Suit over showing of horror film has chilling effect

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 31, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here's a scary story in the Halloween spirit: A little girl at an after-school program watches the horror movie "Poltergeist" and finds it very frightening.

But here's the really scary part: The little girl's parents file a $350,000 lawsuit against the people who showed her the movie.

Susan and Glenn Abrams, of Rockville, say their little girl came home from watching "Poltergeist" and refused to sleep in her own room. They say she needed a bright light burning all night long. They say she became hysterical and talked of dying, and they say she needed psychological treatment.

They say somebody should pay for all of this trauma, and now the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has decided their case has enough merits to bring it to trial.

Remember "Poltergeist"? The 1982 Steven Spielberg production was such a big hit that it inspired two sequels. It's a spooky story about spirits that terrorize a family and transport a young child into a world beyond reality.

Scary?

Absolutely.

Inappropriate to show children?

Absolutely.

Are the people who showed the movie guilty?

Absolutely.

Of stupidity.

Their names are Jenifer Flannery and Steve Chriqui, and they work for the Rockville Student Total Enrichment Program, which may also be guilty -- of gross misnomer.

Their defense? In the spring of 1988, Flannery and Chriqui asked elementary-age children what videocassette movie they'd like to see on the afternoon of May 13 -- Friday the 13th. The kids voted for "Poltergeist." Some said they'd seen it at home and enjoyed it. Flannery and Chriqui said, that's good enough for us.

Give them a few points for sensitivity, though.

Before showing the movie, they explained to the children that it was a ghost story which used special effects to produce scary situations. And then, before gruesome scenes appeared, Flannery and Chriqui stopped the movie and told the children how special effects were produced.

"Blood in the movie is really just ketchup," they explained. "Veins are just spaghetti. And none of these crazy things could happen in real life."

Then they went even further, saying that any children could play outside instead of watching the movie.

The daughter of Susan and Glenn Abrams decided to stay. In fact, minutes after the movie started, Glenn Abrams came into the room to offer his daughter a snack. He asked if she wanted to go home. She said no. He quickly left, later asserting he had no idea which movie his daughter was watching.

When his daughter came home that night, he alleges, she was hysterical and thought she was going to die. He says she was inconsolable, and that she's had to undergo considerable psychological therapy since then.

No one wishes to diminish a little girl's trauma -- or to minimize the poor judgment displayed in showing this movie to children.

But this is one more example of people's modern reflexive instinct toward unhappiness. Got a problem? Find somebody to sue.

Here is the rationale of Craig L. Silver, the Abrams family's attorney:

"If kids go to the movies on their own and it's scary, they can always walk out. But, when your parents send you some place, and it's under the guise of authorities, there's an impetus for the child to stay."

Silver's attempting to make a distinction here -- between the Abrams child sitting in a school-type setting and millions of kids who go to scary movies every week but, regardless of whatever trauma they suffer, have no one to sue.

The issue isn't a child's trauma -- that's a given. (Although, to be sure, no other parents have come forward to say their children were traumatized, nor does anyone know if the Abrams child was emotionally unstable before seeing the movie.)

The issue is: Where do we draw the line on responsibility?

"Poltergeist," for example, was such a success that it's been shown countless times on television, at all hours of the day and night, and it's rented daily from thousands of videocassette outlets around the country.

If a child finds it frightening, who should be blamed (or sued)? The movie company that produced the film? The theater that showed it? The television network that aired it? The video store that rented it?

If any of these are liable, then how about the parents whose kid watches a scary movie while they aren't paying attention? Could the child sue the parents for negligence?

"This movie is rated PG-13," says Roger W. Titus, defense attorney for Flannery and Chriqui. "That means, parental guidance for children under 13. But let's assume a 12-year-old got into a movie theater. Or saw the movie on TV on a Sunday afternoon. This movie's been on TV all times of day and night.

"The average person hasn't been harmed by this movie. It's not reasonable to assume there will be harm. It's not a question of good taste or judgment, but whether harm was foreseeable."

The other day, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals said it's a question worth pursuing, declaring that Flannery and Chriqui can be sued on grounds of negligence.

The "Poltergeist" case isn't expected in court for about a year. Meantime, it's got a lot of people feeling absolutely haunted.

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