that have become an important part of my personal history. Large Marge, may your tortured body rest in peace.