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James Tynion IV is right: E.T. genuinely is a horrifying movie (as long as you watch the right scenes)

Steven Spielberg knew what he was doing; the same can't really be said about people responsible for bootleg copies in the 1980s

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
Image credit: Universal Pictures

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Of all the things I ever thought I would have in common with comic book horrormeister James Tynion IV, a childhood fear of the movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was not on the list.

Like everyone of a particular generation, I fell in love with E.T. as a kid; I was eight years old when the movie his theaters — because, yes, I’m a very old man — and I left that theater entirely in love with the story that I’d just seen, with every single piece of Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming sentimental movie magic working on the wide-eyed innocent that I was back then, as was entirely intended. As it happened, that wasn’t the mindset I had going into the theater.

Before I had a chance to pay my money and head to the theater, you see — well, sure, my parents’ money; I was eight, after all — a friend had a bootleg video of the movie of dubious origin that he’d declared with the kind of excited zeal that only eight-year-olds can have that I had to see. At that point, as a sheltered and eager child already in love with science fiction and movies, there was no way that I’d refuse such an offer, even when it was explained to me in a garbled manner that the video came from a friend who knew someone whose parents went on vacation in the States and knew a guy; this was E.T., a movie everyone was already talking about, and I was about to get a chance to see it early!

Related: If you're wondering what James Tynion IV is scared of, look to his comics

Of course, things weren’t that simple. The problem wasn’t just that the video was of poor quality — it was a bootleg video, of course it was — but that it wasn’t a copy of the entire movie. Instead, it was an early version of the Garfield minus Garfield webcomic, in that every single scene in which E.T. actually is seen was entirely absent from the video. But here’s the thing: when you take E.T. out of the movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, what you’re left with is something akin to a horror movie made for kids.

Here’s the plot of the bootleg version of E.T. that I saw when I was eight years old: there’s something unknown and scary in the tool shed behind Elliott’s house; he sees something in the cornstalks and screams. Then, suddenly, the movie jumps to when Elliott is sick and the government agents in biohazard suits show up to wrap everything in plastic. Oh, and then the plant dies. The end.

Obviously, that misses out… pretty much the point of the movie, in no small part because it misses out all of the nice stuff. There’s no transformation of The Unknown (literally, the alien) into something that is not only friendly, but something we can love; instead, it remains unknown and maybe kills both Elliott and a plant.

That’s the movie I thought I was going to see a second time when I got to the theater when I was eight years old, more than a little uncertain about why everyone else seemed to be so excited about it.

There's a moral to this story, I'm sure, about how you shouldn't form any judgments about a piece of art without seeing the full thing - or maybe just thinking about how it takes very little effort to change a story from one genre to another, even if the two seem so diametrically opposed. I suspect there's something in all of this that's also my origin story about ending up as someone who thinks too much about this kind of thing, to the point where I have the job that I do, as well. Who'd have thought that one bootleg copy of a beloved movie would have had such an impact, decades later?

What's really important, though, was the realization that the actual movie is something so entirely different from what I initially believed it to be. That explains at least part of why I love the movie to this day, 40+ years later — but that first experience and remembering just how utterly terrifying it was at the time is the kind of thing that makes me nod my head sagely when Tynion described E.T. during a C2E2 appearance as “the most terrifying movie in Steven Spielberg’s repertoire.” After all, if you look at it a certain way… it really can be.

In the immortal words of Danny Elfman, "Life's no fun without a good scare." We couldn't agree more, which is why we think you should check out horror aficionado Greg Silber's list of the best horror movies of all time. Already seen all of those? Let us tell you what to look forward to (or dread) in Popverse's list of upcoming horror movies.