I don’t know if anyone cares about this sort of thing, but I figure what the hell—here’s a creator commentary on my short story, “The New Babysitter.”
Just some thoughts on what went into making my little horror/comedy/thriller yarn about Stacy Morris and her incident with Unknown Caller.
The idea for “The New Babysitter” came to me one night after watching the remake of When a Stranger Calls. For those who don’t know, When a Stranger Calls is essentially a movie of the old “calls are coming from inside the house” urban legend. A teenage girl is babysitting some kids and starts getting threatening phone calls. The cops trace the calls, and sure enough, the killer is already in the house, etc, etc.
After it was over, I flipped to another channel and found Scarface (’83) was on. I started watching, but kept thinking about When a Stranger Calls. There were various things that didn’t work about it, but one that stuck out to me was the babysitter protagonist.
If you’re going to do a feature-length movie set primarily in one location with one character carrying the whole thing, that character really needs to be engaging and able to hold the audience’s attention. And When a Stranger Calls‘s protagonist just didn’t cut it.
I wouldn’t say it was the fault of the actress, but more the way her character was written. She was obviously created to be a “girl next door” type. Which just meant they made her inoffensive, bland, and dull. And, in effect, she goes on a very by-the-numbers arc through the story: the calls intimidate her at first, she gets scared when she learns the killer is in the house, but she fights back and escapes. Very stock “final girl” stuff.
I kept thinking about how much the story would’ve improved if the babysitter had any kind of personality or spark. What if she was a smart-ass who doesn’t take the caller seriously at first? What if she was more aggressive? As I was watching Scarface, I thought what if she was someone like Tony Montana—a temperamental jerk who responds to the killer violently?
It would probably cease to be a straight horror story, but at least it might be entertaining.
That thought of Tony Montana stayed with me, and something that intrigued me was the dichotomy of the situation. No one would want a guy like Tony babysitting their kids—he’s foul-mouthed, violent, murderous, and does drugs. But at the same time, if a killer had broken into your house, who better to defend your children than a raging loon who would take the whole thing personally and actively attack the intruder?
I originally pictured my babysitter protagonist—who would eventually become Stacy—as simply a delinquent. An obnoxious, smart-ass teenager who’s been forced to babysit as punishment for something. She would initially treat Unknown Caller like a joke, and when he broke into the house, she would lose her temper and fight back like a drunk in a bar.
It was an amusing idea, but I thought Stacy’s temper needed to be something beyond her control. Because, at a certain point, even a smug delinquent would just call the cops if someone was making threatening phone calls. Any rational person, no matter how ill-tempered or apathetic they are, would call the police when it became clear there was danger lurking outside.
For the plot to work, she would have to either be really stupid or there’d have to be something wrong with her.
So that’s where the idea of Stacy having emotional issues came from. I didn’t want her to come from an abusive family, so her problems would be chemical and therefore require medication. And once that idea hit, the arc of the story became obvious: she needs medication in order to stay cool, but because the killer keeps harassing her, she forgets to take her medicine, and kaboom.
The next question was what parents would let a girl on medication babysit their kids, and addressing that was how Stacy’s backstory took shape. Her family had just moved into town, she was a last minute replacement for her sister, and they’re trying to keep her past a secret in the hope of fresh start.
I was happy with this because it enabled her to have a personal motivation in wanting to prove she could be trusted and responsible. It’s fun and games watching her go nuts on her attacker, but little things like that I hoped would make her sympathetic and someone to root for.
I worked backwards on what exactly Stacy’s condition would be. As said, I wanted it to be something chemical that could be treated with medication. For symptoms, I wanted her to have trouble controlling her temper, difficulty differentiating what she really heard/saw and what was just in her head, and minor hallucinations.
I almost expected something obscure, or more likely, something I’d have to fudge a bit for dramatic purposes. But it turned out what I was looking for was a combination of general “emotional instability” and paranoid schizophrenia. A little more research, and I found such a condition—depending on the severity—could be treated with lithium, a mood stabilizer, and/or Haldol, an anti-psychotic
I tried to incorporate side-effects and little details where I could. For instance, lithium can cause hand tremors which Stacy references once or twice. Lithium also only needs to be taken once or twice a day, whereas Haldol should be taken every few hours—hence Stacy is more worried about taking her Haldol at a certain time. And it’s recommended Haldol not be taken with caffeine, which is why she looks for juice.
I’m sure there are things I got wrong that an actual doctor could point out, but I did try for some degree of realism regarding her condition and medication.
Although the story is humorous in tone, I didn’t want to treat her condition like a joke. Obviously, schizophrenia and chemical imbalance are serious things that people really suffer from. So even though, in this insane situation where her condition sort of helped save her in the end, I didn’t want to present Stacy’s issues like a superpower. And she only loses her cool at all because Unknown Caller antagonizes her.
An interesting thing I found when I started shopping the story around for critique was a few readers expected a twist at the end. As in the whole thing would turn out to all be in Stacy’s mind or, worse, the person she wound up killing was innocent and not trying to hurt her. Mr. McAllister, I presume.
I guess when you establish a character can see or hear things that aren’t there, some see a red flag signalling an unreliable narrator or foreshadowing something askew.
But I always saw Stacy’s story to be what it is, as she describes it.
As explained, for me, the point—or punchline—was that in this absurd instance, a person who ordinarily would never be entrusted with children’s safety actually wound up being exactly the right person to save the day.
I don’t think there’s any profound message to be read out of that. I just thought it’d be an entertaining yarn and fun twist on an old story.
And wouldn’t that be a grim ending, considering how important it was for Stacy to prove she could be responsible and how afraid she was she’d be “sent away” because of her problems?
“The New Babysitter” isn’t my best work, but it has a special place for me. I enjoyed developing and writing Stacy. It’s the first story I tried to get published. And funnily enough, a few months after I posted it on this website, it wound up becoming the first story credit of mine that wasn’t self-published when it was selected for the first (and only) issue of TYPEFACE Literary Magazine.
If you liked “The New Babysitter” and want more,
it and 13 other stories can be found in