The Legend: After putting the children to bed for the night, a baby-sitter receives a strange phone call. “Have you checked the children?,” the caller asks. At first, the baby-sitter thinks the calls are from friends trying to scare her. The stranger calls back later but now he asks,”Why haven’t you checked the children?” Now the baby-sitter is really frightened so she calls the police who promise to trace the calls. The real horror sets in when the police call back. “Get out now,” yells the officer. “The calls are coming from the upstairs extension. The caller is in the house.” When the police arrive, they find the children murdered in their beds and the gore soaked killer hiding in the bedroom closet.
The Films: When a Stranger Calls, Black Christmas, Halloween, Psycho II. After the release of When a Stranger Calls, fans from all over the country claimed the events depicted in the film actually occurred in their hometown. Or they had a relative who knew the baby-sitter who received those terrifying calls. Or they had a friend who had a relative who lived next door to the house where the real murders took place. Like all great urban legends “The Baby-Sitter and the Man Upstairs” never happened but the story is so strong that many people believe it did.
When a Stranger Calls is the purest example of this urban legend filmed to date, but Black Christmas used the legend’s plot several years before Walton’s film. In Bob Clark’s creepy thriller, the killer asks, “What have you done with the baby, Billy?” when he isn’t promising to perform sexual atrocities on the sorority sisters. Clark uses the big “the calls are coming from inside the house” reveal at the end. Black Christmas doesn’t receive as much credit for using the legend as When a Stranger Calls because Clark’s film under-performed at the box-office while Walton’s film was a major hit.
Irwin Yablans’ original idea for Halloween is really just a variation on “The Baby-Sitter and the Man Upstairs” legend. Yablans’ original concept was known as “The Baby-Sitter Murders” before the project became Halloween. While some of the children in the film are stalked by Michael Myers, the baby-sitters are his real target. Laurie does receive a couple of strange calls, but not directly from Michael. The first call is played for laughs while the second is more sinister because Laurie is listening to the death moans of her friend, Lynda.
Psycho II takes the legend and turns it upside down. In this film, the crazy man, Norman Bates, is the one getting the phone calls and his baby-sitter, Mary Loomis, is involved in the plot to drive him insane. Norman is getting calls from is dead Mother even though she’s, y’know, dead and buried. One scene that adds to the “man upstairs” theme involves Norman locked in his attic while a killer stalks a young couple in the fruit cellar. Norman’s doctor tries to warn him “the calls are coming from inside the motel” but by then poor Norman is on a return trip to crazy town. There’s also a scene of “Mother” using the upstairs phone while Norman is downstairs.