For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of fire. As a child, there were many nights where I’d lie in bed staring out of my doorway, eyes fixed on the nearby smoke alarm as if it were going to sound at any moment, giving myself and my family mere seconds to escape as of yet unseen flames. Because of this, when the time came for fire prevention week when I was a kindergartener, my mother took extra steps to reassure me that everything was going to be okay. Being a schoolteacher herself, she was used to seeing a lot of five-year-olds scared to the point of witlessness every October when the safety program started, so she told me what to expect weeks ahead of the scheduled fire drill, going so far as to bring me to the schoolhouse on weekends (as she was one of only four teachers and had access to a key) and going through a “silent drill” so I wouldn’t be so frightened when the time of the actual event arrived.
All of her preparations worked, as I was one of the very few students able to maintain my composure and exit the building down the small fire escape and into the playground without terrified wails or tears. After things settled in the wake of the drill, a local firefighter came into each of the classrooms and discussed the usual safety measures; never play with matches, never try to put a fire out yourself, always get as low to the ground as you can to avoid the smoke, and of course, stop, drop and roll if your clothing ever ignites. The way he presented us with this potentially life saving information was never too stern or too comical, but just the right balance to educate such young children in a way that would guarantee its retention but also prevent nightmares for days to come.
After that, my phobia started to disappear. I could sleep through the night without staring at the smoke alarm or imagining my house, with all us still inside, consumed by unending flames. I no longer found myself waking up at two in the morning to race downstairs, checking to make sure the lights on the oven weren’t lit (indicating it had been mistakenly left on and thus causing a fire), or feeling the knob to the cellar door out of fear that it would be hot and that the alarms had malfunctioned. I was finally a normal, well-rested child.
This all changed when I was six and began the first grade. As the air began to cool and summer became a distant memory, fire prevention week once again arrived at our desks one October morning. Though the timing of the drill was kept secret from students and much of the faculty in order to simulate a real emergency evacuation, we had a pretty good idea of when it would start when we all saw the fire engine driving over from across the street and into the school parking lot just after lunch. Aside from a quick burst of adrenaline at the sudden sound of the decades old siren, the drill went off without too much trouble for the majority of us. After safely exiting the school, I talked with some friends while our teacher, Mrs. Wallace, tried to console the handful of students who were having a much rougher time.
The firefighters gave their lesson once more while we were all outside, and they showed us how a lot of their equipment worked in the field. This included getting a chance to hold onto a working fire hose (while the professionals held it down of course) and watch them spray the side of the school with a moderate jet of water. After the assembly, we were all given a worksheet and a plastic firefighter’s helmet, and were sent back to our classrooms to continue the discussion. While we were filling out the dos and don’ts of fire safety on our sheets, Mrs. Wallace started wheeling in a TV for the next portion of the lecture.
“Okay everyone,” she began as we started to quiet, “We’re going to watch a short movie on fire safety. This could be a little scary for some of you, but this could also save your life someday!”
She carefully loaded a shining red VHS cassette into the VCR.
“So I hope you all pay attention!” she said as she adjusted the tracking.
The movie started by showing a small house with smoke belching out from the roof and windows. Small fingers of flame quickly reached out from under the gutters, taking hold of the shingles and spreading as the sounds of approaching sirens started to drown out the crackle of the inferno and the moaning wood of the dying structure. The title faded in over the sequence of the house: Don’t Play Games With Mr. Matches.
“We all know how dangerous fire can be,” the narrator began as several firefighters raced towards the burning home and the title faded away.
“Once a fire starts, it can very, very hard to control it, and once something is burned, it’s gone. Forever.” The camera panned over the faces of the former occupants of the house, faces covered in soot and eyes swollen in silent cries. A little girl was desperately trying to run towards the unfolding disaster, telling her parents that she had left her favourite doll inside and that it would only take a few seconds to get it. As they were telling her it was too dangerous, fire erupted from the window of the room she was pointing to. She started weeping, knowing that the doll was nothing more than ashes as more water was applied to the building.
“But,” the narrator continued, “fire doesn’t just burn toys and furniture...”
A loud snapping sound jolted all of us from our seats as the roof of the house collapsed, the family looked on with terror as one firefighter became pinned under a smouldering doorway, his comrades rushing to his aide and covering his legs with blankets in an effort to kill the flames as he was pulled from the wreckage.
“Fire burns through every part of the building, weakening it, which could cause it to fall," he continued. “And being trapped inside a fallen building is like being trapped inside a giant furnace.”
I closed my eyes and ducked behind the girl sitting in front of me as the screams of another firefighter could be heard from inside the partially crumbled residence. I never saw what happened in that part. I just remember his screaming; shrieks growing so faint as the roar of the blaze overtook him until it was the only sound left. Then everything was back to normal.
“But this didn’t have to happen,” said the narrator. I opened my eyes and saw a typical suburban scene playing out on the TV.
“Proper fire safety can prevent tragedies like the one we just witnessed,” he continued. “Knowing how to prevent a fire from ever starting is just as important as knowing how to escape one.”
The video cut to a scene of a boy playing with an RC car.
“This is Timothy,” the narrator said. “Timothy loves playing with his remote controlled toys.” Just as this was uttered, the car stopped moving and the boy started banging on the remote to no avail. He opened up the compartment on the back and took out the batteries, went into the garage and returned with a fresh pair.
“But what Timothy doesn’t know, is that even the slightest mistake…” The scene showed him inserting the two batteries backwards and closing the compartment.
“…can lead to fire.” As the boy flipped the power switch on his remote, there was a sudden bright flash of white, and a howl unlike anything I had ever heard before in my young life echoed throughout the classroom as the movie showed Timothy running in slow motion across his front yard, overwhelmed with flames. Slowly, he fell to the ground, trying to roll and extinguish the conflagration before stopping completely, the fire never easing.
I couldn’t breathe as I sat in the classroom, the sounds of that cry still ringing in my ears. I could feel the pain of the boy on the TV race across each of my nerve endings until I wanted to scream out as loud as the movie had become. Again, I tried to hide behind the girl sitting in front of me, but she was now hunched so low trying to avoid looking at the screen that I had no obstructions left. I then sought to shelter my head in my hands or arms, but Mrs. Wallace was now watching us more closely and telling us to pay attention each time we attempted to avoid the video.
“Rubbing two sticks together can create a cozy campfire,” the narrator said against a view of two scouts in the woods. “But friction of any sort can be dangerous.” His voice was growing deeper with each new setting he introduced. I hated him. I hated him so much in that moment as I tried to mentally run away from that classroom, from the entire school!
We now saw a little girl in her bedroom. Her father had just given her two quarters as a weekly allowance and left her to her play. A closer shot showed her innocently rubbing the two coins together while she was beginning to pour imaginary tea for her teddy bear.
“Do you want some more tea, Mr. Diddims?” she asked the toy, still rubbing the currency. Just as she was about to finish serving the drink, another white flash and hellish screech overtook our classroom. I tried to stare out the window to the playground outside, or at the cartoon children playing with different letters and numbers decorating the walls, anything but the TV. But I couldn’t move, I couldn’t escape the next scene.
A close-up of the girl’s face engulfed in flames greeted us. God, I can still see her today: her eyes blistering over, scorched skin peeling away, revealing the burning muscles beneath it, her hair fizzling away to reveal a swiftly smouldering scalp, and her lips. My God, her lips swelling and oozing a clear fluid, dribbling down her chin as she screamed that same howl that overpowered the entire room just minutes earlier! She fell over, still ablaze, still crying out as if she were begging some divine force to help her. A force that would never arrive.
Then the movie just stopped. Everything was quiet apart from a synthesizer playing a delicate, melancholy melody over the credits. It was over! Mrs. Wallace approached the TV and ejected the tape.
“Well, I hope you all learned something from this!” she said jovially, almost unaware of what we had just endured. “Are they any questions?”
The room was hushed; nobody dared move and even something as involuntary as breathing seemed to have been paused. Then my best friend, Maria, very slowly raised her hand.
“Why…” she began in a soft, shaking voice, “why did all those bad things have to happen?"
We were all trying to comprehend that very question, and indeed, the very nature of what we had just seen. I was still frozen in the wake of the viewing and it was only her timid query that started to ground me. Never before had I been so relieved to reach the ending of a movie in school!
“Well,” Mrs. Wallace started, “those little boys and girls didn’t know how to take the right precautions when dealing with fire, or the things that can make a fire!” She seemed so distant from the film, unfazed by its graphic exhibition of an uncontrolled blaze.
“But you all know better,” she continued. “That’s what this week is all about; to make sure you know how to react in an emergency whether it’s at home, in school or even outside in the woods. Fire is a dangerous tool but if used correctly, like in the hands of a well-taught adult, it can keep us warm and cook our food. But if you ever see a fire where it’s not supposed to be, that’s when you call 9-1-1 and tell a grown up right away!”
I wasn’t paying attention anymore. The images of the boy and girl struggling to escape the flames eating away at their bodies had solidified in my psyche. My only thoughts were ‘what if that was me or my house?’ and ‘would the firefighters even bother trying to save me if it was that bad?’ The day was nearly complete, so while my numbed classmates went about small school exercises or a little mindless play, I sat at my desk and stared towards the clock, counting down the minutes until my bus number would be called and I could go home.
I don’t remember the ride home, and I didn't even greet my grandmother when I got there. She would always be at the house to watch me until my parents came home from work and we would play games or bake a small snack, it wasn’t normal for me to just walk right by her and go to my room without a sound. This is what alerted my family to the unusual circumstances at school that day. My mother, after hearing about how I was acting, immediately came to my side, asking if I was feeling sick or if anyone had been bullying me. I just told her I was fine, and that I wanted to be alone. My father received a similar response when it was his turn.
I never said a word about the movie that night; I barely ate dinner and refused dessert. Sometime in the darkness, I found myself awake, staring into the hallway at the smoke alarm for the first time in a year, imagining it was ready to sound and that I’d meet a similar fate as those children in the film.
The week progressed fairly normally at school as far as the curriculum was concerned. However, in the halls, the stories of that dreaded VHS tape abounded, and we openly spoke about how it was giving us nightmares, or forging the new habit of blowing over any surface that we had accidently rubbed something over, hoping that any hidden heat from the tiniest amount of friction could be eliminated before it combusted like the girl’s quarters had. Then the parents started showing up at dismissal, exchanging fierce words with both Mrs. Wallace and the school principal, telling them that their children were developing insomnia and waking up in the middle of the night screaming about “the girl on fire”.
My mother, being in the same school system, soon heard the stories of restless nights amongst the first graders and rumors about a traumatic short film as the primary cause. She asked me outright about any movies we watched in school when she came home one day. I could tell that she already knew the answer, so I told her everything while crying into her shoulder. While she didn’t express herself to me, I could hear her and my father shouting with each other, outraged that my class had been shown what they assumed was a movie aimed at much older kids.
A PTA meeting had been scheduled in the aftermath of Don’t Play Games With Mr. Matches. My grandmother came by to watch both Maria and I, as all of our parents were attending the conference and finding a sitter was extremely difficult with so many family members heading to the assembly to express their concerns. We kept busy watching cartoons and eating cookies, but that movie was still on our minds. It was inescapable.
“I don’t like to let my toys touch anymore,” Maria blurted out as we sat before the television. “I don’t want them to burn up if they rub like that.”
“I’ve been blowing on my allowance every time I slide it off my bookcase,” I replied. I didn’t want to admit how paranoid I had become, but I felt at ease knowing I wasn’t alone in it. Nothing more was said about school or the movie, though I knew she was just as eager to let loose about it as I was. We just couldn’t go there again.
After what felt like many hours had passed, our parents came home with a look of relief over them. They cheerfully said goodbye to Maria (who was just as confused as I was) and her folks before coming over to talk to me on the couch. They said that Mrs. Wallace had shown the movie at the PTA meeting, and that it was just a silly little puppet show teaching kids not to play with matches, otherwise they could get hurt. There was no burning house, no kids on fire, no screaming, nothing of the sort. Their explanation was that my imagination had gotten the best of me and that my old phobias had resurfaced as a result of going through another fire prevention week.
I was completely dumbfounded. How, just how, could they not have seen what I did? What we all did? Maria and I were just talking about the exact same thing, yet my mom and dad had no idea where we were getting these vivid stories! I tried my best to tell them what was on the tape again, but they said the only fire in the whole movie was a bunch of orange tissue paper dancing about on a puppet’s stove, clearly fake. And even then, a firefighting doll quickly put it out. They told me that there was nothing frightening about the movie they saw.
The next week, we all exchanged stories on how the movie our parents had seen wasn’t the same as the one we had watched, and that we all had overactive imaginations in their eyes. One of the tougher kids in my class accused Mrs. Wallace of switching the tapes at the PTA meeting so she wouldn’t get in trouble. It was plausible, but then why did the other classes see the same thing we did? What about those teachers?
For the next month we came up with different ideas and conspiracy theories regarding our instructors and Don’t Play Games With Mr. Matches, but it gradually tapered off. The movie was becoming forgotten underneath Thanksgiving and Christmas, and eventually we didn’t even think about it at all. Aside from the occasional nightmare or trigger that would bring it back as a topic for discussion amongst my classmates, it was a relic of the past not worth mentioning.
It’s been twenty-three years since that day in the first grade. I haven’t thought about the film in ages. Hell, I couldn’t even remember the name of it until a few years ago when I tried to find a copy of it online as a curiosity piece. While I couldn’t get my hands on a VHS or DVD, there were a few people sharing their own experiences about it in various internet forums, and it brought back a couple of old shivers, but nothing exceptional. I’m now married to a wonderful woman, and we have a little girl of our own. And that’s what restored all of my repressed childhood memories and fears from the fissures of my mind: crevices whose existence I wasn’t even aware of.
Yesterday, when I went to pick up my daughter from school, she came running over to me, crying and clutching my shoulders harder than I though possible for a child.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I asked as I held her. I was growing anxious that another student had harmed her in some way and wanted to have the issue settled as quickly as possible.
“We…we watched a really scary movie,” she started, her blonde curls disheveled as she hid her face in my torso. My skin felt as though it were stuck with thousands of small wires, wrapping around and stabbing at my body.
“What, what was the movie about, sweetie?” I asked, very cautiously.
“F… fire!” was all she said before breaking down.
No. There was no way it could be the same one! It was that moment when everything came back to me in detail; the family looking towards their burning home, the firefighters trapped inside, the boy set ablaze by his remote control and the girl. The girl with the slowly burning, melting face, staring back at us from blistered eye sockets and howling in such agony that it could shake a devil.
I wasn’t about to have her endure the same traumatic nights I did. I took my daughter’s hand and walked with her into the school and right towards the principal’s office. I couldn’t wait to tear into the administration, a feeling my own parents must have felt over two decades ago.
“Oh my!” I heard a familiar voice say. I turned to see Mrs. Wallace standing in the doorway, looking older but not too dramatically different after so many years. My old teacher was now in charge of the whole school.
“Well, haven’t you grown!” she said excitedly, recognizing me almost in an instant. She then looked at my daughter, still sniffling as she stood beside me. Just as I was about to state my intentions, she calmly ushered me into her quarters. I knelt down to my little girl and asked her to wait outside until I got back. She nodded, wiping away some more tears before taking a seat next to the office door.
“I think I know why you’re here,” Mrs. Wallace said. “It is October, after all.”
“She saw it,” I started. “She saw that same goddamn movie!”
Mrs. Wallace sat at her desk and let out a heavy sigh. She then opened a drawer and removed a shining red VHS tape. The title and text had long since worn away, but I knew it was the same one, the same one I had seen twenty-three years ago.
“Do you… want to watch it?” she asked.
I stared at the cassette, filling with abhorrence for it, for what it had done to me, for what it had done to my own child! I wanted nothing more than to pulverize it and wrap the tape around the casing before throwing it into the river. I put those reticent feelings aside and nodded. Mrs. Wallace loaded the cassette into a dusty old VCR in her office, fiddling with the now long outdated equipment until the picture came into view on the TV.
“Hi there kids!” shouted a furry blue puppet. “I’m Willy, and I’m here today to teach you all about fire safety!”
The movie continued as I stared, mouth agape. This, this wasn’t the same thing! There were no fires, no screaming children! Just some silly little puppet show like my parents had told me!
“You don’t need to say anything,” Mrs. Wallace began. “I know.”
I was released from my stupor.
“What?” I asked, breaking my gaze with the screen.
“Every year we show this same movie.” she said. “Every year the children are frightened.” She sunk lower in her seat. “Beyond frightened, even. I don’t know what it is, but I know it happens. And… I know you saw it too, the real movie that is.”
I looked to the television as the ridiculous puppet carried on a conversation with a cheesy anthropomorphic match head encouraging him to play with fire. The real movie?
“There’s something in this tape,” she continued. “Something you can’t see when you grow up. But they can. The kids can see it.” I looked back at my old first grade teacher, suddenly looking worn from so many years of enduring this same sort of conversation.
“I’ve never seen it myself,” she said before standing and ejecting the tape. “But,” she continued somewhat wily, “you never played with fire after this, did you?”
“No! Never!” I said, shaking my head like a child just caught in the candy tray before dinner. Mrs. Wallace chuckled a little as she returned that red cassette to her desk.
“Well then,” she said, “whatever’s in here must work.”
I left with my daughter and headed home, keeping silent on the revelations I had had in that office. I did my best to reassure my child that everything was safe, that she didn’t have to fear the spontaneous flames that the movie had showcased. That the house wasn’t going to burn down without warning and that we had a plan to get out safe and fast if such an emergency were to arise.
After a long struggle to get her to bed, I decided to contact my old friend Maria online. She had long since moved out of the town we grew up in, so I figured she wouldn't know anything about the video outside of what we had seen when we were kids. We joked for a bit before I brought up Don’t Play Games With Mr. Matches. Her messenger was still for a little while, and then a large block of text appeared:
“Oh my God! I forgot all about that thing until last week! So weird! My son came home crying, telling me he was terrified of fire and being burned. Then he started telling me about this movie they watched in school and it just sort of came back to me! I remembered the boy running on fire and when I asked him, he said it was the same movie! I was so afraid that this was going to traumatize him so I went to his school to talk about it. Now, you’re never going to believe me, but when I watched the video it was just some stupid puppet show!”