It was the feel-good movie of 1987. It was funny, sweet, wholesome—a family film. But there was something dark lurking in the background, if only we dared to look, and only if we were fast enough with the pause button. I was 11 the first time I saw it, and the chill that crawled up my spine when I looked into his face stayed with me for days. I’d finally seen it. I had seen a ghost. I had looked into his eyes, and he had looked into mine. I watched that movie over and over, trying to spot him in other scenes, feeling the excited terror every time I caught sight of his figure. The movie title Three Men and a Baby became synonymous with fear to me, and I, like many others, couldn’t get enough of the ghost boy hiding in the curtains.
The film was released to theaters in the US on November 25th, 1987, and was the number-one film of the year, grossing $240 million worldwide. But it was when the film was released to home video and, conveniently, right before the release of the sequel in 1990, when things really started getting creepy.
At about one hour into the film, viewers noticed what appeared to be a rifle of some kind leaning against the window as the actors pass by. About 40 seconds later, the actors pass by again, and instead of a rifle, a little boy is seen standing in front of a window, partially obscured by the curtains.
Rumors flew that it was the ghost of a boy who’d died a horrible death in that very apartment where the scene was shot. The boy’s mother, distraught that her son’s ghost appeared in the scene, made the rounds to all of the talk shows. She cried. She told her son's story. She sued the movie studios. She eventually went mad and was confined to an asylum for the rest of her life.
Disney, the parent company of Buena Vista Pictures who’d released the movie, did damage control. They had the film re-edited, removing the ghost boy from the scene, and they tried to have all other copies recalled and blocked from being aired on TV.
But here’s the rub: None of it is true. Let me break it down for you.
What we’re actually seeing in this scene is a cardboard cutout, or a standee, of Ted Danson’s character, Jack, in a tuxedo and a top hat. Why was there a standee of Jack in the apartment in the first place? Because Jack is an actor. If you look closely, you can see that he actually has photos of himself all throughout the apartment. The standee was part of a subplot that was edited out of the film, so that’s why it feels out of place. But later in the film, you can see it very clearly as Jack is looking out of the window and standing right next to his cardboard doppelgänger.
In today’s digital transfers of the film, it’s almost completely obvious at a glance that the “boy” is really Ted Danson, but remember that early VHS and television broadcasts were not of the same quality we’re used to today. The film would have appeared darker and blurrier. Much less detailed and obvious. And we didn’t have the internet or Snopes back then, so the rumor mill was free to run unchecked.
But what about the boy who died in the apartment and his tragic mother? They never existed in the first place. In fact, all of the interior shots in the film, including the apartment, were filmed in a soundstage in Toronto, Canada. As for who started the rumors...who really knows? Some claim the production companies started it as a way to drum up excitement for the second film, but that seems sus to this Ghostkeeper. I also feel like that’s kind of off-brand for Disney, but who knows.
Honestly, knowing the truth about the “ghost” doesn’t make the story any less creepy to me. I still shiver when I spot the “boy,” and I’m still intrigued by the story. We find spooky delight in films and books and stories that we know are fiction, so why would this be any different? I think that’s why the Three Men and a Baby ghost story is still being talked about after all these years. It’s a good story. It’s got a creepy image. Some crazy lore was built up around it. Knowing the truth behind the story can’t just wipe that slate clean. In a way, I feel that it almost adds to it.