Friday A/V Club: Watch This Old Movie About Stranger Danger and Marvel at How Unsupervised Kids Used to Be

This film's fears can't conceal just how level-headed people were about allowing children a little autonomy.


Not a scene from the movie.

The Strange Ones (1963) belongs to an evergreen genre of classroom movie, the stranger-danger picture, in which kids are taught tips for avoiding kidnappers and molesters. Many films and videos have been made on this theme over the years, some of them unintentionally funny in dark, weird ways. But The Strange Ones stands out.

That's partly because of the sheer nightmarishness of it: the shadows, the creepy music, the narrator who constantly wanders into horror-movie territory. "Most people in the world are good and nice, but unfortunately, there are some strange ones," she tells us. And: "You never know when there might be a Strange One around." And: "Even if this little boy had seen the man, how could he know that he was a Strange One? There's no way to tell. The Strange Ones look just like everyone else."

Yet watching this in 2014, that atmosphere of dread seems to have settled in a world where people are remarkably level-headed about the actual risks families face. There's no need here for someone like Lenore Skenazy and her Free-Range Kids movement: It's taken for granted that boys and girls will run errands for their parents, walk home from school on their own, go to the park or the movies without an adult, and play unsupervised in public. Even when the narrator suggests that children should not go certain places by themselves, she doesn't say they should stay close to a grown-up; she tells them to "take along a friend."

They're also told they shouldn't hitch-hike. This advice is offered as we watch footage of a young boy thumbing a ride. Evidently, half a century ago it was sufficiently common for pre-adolescents to hitch-hike that someone felt the need to make a movie telling them to stop.

The Strange Ones was directed by Sid Davis, a stuntman turned classroom-film auteur whose movies have attracted a small cult following. (His most infamous effort is probably Boys Beware, on the threat purportedly posed by lurking homosexuals.) After he died in 2006, I wrote that he

occupies a gray area in mid-twentieth-century America. On the one hand, he was an independent filmmaker with his own vision, shooting ultra-low-budget pictures with few constraints. As [film historian Ken] Smith wrote, "Society's discomfort with Davis's dark world gave him the freedom to do pretty much what he wanted. No committee of educational advisors oversaw his work, no peer group condemned his excesses." But it was educators who bought his movies, and it was schoolchildren who watched them; his films were frequently narrated by government officials or other authority figures, and they weren't averse to speaking the psychiatric language of the time. Davis might not have been a part of the social-engineering community, but he certainly was part of the social-engineering complex. There's a complicated relationship between the supposedly scientific interventions of credentialed experts and the more nakedly paranoid world of grassroots moral panics. Sid Davis was a bridge from one to the other.

Bonus link: A few years after The Strange Ones came out, Davis released a quasi-remake—the soundtrack is the same, but the old black-and-white images have been replaced by new color footage. Comparing the two will give you a quick lesson in the evolution of American fashion, architecture, and automobiles.

(For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. Let us commence with stories of how we all went hang gliding dowsed in gasoline over busy highways full of tire fires while our parents were who knows where and peace officers waved at us from below.

    1. No, but I was allowed to run amok in the neighborhood as early as 5 without any parental supervision. Does that happen at all anymore?

      1. 5AM? Young Pro Libertate liked to make hay while the sun shone, eh?

        1. Of course I meant age five. Five years, as measured by five orbits of the Earth around Sol.

          1. When I was 5 years old, I’m pretty sure I was still in bed at 5AM. Kudos to you.

            1. Bugs Bunny wasn’t on until 6:00…

          2. The Earth’s orbit had stabilized by the time you were 5?!

              1. Oh, you know my Uncle Khan?

      2. PL, this. From morning to dusk only to come in and eat. I remember rolling around my street on my Big Wheel and Green Machine hopping off at empty lots that had yet to be sold. It’s where I met my Franco friends. Catching frogs, playing baseball, and getting dirty in the fields. Like most kids.

        And the catch? My mother was a worry-wart (sp?). Not quite a helicopter mother but she was terrified of us hurting our heads – which never happened. Well, once. I bully kid hurled a brick at my head busting it open but the blood made it worse than it actually was.


        1. You had a GREEN MACHINE?


          1. Yes I did.

            /Big smile and smirk.

        2. I bully kid hurled a brick at my head busting it open

          And on that day, Rufus became a libertarian…

          1. The Epiphany of Rufus Firefly And Duddy Kravitz.

        3. I got clobbered playing–EGAD!–tackle football at age six, and probably had a minor concussion. Never even went to the doctor.

          1. My cousin shot me in the chest with one of arrows you used to get in the indian set from Cherokee. Today my aunt would be an accessory to attempted murder.

            1. I took a dummy shell to elementary school that my dad had from his Air Force days. The principal confiscated it, but he kept it on his desk as a paper-weight for at least as long as I remained at that school. So theft rather than zero-tolerance.

              1. Haha, I remember every show and tell at least one boy would bring a grenade from the Army surplus store.

                1. A friend of mine–this is during college–had one of those practice grenades (which looks real but has a hollow core) hanging from his rear view mirror. A couple of times, just as a joke, he’d pull the pin out while stopped at a light. Freaked some people out that way. And nothing ever happened. They’d shoot him today, especially since he’s Cuban, which makes him a Muslim.

                  1. Wife still has one of those lying around the house somewhere.

            2. Unfortunately it seems the only way to get back to this kind of freedom is to make the world more dangerous. Anything sufficiently more dangerous than the norm is always going to be illegal.

      3. By 6 I had already fallen out of my second tree house.

        1. My niece, who is a tom-boy, broke her arm playing in a tree house when she was four. If my sister lived in some of those places I read about, she’d be in prison for neglect. Which she wasn’t. She saw it unfold but it happened too fast.

    2. I shot up my school all the time as a kid, and no one cared. People have such a stick up their ass these days.

      1. We also played war, where we’d kill the enemy “gook” kids (remember, this is during Vietnam, or near to it, anyway), who were–gasp–portrayed by non-Asians, by and large. Using a panoply of weapons–pistols, machine guns, grenades, and, of course, the crowd favorite: the flamethrower.

        1. I wonder if kids still play Smear the Queer.

          1. “Swirly time!”

          2. No way. Of course, we played it all the time and had no idea whatsoever what it meant. Incidentally, I’m sure the name horrifies people today, but the violence of the game was extreme.

          3. I did. I’m 26 – one of those millennials.

            We’d play “smear the queer” pretty often in 6th/7th grade, but by 8th we were all starting to get an idea of what the name was alluding to. And it was about the time we were going through puberty, so some of us were picking teams, so to speak.

            I started drifting away from one of my friends because he was just getting annoying. A few months later, he decided to announce he was gay. I got some flack because some thought I stopped being friends with him because he was gay. Nope, he was just really annoying.

            And all this was in Alabama, circa 2002.

          4. It was already “Kill the Carrier” when adults were watching in the early 90s.

            1. Interesting. We played Smear the Queer at recess, and I don’t remember anyone getting in trouble. Maybe SW Ohio circa 1993 was a less tolerant place than whatever shithole you befouled.

              1. I’ve seen Heathers. At least in Springfield, IL (which is a such a shithole I didn’t add much to the befoulment), they were accepting of heterosexual men who drank Perrier. Well, maybe the idea that there could be a heterosexual man who drank mineral water.

            2. I see. So merely hurting the homosexual is worse than killing someone who happens to have the ball? It truly is a more violent age.

            3. My dad played “smear the queer” with us all the time…except when we went to visit my aunt in Palo Alto he told us not to call it that when she was having a big shindig with all her Bay Area friends there…now I know why.

        2. As an 80’s kid, the generic commie persona sufficed for the bad guy. Rambo was the shit. We all had to have oversized knives with a compass, sewing kit, and matches in the hilt.

          Better Dead than Red
          Kill a Commie for Your Mommy

          1. I guess 80’s teenager is more accurate

          2. I still have one of those knives in an emergency kit in the back of my truck. I got it at a Fair in 1983. Piece of shit toy mostly, but would cut in a pinch.

            1. And don’t forget the 80’s ninja craze

              1. +1 Michael Dudikoff

          3. The 80s was also a time where budding mobsters Henry Hill style still roamed and no one fucked with them (except for a few brave teachers) because they all knew where they were heading.

            1. If by “budding mobsters” you mean guys who were 1/8th Italian claiming distant relations to noted mobsters of the day yet were too much of a pussy to stay out late then you’re right.

              1. Oh no, Susan. I mean those who went on to the big leagues and were 100% Italian. We’re talking serious business.

      2. And teachers back then were pretty sane compared to today. If they caught you they’d punish you sure but there was kind of a understanding they’d hold you accountable in a ‘parental’ manner. There were lines we all understood. Man, today it seems mental. Mind you, it seems worse in the States than here.

    3. Fire was my favorite toy.

      1. Yeah. You may want to consult a doctor. I think it’s called pyromania?

        1. Pyrophilia if you don’t mind

      2. Magnifying glass and newspaper. Match and WD-40 blowtorch.

    4. I grew up in area once occupied by apple orchards, and by 8 years old I was a veteran apple fighter in my neighborhood.

      Kids now days will never know the joy of beaning a fool with an apple. It’s a joy tempered only by the sting of return fire.

      1. All these stories are bringing back memories. Like the time Morris threw an orange at the wall in the cafeteria during a food fight only to hit Stephane straight in the side of his face as he walked along the wall. It was a scene not unlike Kramer getting hit by the tennis balls or the guy in the bar in ‘Dodgeball’ hit by the chick from Romanova – where ever she was from.

        PAF! Was the sound I believe.

  2. I look at someone like this guy and I immediately draw parallels to the kind of person who is obsessed with homosexuals as evil who then turns out to be severely closeted. Any time someone seems singularly focused on something they portray as bad, but just can’t seem to stop talking about it, sets off all my alarm bells. I bet if you rifled through this guy’s filing cabinet you’d find plenty of child porn.

    1. *Ding Ding Ding*

  3. His most infamous effort is probably Boys Beware, on the threat purportedly posed by lurking homosexuals.

    Tell me about it. As an attractive lad, I was hit on all the time. Like the volleyball scene in Top Gun, I’m pretty sure my very presence was used to root out the homosexuals among us. Used by whom, you ask? Why, by the makers of Top Gun. Pay attention.

    1. Mac: OK, look at this. (holds up a picture of him as a young boy) Look at this guy, huh? I was cute. I was energetic. I was fun. I mean, what exactly was this prick looking for?

      Dennis: What are you?

      Dee: Sorry?

      Mac: If the McPoyles got blown, and Charlie got blown, then why didn’t I get blown?

      Dennis: You’re going to hell, dude.

      Dee: Seriously.

  4. I’m surprised Stephen King didn’t do a novel/movie called The Strange Ones.

    1. I thought that was a Warty/SugarFree buddy pic?

      1. I thought it was a weeknight show on Fox Business?

  5. When we were kids we were bullied by the Gravel brothers. They were four or five years older than us and took to trying to knock us around. One day we barricaded ourselves in a snow mountain we built and hid in. When they descended on us we pelted them with snowballs. They’d climb up, we’d fight, take our licks and then they’d leave. We ALL lived on the same street. Parents didn’t get involve all that much.

    Imagine today if they’d see that. They’d think it was the Hell’s Angels against Rock Machine fighting.

    1. You know, there was still some of that “Let the boy handle his own battles” mentality when I was a kid. I mean, if something got out of hand, they’d actively get involved, but usually the only thing that happened was that the parents might punish you for fighting, but I don’t recall it being a big deal. Incidentally, I recall getting in trouble with other people’s parents as a kid, which friggin’ never happens today–“Don’t you yell at my precious angel of perfection!”

      1. Yes. I remember that too. You stepped over the line – fine – but everyone was held to account. My father used to tell my soccer coaches you discipline him as you see fit and he’d give me a stare as he smoked. I got the message.

        1. Personally, I think we’ve been slowly becoming wussier and less generally capable over the generations. One of my great-grandfathers, for example, was a farmer who’d literally stomp on rattlesnakes to kill them. Totally tough and a do-it-yourselfer.

          My dad got a taste of that life and spent whole summers working on family farms, but he also lived in the suburbs. Still pretty handy, but less than his dad or grandfather.

          Me, I got even less of that, with maybe a week a year doing the farm labor. I’m reasonably handy, but not like all of the above.

          My kids do none of that and have trouble distinguishing screwdrivers. I try to involve them, but unlike their forebears, they have no interest.

          1. Yup. Same with maintaining a language or culture. As time goes, you’re disconnected from the past.

          2. Urban vs rural.

            And yes, we are being pussified.

          3. You sound old, ProL. Should I get off your lawn? Oh, and what was Moses like?

            1. You, too, are weak and worthless. When the food supply ships are late, you will have to be sacrificed for the greater good.

          4. My daughter wants to drive the construction equipment around. She’s a little young yet, but I’m all for it in a year or so.

            1. Yes, I should note that my youngest daughter seems to be breaking the trend. Perhaps it’s a generational thing? I wonder if she can bale hay?

      2. That was how we rolled in small town Texas, too.

        Throwing clod of dirt and the occasional rock? No prob.

        A kid brawl – shoving and ineffectual punching? Whatev.

        Go after somebody with a garden rake? Umm, no.

  6. Check out the traffic stop around 3:15 in the video. So lame. Either jump on the perv’s hood T.J. Hooker-style or at least do a bump-and-run to flip the car over and take the girl’s body safely back to her mother.

  7. On the way home from grade school, we’d throw mud clods (rocks) at the kids from the bordering neighborhood. They’d ambush us, we’d bum rush them, etc. We spent a good 15 minutes planning our daily route in school daily. So, one time they got the jump on us going up “the alley”. They had the high ground and mud clods were raining everywhere. Jeff Parks narrowly missed me with a clod. I grabbed the clod off the ground and whipped it back at him. I blasted him in the face just under the eye and cut his cheek open. He ran home crying. An hour later, he and his mom are standing on my front porch and Mrs. Parks is trying to get me in trouble with my mom. I told the truth, that Jeff threw the same clod I hurled back at him. Jeff’s mom freaked out at him and they left.

    1. And so therein lies a tale and metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think.

  8. I don’t read anything in this thread that we didn’t do as kids, stuff that would freak out parents today.

    *we also used to have shotgun fights as teenagers. 60+ yards with 7.5 shot in the gravel pits. It may not seem like it, but that shit can light you up pretty good.*

    1. We drew the line at that. Mud clods ok, BB guns ok, firecrackers ok, bottle rockets ok, shotguns – nope.

  9. Some of my childhood friends had possessive helicopter parents during the late 80s, early 90s when I was a child but they were in the suburbs. My family lived in an older urban residential neighborhood (victorian era houses mixed with bungalows) where several kids were abducted within a couple of miles of where we lived, but we were still allowed to roam free as long as we were home for dinner.

    I have a hunch that’s still somewhat the case today. Suburban parents are the possessive ones. City and country parents are more cavalier.

    1. “You’re not the only kid, you know. Get your dumb ass killed or disappeared, well, that’s why we keep your little brother around. As a backup.”

    2. I suspect you are right. I live in a fairly rural area, and know plenty of people with kids, and I really see very little of the sort of idiocy that we read about on here all the time. Parents are definitely a bit more cautious about letting young kids out on their own to roam the streets than when I was small, but not a lot.

  10. The most striking moment in the film was the kid playing right in the middle of an oil well. I mean there wasn’t a fence or anything around that thing or the oil containers. Baffling.

  11. Evidently, half a century ago it was sufficiently common for pre-adolescents to hitch-hike that someone felt the need to make a movie telling them to stop.

    You know, Jesse, it was. My friends and I started hitching when we were in the 5th grade, back in ’68.

    True story.

  12. how could he know that he was a Strange One? There’s no way to tell. The Strange Ones look just like everyone else.”

    That’s what I thought was the creepy message of They Live.

  13. Maybe it’s the mood I’m in, but I don’t find this picture over the top. It is an example of its kind, and illustrates a problem with society other than what it purports to, although it’s obviously well meaning.

    1st there’s the cashier who, rather than expressing her fear on the spot and preventing a possible crime, allows the action to proceed and then calls the police. On one hand, you could say that as a general rule of drama, you need people to act stupidly or you have no story, but for an instructional film, that made no sense at all.

    Then there’s a problem that can’t be helped by a movie, because it exists as part of the world where adults limit the info they give children. It keeps hinting at unspecified dangers, but can’t say what they are (except the possibility of a drunk or bad driver). One might suppose it a jumping-off point for class discussion, but I’m sure the teacher wouldn’t be any more explicit.

    That leads to the problem of euphemizing the situation by blaming mental “illness”. Since it’s not clear to the children the Strange Ones are doing anything bad, the only thing to say is that they’re “sick”. The movie practically says that the only adults who aren’t good are the “mentally ill”, which leads to the inferences that all the world’s problems are the result of mental “disease”, and that the mentally “ill” generally make trouble for people?perhaps simply by being “strange”. We then tend to grow up thinking different=bad when it comes to persons.

  14. There was a childless couple in our neighborhood that sold baseball cards out of a poorly lit, spare bedroom in their house. We would always go inside without parents and buy cards granted there were at least a couple of us. Nobody knew where we were since we were free to roam around the neighborhood. But I never trusted my next door neighbor. He was outside a lot…smoking…and tended to befriend the local pre-pubescent troublemaker. He would only have one child-buddy but would get a new one when the other ones moved.

  15. I totally had the color re-release version of this on VHS when I was little and I used to watch it all the time! It had a bunch of other segments about stranger danger in addition to this one, but this one was always my favorite as a kid. it wasn’t until high school when my friend and I were watching it for a laugh, that I realized how off-the-charts-creepy this is, the talk about “strange ones” in particular. We were home alone, and actually got legit scared at the part in the construction site. Ive always been warier of strangers than most people, I blame this video! Thank you so much for posting this, it brought back memories!

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