Before the Winchesters, the Warrens, or Mulder and Scully graced screens with cursed objects, there was a small antique shop called “Curious Goods,” a main-street-style business dealing in cursed objects. It’s been 30 years since Friday the 13th: The Series went off the air which means at the time I was 5 years old. After the series went off the air, a local affiliate would run marathons of the show on Halloween. I don’t recall how old I was at the time; I only remember my father flipping through stations looking for something to get his attention.
On that fateful night, I encountered “The Playhouse.” The only things I could remember were a black and white checkerboard floor and kids being sucked into a wall. Faces and hands desperate to get out. I’m sure my little jaw was agape as my father fumbled to flick through the channels again. The damage was done though. These images haunted my nightmares. The rec hall at our church now held a different feeling as well, being that it was a similarly green and white checkered floor.
For years I searched for what this was. I figured our guide was unreliable that night when it said Friday the 13th on it. I had seen all the Friday the 13th movies and this wasn’t a slasher movie. A few years back I learned of the series. I had heard of Freddy’s Nightmares but Friday the 13th: The Series was somehow overshadowed. So I bought the series on DVD. If the episode I was looking for was in there, I was going to find it.
So here we are, Halloween 2020. The series has not aged well. Some episodes I’ve watched prior to “The Playhouse” are stale and mentally draining by today’s standards. I am happy to report that “The Playhouse” still holds up. It bursts with creativity and horrifying imagery and is probably one of the best episodes of the series. It’s good to know I had good taste as a kid.
Originally titled The 13th Hour, Paramount producers changed it to Friday the 13th: The Series in the hopes they could gain ratings. The show hosts no story connection to the film series it shares a name with. Not even a haunted hockey mask. John D. Lemay (Ryan) would later star in Jason Goes to Hell years after the cancellation of the series and the director of “The Playhouse,” Tom McLoughlin, had previously directed Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.
For anyone who has never seen Friday the 13th: The Series, the background is pretty simple. After the death of their Uncle Lewis (R.G. Armstrong), two estranged cousins inherit an antique shop. The cousins decide to sell the store, so they plan a huge sale, not knowing most of the items within are cursed. When Jack (Chris Wiggins), Lewis’ business partner, shows up, the hunt is on for the missing curios. Every episodic entry is another missing cursed antique.
Our episode begins with the raised voice of a mother being downright abusive towards her children, telling the kids to get out of her sight. A young boy and girl leave the house to go outside to play. The two approach a neighborhood boy playing in his yard and with some heavy salesmanship invite the boy to play in their playhouse. The boy’s mother stops the trio from leaving and asks her son, Danny, who his friends are and where they’re going. Danny learns Mike and Janine’s names on the fly and tells his mom he’s going to play.
The playhouse the kids approach looks eerily similar to Norman Bates’ iconic house in Psycho. The three enter and sit inside. Danny begins to suffer some serious buyer’s remorse, feeling he’s been duped into sitting in this playhouse while Mike and Janine stare at each other.
Light rips through the floorboards of the playhouse. Wind swirls the children’s hair upward. The camera shakes; Danny falls over. Mike and Janine remain stoic, gazing at each other with vigilance. The three are whisked away, leaving an empty clubhouse. Danny’s mother frantically calls the boy’s name through the suburban streets.
I love any horror that involves children. It is immediately much more frightening. There’s an overwhelming sense of urgency triggered within us to try and defend children from the evil that is about to overtake them. Children are innocent and we feel a need to protect them.
Because their mother is abusive and absent, the children find refuge in the playhouse bought for them by their mom’s ex. The playhouse provides the kids with everything they can imagine, even if it’s just dinner and shelter while their mom stays out for the night. The only payment the house demands is that Mike and Janine feed it other children. The two are happy to oblige because this is the only affection the pair has ever known.
Here I found the scene I loosely remembered from my childhood. Mike and Janine solicit a pair of girls playing in their yard to come play with them. The playhouse flashes its lights and transports the children to a funhouse room seemingly built for the approval of Tim Burton and M.C. Escher.
Black and white checkered tile fills the room. Corners of the room appear warped. A staircase is unfinished on one side. A fireplace appears tilted and uneven. Then, the toys begin to disappear systematically. The playhouse is hungry. Mike tells Janine, “We have to feed it or it will take us instead!” The two begin chanting, “I HATE YOU!”
A light appears from inside the wall. The pair’s guests are pulled inside. Struggling to get out from the void, we see the warped faces and hands of the children Mike and Janine have brought to this place stretch inside of the wall. The toys begin to reappear and the two begin to play again. The playhouse is satisfied.
The series, or the episodes I have seen of it anyway, is very gothic but not usually this dark. “The Playhouse” is sort of a reverse Hansel and Gretel fable. Two siblings are recruited to feed the playhouse instead of having the moral guidance to stop it. It’s only when Janine is almost fed to the house that Mike realizes the house is evil. His “I hate you” turns to “I love you” for Janine and the house releases all the children.
There are also a ton of references to Psycho here. The playhouse looks like the Bates’ house. The town Perkinsville is named for star Anthony Perkins. Then there’s another scene where Jack is following a lead he thinks will bring him to the playhouse and ends up outside of “Bates’ Bar.” The thematic comparison works to an extent here, seeing as both Bates and the children are seeking love from their mothers, though I’d consider Bates’ motives to be slightly more Oedipal.
The ending is overly cheerful as Micki (Louise Robey), Ryan, and Jack rescue all the missing children inside the playhouse, a heartfelt portrait lingering on screen after the children escape the small playhouse as if from a clown car. The blame rests on the children’s mother at the conclusion, insisting the children just need to be loved. Wrapping up back in the antique store, Jack insists he’ll be keeping tabs on Mike and Janine until they’re placed in a good foster home. Maybe it’s the times, but this ruined it for me.
I wish it had ended in a more Twilight Zone capacity. Providing a Grimm moral could have suited the dark nature of the episode’s plot. Our paranormal goods experts could have taken the loss and the show could have built upon it. I’m obviously a fan of movies where the heroes lose one. It makes the next one so much more exciting. Think about it, how devastated were you in Avengers: Infinity War to see Thanos win? Or in The Empire Strikes Back when Han is frozen, and Luke is defeated by Vader? It totally builds up the anticipation for the next one.
It may not have ended the way I wanted it to, but I still had a ton of fun watching it. I also cannot convey the deep satisfaction finding this episode has brought me. The sweet relief of validation I feel having found this nearly 30 years later. My mind would make up endings in those recurring nightmares years ago. The catharsis of knowing the intended ending now is amazing.
I feel like we all go through that as children. If we get the opportunity to reach the conclusion of facing a childhood fear, we wonder what we were so scared of in the first place.