Phobia Philms: ‘The Dead Zone’

In “Phobia Philms,” I plan on reviewing and recommending scary movies based on real phobias, of which there is no shortage of, specifically what makes them scary and how they represent our anxieties.

Previous film: No Country for Old Men


Epistemophobia – fear of knowledge

Stephen King adaptations are surprisingly hot and cold. No one ever seems to feel medium about them. They are either the best ever (Shawshank, The Shining, Stand By Me, either Its) or they are terrible (Maximum Overdrive, Dark Tower, Dreamcatcher).Of all of them, my personal favorite, the one I think is the most underrated, is The Dead Zone.

The Dead Zone stars Christopher Walken as Johnny, a teacher in the small New England town of Castle Rock (but of course). After having a short seizure like episode during a date, he ends up in a not-unrelated traffic accident when he hits an overturned tanker truck, resulting in a five year coma. When he awakes, not only has the world moved on without him (the love of his life is now married with a child), but he discovers he has an ill-defined psychic ability, where certain information about people is revealed to him whenever he touches them.

These psychic visions are not exactly pleasant. Johnny is often convulsing while touching people learning some of the more traumatic moments of their lives. He never gets to see that great, sunny day at the beach you once enjoyed. He sees the man you accidentally hit with your car and never stopped for. He touches a nurse and sees her daughter dying in a fire. He touches his Jewish doctor and sees the doctor’s mother, thought to have died during WWII, escape from the Nazis. He touches a reporter and sees the man’s sister commit suicide. While everyone tells Johnny it’s a gift, he is clearly plagued by it.

However, the daughter in the house fire was not a secret from the past but a premonition of the future. With his ability, the nurse was able to save her daughter before her house burned down. This gets the attention of much of the town,including the sheriff, who needs help tracking a serial killer. It is this part of the story that later inspires the cop procedural TV show, where Johnny (now played by Anthony Michael Hall) helps the town sheriff and a number of other law enforcement types with their cold cases.

The most significant moment his future-telling ability comes in to play is when he shakes the hand of a Presidential hopeful, played by Martin Sheen. He sees a vision of a raving mad President taking full advantage of America’s nuclear weapons causing WWIII. Johnny is now faced with an ethical and philosophical question about what he does with this information. He poses it to his doctor: knowing what you know now, would you kill Hitler before he does what he does? That’s the scary part of knowledge: the responsibility. Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, do better,” but sometimes knowing better complicates things further.

The “knowledge” in fear of knowledge is two-fold. One is Johnny’s fear of knowing every skeleton in every closet across his town. It’s like a virus eating away at him, and in one of his top performances, Walken makes us believe it. The other is Johnny being known at all. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Johnny deflects concern from his ex-girlfriend by quoting “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in regards to Ichabod Crane’s death. “As he was a bachelor and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head anymore about him.” Those 5 missing years were so significant that Johnny is no longer comfortable in his home or even in his own skin.

In some respects, he doesn’t know this place any longer, and in another respect, he knows it better than he ever wanted to. Every piece of dirty laundry is a handshake away from being revealed to him, and he can’t shake the feeling that a part of him never woke up.