Blog Archives - THE CATASTROPHIZER
 
Once again, I'm going to write about something that scared me when I was a kid--partly because I spent so much of my childhood being terrified of things that this topic has triggered a seemingly endless stream of remembrances, and partly because I've spent the week thinking about how it's possible for a kid to be terrified of a Muppet.

The Phantom of the Muppet Show (the ungodly fright puppet I discussed last week) was indeed a phantom who haunted places and people, but he was also surrounded by singing and dancing bundles of adorableness (and also Ethel Merman). My undeveloped brain, dominated by a sense that the world boasted many conspicuous threats, and many things that seemed innocuous and then turned out to be threats, and many children's puppets who wanted to sing and dance and then lie in wait and kill me, was capable of being frightened by Uncle Deadly (understanding the "Deadly" part), but not of correctly receiving and interpreting the very clear "Toddlers! Do not fear! This admittedly terrifying Muppet only draws near because he wants to sing and dance with you!" message (the "Uncle" part).

It's not surprising that I was scared by something like Poltergeist when I was a kid. It's a scary movie. It's more surprising that I was so petrified by the following show-within-a-show that even just hearing the theme song was enough to make me want to retreat under my bed and set up house there.

The show was called 3-2-1 Contact, and it ostensibly taught kids about science, although it taught me mostly about FEAR AND SUFFERING. I don't remember much about the larger show at all (i.e. I've forgotten most of the science-y bits), but I remember the embedded story, which focused on a group called the Bloodhound Gang. The Bloodhound Gang (proving that liberal, science-education-promoting, public-access-television-viewing parents don't truly love their children and so let them run about unsupervised and learn about scientific principles and near-death experiences) are for some reason allowed to moonlight as private investigators and regularly able to foil villains and their villainous plots by way of things like pinhole cameras.
I no longer remember when the Bronze Age was or how to multiply fractions, but thirty or so years later, I still remembered that these kids found a stolen mummy, were thrown into a truck, and were threatened with death by hardened criminals.

Unfortunately, I managed to forget that a)  the soundtrack regularly featured the "wah wah wah waaaaah" sound judiciously used by sitcoms to signify that something silly and unexpected has happened, b) the criminals were silly, and c) the children were never scared. I also managed to forget every bit of resourceful science-y-ness the kids used to get themselves out of danger. (Of course, I just watched this again as a 36-year-old and am still not convinced I know how to build and operate a pinhole camera.)

When I was little, I was able to edit out all the signals that were supposed to reassure me that children's television danger was neither truly dangerous nor likely to last very long. I was, though, able to grasp the fact that in emergencies, I would almost certainly be called upon save myself by drawing on my knowledge of things like the Bronze Age or the multiplication of fractions. If I'd been a member of the Bloodhound Gang, I WOULD HAVE DIED IN THE BACK OF THAT TRUCK.

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When I was a kid, I often thought of things as being in competition with one another, and of myself as being required to come down on one side or the other. So there was the Rolling Stones vs. the Beatles (Beatles); Star Wars vs. Indiana Jones (Star Wars, although that's just because of how much I liked Star Wars and doesn't mean I didn't also idolize spirited women who could drink men under the table in exotic locales); and Sesame Street vs. the Muppet Show. I realize that Sesame Street and the Muppet Show had various things in common, like everyone who produced them. But I, being a young person who loved the Beatles and Star Wars but perhaps loved judging things even more, felt obliged to make a choice, and it wasn't difficult in the least: it was the Muppets every time.

It was partly because the grown-ups on Sesame Street kind of freaked me out. They were overly friendly and it also seemed to me that they talked down to the puppets. Also, it used to make me cry because no one would ever believe that Snuffleupagus existed, even though he'd just been RIGHT THERE.

On the Muppets, there was a far more sensible person-to-puppet ratio and less of an emphasis on counting. There was only one problem with the show: it featured a terrifying creature who, because Darth Vader had already claimed my bedroom closet, got into the habit of materializing on my wall. This horrifying, terrifying, sinister Muppet was named Uncle Deadly and he was the Phantom of the Muppet Show.

It's funny how impressionable and malleable and defenseless and hysterical a kid's mind is; he seems to have appeared on the show only a couple of times, and yet he had enough of an impact on me that he carved out a piece of the nightmare part of my brain for his own.

He turned up first in the company of Vincent Price, who scared me. He then turned up again singing with Ethel Merman, who also undoubtedly scared me.

He appeared to various muppets, and scared them, and Kermit thought they'd imagined it all (WHY ARE MUPPETS SO FAITHLESS AND SKEPTICAL?!?), but finally he saw Uncle Deadly for himself  and learned that Uncle Deadly used to perform at the Muppet Theatre as Othello before he was killed by critics.

I'm sure that episode ended with Deadly becoming friends with everyone and turning out to be a loving and supportive friend, but I blocked that part out. When he turned up on my wall (his eyes would glow - I could actually see his eyes glowing), he was not friendly. I don't know why I didn't just set Darth Vader on him.



Picture
Sketch by Muppet designer Michael K. Frith. Sleep well.
POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.
 
As I have mentioned more often than is really necessary, I liked Star Wars when I was a kid. I really, really liked it. And before Jedi came out and Vader was revealed to have a boiled-fish, soft-unripened-cheese, triangular, vulnerable under-helmet head, I was more scared of him than of just about anything else, which was unfortunate, because he lived in my closet.

I'm not sure why I decided he lived in my closet and not, say, in the equally sinister under-bed region of my room. But rule the Empire from my closet he did, and sometimes I could actually hear his breathing when I was trying to get to sleep and trying to ignore the fact that my closet had a door, and that doors both concealed things and could be opened by things that were concealed. Things with black-gloved hands that could mime-strangle people and actually cause them to die from strangulation.

Probably inspired by my mother's "don't be scared of earwigs because they can crawl into your brain and befriend you" story, I dealt with my terrible fear of Closet Vader by deciding that spending so much time in my closet had led to his observing me a great deal and to his realizing that I was a well-meaning, thoughtful, and decent young person. He had been lurking in my room in order to kill me, but after getting to know me, he just couldn't do it. Did he therefore leave my closet in order to return to a far-flung galaxy? No. He decided to live in my closet forever more and to protect me from the other forces that menaced me (centipedes, mostly, and something else I'll reveal next week).

What I find somewhat discouraging about my budding imaginative powers is that, as far as I can remember, I used them to save only myself. I don't think I imagined a fully reformed, child-protecting, Rebel-Alliance-embracing Vader. He was still pretty much evil and nasty and rebellion-crushing—I just made him make an exception for me. If I had it all to do over again, I would absolutely speak up for Admiral Motti.


POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.
 
I'm taking this week off, partly because I have a very involving homework assignment due tomorrow, and partly because I am addicted to the feeling of appalled wonderment inspired by CTV's "The Bell Social Scene" segment (airing every five or ten minutes during Olympic coverage) and so I CANNOT MISS ONE SECOND OF IT.

Also, I don't want to miss any comments like the one I just heard from a CTV commentator. It went something like: "Being here at the Olympics will really give him a sense of what it's like to be at the Olympics." I LOVE IT.
 

So another thing that terrified me when I was a kid was this:
This nightmare was brought to me courtesy of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Ceti eel, which I'm sure is a perfectly lovely little creature when it's not busy crawling into people's ears and wrapping itself around their cerebral cortex and then slowly killing them, also looks fetching when emerging from an ear:
It didn't help that the 1980s were the decade of the earwig, at least when it came to the basement of my family home. They skittered around just out of sight. They skittered around in plain sight. They would find cosy places (usually in or around things I liked and had a tendency to want to play with) and curl up there and then wriggle around energetically when they were discovered.

When I was in grade two or thereabouts, I got some lovely small glass bottles from Science City and proceeded to pretend to be a hardboiled detective and take dramatic swigs from them (while writing down secrets notes and smoking a pencil—oldtimey movies on PBS warp children way more than video games and communism) and inevitably the whole thing ended in disaster when I polished off a shot of earwig.

So in public school, I was haunted by the idea that earwigs wanted to get inside my head.

My mother, a resourceful, creative, and patient parent, proved herself to be a veritable genius when responding to my earwig/science-fiction eel-in-brain phobia. She made up a story about a young boy who was very lonely. One day, she said, this boy met a young earwig who was also very lonely. The young earwig then crawled inside the little boy's head. From that point on, they went everywhere together and the two of them became the best of friends.

Bizarrely enough, because of my mother's storytelling intervention, I went from fearing that a devious crawly thing would slither inside my ear to feeling like no human relationship would ever be as intimate or as fulfilling as one between a boy and his brain bug.


POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.