Tales From the Crypt is still remembered as one of the great television horror anthologies, and it remains easily the most brutal — airing on HBO meant that the show didn’t need to adhere to the standard censorship of the time. The fact that a lot of the stories had their origin point in comics that were sold on newsstands in the 1950s might make the graphic violence a little surprising, but most of the time, relatively few updates were made.
There are disturbing episodes of Tales From the Crypt — and then there’s the Patricia Arquette episode “Four-Sided Triangle,” which takes things to a whole new level of upsetting. The description for this episode on the DVD boxed set is “A seemingly mad woman held captive on a farm insists that the scarecrow is alive,” which does parlay the essential plot while not even remotely hinting at what this episode is about. When asked what the scariest or most upsetting episode of TFTC is, a lot of people point to this one. It’s no wonder — this Tom Holland-directed outing is full of the upsetting twists, turns, and social commentary that go into the making of a perfect horror short.
Warning: This piece deals with the subject of sexual violence, as well as discussion of the episode’s twist ending and the comic on which it is based.
This episode opens on Mary Jo, a young woman who was caught trying to steal and has been kept in captivity as a servant by married farmers George and Luisa. George has lecherous intentions with Mary Jo and follows her out to the barn one day. When she struggles, he hits her across the head, leading her to flee and collapse at the feet of the scarecrow in the field. After this, she seems to have sustained a brain injury that leads her to believe that the scarecrow is “her man” and will ultimately save her from the horrors of life at this farm. George, being the incredible creep he is, decides to dress up as the scarecrow himself. This leads to Luisa attempting to prove that the scarecrow is not alive via stabbing him with a pitchfork. Too late, Luisa realizes that this was Mary Jo’s escape plan, and Mary Jo dances away into the fields to freedom.
The casting of Tales From the Crypt was almost always one of the best things about it, and this episode is no different. Each actor seems to have a lot of fun with their roles, even though said roles entail them acting as pretty terrible people. As Mary Jo, Arquette is easily one of the factors that make this episode so unforgettable. Directed by Holland (Fright Night, Child’s Play) at the height of his career, this is one of the greatest, as well as the most emotionally fraught, episodes of the whole series.
In late 1954, directly after the highly publicized trials spurred by the book Seduction of the Innocent that alleged, among other things, that EC publisher William Gaines was more or less actively brainwashing American children into lives of crime via his horror comics, this dark tale appeared in ShockSuspenStories #17. This was the second-to-last issue of the series before financial woes and widespread public hatred of Gaines caused EC to shutter its doors. Even more than some of the other EC horror series, ShockSuspenStories covered social justice issues via graphically violent allegory, and therefore it was one of the titles most prominently used to condemn comics as an inherently violent and subversive medium. Shock SuspenStories was a bimonthly anthology intended to combine various speculative fiction genres but did end up leaning fairly heavily into horror. As such, it was often used as source material for the Tales From the Crypt HBO series.
Though the title was apparently used out of context, Four-Sided Triangle is the name of a 1949 sci-fi novel by William F. Temple that was later adapted to film in 1953, about two men who are in love with one woman. When she chooses one of them but not the other, the spurned one chooses to create a clone of her with whom he can be happy. However, due to her being an exact copy of the woman, she also falls in love with the same man. The rejected man decides that the best thing to do will be to give her extensive shock therapy in hopes of destroying her love for his friend. This, of course, ends in tragedy.
The original Four-Sided Triangle short did nothing to flesh out Mary Jo’s character, and the tale gave no context that she understood that the scarecrow was not real. Modernized, with Arquette in the role, the story retained all of its horrors but became a story of a young woman escaping her abusers via an elaborate, surprisingly vindictive plan that ensured they would never hurt anyone else again. While this episode will almost definitely make any viewer wince several times during the viewing, it still updated the tale in an interesting way and provided us with one of the great twists of the whole series.
Scarecrows aren’t often used to keep birds or deer away in the real world these days, but the trope in horror may never go away because there’s something undeniably creepy about a stuffed strawman in a field alone at night. Yet, even with countless other scarecrow stories to compete with, “Four-Sided Triangle” managed to up the creep factor by about a thousand percent and scare several generations of people while doing it.