I shot my first actual film in 1983. Film was expensive and so was developing. We shot the movie right after school let out in June, but it was July before I had saved up enough allowance to get it out of hock at the K-mart photo lab. I brought it home and wound it around the projector. I called up my friends – cast and crew – to watch the flickery silent premiere on a screen set up in my basement.
Super 8 films aren’t very long. We watched it two or three times in ten minutes. While I was waiting for the film to rewind, my neighbor Lorraine from across the street brought up the subject of life after death. She had been visiting family back east and they had used a Ouija board. According to Lorraine, whose wide eyed expression showed that she was an expert on this subject, explained how they had contacted her dead grandfather. Later, they had accidentally contacted a demon when the pointer began spelling out B-E-G. To be honest, I wasn’t too impressed. However, no one really wanted to sit through another showing of Ray Blaster. We had a Ouija board on our game shelf, so we set it up and prepared for our foray into the supernatural.
It almost ended right there. Lorraine walked across the basement to get the Ouija board and said she felt a presence. I had been watching her shuffle her feet on the remnant of shag carpet we had in the corner; the “presence” was more like static electricity. I pointed this out and was branded a non-believer and relegated to the corner of the room where I sat next to the television with the projector in my lap. My next door neighbor Steve – a year younger than me – sat in the other corner in a matching brown chair. My brother David and his friend Scott sat next to one of the metal beams holding up the house. While Lorraine wouldn’t actually participate, she supervised the proceedings, standing over Steve’s older brother Tim and my friend Greg, who balanced the Ouija board on their laps.
The room was silent… almost silent. Every so often one of us would stifle a giggle. This would earn a hard look from Lorraine. Apparently we had to stay serious for at least three minutes or the spirits wouldn’t come. We could barely hold it together fifteen seconds. I heaved a sigh and sat idly playing with the movie projector. On one side was a built in outlet. The idea was you plugged a lamp into the projector and when you started the movie, the light would go out automatically. When the movie was done, the light would turn back on and you could rewind the film. That gave me an idea.
I took the film off the sprocket and turned the projector to the ON position. I had the lamp off, so – really – no one noticed. I leaned over and unplugged the television from the wall. I stretched and turned the TV on. Then I plugged the television into the projector and switched the projector off.
Nothing happened. I stood up and walked over to Lorraine.
“So, pick up anything yet?” I asked. At that moment, behind me the television slowly came to life. It was an old color set from the 1960’s and took a good two minutes to whine into a picture. Not that anyone noticed. There was a flash and then a flurry of noise and motion. I had to replay it back in my head in slow motion.
One second Lorraine was there, the next she was gone. The door to the basement was slamming shut. The next second David and Scott were tearing up the stairs, screaming. Steve pointed at the set which showed a bright white spot in the center of the screen. The Ouija board flew up in the air as Tim ran up the stairs after him.
“There’s got to be a logical explanation for this!” said Greg, but he didn’t stick around to figure out what it was. I smiled, turned the TV off and followed everyone else up the stairs. To their credit, my friends figured out that – somehow – I was responsible for scaring the living bejeebers out of everyone. The Poltergeist Television Gag (as it came to be known) ended up being one of my best practical jokes… one that’s echoed down through the ages.
We have Dish Network and every couple of days, the receiver box will turn itself on and off to process updates to the show listings or download some new application we’ll never use. For some reason, the reboot invariably turns on the television. We have a plasma HDTV; it takes a moment to kick on… sort of like the old Sears color set we had in days gone by. Even though I know what causes it, I have to admit… when it’s late at night… and I’m downstairs all alone… and all the lights are off except for one… and I’m reading a nice horror novel… and the television snaps on with a low click… I get a quick chill before I smile, shut the TV off again and think to myself, “Payback.”