Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Visible Scars: Too Close For Comfort and sentient paintings

The other night I had yet another in a long series of recurring nightmares about a painting coming to life and threatening to kill me. In terms of frequency, as nightmare subjects go, this motif ranks second only to "remembering that I'm still enrolled in college and haven't been to any classes this semester"–and that one actually makes sense, considering my admittedly lax attendance records during my own matriculation. But while that particular dream is a relatively new addition to my personal sleepytime cinema, the "innocent painting and/or photograph suddenly glaring at me menacingly before hectoring me relentlessly" theme, well, that's been a constant ever since I was a child, no matter how old and cynical I may get, or how much my belief in the supernatural wanes. And like so many of my neuroses, it can all be traced back to one stupid brush with a piece of traumatic pop culture: The "A Portrait Of Henry" episode of Too Close Of Comfort.

I was not what you would call a Too Close For Comfort fan. Besides being only two-years-old when the show began its run, even at a young age my tastes were already too sophisticated to accept a sitcom that tried to pass off persnickety old Ted Knight as the creator of something called Cosmic Cow, or–most egregiously–Jim J. Bullock as a straight man. My grandmother, however, loved Knight from his Mary Tyler Moore days–and while she probably didn't understand it, there was something about Bullock's swishy "Monroe" character that "tickled" her–so I caught many an episode in syndication while staying at her house. And superficially, Too Close For Comfort seems like an especially odd candidate for fucking me up for life: Even by '80s sitcom standards it was ridiculously lightweight, only going off the rails once with that "very special" episode where Monroe is raped by two overweight women in a van. (I saw far more horrifying things on a nightly basis in my voracious devouring of Tales From The Darkside, that's for certain.) But then came the night that I happened to glance up from my issue of Penny Power or Cracked or whatever and caught a glimpse of "A Portrait Of Henry." And my life has never been the same since.

"A Portrait Of Henry" starts out as a fairly typical Too Close For Comfort episode: "Human wrecking ball" Monroe once again gets on Henry's nerves, and Henry blows up at him, accidentally knocking him down the stairs and injuring his neck. While Monroe lies in the hospital, Henry becomes wracked with guilt over the idea that maybe, just maybe he was intentionally trying to hurt Monroe, and should probably apologize, which of course he does by episode's end. All in all, hardly the stuff that bad dreams are made of, but with one completely fucked-up twist: As Henry's conscience begins to nag at him, his self-portrait hanging in the living room starts visibly aging in a nod to Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray–and then, most horrifying of all, it starts talking to him. Using some very primitive puppetry, the painting's mouth cracks open and begins berating Henry for being such a bad person, its eyebrows suddenly thick and downturned, its eyes glowing with devilish intent.

And here's where I wish I could find a photo or YouTube video of the scene so I could show both you and my inner five-year-old how ridiculous it all looked. I mean, we're not talking modern CGI, something that would fall on the "creepy side" of the Uncanny Valley. This was just a lever trick, the same cheap automation principle as a ventriloquist dummy–and yet even writing about now makes my skin crawl. Still, there you have it: Ever since catching that episode as a wee, impressionable lad, I've been afraid of being left alone with any sort of portrait or photograph, fearful beyond all rationale that its subject will somehow suddenly turn on me, its smile tightening sadistically, its eyes narrowing and its teeth clenching. A week after "A Portrait Of Henry" I had my first in a long series of related nightmares: The Big Bird poster in my bedroom–happy, innocent Big Bird with his googly eyes and daffy open beak–came to life, with Sesame Street's resident idiot savant growling that I was a very bad boy and should be sorry. The next week it was my mother's old-timey Coca-Cola poster, with the softly smiling Victorian-era lady who threatened to bite my face off. And from there on it blossomed into full-time phobia.

Naturally, as a mature, logical adult I understand that I'm in no way in danger of ever being attacked by a two-dimensional image. But phobias, they have a way of defying reason. I take some comfort in the fact that my particular fear of paintings coming to life (any psych students out there have a name for that?) is a well-established one: It's been a favorite subject of horror writers forever, appearing in episodes of Night Gallery and popping up in two books by Stephen King (It and Duma Key)–not coincidentally, the man who's probably responsible for at least a half-dozen other lingering childhood fears. It also has numerous historical antecedents: The ancient Egyptians, for example, were apparently so afraid of wall paintings coming to life that they deliberately left out legs or defaced the subjects in order to neuter them (and yet they were totally cool with little puppets running around their loved ones' tombs). And most reassuringly, while trying to unearth the Too Close For Comfort scene so I can scrub it from my psyche, I've run across dozens of others who were apparently just as scarred as me by "A Portrait Of Henry": Both Jump The Shark and IMDB.com have entries from fellow survivors who are still trying to cope with what they saw some 20 years later, despite probably never having watched the show since. (This, incidentally, is the first time either of those sites' message boards have been useful for anything.)

Regular readers know that the "fleetingly glimpsed pop-culture trauma" is a pretty common thread around these parts. Each week, Ask The A.V. Club is absolutely flooded with entreaties to identify half-remembered scenes that frightened readers as a child and still occupy some dimly lit corner of their psyches–this despite all the real-life scary shit they've no doubt seen in the interim. And it's little wonder why: By their definition, psychological traumas result when a person is unable to cope and is overwhelmed by confusion; a common thread is the "violation of the person's familiar ideas about the world." As children, our ideas about the world are pretty limited, so seeing something–like, say, a talking painting–that pulls the blanky out from under our understanding of the way things work is all the more likely to have a lasting effect, even more so when it's removed from all contextual comprehension of a story (or in the case of "A Portrait Of Henry," oddly hoity-toity literary allusions). To make matters worse, our memories tend to fragment as we get older, our internal highlight reels removing everything but those scary images and the feeling of imminent danger–emotions that long outlive whatever cheap story they were featured in and take on a life of their own.

And there's my cold comfort: That's why I'm still haunted by a one-off episode of a stupid fucking sitcom that's plagued my dreams for nearly 25 years. And that's why so many of you write in, begging us to put similarly murky images back into some sort of context, so you can acknowledge the fact that it was all just a stupid episode of Amazing Stories and nothing more. That way you can track it down–as I once did with the 1985 Twilight Zone's "A Little Piece And Quiet," in an attempt to scrub that episode's haunting images of impending nuclear apocalypse from my brain (it didn't work, by the way)–and see what a bunch of silly, contrived nonsense it all is for ourselves. And that's why I've quietly monitored the TVShowsOnDVD page for Too Close For Comfort, hoping that Rhino somehow resolves its distribution rights problem and releases the third season of a show I hate, so I can see what a cheap and stupid gimmick "A Portrait Of Henry" was for myself and finally grow the fuck up.

In the meantime, I can't sleep. Paintings will eat me.

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