30 years ago, Tim Burton’s first Batman movie released in theaters……and I was deathly terrified of it.
To be clear, it wasn’t the movie itself that scared me. It was the Joker. Specifically, Jack Nicholson’s take on the Clown Prince of Crime.
I’ve never had a clown phobia in my life. I still don’t to this day. Oh I think they’re creepy and I’d never hire one for any birthday parties, but they never scared me to the level I know they do others. There was just something about Jack’s look that petrified me to my soul as a child, age 6. I wanted nothing to do with it and it was so bad I couldn’t even watch TV without fear of a spot or trailer popping and randomly showing his face.
Here’s the problem I faced, though: My dad, whom I love dearly just to be very clear, didn’t grow up reading Batman comics and wasn’t well versed in the lore or the actual inspirations behind the characters. To this day he still probably has no idea what The Killing Joke is, let alone how much it influenced this particular version of The Joker on screen. Had he known, I firmly believe he would have proceeded very differently in terms of how to deal with my Joker-phobia.
Instead, because he was a child of the 60’s, he grew up with Batman ‘66 as his bible for the exploits of the Caped Crusader, so believe it or not, he thought the Tim Burton film was going to be two hours worth of “POW!” “BAM!” and “ZIFF!”
Because of this, he thought my phobia was silly and “required” me to accompany him, my mom and my older cousin to the Ford Wyoming Drive-In theater to see the film, even though I begged him not to take me. When we dropped my little sister off at my grandma’s house, he turned the child lock on for the doors so that I couldn’t get out of the car. Yeah, it was starting to get a little Clockwork Orange, I’ll admit.
We got to the movie theater and it was a double feature. Lean On Me, which released earlier that year, and then Batman. I spent two hours praying for the screen to stop working or for a rainstorm to start. Not a thunderstorm because back then I was terrified of those as well.
The movie starts. I’m white-knuckling it but I’m okay for the first half hour or so because it’s just Jack Napier to start, not the Joker. After the Axis Chemical acid bath though and he first starts to step out of the shadows to kill Jack Palance’s character Carl Grissom, I ducked down behind the driver’s seat of the car in the fetal position and stayed there for the entire rest of the film until it was over. Absolute nightmare.
My torture didn’t end though, because the phobia was still very strong. I was still afraid to watch any TV so as not to run into any ads or TV spots. When my mom took us to the mall and we went to the third floor of Hudson’s (now Macy’s today), the children’s department was on the same floor as electronics, and as you might know, a lot of times when new movies release on home video the store will play clips from them as a way to showcase they have it in stock.
So because the down escalator to get off the third floor was right in front of the electronics section, I was literally holding my hands up to my face so I couldn’t see the screens as we walked past and got on the escalator to go back downstairs. Yeah, I was that bad. Worse, actually.
Another time we went to another mall and there was a big sign out front that said “Joker From Batman In the Mall” and I absolutely refused to go inside the building. My dad had to watch me and my little sister in the car while my mom went into shop.
You would think all of this would cause my family to really be careful about the Joker around me, and for the most part, despite EVERYONE telling me “it’s just a normal man wearing makeup,” they were all treating me with kid gloves when it came to the subject.
Everyone except my dad and my older cousin. They decided to employ working class “tough love” if you will. Oh, that was fun.
First thing my dad did was buy a Joker T-shirt, and not a random one that featured his comic book or cartoon look, but one specifically that had Jack’s face plastered all over it. He randomly wore it around the house and I scurried away in terror when I saw him.
My older cousin who had seen the movie with us at the drive-in told me that the Joker lived in the house next door to my auntie’s new house that they had just bought, prompting me to plead to my mother for us to go home immediately and never visit my auntie.
The final straw came when the movie was releasing on home video. My dad told me that the day it came out, he was going to buy it, hook the TV in the basement to all of the big speakers and blast the movie through the house. A week later when it was out on home video, we took a family trip to Target, he bought the movie amidst me begging him not to, and when we got home he made good on his promise and blasted the whole thing through the house on the loud speakers. I was literally sitting on my parents bed with my hands over my ears, loudly chanting anything so that I couldn’t hear the movie. I’m not making any of this up, this is all true and my family will corroborate it fully. It’s the worst phobia I’ve ever had in my life.
After that about a day or so later, my dad came to me and said he promised not to play the movie while I was in the house. Only when I was at school or at my grandma’s house. That provided me some relief for sure, but in retrospect it was somewhat random that he pulled back on his “tough love” at that moment. I can’t prove this and I’m only speculating, but I’m thinking after the “chanting” incident, my mom basically told him to knock it the hell off because their son was being scarred for life or something to that effect. That’s just my guess.
I remember that Christmas I got just about every Batman toy from the movie that you could think of. The full cave set, the Batmobile with the rocket launchers, the Batwing with the trigger-handle scissor grippers, all of it. The thing was that even though Jack’s Joker traumatized me, I still thought Batman was cool so the toys were awesome to have and the Joker toy looked way more like his comic book version, which didn’t scare me at all.
For the next five years, I avoided Batman ‘89 like the plague and dove headfirst ironically into Batman ‘66, because that was the safer option that The Family Channel was re-airing at the time due to the massive popularity and success of the Tim Burton movie. My phobia of Jack’s Joker is literally why I have seen every episode of that show multiple times and the movie, because again I really liked Batman, I was just afraid of Jack Nicholson’s Joker take.
Eventually, probably also thanks to Batman Returns and Batman: The Animated Series, I fully got over my phobia of Jack’s Joker and embraced that movie full on. I love it now and can quote it pretty much on a dime because of how many times I’ve seen it since growing out of my fear. My dad, who probably hates that I tell this story about it because it really makes him look like a mean father(yes it was mean, but he’s seriously a great guy and I do love him dearly) has repeatedly reiterated that he had no idea how adult the movie was going to be. Had he known there was killing and whatnot in it, he wouldn’t have let me see it, and as ridiculous as it may seem to us today to look at any marketing from that movie and not think it was going to be darker in nature, you gotta remember how different things were in 1989 and how much Batman ‘66 affected an entire generation’s perspective on Batman. It was possible then to go your whole life only knowing Batman from that medium and never touch one of his comics ever in a way that’s incredibly difficult to do now because of the Internet, social media and other advancements.
So I believe my dad when it comes to the whole thing and even if I didn’t, I still forgive him. He just didn’t want me to be afraid of the movie and in the end, I’m not. It’s a classic in my opinion and definitely one that had a huge effect on comic book movies as a genre all the way to today, which is why we celebrate and honor it on its 30th anniversary. If you had told 6-year old Ray that 30 years from that night at the Ford-Wyoming Drive-in he would be sitting at a computer telling this story humorously because he loves and appreciates the movie so much, he’d have thought you were out of your mind. Yet here we are and that’s exactly what’s happened. How time flies.
Happy Birthday, Batman ‘89. To say that you had the most impact on my life out of any comic book movie would be a massive understatement. Thank God I grew out of my fear of it. Heh.