I had a wonderful time at Steel City Comicon this weekend. It was my first time at this particular con, so I didn’t know there was such a huge contingent of horror fans, creators, and vendors who attend.
I love horror, and I was pretty psyched to be in the same place as John Carpenter and Tom Savini, across the street from the Dawn of the Dead mall. Pittsburgh feels like one of the places horror was invented, at least to me.
A number of these horror fans came to see me, and asked me to sign posters and other things from a movie my parents forced me to do when I was 13, called The Curse. I had to tell each of these people that I would not sign anything associated with that movie, because I was abused and exploited during production. The time I spent on that film remains the most traumatizing time of my life, and though I am a 50 year-old man, just typing this now makes my hands shake with remembered fear of a 13 year-old boy who nobody protected, and the absolute fury the 50 year-old man feels toward the people who hurt him.
I told this story in Still Just A Geek, and I’ve talked about it in some podcasts I did on the promo tour, but I’ve never put it out in public like this, in its entirety.
I suspect someone at the publisher would prefer I tease this and hope it drives book sales from people who want to read all of it, but I honestly don’t want to have another weekend like this one where everything is awesome, except the few times people who have no idea (and why should they) put that fucking poster in front of me, and all the fear, abandonment, and trauma come flooding back as I tell them that I won’t sign it, and why.
To their credit, each person was as horrified as they should have been, told me they had no idea (if they didn’t read my book why would they), and quickly put the poster away. They were all understanding. I am grateful for that.
But I really don’t need to tell this story over and over again, so here it is, with a child abuse and exploitation content warning, so I can just tell people to Google it.
After Stand by Me, everything changed. The attention from entertainment journalists, casting directors, and especially teen magazines came pouring in. The movie was a generational hit, beloved by critics and audiences alike, and every single one of us could pick anything to do next.
River’s parents and his agent got him Mosquito Coast, with Harrison Ford, as his next movie. I also auditioned for the role, but I knew even then that River was going to book the job. He was perfect, and I’d have to wait a little bit for my opportunity to come along.
I went on a lot of theatrical auditions after Stand by Me. I had tons of meetings with directors and the heads of casting at every major studio. It was all a very big deal, and I felt like we were all looking for something really special and amazing as my follow-up to Stand by Me.
At some point, a couple of producers contacted my agent with an offer to play one of the leads in an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” The script was titled The Farm. (It would, of course, be changed when the film was released).
I read it. I did not like it. It was a shitty horror movie, and I saw that right away. It was the sort of thing you rented on Friday when the new release you wanted was already out of the store.
I told my parents I didn’t like it and didn’t want to do it. I clearly recall thinking it was a piece of shit that would hurt my career.
It wasn’t the first thing that had come our way that I wanted to pass on, and every other time, it hadn’t been a very big deal.
Sidebar: I was cast in Twilight Zone: The Movie, in 1983. The film tells four stories, and I was cast as the kid who can wish people into cartoonland. It was a GREAT role, in a movie I still love.
But I was CONVINCED by my parochial school teacher that if I worked on The Twilight Zone, which she had determined was satanic, I would go to hell. (This woman and her bullshit played a big role in my conversion to atheism at a young age, but when she told me that, I was all-in on the supernatural story they taught us in religion class.) I was so scared, more scared than I’d ever been to that point in my life, I cried and wailed and begged my parents to not make me do the movie. And I never told them why, because I was afraid my dad would laugh at me for being weak and afraid. My agent tried to talk me into it, and I wouldn’t budge. It’s the only thing I deeply and truly regret passing on, and I really hate I made that choice for such a stupid reason.
Okay. Back to The Curse.
This time, when I told them how much I hated it, they wouldn’t listen to me. My mother, already an incredibly manipulative person, used every tool at her disposal to change my mind. My father threatened me, mocked me, told me “It’s your decision” when it clearly wasn’t. It was all so weird; I didn’t understand why they cared so much.
That is, until they made me take a meeting with the producers of the movie, in their giant conference room on the top floor of a tall building in Hollywood. All I remember about this place was that it was huge; the table was way too big for the five of us who spread around it, and there were floor-to-ceiling windows on three of the walls, but the room was still dark. There was a weird optical illusion in the center of the table, this thing they sold in the Sharper Image catalog, made from two reflective dishes with a hole in the top of one. You placed an object in the bottom of the bottom dish, and it made it look like that object was floating above the whole thing. They had a plastic spider in it. What a strange detail for me to remember, but it’s as clear in my memory as if I were sitting in that room right now.
One man, who I presumed was the executive producer, was European or Middle Eastern (I didn’t know the difference then, he was just Not Like People I Knew), and I was instantly afraid of him. He was intimidating, and seemed like a person who got what he wanted.
I don’t remember what they said to me in their pitch or anything other than how uncomfortable and anxious I was to even be in that room. I tried so hard to be grown up and mature, but I—and my parents—was way out of my depth. I’d done one big movie and that was it. We didn’t have my agent with us, who had lots of experience and would have known what questions to ask.
No, in place of my experienced agent, my mother had decided she was going to be my manager, and she tackled the responsibility with an enthusiasm that was only matched by her absolute incompetence and inability to go toe-to-toe with producers the way my agent did. She was outwitted, outthought, and outmaneuvered at every turn.
So we sat there, my father who didn’t give a shit about me, my mother who was cosplaying as someone with experience, and me, thirteen years old, awkward as fuck, and scared to death.
At some point, this man, who is represented in my memory by big Jim Jones sunglasses under dark hair above an open collar, said, “We are offering you a hundred thousand dollars and round-trip travel for your whole family. We will cast your sister, Amy, to play your sister in the movie.”
It all made sense, now. I was only thirteen, but I knew my parents were pushing me so hard because this company was offering me—them, really—more money than I’d ever imagined I’d earn in my life, much less a single job.
I knew that the right thing to do, the smart thing to do, was to say no. There would be other opportunities, and it was stupid to cash myself out of feature films for what I thought was, in the grand scheme of things, not very much money.
It’s incredible to me that I knew all of this. It’s incredible to me that I could see all these things, plainly and clearly, and my parents couldn’t (or, more likely, chose not to).
So after this man made his offer, all the adults in the room ganged up on me, selling me HARD on this movie.
My mother said, “Don’t you want your sister to have the same opportunities you’ve had? Wouldn’t it be fun and exciting to go to Rome? Think of all the history!”
I don’t think about this very often, because it’s super upsetting to me. Right now, I’m so angry at my parents for subjecting me and my sister to this entire experience. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In that moment, I felt bullied and trapped. All these adults were talking to me at the same time, and I just wanted it to stop. I just wanted to go home and get out of this room. I just wanted to go be a kid, so I did what I’d learned to do to survive: I gave in and did what my parents wanted.
The experience was awful. It was the worst experience I have ever had on a set in my life, by every single metric. The movie is awful, and it is the embarrassment I knew it would be.
But here’s the thing: when you watch The Curse, you are watching two children, me and my sister, who were abused on a daily basis. The production did not follow a single labor law. They worked us for twelve hours a day, on multiple film units (while I work on First unit, second unit sets up and waits for me. When I should get a break to rest, they send me to Second unit, then to Third unit, then back to First unit. I was 13.) without any breaks, five days a week. I was exhausted the entire time. I was inappropriately touched by two different adults during production. I knew it was wrong, but I was so scared and ashamed, and I felt so unsupported, I didn’t tell anyone. I knew my dad wouldn’t believe me, and my mother would blame me. Anything to keep the production happy, that’s what she did. That was more important to her than the health and safety of her children. The director was coked out of his mind most of the time, incompetent, and so busy fucking or trying to fuck one of the women in the cast, he was worse than useless. He was a fading actor who was cosplaying as a director, as in over his head as my mother. My sister and I were never safe. Instead of harmless atmospheric SFX smoke, they set hay on fire in barrels and blew actual smoke onto the set. They took buckets of talc, broken wood, bits of wallpaper and plaster, and threw it into my face during a scene inside the collapsing house. My sister is in a scene where she goes to get eggs from some chickens, and they attack her. So they hired Lucio Fulci, the Italian horror master, to direct her sequence. His idea, which everyone was totally on board with, was to throw chickens at my sister. Live chickens, live roosters, live birds. Just throw them at a nine-year-old girl. Oh, and then tie them to her arms and legs so they’ll peck her. All of this happened under my mother’s observation, and with her full participation.
If just ONE of the things I can remember happened to someone I loved, I would have grabbed my kids, gone to the airport, and flown home. Fuck those abusive assholes in the production. Let the lawyers sort it all out. Nobody hurts my children and gets away with it.
My mom says she “had some talks” with the producers. She claims that, once, she wouldn’t let us leave the hotel. (God, what a fucking dump that place was. It was just slightly better than a hostel.) I have no memory of that, but honestly the entire experience was so traumatic, I’ve blocked most of it out.
The movie was the commercial and critical failure I knew it would be. My parents spent the money. I don’t know what they spent it on. I got to keep fifteen cents of every dollar, so . . . yay?
My sister and I hardly ever talk about this. I suspect it was as upsetting and traumatic for her as it was for me. I told her I was writing about it, and asked her if she remembered anything. She told me she’d been lied to her whole life about this movie. Our mother let her believe she had been cast on the strength of her audition. “I was excited to work with you,” she said. She reminded me about some stuff I’d blocked out, including a scene where my character’s older brother (played by an actor named Malcolm Danare, who was kind and gentle, and made both of us feel safer when he was around) shoves my character into a pile of cow shit. When it came time to shoot the scene, the mud they’d put together to be the cow shit looked an awful lot like cow shit. When Malcolm pushed me into it, we all found out it was real cow shit. I was FURIOUS. The director had lied to me and had allowed me to have my entire body shoved into an actual pile of actual cow shit. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember he treated me the exact same way my father did whenever I got upset: he laughed at me, told me I was being too sensitive, reminded me that he was the director and he wanted to get a “real” performance out of me, and concluded, “If it bothers you so much, we’ll get you a hepatitis shot,” before he walked away.
My sister also recalled that, after she survived the scene with the chickens, it was the producers’ idea to give her one as a pet.
Okay, let’s unpack that for a quick second: you’ve been traumatized by these birds, so we’re going to give you one as a pet. That you’ll somehow keep in your hotel, and then will somehow get back to America. It will shock you to learn that neither of those things happened.
She remembered, as I do, the huge fight I had with my parents in our kitchen, where I told them I hated the script and I hated the movie. I didn’t want to do it, and I hated that they were making me do it.
“You don’t have a choice,” my father commanded. “You are doing this movie.”
“This is the only film you are being offered,” my mother lied to me. She made me feel like, if I didn’t do this movie, I would never do another movie again in my life. I had to do this movie. As my father bellowed, I had no choice.
Both of my parents denied this argument ever happened. Can I tell you how reassuring it is to know that my sister, who was also there, remembers it the same way I do?
But one thing she told me, the thing I did not know, the thing that makes me so angry I want to break things, actually managed to make the entire experience even worse than I remembered it.
There’s a scene after her chicken incident where I check up on her in her bedroom. She’s got cuts and bruises, and I guess we talk about it. I don’t remember and I can’t watch the movie because I’m terrified it will give me a PTSD flashback (I’ve had one of those and I recommend avoiding it). Here’s the thing about that scene: she has some cuts on her face, and those cuts are real. They are not makeup.
I’m going to repeat that. My nine-year-old little sister had actual cuts on her face that were placed there by an adult, on purpose.
The makeup department decided they would literally cut my little sister’s face with a scalpel, in three places, and put bandages over them. My sister told me our mother wasn’t in the makeup room when this happened—honestly, it seemed like our mother was strangely and conveniently absent when most of the really terrible things happened to us on the set—and when my sister told her what they’d done, she “lost her shit” at the production. She was pissed, I guess, which is appropriate and surprising. I wonder what would have to have happened for her to put us on a plane and get us home to safety? I mean, her son being abused daily didn’t do it, and her daughter being CUT IN THE FACE ON PURPOSE didn’t do it.
I just . . . I can’t. I can’t understand or comprehend allowing your own children to be physically and emotionally abused. They were literally selling my sister and me to these people, like we were some kind of commodity.
This was a tough conversation. My sister’s experience with our parents is very different from mine. My sister and I love each other. We’re close. I know it’s hard for her to hear that her brother, who she loves, was so abused by her parents, who she also loves. I was really grateful she made the time to talk to me about it, and grateful the experience wasn’t as horrible for her as it was for me.
As we were finishing our call, Amy also remembered one man, a young Italian named Luka, who was our driver for the movie. I haven’t thought about him in thirty years, but I can see his face now. He was kind, he was friendly, he taught us how to kick a soccer ball, and in the middle of an abusive, torturous experience, he stood out as a kind and gentle man. I mention him because she remembered him, which made me remember him, and goddammit I want at least one small part of this thing to not be awful.
Ultimately, as I predicted and feared, this piece of shit movie cashed me out of respectable films forever. I got offers for movies, but they were always mindless comedies or exploitative horror films. They were never the serious dramas I wanted to work in after Stand by Me. The industry looked at me and River, wondering if one or both of us would become a breakout star. They quickly saw that River was doing real acting work, and I was in this piece of shit. For River, Stand by Me was a beginning. For me, it would turn out to be pretty much everything, at least as far as film goes.
There are thousands of reasons film careers do and don’t take off. Maybe mine wouldn’t have taken off anyway. Clearly, it’s not where my life ended up, and I’m super okay with that now. But when all of this happened, it hurt and haunted me.
The Curse remains one of the most consequential times the adults in my life failed to protect me. Everything I need to know about who my parents are is wrapped up in that experience: the total lack of concern for my safety and happiness, treating me like an asset instead of a son, lying to me, manipulating me, and using me to get things they wanted, and then gaslighting me about it.
This annotation is the last thing I wrote before I turned this manuscript in, because opening these wounds is hard and painful. I put it off as long as I could, and I feel like I’m still holding back, because just this small glimpse of the experience has taken me a week to write. I can’t imagine trying to go back and unpack the whole thing. (Note that is not in the book: I’ve made an EMDR appointment to work on this because the nightmares have come back after the weekend).
Fuck The Curse, and fuck every single person who exploited and hurt two beautiful children to make it. You all participated in child abuse, and you all knew better. Shame on all of you. I hope this follows you to the end of your life. I hope that living with what you did to innocent children has been as hard for you as it has been for me, because you deserve no less.