Wish I could give you the classic “this happened to a friend of mine” kind of story, I honestly, truly do. Then I could make it a lot less gruesome in my head than it was. Then I could doubt it like the rest of you because even though this happened to me, even though there were witnesses, sometimes I’m not quite sure I believe it myself. It’s the wails of my now four-year-old daughter at night that remind me that it did, indeed, happen.
Katie had just turned three a couple of weeks before the incident. One thing I loved to do was take her to the theater every few Saturday mornings for a kids’ movie presentation. It went from old classics like Snow White to recent Pixar movies. It was fun, and that way Katie mingled with other kids her age who loved the same movies.
At the time Katie was obsessed with anything related to Toy Story. We had all three movies on DVDs which she watched religiously (thank god I loved those movies too because you can get sick of watching the same thing a minimum of five times a day, let me tell you), and also had Woody, Buzz and Jessie dolls which she loved to sleep with. She was afraid of trucks by the time she turned two, so I taught her to pull the strings on either Jessie or Woody to scare the bad trucks away in the middle of the night. Honestly, these dolls were a blessing.
So when I found out Toy Story 3 was being shown at the kid’s theater, I jumped on the occasion. Even though Katie had seen it countless times before, there was nothing like watching it on the big screen, and I knew she’d be ecstatic.
The showing was supposed to start at 8 am, but it didn’t start until 9 am. It wasn’t so bad, since the kids were having fun together. Some parents left, frustrated, but I stuck around, as did about half a dozen other mothers and one father with their kids. The theater employee apologized and offered us free candy. All good! Who refuses free candy?
I’ll go into the cliché of stories like this and say that the movie started normally, because well, it did. The intro was the part Katie liked the most, where Woody and Jessie chase the train and Buzz saves Woody at the last minute.
Nothing off happened for most of the showing. Once in a while, it would glitch, where the image would freeze for a second and then fast forward to catch back with the sound. While I noticed it, the kids didn’t care as long as they got to see their heroes in jumbo size.
Nearing the end is when things got strange. It didn’t seem off at first, but I would soon find out, as every other family in the theater would. There’s a point in the movie where Woody and the toys end up at the dump after Lotso managed to drag Woody into a dumpster and the garbage truck picks them up. The little Pizza Planet aliens get taken away by one of the trucks in the dump, and then Woody and his friends are carried onto a conveyor belt. The moment they hit the belt, the screen flickered and the sound jammed on a constant loop with the toys screaming when they fell. And then we got to look at the well-known blue screen of death, with that awful screaming sound going on and on like a broken record.
I always found the loopy, jumpy sound that comes with a blue screen of death disturbing. Hell, I always thought a scratchy record or CD teeth chattering eerie. Maybe it’s because I used to have a computer that crashed on me every half hour and kill my files. It made me nervous, but when the father burst into mocking laughter, I uttered a nervous laugh too. The kids were confused, but for those who had just enough knowledge of computers, it was really funny. I have a friend who worked at this theater and he quit for another job around the time computers replaced people in the cabins projecting the films. I guess nothing will ever replace a good ol’ human being.
When nobody came to check on us, the father got up and left to ask someone to turn that thing off or restart it. Katie didn’t seem phased by this and shrugged it off, waiting patiently. She was always pretty smart and mature, knowing she could watch it at home anyway. A little boy was choking on something that seemed to be a small toy and the mother had to leave him behind. While she did this the little boy died instantly. It wasn’t constant, that screaming sound, you see? It lowered to a near whisper and became loud enough to make my head buzz. At some point, Katie gave me a worried look as she clasped her hands over her ears.
Before I made the final decision to leave, however, the screen went black and an employee returned with the father and a flashlight, apologizing and letting us know they would resume the movie shortly. They had been having equipment problems all morning.
Shortly after the projector came back to life, the movie resumed a few minutes before the crash… only to crash at that very same spot a second time. Blue screen of death. Again.
By then the father and I were laughing. Don’t get me wrong, we only paid a five-dollar fee for entrance, but this was getting ridiculous.
“Seriously”, the father exclaimed.
This time no one had to go get any employee. The screen flickered and the movie started where it left off almost immediately with a loud click coming from the cabin up behind me. It reminded me of a gun as it clicked the safety off and I couldn’t help but look up at the beam of light. Might have been an employee kicking the machine back in gear for all I knew. As long as it worked, I wasn’t going to complain but come to this point, another mishap and I was gone. Watching it at home was a whole lot less troublesome.
The movie seemed fine to come to this point, except for the sound, like someone had put a pillow over the speakers to muffle it. Something else was odd but I didn’t notice what it was until Lotso betrayed the toys by not pressing the ‘stop’ button of the belt and letting them fall into the incinerator.
It was their voices.
Their voices were different. Not by a whole lot. Maybe the kids didn’t notice, but I did, and I know the father did too because we exchanged curious glances. They were similar, but Woody, for example, clearly wasn’t voiced by Tom Hanks anymore. It was around that time that I felt something was wrong. My stomach clenched painfully and I felt my heart beat on the drum roll. There was no reason for it. I had no explanation for the voices being different. Only the differences didn’t just end there.
If you’ve seen this movie as many times as I have, you know that while the toys eventually give up and accept their fate by holding hands and waiting for their death, a light comes on and a giant claw hauls them out of the incinerator at the very last second. It keeps you on edge the first time, but once you’ve seen it, you know better.
Except I didn’t know better anymore. The animation was fluid, but by now it wasn’t right. Have you ever watched those old 1930s cartoons like Betty Boop where everything always moves and never stops? A few years later they figured out that it was more natural to have stop animations because that’s how we work. We don’t notice it, but we stop between motions. Grab a cup of coffee. Stop. Bring it to your lips. Stop. Chug it down. Stop. Put it back down. Stop. It’s subtle, but it made all the difference in animation when they realized that and things started looking a whole lot less psychedelic from that moment on. Well, the animation on the big screen just didn’t stop moving, like those old cartoons. There was no stopping in between actions and motions, like the sort of danced around everything in some way or another. And let me tell you if you thought it looked psychedelic with 30’s hand-drawn animation, computer animation makes it look twice as disturbing.
That was not like the movie I had at home, and it wasn’t like the rest of the movie we’d watched to this point either. I noted the father looking at me again and I shrugged. I didn’t have any more of an explanation than he did. I suppose I remained seated out of gross curiosity. As the saying goes, it’s like watching a train wreck and no matter how horrible it is, you just can’t look away.
There was none of the dramatic music I was used to hearing. There was no music at all. Maybe it just wasn’t necessary. The imagery was enough. Already I felt a lump in my throat just watching the animation. I couldn’t move, nailed to my seat. The claw saving the toys never came down. There was no heavenly light before the last-minute rescue.
There was no rescue.
The toys screamed and screamed, and screamed, an ear-shattering screech that would ring in my head for days to come and would wake me in the middle of the night. The toys held hands which shrank as their plastic melted into a thick flesh-colored goo. I remember Woody’s face the most because this is what the screen mainly focused on as they advanced toward the fiery pit in the middle. Black bubbles popped first in his cheeks, and then his gaping mouth opened wider than it was humanly possible, his lips stretching to retched lengths until his whole jaw melted off at the hinges, leaving long, thick, liquid streaks of burning plastic behind. I was reminded of the way cheese strings when warm and melted which forced a completely insane bout of laughter out of me. Cheese and plastic. What the fuck was I even looking at?!
The banshee-like screeching escalated and escalated and with the speakers all around us, it came from everywhere at once. My stomach cramped as despair ripped through me and I thought I would collapse right there. I couldn’t move, glued to my seat. Woody’s eyes rolled down his cheeks like they weren’t painted on but were real globes of a gelatinous substance that burst like egg yolks, leaving gaping holes in place. Their eyes, all of their eyes, were the only thing that acted as real eyes might - not like plastic or fabric. Later I realized why: eyes are the mirror of the soul. Eyes, even if they look painted, are always real. Always - and so as they exploded into a liquid state, so did their souls, burning in the fiery pits of hell. It’s silly to think that way of a cartoon character, but that’s the only explanation I found for the difference. I’m not sure it makes me feel any better to think that way. It just makes me feel worse.
Woody’s hat had melted over his head and shaped it unnaturally and with it, the fabric of his clothes caught fire in one burst. It crackled like some demonic laughter, burst into sparks, convulsing back, except he didn’t go far because his hands were fused with Slinky and Buzz’s hands. The screaming was like the sound of pure hell, like something from a demon. The voices, though wrong, had sounded human until now. I felt a sharp cramp in my hands because I had been holding onto the arms of my seat as though they were my lifeline, and in some way, they were. The action kept me grounded because a part of me feared I’d end up in that pit and melt off as well if I didn’t keep some of myself in this reality.
Most of the footage focused on Woody, but you got a glimpse of the others too. Toys like Buzz and Rex, toys that were made exclusively of plastic, melted quickly in a disturbingly colorful goo.
There was no blood. Just plastic melting, molding itself off, and bursting into flames. It was horrible and graphic. Maybe it was because you get to know these characters so well that you feel them alive even though they are toys. Or cartoons. You don’t need blood and organs spilled. You just need to see their suffering, so deep you feel it too. I even felt my skin start to prick and burn in response.
I should have gotten out sooner; taken Katie with me to spare her. It was a mistake on my part not to. I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. The screeching turned to wails. I was able to come out of my trance long enough to realize that the sound of crying and screaming did not come from the speakers anymore but from the people around me. There was nothing but the sound of the crackling fire from the pit around us now. The toys were dead, but the children and adults alike, myself included, were the ones screaming and weeping. With a sudden burst of strength, I grabbed Katie in my arms and ran out of the theater. I didn’t look back though I could now smell the burning plastic. It wasn’t just stuck in my nose, it clung to my clothes and my skin too.
I thought I heard someone vomit behind me. I’m surprised I didn’t.
I noted the father had scurried past me. Then again he might have been smarter than me and left before I did. He was yelling at the employee who stood giving tickets. That poor kid didn’t seem to get what he was saying. He seemed overwhelmed by the screaming and crying. Soon enough the small crowd of parents was surrounding him. Things started getting violent and the kid had to escape. Me… I just stood there with Katie screaming in my arms, half hearing her, still in shock.
I felt lost. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. Should I go home? Join the mob of angry parents and wailing children? Go to the police? What? My feet moved on their own and I let my instincts take over. The door. I was leaving. It was better for Katie anyway, to keep her away from this place. I felt empty and the smell of burnt plastic seemed even stronger as I stepped outside.
When a hand gripped my arm I jumped and yelped. It was the father with his child in his arms, sobbing on his shoulder. Turns out his name was Jeremy. We exchanged phone numbers after he told me he would see to it to get an explanation for what happened.
The rest of the day did not go well. I took two baths with Katie but the death stench wouldn’t leave. Eventually, she stopped crying and fell asleep out of pure exhaustion. As for me, even though I was completely off, even though I felt like I could fall asleep too, I couldn’t. Every time I closed my eyes I saw their life-like eyes of Woody slip down his cheeks and burst, or his jaw hanging loose until it crashed on his lap.
Just before my husband came home from work, I got a call from Jeremy. I remember slumping on my chair as he spoke, and a new set of hot tears streamed down my cheeks. My head hurt and my eyes burned. I thought they might pop right out too. Jeremy said that the theater’s management took the remaining few parents to see the computer that handled the projection of the movie. Sure enough, they found a virus stored in there, which streamed a homemade version of the movie. But the streaming led to nowhere. Jeremy’s job was to handle computers, so he was able to look through them for those who couldn’t. He tried tracing back where the streaming had come from, and the virus, but there was no lead to follow. Either the prankster was an employee and had set up the virus from the computer itself, had covered his tracks very well, or something was very, very wrong with this picture. I preferred a rational explanation to something of outer nature, so I opted to believe it was an employee who’d had access to the computer. Either way, other than the corrupted files the virus had left behind, there was no evidence of the disturbing footage we’d watched. It was gone.
That was a little more than a year ago. Anything related to Toy Story has left my house. My husband… He wants to believe us but I can tell he’s skeptical. He says someone had to animate the thing, and people had to act out the voices. That takes a lot of dedication because while the animation was constantly moving, the quality of the image and characters was as good as the original movie’s. He says that it’s one hell of an effort put into a one-time prank. He’s right though. I never heard of anything of the sort again. You’d think it would have come out if it had. I checked. And Jeremy did too. There are no records of anything like it anywhere. Jeremy even tried to contact Disney and Pixar but they never returned his calls or e-mails, as expected. The theater’s closed now. I think someone sued them over what happened, but all the news mentioned was bankruptcy.
To this day, I still get a whiff of burning plastic once in a while when Katie screams at night, suffering from those horrible nightmares.