E.T. and Me: How My First “Horror” Movie Started a Lifelong Obsession 

When adults tell me they’re still scared of E.T., the north star of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic, I can’t help but laugh. Because to me, E.T., is, and always has been, far from frightening. In fact, you could say he was my first love. 

My mom likes to tell the story of how I came to find my first favorite movie, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, as a toddler. According to her, after seeing it for the first time, I would watch it repeatedly, sometimes several times a day, to the point where I would literally burn through the film and she’d have to find a new VHS copy. I also had an E.T. t-shirt that I liked to wear from morning until night, my parents carefully pulling it off me once I finally got to sleep so they could pop it in the wash before I woke up again. Suffice to say, I was a little girl truly obsessed.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t remember these days very well. But I believe that my mom is telling the whole-hearted truth when it comes to me and E.T. After all, I can remember visiting Universal Studios when I was a bit older and going on the E.T. Adventure ride, where not only did I get to ride bikes along with my star-bound buddy, but also got to hear him say my name, just like he said Elliot’s back in 1982. And I know that every time I revisit the film I am overwhelmed with emotion, not only because the film is truly terrifying at times, but because it feels like phoning home.

It took me a long time to understand what drew me to this movie in the first place and why it still holds a special place in my heart (or should I say heartlight?). For years, I was almost embarrassed by my ex-BFF, with so many of my peers commenting on how ugly and creepy he was when all I could see was a frightened little creature in desperate need of good directions. It wasn’t until recently that I really started to talk about my love for E.T. openly again. I even started collecting artifacts from his (and my) past, everything from licensed board games and stuffed animals to handmade pins and illustrations. I now keep a photo of me with E.T. at my desk, a souvenir from that trip to Universal that blew my little mind and a reminder of the impassioned little girl I once was, as well as the open-minded woman I want to be. 


One night last December I was home alone, my partner away for the night to see his family for the Christmas holidays. With no one around to judge me, I decided it was a good time to catch up with my interplanetary pal for the first time in years. Naturally, I started sobbing within the first few minutes of the film, almost immediately seeing myself reflected in this tale of love, loss, and the search for “home.” I’m not a child of divorce like Elliot, the lost little boy (played by a truly brilliant young Henry Thomas) who discovers, and becomes physically and emotionally linked to, E.T. But I am, and always have been, a person who struggles with finding my place and, in turn, my people. 

Forever plagued by social anxiety, I didn’t really start to understand my neurodivergence until my late twenties, when I finally found therapy and realized that my compulsive habits (see: those repeated rewatches) and sensory sensitivities weren’t necessarily as “normal” as I thought. I spent much of my childhood feeling like an outsider even when I was objectively “in the club.” I often struggled to find ways to connect with my peers and driving them away with misreadings of social cues, a penchant for mood swings, and strangely specific obsessions (see also: that period where I literally could not stop talking about Brokeback Mountain). Some close friends even joke that I didn’t really know how to properly express love—or didn’t seem to anyway—until my parents got Charlie, a bulldog who, to be fair, did look a lot like E.T. if he walked on all fours. 

In the lowest moments of my earliest years, when I was navigating what I would later come to understand was depression and burgeoning Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I found solace in one thing and one thing only: cinema. I spent almost every weekend at my local video store (RIP Videoflicks), taking at least an hour to pick through the racks until I found a week’s worth of programming to suit my current mood. Sometimes I’d rent new releases, but I often turned to older films, especially ones from the ‘80s, a decade I was born in but didn’t really experience except through, well, the movies. I focused mainly on the Comedy and Horror sections, the latter part of the store feeling both forbidden and fortifying to someone so anxious, yet curious. 

While I have a palate for almost every genre, my taste for horror has been and will probably always be the strongest of them all. And I think E.T. was the start of this lifelong thirst, an early and accessible entryway into all things strange and unusual. Unsurprisingly, my second favorite movie as a kid was Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice

Spielberg actually initially imagined E.T. as a more straightforward horror flick, with John Sayles attached to what was once called Night Skies. And despite its somewhat saccharine reputation and (arguably) adorable leading man, the E.T. that we know and love does have some genuinely scary scenes, particularly the final act in which our titular character skirts death while his earthly friend’s home is overtaken by strangers in hazmat suits. A sort of family-friendly foil to Jaws, it is a monster movie that argues the real monster is The Man, whether he be your deadbeat dad or a greedy government agent. 

As a kid, I’m sure I was drawn to the eerier aspects of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, as I daydreamed about having a Reese’s Pieces-loving pal of my own to take out trick-or-treating. As an adult, however, I admire its fearless commitment to realism in between those unforgettable feats of pure imagination. 

The E.T. screenplay, written by the late Melissa Mathison, is a perfect example of how to straddle the lines between genres, equal parts hilarious (“penis breath,” anyone?), heartwarming (“I’ll be right here”), and harrowing. Both Mathison’s script and Spielberg’s direction take care to treat the film’s junior protagonists as real people with real emotions worth investigating. And don’t even get me started on the performances by Thomas and the rest of the young cast (little baby Drew Barrymore!). They set a very high standard for so many kid-centric horror movies and series to come (Stranger Things, for one, owes as much to Spielberg as it does to Stephen King).

With E.T. turning 40 this week, I’m bracing for a barrage of media coverage focused on how it holds up, technically, after all this time. But to me, it’s not about how iconic E.T. is in the overall cinematic landscape, or how it reminds us that practical effects will always trump computer-generated ones. It’s about how its earnestly empathetic themes continue to resonate across space and time. It’s about how much this film means to those of us who understand what it’s like to feel like an alien who just crash-landed on an unfamiliar planet, lonely and desperate for answers. 

When I’m having a bad mental health day, it’s a comfort to know that I have a direct line to phone home. Whether I’m watching a wrinkly little spaceman ravage a kitchen before being entranced by an old John Wayne flick, or seeing Gertie all grown up and talking to a masked man about her “favorite scary movie,” all I need to come back down to earth is a great piece of cinema—preferably one that thrills me as much as it warms my heart. 



Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter