Yes, a hideous mime/clown mask. Worn by a rapist.
Sylvia comes very late in the show’s run; Laura (Melissa Gilbert), who started the show as a pre-teen, is now the local school teacher and is married. Albert, a street kid from the city, lives with the Ingalls clan, and many of the stories in this season focus on him. In this episode he and his goofy friends go peep on a local girl named Sylvia, hoping to catch a peek of something good. Instead they get caught by her mean old father, played by Royal Dano, who snitches them out to their parents and who yells at his daughter for tempting the boys. Dano says that she has the devil in her, just like her mother - and it was that devil that killed her mother. He makes Sylvia wear a truss to hide her blossoming young bosom.
The townsfolk also blame the girl. One of the peeping boys was Willie, the son of Miss Oleson, the bitch on wheels proprietor of the general store. Miss Oleson can’t believe her boy would actively peep on dames, and in a meeting of the parents she says it was all the girl’s fault. Pa (Michael Landon), ever the perfect voice of reason and decency, says that boys will be boys. You know how they like peeking at snatch.
Anyway, Albert and Sylvia fall in love. They frolick in the woods. They go fishing. They kiss. They carve their names in a tree. It’s so romantic. But they’re being stalked by a mysterious figure. And one day, when Sylvia is out picking flowers, that mysterious figure - dressed all in black, with black gloves and that grotesque Harlequin mask, comes up behind her and forces himself on her.
The whole sequence is shot like a horror film. In the lead up we see a close-up of an eye, then the stalker POV shot, and we see he is watching Sylvia as she rings the church bell. When she’s in the woods picking flowers things seem okay, but then a bunch of birds are scared into flight. There’s a tense moment, Sylvia looks offscreen at the flying birds… and BAM! the rapist grabs her and drags her down to the ground. The flowers she picked fall to the earth, and the camera slowly zooms in on them.
When she returns home, bruised and scared, her father tells her that it was her own fault and that she should never talk about it. But a few weeks later she passes out in school, and when the doctor examines her he discovers she’s pregnant.
Everybody thinks the kid is Albert’s, except Albert, who is all pissed off at Sylvia for sleeping with someone else. Pa, of course, counsels kindness. It’s just how he is. Her mean ass father is mortified, and tells her they will move out of town, start over again. She’ll tell everybody in their new town that her husband was killed in an accident.
The show keeps getting into horror tropes. Sylvia is getting water from her family well and the camera goes into stalker POV again, sliding up behind her slowly as the music grows menacing. A hand comes out and grabs her shoulder… but it’s Albert! This is a classic killer POV fake out, seen in dozens upon dozens of slasher films.
Sylvia is scared but she ends up embracing Albert. He’s come to understand that it isn’t her fault and they sneak off into the woods to be together. But when Sylvia goes home her nasty old dad sees that her shoes are muddy and knows she’s been with that boy. He threatens to kill anyone his daughter sees; this is doubly disturbing because Dano does the voice of Abraham Lincoln in Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents - it’s like Abe himself is threatening to kill our beloved Albert.
Albert decides he’s going to marry Sylvia and take care of the baby. But to do that he needs work, and so he goes and gets himself hired by Irv, the blacksmith - who also happens to have just bought Sylvia’s house as her dad prepares to move them. By the way, none of these characters have ever appeared on the show before; Walnut Creek may be a tiny plains town, but it’s apparently infinitely huge when it comes to new people to meet.
It’s worth noting that the blacksmith is played by Richard Jaeckel, one of the great character actors of the 60s and 70s. You probably know him from The Dirty Dozen, where he played Sgt Bowren, Lee Marvin’s right hand man. He was also the star of the profoundly odd shark movie Mako: Jaws of Death. His appearance, with his rugged character actor looks, indicates that Irv is going to play an important role in the madness to come.
And madness it is! Sylvia’s dad calls her a whore and she runs away. He shows up at the Ingalls house on a gothic, stormy night with a shotgun, and Pa has to beat him down into the mud. It’s pretty weird watching Michael Landon beating the shit out of Gramps from House II: The Second Story.
The next morning everybody goes off in search of Sylvia; Albert finds her hidden in an abandoned barn but lies to Pa and her dad, planning to elope with her. He heads back to town and ‘borrows’ some money from Irv the blacksmith’s office; when Irv catches him in the act Albert fesses up that he’s eloping and tells Irv where Sylvia is hiding.
Have you figured out where this is going yet?
While Albert briefly heads home to leave a note explaining why he ran away, we see Sylvia sleeping in that abandoned barn. It’s actually a pretty good shot - she’s in the immediate foreground and in the deep background we can see the door to the barn… which slowly opens as if by itself. It’s totally spooky. And then, when the door is opened, the masked rapist slowly, deliberately steps over the threshold. He inches across the debris, his boots crushing kindling beneath, each step loud enough to wake up Sylvia but she keeps on sleeping. I mean this is really fucking TENSE.
Just as he gets next to her she hears him, and in a reverse of the scene where Albert snuck up on her, Sylvia thinks the rapist is her beau. She jumps to her feet and is faced with that mask; thinking quickly she grabs a plank and hits him in the face and runs. But the debris trips her up, and the rapist gets up, mask falling to the ground to reveal the bloody face of… Irv, who has been in a total of two scenes thus far!
Irv blocks the exit and Sylvia begins climbing a ladder to escape him. Just as Irv gets to the bottom of the ladder, boom! Albert out of fucking nowhere tackles the blacksmith to the ground. Crying, Sylvia keeps climbing higher and higher.
Just as Sylvia gets to the top of the ladder the rung on which she is standing cracks! She falls, screaming! “SYLVIA!” Albert cries! Irv picks up a plank and is about to bean Albert with it when BANG! Sylvia’s mean old dad shoots him point black in the back with a shot gun.
Sylvia lays in the dust, mortally wounded. Albert weeps over her. Cut to a long, bug POV of the barn, with the people in the blurry background and the rape mask laying in the foreground, the reverse of the sleeping Sylvia shot. This episode is really well directed!
They get Sylvia home, but she’s dying. She wants to spend her last minutes with Albert, and they talk about the wedding they will never have. “Kiss me, my love,” she whispers, and Albert leans in for a gentle, sniffly kiss. And then she dies.
It is hard to understate how this episode fucked me up as a kid. Sylvia, who was played by Olivia Barash (four years later she would play Leila in Alex Cox’s Repo Man) became a standard fixture in my dreams, always as the girl I would fall in love with and lose. And that mask… and the scene of Sylvia falling off the ladder… both stuck with me for years. I was probably around seven or eight when I first saw the episode, and while I was already into genre stuff by then I think it was the fact that something so very horrifying was happening in a show that normally felt wholesome that freaked me out. Slasher movie looking rapists just don’t belong in Walnut Grove.
The two-parter was written and directed by Michael Landon. While Landon had starred in I Was A Teenage Werewolf, this was the closest he would come as a director to horror (unless you count The Loneliest Runner, the semi-autobiographical TV movie he directed about a 14-year old bed wetter) but he’s pretty damn good at it. And it’s obvious that he wasn’t just reflecting the then-new slasher craze but that he had seen a giallo or two in his time.
Who would have imagined it? An episode of Little House on the Prairie influenced by giallo. Next time I’ll tell you about the episode of The Waltons that drew on the Ed Gein story.*
* There is no such episode.
This episode didn’t just fuck me up, it’s got a pretty big and weird following online. Here’s a video someone made about Albert and Sylvia’s love set to… Hallelujah.