First things first. I’ll be referring to the title of this episode as ‘Mrs. Rogers’ Neighborhood’, and not the mis-apostrophised version that actually appears on-screen – by the episode’s logic, the main antagonist would be Mrs. Roger….tut-tut.
So, we’re only at episode 3 and we’re already on my favourite ever twenty or so minutes of The Real Ghostbusters. ‘Mrs. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ is one of my top ten examples of nightmare trauma brought about by seemingly harmless children’s entertainment. I’m talking about the finale, where lovable rogue and life of the party Peter Venkman is possessed. What begins as a seemingly harmless mission (‘another haunted house?’ yawns Peter) turns into full-on terror as the kindly old-lady whose house the guys are sent to investigate turns out to be a demon. The ending of this episode shocked me intensely when I was young – there’s something about the idea of one of the good guys becoming bad that always ripe for disturbing drama, the carpet being pulled from under you as a character you love and trust becomes very, very evil. Not only that, Peter LOOKS very, very evil too. God, Peter’s demonic face was horrifying when I was younger.
In my introductory post to my epic Real Ghostbusters undertaking, I mentioned that golden age of this series was separated into thirteen ABC episodes and seventy or so ‘syndicated’ episodes. According to accepted chronology, the ABC episodes are the first ones and the syndicated ones followed, yet I was always under the impression that they were tucked at the end, which would make ‘Mrs. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ a more effective episode, as by that time we’ve spent so much time with the guys that Peter’s transmogrification is all the more scary because we’ve got to know him more, whereas in the accepted running order, Peter turns bad a mere three episodes into the series, and it’s almost a case of too much too soon. To be honest, when I was younger, I never saw the episodes in any order, just whenever I could. This episode was though, one of the later ones I saw, and it threw me for being noticeably scarier than many in the series.
The opening is an absolute gem, using one of my all-time favourite musical themes in the series. This theme is the one that gets used whenever something sinister is going down (the basement in ‘Boo-Dunit’, the doomed boat in ‘Knock, Knock’) or when or when a character divulges in a spooky backstory (see ‘The Scaring of the Green’ and ‘The Headless Motorcyclist’) and it’s one of the eeriest themes in any cartoon ever. This accompanies a very cool sequence of New York at night which cleverly edits its way into a normal, everyday neighbourhood, before pouncing down into the trees (I assume we’re the point of view of a demon) and fixating on one house in a few dozen, and deciding to change this particular one into the disconcertingly friendly-looking abode of Mrs. Rogers. Look at that house. It’s like a fairy-tale house. Look at the lion-shaped hedges – they look pretty goofy, right? Harmless. Nice for a lil’ tweety bird to perch itself on….but no! The lions come to life and try to kill the bird. Fly away! Great opening sequence, mixing the sinister with the cutesy. As with many other early episodes, this opening was truncated for various airings, presumably for timing purposes. Some screenings completely removed this opening, others begin halfway through it, with the first appearance of the friendly-looking house (removing the night-time bits). Bad decisions, both of them. Luckily, the DVD versions are uncut, keeping this atmospheric opening intact, as well as preserving later scenes like those in the fire station early on, and the bits when Mrs. Rogers house begins to lock itself shut, trapping the guys inside.
For an episode that ends intensely, the early scenes in the fire station see the guys bored out of their minds – again, a nice contrast. I honestly believe this episode combines the sweet and the sinister, the humdrum and the apocalyptic and the funny and scary better than any other in the series. As the guys head over to the house, everything points to this being a run-of-the-mill job. Winston mocks the house’s address, which disconcertingly is 1313 Thirteenth Street and Peter couldn’t be more jaded if he tried. But then, what’s this? The old lady, Mrs. Rogers herself, is waiting for them to arrive, watching out from the upstairs window. Something’s not right. We can only see her back, and she looks wrong. Very wrong. She plays the role of distressed haunting-victim quite well, and the guys patronisingly assure her everything is alright as they get Ray to drive her back to the fire station so that she can relax. But look at the way she says ‘But please…be careful’ and lets slip a sneaky grin. Do not trust her! She’s the devil! Well, not exactly, but she is a demon. Still unconvinced of the nightmares to come, the guys blithely miss all the horrors like the scary voices reverberating in the house and the paintings coming to life…it’s only when Egon works out that the mission statement of this house’s particular ghost is to ‘conquer and invade the living world’. As Peter says, she ‘might do it nicely’. Oh yeah, before they enter, Egon loses his second PKE Meter of the series thanks to the sheer overload of evil in the house.
A terrific scene is when Mrs. Rogers follows Janine down to the basement during the guided tour. Now here we have what some might call an example of very convenient scriptwriting, where it’s revealed that the guys have installed a failsafe device to prevent any random person from shutting down the Containment Unit, which runs by palm print identification. This plays a big part of the finale, where Watt uses the possessed Peter to shut down the Containment Unit, but this device is instantly removed from all further episodes, so it was clearly used here as a plot device once and once only. Still, back to this great moment – Janine reveals to Mrs. Rogers that the device can only be used by ‘the immediate staff’, at which point Mrs. Rogers begins to change (Janine has her back to her the whole time), first of all in a shot where we can only see her hand turning into something very scary, and then the big moment where her face goes very wrong indeed and she scales the entire height of the basement becoming a monstrous demon who we discover is the mighty What. All the while, she says:
‘The immediate staff? You mean…. [cackles] like you?’
It’s this voice which throws me – still that of Mrs. Rogers, but clearly twisted and messed around. Plus that horrible cackle. The genius bit comes when Janine says that she’s not regarded as immediate staff, only the guys, to which What covers his face with his palm in a classic ‘D’oh!’ moment. In terms of balancing horror and comedy, this scene nails the two perfectly – this is quite an intense moment for the series, and the almost pantomime comic relief is perfectly judged. Especially when Janine turns around and asks if she wants to carry on with the tour and we’re immediately back with kindly old Mrs. Rogers, as though nothing has happened. Oh yeah, before that Mrs. Rogers’ caged bird Precious changes into a hideous fire-breathing monster and almost torches Slimer into history. Nice try, Precious. Slimer exacts a brutal revenge later.
Relatively, this episode’s act break is quite low-key. We get Egon’s attempts to fix the PKE Meter continuing to fail, and then a cut away to the haunted chest revealing more ghosts before fade-out. I don’t know why, but usually the act breaks are loaded with high drama, but this one seems to whisper the fact that things are gradually getting worse. And for some reason I find this downplaying more sinister than the usual big act break….
Act 2 begins with Ray recklessly driving through Brooklyn to get to Mrs. Rogers house, and it’s interesting to note that the sky around her house is noticeably darker and foreboding than anywhere else in town. There some poltergeist-like antics as the guys get the rug literally pulled from underneath them (listen out for the cackles from Mrs. Rogers).
For an episode I rate as the scariest, there is plenty of humour to go round – the two ‘Say What?’ scenes are a riff on the ‘Who’s on First?’ comedy staple from ages of yore – and even though this sort of thing can get old real fast, it’s still a welcome bit of amusement in an otherwise foreboding episode. I also like the way the demonic tables, which tower above the guys to stop them leaving one of the rooms, turn into whimpering, puppy-like losers after a proton pack blast to the face. In a moment that quietly rivals the earlier Mrs. Rogers/Janine scene in the basement, horror and comedy is beautifully combined when the guys blast the apparent source of the demonic evil, only to find out they’ve just torched one of Mrs. Rogers’ dresses. Ray, in all his enthusiastic innocence, ponders the potential horror:
Ray: You mean….Mrs. Rogers dress…is What?
Egon: No, Ray. Mrs. Rogers is What.
It’s the naivety mixed with the realisation that they’re (and Janine/Slimer) are in big, big trouble that’s funny and an ‘Oh s***!’ moment, even though us at home all knew the truth right from the off. Plus, a grammatically nightmarish moment follows when Peter’s call to Janine suffers from interference which is quite amusing:
Peter: I wonder what’s jamming the signal?
Ray: She sure is!
Also, it seems customary for the guys never to say ‘grave’ in relation to being ‘in grave danger’, even though in this case, it seems frighteningly possible. So, once the truth has been revealed, it’s up to the guys to get out of the house as quick as possible. Egon reckons What created the house as a trap to finish off the Ghostbusters once and for all – it’s easy to cry plot-hole in regards to this. After all, if What created the house, why does said abode still try to kill the Ghostbusters even after it’s been revealed that at least one of them will be required to shut down the containment unit? Well, What knew, but the house didn’t. Okay? It’s not like mobile phones were around back then for demons and haunted houses to update each other with progress reports.
The room just before the front door though, is where things get decidedly interesting, and quite messed up. What looks like a pleasingly obstacle-free stroll to the door is suddenly mutated into a nightmare path as the walls condense and turn the room into a corridor, with loads of ghoulish hands stretching out. Forget Day of the Dead’s opening ‘calendar’ sequence, this is the one to give you nightmares – and then everything behind the guys melts into some never-ending fluorescent vortex, from which a huge oven with teeth emerges to eat/burn the guys into oblivion. Actually, this monster is one of the least frightening elements of the show, and he’s swiftly dispatched with a ghost trap hors d’oeuvres which blows him up and sends the guys flying out of the front door and into the garden.
Phew. Job done, right? NO! In a further example of this episode’s sure grasp on family-friendly terror, it’s a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire as the two hedge lions are waiting for them. I have to say the two shots of them peering down wickedly at the guys creep me out. Look at the sky! That’s end-of-the-world bleakness sky right there. To be honest, the two lions are all-too easily taken care of, but I do love this moment as it tightens the screws just that little bit further before the big ending.
Ah yes, the big ending – this is when ‘Mrs. Rogers Neighborhood’ turns from a great, great episode into a phenomenal one. There are a lot of lines in this episode which could only be described as ‘light-heartedly apocalyptic’. Janine’s reference to Mrs. Rogers’ having some ideas for ‘fixing up the house’ is one. Winston regarding Peter as looking as though ‘he has a real bad cold’ when the truth is significantly worse. Peter blankly stating that he feels ‘very close’ to Mrs. Rogers shortly after having been possessed by her. The music which accompanies the guys search around the house for Mrs. Rogers is the jaunty theme they always use for the show’s comic relief. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Yet so right.
The moment when Peter enters the wrong room and is grabbed by the enormous hand of What is when the episode goes into overdrive. Loud noises, flashing lights ensue, before Peter walks out of the room, clearly possessed by What, and sporting a distinctly jaundiced complexion, not to mention a gravity-defying new hairstyle. Plus, a very blank expression. Totally emotionless. Dead creepy. Slimer tries to get a rise out of him, but to no avail. Janine doesn’t seem to notice that his skin colour has changed from white to stark yellow, but does compliment him on his ‘new do’. Slimer’s worried, but Precious breathes fire on to him – again – to get him out of the way. Slimer’s revenge is going to be so sweet, trust me.
Note that when a terrified Slimer pleads Ray to follow him to Peter, Ray’s almost in a good mood, even chucklesome. It’s like the guys really aren’t expecting the finale they’re about to get. Before he gets possessed, Peter calls out Mrs. Rogers’ name like he would a cat he’s trying to lure from underneath the sofa. No one’s taking the old lady seriously. Well, they will now. Peter/What goes on to begin the shut-down procedure for the containment unit, and when the guys see him doing so from the top of the basement stairs, Peter’s face has turned even more so, sporting a huge Joker-like grin and glowing eyes. This is one of the scariest things I ever saw on the TV as a child. No one’s joking around anymore, and the gravity of the situation has become apparent.
References are made to Peter potentially dying from all of this, with Egon saying Peter ‘may go to pieces….literally!’ I found Janine’s screams of ‘don’t do it!’ quite intense and disturbing when I was younger, not to mention Peter’s brief control over himself as he tries to stop the shut-down, to little effect. His voice has also changed during possession, a ghastly demonic snarl. The key scare is when we get a close up of Peter screaming ‘No!’ before quickly changing back into demonic mode, laughing that horrible laugh, all the while I’m trembling in terror. Of course, these days, the episode is far from hardcore terror, but there’s still the sense that this episode is crossing the line somewhat. It’s a children’s show, and children’s shows weren’t really scary for the most part. You’d get the odd sinister moment, but ‘Mrs. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ was definitely one of the earliest examples of horror I ever watched, and it stunned me. These days, when watching the episode, I still get the chills throughout, even during the less intense first half, simply because I know what’s going to happen. And looking at Peter’s possessed face still takes me back to when I was a scared child.
Of course, it being a children’s show, the terror can’t be extended for too long, and in a moment of highly dubious science, Egon uses his proton pack to separate Peter from what by setting his blaster to his ‘electro-metabolic frequency’ while the others set theirs at What’s ‘exact frequency’, and all is well. Oh yes, Slimer’s revenge on Precious. He quite clearly gives the bird a full-on kick in the bird-knackers. Justice, I say.
Of course, there’s still the issue of Peter’s standing-on-end hair – Slimer helpfully slimes it so that it’ll stay down, which leads to a furious Peter pulling a face almost as terrifying as the ones he pulled mid-posession and attempting to kill Slimer.
Egon says ‘Well, I guess everything is back to normal’, which is a rare instance of a show explicitly commenting on its episodic nature. Every episode of The Real Ghostbusters ended with everything back to normal. It’s the rules. This time however, the rules were clearly stated. I think though, as children, we needed that reassurance. This episode put us through the grinder, and even Peter’s furious face towards Slimer once he has been saved made me think he was still possessed one way or another. So thank you Egon, and thank you writers, for putting my mind at ease. Everything is back to normal. Everything is back to normal. Best episode ever.
Up next: Episode 4 is a lot more mellow, yet still full of nightmare imagery and a lot of sadness.