Newsletter 48: The Terror of “Alligator”

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from April 2017, about a prank my dad played on me when I was a kid involving the movie “Alligator.” I haven’t liked pranks or alligators since.

We were one of the first families back out in the country of Mattoon, Illinois to get a VCR. We didn’t have a movie library or anything, but my cousin Denny’s parents — my sister’s brother Ron — lived in down and had cable and HBO, so sometimes Dad would have Ron record movies on blank tapes he gave him. There are thus certain movies from that time, the early to mid-eighties, that I have seen hundreds of times, watched over and over while putting off chores during long, endless summers. Clue. Superman II. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ghostbusters. But the first one I ever remember watching was, the one I’ll have nightmares about forever, was Alligator.

Alligator came out in 1980 and is generally well-regarded among fans of schlocky horror films, largely because it was written by John Sayles, of all people. (Lone Star remains one of my favorite movies of the ’90s; Sayles began his career working for Roger Corman and also wrote Piranha.) Reading reviews of the film now, apparently the film played as satire when it came out, but asking a seven-year-old to understand satire is asking a bit much. All I remember about Alligator — and more important, all my father knew I knew about Alligator after we watched it — was its central premise. A teenage girl buys a baby alligator, but her mean father makes her flush it down the toilet. We then see the alligator, recently flushed, survive for the next 12 years by eating disposed carcasses of lab animals used as experiments for a dangerous growth formula. The alligator eats the animals, absorbs the formula and then becomes massive. He then spends the rest of the movie attacking St. Louis — which was really the only city other than Mattoon I knew at the time — as Robert Forster, as The Cop With A Past, tries to stop him.

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As a seven-year-old whose father had let him stay up late and watch this movie one night, that premise was horrifying. Someone flushed something down the toilet, and not only did it not die, it became massive and started eating people. Who knew what things were down there? Were they going to come up and bite me when I was pooping? One minute I’m in the bathroom and the next thing you know, this thing is crawling up at me?

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I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and my father was no help. Realizing I was particularly stuck on this alligator thing — and, like any good Leitch boy, finding any bathroom-related humor hilarious — he struck up a devious plan. Right before I went to bed, he hid little index cards with “news alerts” about massive alligators rising up from the sewers around the house. One said there were reports of a giant alligator “in Champaign, heading South.” Another had a quote from Illinois basketball coach Lou Henson saying, “I was worried he was going to eat one of my players.” The last said the alligator had been spotted “lurking around Mrs. Pickowitz’s second-grade classroom.” I was not the most discerning media consumer at the age of seven, so I took them all at face value, as if they had been published in The New York Times, as if Peter Jennings was giving me the reports personally. And there was a new one every night. Each night, the alligator came a little closer.

So I freaked out. For days, I would scream for my parents to come check under the bed for gators every night. I began to have dreams about them. My grandparents, who briefly lived in Ft. Myers, Florida, had to call me and talk me down, saying alligators only lived where they did, but that just made me more scared: Were alligators going to eat Grandma and Grandpa? The movie started it, but it was those damned cards that got me. It was one thing to watch a movie about an alligator. It was another to learn from the “newspaper” that they were headed to Mattoon, and even at my school.

After a few more nights of this, and surely my mother smacking my father over the head and neck, Dad finally took me aside. “I wrote those cards,” he said. “I was just kidding. It’s a prank. I was telling a joke.” I understood it was a joke and even tried to pretend that I got it, ha ha, good one, Dad, I’ll play a prank on you sometime. But I never did.

I still hate pranks. I’ve had friends who love pranks, I’ve been the subject of some pretty elaborate early-Internet pranks, I’ve got a dad who obviously gets a huge kick out of them. But I still hate them. I hate pranks. I hate April Fool’s Day. And to tell you the truth? I still freaking hate alligators.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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