But in terms of the Tall Man -- Angus Scrimm's iconic cinematic Bogeyman -- a phantasm can certainly be defined as a nightmare.
Loping in gait, exceedingly grave of visage and utterly imposing in stature, The Tall Man reigns as one of the horror cinemas most fearsome, beloved, and long-lived Bogeyman. But what makes this creepy old ghoul tick? Why has The Tall Man endured as a figure of silver screen fear for so long?
The first answer, of course, rests with the actor essaying the role. Scrimm's menacing, growling performances are unforgettable, and that deep tenor voice is positively nightmare-inducing. Yet the character's mystique goes deeper. And so today, we must examine...the Tao of the Tall Man...
1.) He's the Personification of Death; the Personification of Adult "Knowledge:"
In my 2002 book Horror Films of the 1970s
This was my manner of accounting for the original film's captivating, almost child-like quality, wherein "something sinister" is lurking at the local cemetery and must be investigated...by a rwelve-year old kid.
I don't mean that brief description of the inventive plot as any sort of put-down. Rather it is my belief that the film beautifully captures the world-view and perspective of a pre-adolescent boy, the film's protagonist and primary participant. I wrote in the book that "every bizarre event that happens in Phantasm can easily be interpreted as having occurred in one of the boy's twisted dreams/nightmares."
In the movie's sad "real life," depicted momentarily at the film's conclusion, Mike's beloved older brother Jody is -- like the boy's parents -- dead and gone. Mike is pretty much alone, at least in terms of biological family.
The preceding dream (the text of the film itself...) in which Jody is alive and well may thus be interpreted as a disturbed kid's anxiety dream. In that lengthy "phantasm," Michael represses knowledge of Jody's death and imagines he can conquer mortality. His enemy is Death Itself, the Tall Man. Michael destroys him; he buries the Tall Man in the ground with his brother's able assistance. But when he wakes up from this heroic dream, Michael sees that his victory was imaginary, illusory; that in real life, death is never defeated. Jody recedes into the wind...growing smaller and smaller in the imagination (and in the frame too...) because of his status as dead. The unchangeable fact here is that Jody is the one who is gone, not some menacing monster.
Mike can't play the hero in real life...only in his dreams. In the film's epilogue, the Tall Man returns for one last attack and that's because in real life death always returns too. The Tall Man takes Michael, and that act represents, perhaps, the ultimate childhood fear. Of being dragged into the darkness of death, kicking and screaming, with no one to help.
Throughout the film, Coscarelli transmits the idea of Mike running away from reality (and into dreams.) The notion is expressed in both the dialogue and the visuals. For instance, Mike literally can't keep up with his brother. "Jody's leaving soon," he notes (rather cryptically...) in the dream, processing his brother's real life death as but a "departure" that he might be able to stop.
And, in one particularly affecting shot, Mike's feeling of abandonment and isolation is portrayed in starkly visual terms. Mike follows desperately after Jody as his older brother rides down a long road on a bike...oblivious to his brother's pursuit. This moment embodies the idea that Jody is on a one-way journey, moving away from Mike. Forever. Mike can run and run, but he can't catch up with Jody. Jody is dead.
In Michael's powerful, movie-long dream, The Tall Man represents inexplicable, baffling adulthood; or even, simply, adult knowledge. For instance, when The Tall Man first appears, he is explicitly connected to the adult mystery of sex. Jody and one of his friends are "lured" into the grave yard by a sexy siren...really the Tall Man (shape-shifted to appear as a gorgeous female). Mike doesn't understand sex, and so he imagines it as something mysterious and fearsome...manifested in his dream as the Tall Man, also the vehicle of Death. After all, both sex and death threaten to take Jody away from Michael, right? Both are elements of life that a child isn't equipped to understand.
The Tall Man is thus the personification of fears surrounding growing-up. Encoded in that term "growing up" is the realization of one's own mortality; and sex, among other things. The Tall Man symbolizes the mysteries of human life that Mike doesn't yet understand...but deeply fears. Further enhancing the dream metaphor, The Tall Man seems to appear frequently in Michael's bedroom...the very place where a boy will worry about death or first grope with the mysteries of sex.
2.) Imagine There's No Heaven, Or He Doesn't Just Kill You:
I have long subscribed to the belief that many of the scariest "monsters" in horror history (on both TV and in film) are those beings that don't actually kill their victims.
What they do to their victims is -- actually -- far worse than death, and promises lasting, spiritual suffering well beyond a quick mortal demise.
Consider the Creeper, in Jeepers Creepers (2001), a monster who steals body parts to replenish his own life. The owners of those appropriated body parts eternally become a part of the horrifying monster; forever at one with Something Evil.
Or recall the cybernetic Borg on Star Trek.: The Next Generation...they don't want to kill you; they want to use your body and your mind against you, and make you serve an "evil" cause as a drone.
Again, that loss of identity, that loss of sovereignty, is much scarier than dying by a painful (but quick...) machete wound.
The Tall Man fits very well into this category of villain or monster. When mortals die, we learn quickly in Coscarelli's films, they are revived (with yellow blood in their veins), crushed to diminutive proportions and re-purposed as slaves, as dwarves on the Tall Man's barren, arid world (which could be Hell, really). The Tall Man thus harvests our human bodies, making us all slaves to his insidious, inhuman agenda.
An eternity spent as a monstrous, prowling, subservient dwarf isn't exactly something to eagerly look forward to, especially if you've been indoctrinated to believe the Kingdom of Heaven awaits in the after-life. As the Tall Man acknowledges in Phantasm II (1988): "You think that when you die, you go to Heaven. You come to us!" Thus the iconic character is frightening to audiences because he promises that the mystery of death is not a mystery at all, but a doorway to eternal servitude, eternal damnation in sub-human form. Yikes!
3.) There's Something Scary About Old People:
Technically, it's called Gerontophobia. And no, it's not nice, and it's not really fair...or even remotely rational.
But -- at least for a very young person, like Mike --- there's something deeply unsettling about very old people. Their ways seem alien. Their values are not yours, necessarily. They seem angry and temperamental. They want you to stay off their lawn, and they always seem to be hovering behind you, watching, making sure you are following "the rules." A kid might even note that they smell of death; they have one foot in the grave already...
Old people are not, in some cases (perhaps because of dementia, or extreme pain...), the trustworthy, capable, helpful adults a young child is familiar and comfortable with (think teachers, and hopefully, parents too.)
Some old people actually look scary too, like witches or monstrous crones. And that's part of The Tall Man's Tao: his frightening appearance as an angry, unapproachable, even inappropriate old man. Even his trademark shout, "Booooy!" is coded specifically to terrify the young; to spark a fear of the elderly...the dying.
4.) Last But Not Least...He's Got Balls:
As far as horror bogeymen go, an important rule is this: the right tool for the right job.
Freddy has his finger knives, Jason has his machete, and Leatherface has his trusty chainsaw.
The Tall Man too is associated with a weapon and, appropriately, it's a literal nightmare weapon (reflecting the dream-like/phantasm nature of the films).
That weapon, of course, is the famous silver sphere, the sentinel...the ball. Many of the franchise's most memorable and gruesome scenes involve these chrome, flying, autonomous things. These devices home in on an unwitting victim, sprout blades, embed themselves in the human skull...then drill into it. Finally, they spit out a torrent of blood, until the victim is dead, dead, dead. The balls are fast, utterly unreal, and even sentient.
In short, the chrome, reflective spheres are among the most inventive horror weapons ever devised and as the keeper of the balls (so-to-speak), the Tall Man controls them.
Personifying death and mortality (through his aged appearance), boasting a tragic past (as we see in 1998's OblIVion), procuring slaves and harnessing the power of the bloody ball, the Tall Man walks tall in the imagination of horror fans. Watching Angus Scrimm play this immortal character, one feels that, like Death, the Tall Man has always been with us...and always will.
Or, as the character himself might note: "The funeral is about to begin..."