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‘Big’ Is Secretly a Horror Movie

Just ask Tom Hanks’s terrified mom

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration
20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

In 1988’s Big, a charming 12-year-old boy named Josh Baskin makes a wish to a carnival midway game called “Zoltar Speaks” to be “big.” He does so because he’s just been embarrassed in front of a girl he was hoping to court. (A ride operator told him he was too short to go on the ride she was getting on.) This is him making the wish:

The next morning, Josh wakes up and he’s no longer a 12-year-old child. He’s become a 30-year-old man. He’s become big.

Some funny things happen and then more funny things happen and then 35 minutes later in the movie he’s working as the vice president in charge of production at a toy company and living in what appears to be a multimillion-dollar corner apartment in New York. He goes on a couple of adventures, has sex with an adult woman (!!!), wears a tuxedo with sparkles on it, plays a gigantic keyboard with his feet, and generally enjoys his new life.

After six weeks of being better at adulthood than most adults, he tracks down the “Zoltar Speaks” machine, does the whole routine again (except this time he wishes to be a kid again), and then 10 minutes later he’s a kid again and he’s back home and everything is wonderful.

It’s a fun movie and a silly movie and a lighthearted movie. Except here’s the thing: It’s super not any of those things. It’s the reverse of all of those things. The only way it works as those things is if you look at it through Josh’s eyes, which is what you’re supposed to do because Josh is the centerpiece. But by any other measure and from the perspective of any of the other characters in Big, it is a horrifying movie and a very real tragedy movie. Here are the other characters in the Big universe and what happens to them:

  • Scotty Brennen: This is the guy who works next to Josh when Josh starts at the MacMillan Toy Company as a data processor. He suffers in two ways: First, he watches Josh get fast-tracked out of data processing and into the favor of the owner of the company over the course of two or so weeks, a thing Scotty could never pull off. Second, he tells Josh about a woman who will sleep with him if he talks to her for even a second, to which Josh responds by telling Scotty that he won’t talk to her, then. Scotty absorbs what Josh said and realizes that the way he values woman is incorrect and stupid. He becomes profoundly sad.
  • Mr. MacMillan: The owner of the MacMillan Toy Company. He takes a chance on promoting Josh all the way up to the vice president in charge of production at MTC. How does Josh repay him? He walks right the fuck out on him in the middle of an important presentation and never returns.
  • Paul Davenport: He’s the guy Josh leapfrogs over at MTC, snatching the promotion away from Paul just when he thought he was going to land it. Paul gets painted as a secondary antagonist in the movie, as some sort of egotistical and insensitive prick — mostly, though, he’s just a guy trying to deal with the fact a job he’d worked for (and toward) was given away on a whim to someone who didn’t deserve it.
  • Billy Kopecki: Josh’s best friend. He’s a kid, too. He is hurt when Josh makes him feel like being a child isn’t worth it anymore after Josh becomes enamored with being an adult, a thing that’s especially hurtful to Billy because Billy is his only friend. Also, even after Josh returns home as a child, poor Billy has to process the fact Josh is some sort of shape-shifting creature who can, at times, turn into a full-grown man. Learning that your best friend is a werewolf-type thing (a wereman?) or a very timid version of the Incredible Hulk (the Credible Hulk?) is enough to derail even the steadiest of minds.
  • Susan Lawrence: She works with Josh at the MacMillan Toy Company and eventually falls for and sleeps with him. She starts out the movie as an ambitious career woman. By the end of it she finds out she’s had sex with a 12-year-old. There’s no sidestepping this one.

So those are all bad. But do you know who got it the worst of all, though? Worse than even the accidental pedophile? Josh’s mother, Mrs. Baskin. She has it the worst; the way, way, way worst.

All of the parts of the movie that Mrs. Baskin is in before Josh transforms into an adult are scenes of her loving him and caring about him and wanting to protect him. There’s a part where she takes pictures of him playing a midway game because that’s how much she loves him. (Look at her squatting to get the perfect angle.) There’s a part where she warns him against getting on a dangerous carnival ride because that’s how much she loves him. She wakes him up for school. She does his laundry. She makes breakfast for him. She cleans the house for him, and cleans his room. She never gets frustrated with him or yells at him, not even after she catches him awake past midnight on a school night talking to Billy on a walkie-talkie. She loves him so, so, so much. She’s such a great, caring mother.

So imagine her horror when she realizes that a man has broken into her house and kidnapped her only son, the boy’s innocence snatched away forever.

After Josh accepts that he’s actually a man and it’s not a dream, he sneaks out of the house before his mom sees him and rides his bike back to the carnival site (presumably so he can wish himself back into being a kid again). The carnival is gone, though, and so is the “Zoltar Speaks” machine. He pedals back home. He busts in the house as his mom in vacuuming, hoping to explain what’s happened. She sees him, then begins to panic because she thinks a strange man has just entered her house unwanted, because a strange man has just entered her house unwanted. She starts to whimper. “Don’t. Please. Don’t. Don’t. Please,” she begs. He apologizes, runs out, wipes his feet, then runs back in.

He tries to tell her that he’s Josh, which is an insane thing, because Josh is a child and this person is not. “Stop it!” she shouts, not listening to anything because how could anyone listen to anything in that situation. He keeps walking after her as she tries to escape. “No, please! Stop! Go away! Go away! No. Noooo!” She’s terrified.

He starts spouting out a bunch of Josh-based facts (his birthday, the name of his baseball team, things like that). She freaks out even more. He gets louder. She freaks out further still. His volume matches her mania. And then he pulls down his sweatpants to show her a birthmark behind his left knee, but all she sees is that HE IS WEARING HER SON’S UNDERWEAR, and I’ll remind you here that earlier in the morning she found Josh’s pajamas by his bed all ripped to hell, and those two things together paint a very ugly picture.

All of this rushes into her head at once, this sudden realization that her son has possibly been kidnapped and, bleaker still, possibly subject to even worse, and so instead of being scared, she immediately flips her mode. She turns around, grabs a butcher knife, shouts, “You bastard, what did you do to my son? Where is my child?! Where is my son?!” Then she chases him out of the house.

As a parent, there’s no worse feeling than knowing that your kid is in pain. I don’t even really like my kids that much, but this past summer I was a total wreck for a solid three days when I thought that a teacher might’ve been picking on one of them. And that was a total nothing situation with very low stakes. I can’t even imagine how terrifying it’d be to suffer through a kidnapping and all of the awful things that could potentially come with that. Mrs. Baskin’s morning went from Normal Morning to WORST POSSIBLE MORNING real fast.

The police show up, they do some canvassing, they try to find some fingerprints, then that’s it. They leave her to deal with her suddenly broken life. They’re gone and Josh is gone and there’s not even any sign of the guy who broke into her home. All she knows is that when she went to bed her son was at home safe with her and when she woke up he was gone and a man was standing in her kitchen wearing Josh’s underwear. That’s where she is. Even her husband is gone; he never gets shown in the movie again; I suspect he left the family because he was unable to deal with the stress of the situation and the ramifications that followed.

A week or so later, Adult Josh calls his mom, but he knows that he can’t explain what’s going on to her so he poses as his own (fake) kidnapper. This is the phone conversation they have:

MRS. BASKIN: Hello.
JOSH: Uh.
MRS. BASKIN: Hello?
JOSH: Hello. Mrs. Baskin.
MRS. BASKIN: Yes.
JOSH: How are you?
MRS. BASKIN: Who is this?

[She already knows who it is. You can see it in her face. She knows it’s the kidnapper. This scene is so devastating.]

JOSH: I just wanted you to know that, uh, Josh is alright and he’s OK and everything.
MRS. BASKIN: You have my boy?

[She’s squirming so bad here. All she wants is her baby boy back. She’s probably picturing him in some strange room, God knows what being done to him. It’s such a dark spot to be in.]

JOSH: Yeah. And you’re gonna get him back. Just the way he was.
MRS. BASKIN: Look, I swear to God if you do anything to him, if you touch one hair on his head I will spend the rest of my life making sure you suffer.
JOSH: Wow. Thanks.

[WOW. THANKS??? Imagine you’re Mrs. Baskin and you just threatened to kill this man and his response was, “Wow. Thanks.” That’s so goddamn cold-blooded. This is like the phone call scene from Taken, except way more crushing. She’s helpless and hopeless.]

MRS. BASKIN: Let me talk to Josh.
JOSH: Oh, he can’t come to the phone right now.
MRS. BASKIN: Why not? Why not? What did you do to him?
JOSH: I didn’t do anything to him. I think he’s a terrific kid.
MRS. BASKIN: I want proof that he’s alright.

[This is the second-roughest part of the call. “I want proof that he’s alright.” You can hear the pain, the hurt, the anguish, the terror, all of it. All that she wants to know is that her son is alive. There was probably a time in the very recent past when she was frustrated that he hadn’t done his homework or put his clothes away or taken out the trash. She wanted him to do those very little things. Now all she wants is to know that he’s alive. My heart is all the way broken for Mrs. Baskin here.]

JOSH: Uh, alright. Um, ask me something that only he would know. Then I’ll ask him for you and that way you’ll know that he is OK.
MRS. BASKIN: Ask him what I used to sing to him when he was a little boy.
JOSH: Isn’t there something else that you’d rather ask him?
MRS. BASKIN: Ask him!

[She’s so desperate.]

[Long pause.]
JOSH: I got it. I got it. [He begins to sing “The Way We Were.”]
MRS. BASKIN: [Weeps inconsolably.]

[This is the roughest part.]

JOSH: Look, you’re gonna see him again really soon. I promise. I cross my heart and hope to di — we’ll talk about this later.
[He hangs up.]

The last thing that she ever hears from the kidnapper is “I cross my heart and hope to di — we’ll talk about this later.” That’s so brutal. She probably replayed that conversation 1,000 times in her head. “Why didn’t he finish the word ‘die’?” she probably asked anyone who would listen, hopelessly trying to leach meaning out of any moment, of every moment.

So, to recap: Her child has been kidnapped. The person who kidnapped him was in her home and staring her in the face. He showed her that he was wearing her son’s underwear. She remembered finding his pajamas torn to pieces by his bed earlier in the morning. A week later she got a phone call from the kidnapper. He mocked her death threats. Then he sang to her. Then he hung up. That’s what Mrs. Baskin has lived through in the first 40 minutes of Big.

Several weeks after the phone call, Mrs. Baskin probably all-the-way hopeless by this point, a letter arrives in the mail from Josh, addressed to his mom and dad. Here’s what it says:

The next time we see Mrs. Baskin it’s over a month since her son disappeared and she’s sitting in Josh’s room on the floor holding his walkie-talkie. She clicks the button. Billy, who’s in his room in the house next door, hears it. He thinks it’s Josh, so he hustles over to the window. He sees Mrs. Baskin alone, mourning. He says hello through the walkie-talkie. She looks up, partly surprised but mostly embarrassed. She opens the window. Billy tries to small talk with her as a way to make her feel better. It doesn’t work.

In her most hurt and solemn voice she says, “He had a birthday,” talking about Josh, whose birthday passed several days earlier, and she says it in such a lost and despairing way that you can tell she has accepted that she will never see Josh again. I can’t even really think about it too much without breaking down. It’s awful.

Even the movie’s happy ending is just another obstacle for Mrs. Baskin. Josh makes his wish into the “Zoltar Speaks” machine to be a kid again, then rides over to his mom’s house with Susan. They’re sitting in the car having a halfway-sweet, halfway-weird moment, and then he gets out, begins walking toward his house, then morphs back into a kid before he gets to the door, losing his shoes as he walks on account of them being several sizes too big. All things told, it’s a great scene, and a really moving thing to get to see him be a kid again.

But Mrs. Baskin doesn’t know any of that, and she never will. All that she knows is that after six weeks her son has wandered into the house again, this time barefoot and wearing a man’s suit (and very likely the man’s underwear, too), with a story so unbelievable that a psychiatrist is almost certainly going to tell her that he’s made it up as a way to repress the trauma of having been kidnapped and possibly worse.

So that’s her life now. That’s what she has to carry around forever. She let that happen to her son. Mind you, even if that was actually the thing that happened, it couldn’t rightfully be attributed to her, but she would 100 percent see it that way because that’s what parents do. Every tiny thing that happens to your kid or children is like a fucking broken bottle being stabbed into your stomach. And so she’s going to live with that forever.

That’s Big for her. It’s a goddamn horror movie.