It’s been so long ago, an incident whose reality has been corrupted by its telling, but the first time that television scared me out of my wits was the first time I saw this episode. It was such a long time back that I don’t remember whether I was familiar with Land of the Lost already, or whether I’d ever seen Sleestak before, but the reality is that the incredibly brief scene in which the Marshalls escape through the Lost City while the dormant Sleestak twitch slowly back into life absolutely horrified me to the point that I did not watch Saturday morning television again for weeks.
My father later told me that I didn’t watch television, period, for at least a month after my screaming fit ended (“You woke the whole house,” he shared, reminding me that my uncle lived with us then and worked a late job Friday nights), and that my parents had to turn off the black and white set in the kitchen whenever I was in the house. They would turn on the TV in the den just to get me to run, yelling, to my room and get ready for bed. Eventually, this turned into enough of a game that I began to have fun with it, and the television lost its immediate power to frighten me, and, eventually, I began to trust that Sleestak wouldn’t show up on every other show on the tube. Mercifully, the producers of CHiPs borrowed a different Krofft character a few years later.
No, it’s not that scary from adult eyes. Childhood TV traumas never are, in the cold light of day, but Dick Morgan’s “Follow That Dinosaur,” which answers the question of who wrote “BEWARE OF SLEESTAK” on the Lost City pillars, retains its amazing power to shock children. Around 2002 or so, it sent big sister Ivy screaming from the room as well, and while Daniel didn’t quite exercise his leatherlungs, his eyes welled with tears and he fled, security blanket bunched tightly in his mouth.
Part of the horror is this: outside the Lost City, Grumpy the tyrannosaur has followed the humans into Big Alice’s territory. There, in the plaza, they fight, and seriously, the special effects team still deserves a round of applause forty-two years later. That is an amazing piece of stop-motion photography, better than anybody else in 1974 had managed, and I include Ray Harryhausen’s remarkable work in that assessment. So outside, you’ve got two killer dinosaurs, and inside you’ve got Sleestak which are not merely dormant but covered in spider webs, which is incredibly creepy, and then the trail of an old diary leads them into a dead-end pit room with the skeletal remains of Peter Koenig, who died there years before, overcome by the heat and fumes of a rising lava pit… which, of course, inevitably, wakes the Sleestak.
It is the bleakest, most terrifying trap ever, the tension ratcheted up by the slow exploration of the tunnels and the resigned sorrow of the actors, realizing that this is not the way out, just before the real revelation hits them: they have to get out of the tunnels before the heat wakes the Sleestak.
Daniel recovered quickly, a whole lot quicker than I did at his age, and has been talking excitedly about lava with Mommy ever since we finished. I did have to assure him that the next episode is nowhere as frightening. It’s the one after the next one…