As a kid I’d have a lot of the same nightmares. They’d take place in different locations, but the concept was the same which was that was my parents weren’t my parents. Somehow my mom and dad would be other beings; taken over by forces I didn’t understand or comprehend.
One dream in-particular was me walking around what looked to be a construction site. It was a residential area, and I was walking in the skeleton of what would become a two-story house. There were open walls and mounds of dirt and gravel surrounding me. A car pulled up and two figures got out. In my head I thought they were supposed to be my parents, but what they looked like were outlines of two bodies and inside those outlines was television static(kiddos, you’re all probably too young to remember waking up at 2am on the living room couch with the TV blasting bright static and white noise.) Anyways, these static beings were coming into the unfinished house to get me and take me home.
Another dream was that I’d woken up in the middle of the night and walked from my bedroom to the kitchen. There was one light on over the sink, and one lamp set to low in the living room. My dad was in the kitchen standing by the sink. I thought maybe he was packing his lunch(he worked 3rd shift part of the year.) He didn’t see me or was ignoring me, so I ran back to my parents bedroom and saw their bathroom light was on. I turned to look into their bathroom and saw my dad at the sink shaving. Two dads doing two different things in different parts of the house. Which one was my actual dad?
Skinamarink is a movie that is less a movie and more a sensory deprivation tank that leads to childhood nightmares and fear of abandonment. There’s no plot, storyline, narrative, or character development. It simply drops us into a nondescript home in the middle of the night where two children, a sister and her younger brother, wake and at some point realize their father is gone. There’s hints that something has happened to their mom, but we never really know. As the film moves along the kids notice doors and windows are now gone. Even the toilet disappears from the bathroom. Dialogue is limited to whispers between the children, creepy cartoons playing on a console TV downstairs, and strange commands from some entity in the home.
The film itself looks like it was shot on grainy 8mm, with the dark shots of blackened hallways and corners seemingly morphing in front of our eyes. Are we seeing something emanating from that darkness? Or is it just our imagination?
My parents have been married now for what will be 56 years this September. They still love each other, or as much as two people who’ve been together for nearly 56 years can. They’re in their 70s, they can be contentious to one another, but in the scheme of things they’re good. Growing up they were happy for the most part, except for when they’d drink too much. That’s when animosities would rise, and what at first were card games would turn into jabs, pointed accusations, and steely, slurred whispers. The kinds of whispers anxiety-proned 9-year olds hear in their darkened bedrooms.
My brother took the route of “see no evil, hear no evil”. While our parents were going on hour two of Yahtzee or Skipbo as the clock rounded midnight he’d put on his headphones in his bedroom and drown out the arguments in whatever cassette he popped into the Walkman. I, on the other hand, was the mediator. It was my duty(or curse) to make sure the fight didn’t escalate into my mom leaving to go the “pharmacy”. This is what she told me once after another argument fueled by beers. I sat in the living room watching Tales Of The Golden Monkey as mom and dad fought in the kitchen over something I wasn’t privy to. I just knew the beer woke a beast between my parents. And in hindsight the pharmacy was the liquor store more than likely. Or maybe just a way to get a rise out of me.
These nights brought out way deep down resentment.
Maybe it was because they were so young when they were married and became parents three months later. Maybe it was because my mom felt she had more to offer or was unappreciated by my dad for taking care of everything, everyday, while he went to work. I was sick a lot as a kid, so it was mom who took me to the doctor, kept me on my medicine regiment, and cooked me eggs and toast to eat on the couch while I watched Sesame Street. Or maybe it was because dad felt unappreciated for going to work everyday, sometimes working 12 hours a day for weeks straight, to keep us fed, roof over our head, and comfortable in that middle class, Midwestern way.
Being one of the very few kids in my friend group whose parents were still together made me feel like a white rhino. Meaning I was of one of a very few who still had mom and dad under one roof. This meant whenever these fights would occur I was certain it meant my parents were getting divorced. It was done, the jig was up, and I was on my way to two Christmases, shared summers, and pointed interrogations from both of them about what the other was up to. That fear of abandonment loomed over me like overcast skies for a long time in my adolescence. It manifested itself in these dreams where my parents were these other beings; faceless avatars that wore my parents clothes but weren’t them. Waking to find no one in the house, wandering our less then 1,100 square foot Midwestern ranch as if it was this sprawling maze of broken vows and shattered familial togetherness as I trip over toys and piles of clothes unfamiliar to me.
Watching Skinamarink that’s the feeling I got. The nightmare and dread of the familiar warmth of your childhood home becoming cold, detached, and dangerous. The hallway with family pictures and thermostat on the wall that is the quick walk to any one of the three bedrooms, two closets, and a bathroom in the light of day becomes this portal to nowhere. A bleak, shadow-drenched space that holds something sinister in its splotchy darkness when entered in the cold of pre-dawn. That is what Skinamarink felt like to me.
It’s not for everyone. Maybe it wasn’t even for me. But regardless, it was an effective experiment in cinema and psyche. It opened a portal for me, one I’d locked up a very long time ago hoping I’d never have to reckon with it again. But what do you know, there it was on a multiplex screen right in front of me as I sat next to my oldest in the darkness. She watched in the same wavering tension as me, turning away more than a handful of times as these two little kids wander through dark hallways searching for a parent that wasn’t there. I don’t know if Skinamarink meant the same to my daughter as it did to me. I hope not.
I hope for my oldest it was just a scary movie and nothing more.