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It is like a Rorschach test come to life, this psycho parable of a rejected woman wreaking havoc and bloody revenge on a one-weekend lover and his comfy family. During the film's grisly finale, grown-ups cry out, "Don't trust her! Don't trust her!" Men leave the theater shaken, silently or openly reaffirming their marriage vows; women leave resolving to make their husbands see it. Talk of the film in casual conversation tends to provoke startling confessions from both men and women that begin: "Something like that happened to me...." In just three weeks the movie has grossed an astonishing $45.4 million, and it is well on its way to becoming this year's biggest hit, if that is the word for a film that nobody in his right mind could actually love but everybody apparently wants to see. "We didn't set out to make a heavy message picture," admits co-producer Stanley Jaffe, "but it has touched a chord."

Yes, but—what chord is that, and what in the world is the message?

Fatal Attraction has been dubbed "the AIDS movie" for its graphic argument that sex can be life threatening. "That's why this story is very powerful now: It says this can happen to anybody with a libido that's operational," says Susan Weitzman, clinical social worker at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "I don't think it would have had this kind of splash 10 years ago." It has also been called a put-down of women, perverse proof of women's liberation (at least her violence wasn't self-directed, this argument runs), trash, a retrograde portrait of sex-loving women as loony sluts, Frankenstein for Freudians, every philanderer's nightmare and a neo-Biblical injunction against messing around if you value your loved ones. Fatal can, in fact, be read as all those things; what is remarkable is that the movie strikes not just a chord but a whole keyboard.

"Alex, Glenn Close's character, pushes all sorts of buttons," says co-producer Sherry Lansing. "We've all felt unrequited love at some time. We've all dialed a phone number in the middle of the night when we shouldn't have." Many have been on the receiving end of such behavior, too. "When we were casting the role of Alex, I had a well-known actress come in who was having a similar situation," says director Adrian (9½ Weeks) Lyne. "A woman was obsessed with the actress's husband and had been camping in her car outside their house and making calls. The actress brought in a tape of this woman, and I even used some of it in the movie."

That universality may be why the role of Alex was pursued by almost every youngish-looking star in Hollywood except Debra Winger, who, rather amazingly, turned it down. Among those who sought the part were Kate Capshaw, Jacqueline Bisset, Mimi Rogers, Melanie Griffith, Barbara Hershey, Kirstie Alley, Amy Madigan, Cheryl Ladd, Jennifer O'Neill—and Glenn Close, who admits that she "really campaigned" to audition for it with co-star Michael Douglas. "When Glenn made it known she was prepared to test, I became fascinated with the idea of using her," director Lyne says. "She's a person you'd least expect to have this passion and irrational obsession. When she and Michael tested, an extraordinary erotic transformation took place. She was this tragic, bewildering mix of sexuality and rage—I watched Alex come to life."

The most disputed part of Fatal is its gruesome climax. In the original ending Alex slit her throat to the strains of Madam Butterfly, with Douglas' fingerprints on the knife, thus perhaps doing both of them in. Test audiences nixed that. "They wanted to see Alex get it," says Lyne. "They hate the woman by the end."

By then it's pretty hard not to hate her. Close took the script to three different psychiatrists to construct a psychiatric profile of Alex. She won't say what it was, but her Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation, especially in the latter half of the movie, almost insists on a diagnosis of florid psychosis. That makes drawing cosmic social meaning from the movie a very iffy business, but it may also be what makes Fatal so unsettling: This psychotic woman expresses some feelings that are awfully familiar to the rest of us. Says Dr. Donald Lunde, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and in private practice a specialist in obsessive love: "Everything in that film has happened to people I've seen—the setting up of 'accidental' meetings, trashing the other person's car, showing up at their home, the continual phone calls—everything, that is except the ending."

On the following pages are the stories of real men and women who have become entangled in a web of obsessive, unrealistic love—and who have been driven to lengths that some of us reach only in fantasy.

A Brief Office Affair Brings on a Lot of Nasty Business

When Valerie met Bob (these are not their real names) at work in the summer of 1986, logic told her that her instant infatuation was misplaced. He was 39 and married; she was 27 and single. But her job as office manager in the large West Coast company where Bob was an advertising executive kept her close to him, and she could not help wanting to get closer.

She stalked him at parties and company gatherings, where she would sidle up in her sexiest garb, give him a scent of her long, auburn hair, flash her green eyes and talk about how lonely she was. "I let him know I was everything he ever wanted sexually," she says. After two months of this heated game, he finally kissed her when she contrived to deliver a package to his desk. That night he appeared at her apartment, where five minutes of difficult conversation led to five hours of easy sex. "It was on that bed," Valerie recalls, pointing, "with his arms wrapped around me, that I began to realize how much I wanted to own Bob."

They saw each other "at every opportunity" for the next 10 weeks. "We had fun and we had sex, sex, sex," she says. "He loved me then, I know he did." But after an especially fervid liaison on her roof at noon, Bob phoned to say their "affair" was over. That word shocked her as much as the farewell. "I never once thought of our relationship as an affair," she says. "That makes it sound so cheap."

Valerie was angry—just how angry would soon become apparent. She began calling his home in the middle of the night and hanging up, but then, "I got to feeling so bad about what I was doing that I wanted to make up for it to win him back." So she sent an expensive bike to Bob's son, with a card from him. Unnerved, Bob went to Valerie's apartment to tell her to get lost—but ended up in her bed, only to break off communication again immediately.

Now Valerie was really mad. "I just wanted to destroy him any way I could." She called his boss and told him Bob was sleeping with the boss's daughter (the same day, she sent Bob an expensive briefcase). She punched and scraped his new car with a screwdriver, poured red paint on his desk, broke windows in his house and scrawled "You Bastard" on the garage door. She sent flowers—no card—to his wife every day for 10 days. "He was ignoring me," she explains, "and I couldn't let that happen. He was being blind to the fact that he loved me."

When she learned that Bob was being transferred out of state, she rushed in desperation to plead her case to his mother, who threw her out of the house. Somehow this maternal reproach, and Bob's departure, brought Valerie to her senses, she says. He's been gone six months now, and "I'm finally okay about him leaving me. The anger is gone, finally. I think I'm ready to put the past to bed."

A Jilted Lover Says It With Flowers and a Kitchen Knife

One snowy night in February 1986, Cheryle Wallis was watching TV in the Arlington, Va., home she shared with her boyfriend, Robert Hogue, when she heard a knock on the door. Wallis, 26, looked out the window and saw what appeared to be a black-haired, mustached, teenage boy, a parka hood partly covering his face. "Who is it?" Wallis shouted through the door. "Flowers," a muffled voice replied.

Wallis opened the door. The stranger bashed her in the face and stabbed at her with a seven-inch kitchen knife. Wallis fell to the floor screaming, shielding herself with her arms. Hogue, upstairs in the shower, grabbed a towel and ran out. "I saw this guy with a mustache—it looked like he was punching her. I shouted, 'Who are you!' "

The stranger bolted out the door into the snow, with the naked Hogue in pursuit for two blocks. "I ran up behind him and jumped on his back," Hogue recalls. "We landed on the sidewalk. I hit him in the face a couple of times. Then some blond hair came out of the hood. I said, 'Who the hell are you?"

Before I even saw the face, I heard her say, 'It's me.' "

"Me" was Mary Prevost, 24, a beautiful blond graduate student who had met Hogue in 1981 when she took a lifesaving class he helped teach at George Washington University. He'd asked her out, and they dated for about six months, according to Hogue, until, tired of her possessiveness and wild temper, he tried to break it off.

For five years Prevost apparently clung to the hope that she could change his mind. Hogue says she called him at all hours; she'd sit in her car all night waiting for him to come out of his house; she pounded on his windows till they cracked. Says Hogue: "It was always the same: 'Let me explain. Let's get back together. Nobody else is going to love you like I love you.' Over and over again." Her pleading could turn in an instant to anger: "Why'd you dump me, you sonofabitch!"

The anger culminated in the attack on Wallis, who recovered from cuts on her wrist and finger and a puncture wound in the abdomen. Prevost pleaded guilty to breaking and entering and malicious wounding, and received a 10-year suspended sentence with six months in jail. "I didn't go there to kill someone," Prevost, whose mother had died 10 months before the attack, told the court. "I just wanted someone to hurt as much as I was hurting."

Hogue, now 28 and a Washington, D.C., attorney, has nightmares in which he opens the bathroom door a second too late. He remains mystified by the turn his relationship with Prevost took. "People keep asking me, 'What did you do to that woman?' And I say, 'All I told her was goodbye.' "

Courtship at a Courthouse Turns Into a Real Trial

It all started a bit ominously. Gary Taylor, then a courthouse reporter for the Houston Post, was newly separated from his wife in October 1979 when he first heard of divorcée Catherine Mehaffey through the courthouse grapevine.

"She was the subject of some interest as a female criminal defense attorney who had been called in for questioning following the death of one George Todesco," Taylor recalls. The home of Todesco, an anesthesiologist with whom Mehaffey briefly lived, was burglarized after their breakup, and a few weeks later he was found bludgeoned to death in his garage; the crimes were never solved. "She had a mystique, an aura of mystery," says Taylor. She was also attractive. So when he ran into her at a party, he introduced himself, and the next week he invited her to ride along with him to Galveston on some errands.

"She really was an interesting woman," Taylor recalls. "Catherine was fun to be with." She was so much fun that the very first night they made love on the beach. But after just two short weeks of reckless romance, "I began to see a dark side to her," he says. "Her anger seemed out of control."

The first big blowup came during a restaurant lunch. Taylor says Mehaffey grew enraged when he told her he had to pick up his daughters, age 2 and 4, at his estranged wife's house that evening. "You're not going to pick up those kids!" she shouted and smashed her umbrella against the wall. Right then Taylor decided he had to end the relationship, "but I already knew it wasn't going to be that simple."

That night he told Mehaffey he wanted out. "I don't need the kind of woman who smashes umbrellas," he said. She responded by trying to smash his stereo. "She told me that I couldn't do that to her, that I had made a fool of her. She said, 'You don't break off with me. I break off with you.' "

He later testified that she began telephoning him around the clock (during one late night call she threatened suicide) and several times dropped by his workplace to make noisy scenes. But he agreed to resume dating for the holidays. "I thought it was best to let things wind down slowly," he says. "I was afraid if there was any blunt end to the communication, she would react with unpredictable violence."

After Christmas he asked Mehaffey, "How do we end this relationship?" She replied, "One of us has to die."

He began hanging up on her phone calls. Then his house was burglarized while he was out at a party. Suspecting Mehaffey, he called her and, he has testified, she suggested he come over to "negotiate" the return of his belongings. On the night of Jan. 17, 1980, he went to Mehaffey's apartment. He noticed she had turned all her clocks back several hours and "she kept telling me it wasn't time to leave yet." She made some calls and said someone was coming over with his possessions.

Then she "wanted to talk about love," Taylor recalls. "She wanted to know if I had ever really loved her." He thought it prudent to say he had. ("I never even liked her," he says now.) "Then she asked me to go to her bedroom and take a look in her closet. I'm standing in her closet, with my back turned to her, when I hear this click." He turned and stared into the muzzle of a gun. "She said, 'This is it. I am going to kill you.' "

He heard the gun go off and felt something graze his head. He ran to the door, and as he fumbled with the dead bolt, the gun went off again. Hit in the back (the bullet stopped half a centimeter from his heart), he managed to get out and run to a grocery store.

Mehaffey's first trial for attempted murder ended in a hung jury. Her second resulted in a conviction that was overturned on appeal. Ultimately, Taylor urged the D.A. to offer her a plea bargain to aggravated assault, with probation. She took it.

Taylor last saw Mehaffey in 1980, when she was out on appeal after the second trial. She came into a restaurant where, she'd discovered, he was working part-time. "I agreed to sit down and have a drink with her. I felt sorry for her and I still do."

A Kidnapping Carpenter Builds a Prison of Love

Stan Richard Beatty sat hunched over the bar in the Ugly Duckling pub last June 15, brooding about his beloved, Kathy Hall. He'd met her at the Duck nine months earlier—lived with her a month or so. She left. Started seeing other guys. Drove him crazy.

He sipped a grapefruit juice, trying to figure out how things got so screwed up. One thing he knew for sure—he had to talk to her. But Hall had slapped him with a court order forbidding him to contact her, and he didn't even know where she lived. In the past few weeks he'd driven 5,000 miles through the streets of Indianapolis looking for her, till he'd finally spotted her walking down the sidewalk. He'd leaped from his car and grabbed her arm. "When can I come back, Kathy?" he'd pleaded. "I'll do anything you want. Just love me, forgive me."

"I believe she told me to f—-off," he recalls, "but she kind of left it open."

So on that fateful day at the Duck, he decided, court order or no court order, he'd pay her a visit at work. He hopped into his $17,000 car, the one he'd bought with his carpenter's wages to impress Kathy, and sped home. "Gotta see her, gotta see her, gotta see her!" he shouted as he drove. At his apartment he grabbed a .38-cal. pistol, a .357 magnum and two boxes of bullets. "I also took my toothbrush, some Brut and Faberge," he says. "I was gonna get that love back."

He burst into the King Cole Building downtown at about 3 p.m., waving his guns. "I'm gonna show her how much I love her!" he shouted as he boarded the elevator, and rocketed up to the Legal Registry office on the 10th floor. He stormed in and took Kathy and two co-workers hostage. Then he demanded $1 million, helium, balloons and an American Airlines jet. He planned to float the money off to the poor of Indianapolis, to show Kathy the caring side of his nature.

Stan and Kathy discussed their relationship throughout the night. "I told her I guessed I was too possessive," he says. "I always tried to please her, but things seemed to go wrong a lot. The microwave blew up once, the car caught fire with the Christmas tree in it. Things always went wrong."

This time as well. When he surrendered peacefully the next morning, all he had of Kathy were the five Polaroids he took during the night. Soon after, he stood convicted of three counts of kidnapping—Kathy testified against him!—and he faces 163 years when he's sentenced next week.

"If I was back on the street, I'd find a different way to display my love," he says now, munching on a bologna sandwich in his tiny cell. "I still love her. The heart has no conscience."

  • Contributors:
  • Angela Blessing,
  • Anne Maier,
  • Margaret Nelson,
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Bill Shaw.