As someone who grew up in the ’90s, I’m here to tell you that there were plenty of great pop culture products that entertained me and even helped shape some of my academic interests (Wishbone, the PC game Where in Time is Carmen San Diego?, and the first few Harry Potter books all come to mind). But for every great bit of media from my ’90s childhood, there is also a terrifying toy, TV show, or computer game that kept me awake at night and has caused me to wonder, in retrospect, what their creators were thinking. Granted, I had a lot of really irrational fears as a small child–escalators, bath drains, and H.G. Wells’ fictional Morlocks are just a small, random sampling–so maybe the following pop culture products were only terrifying to the abnormally fearful kid that I was. However, I’m willing to bet that at least a few other ’90s kids have had to face their own demons with some of these 5 items.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a show that originally aired on Nickelodeon from 1991-1996, which was a little too early for me to catch the first time around, but luckily reruns aired during the late ’90s so that I could tune in and do permanent damage to my psyche. I know I should have stopped watching after the first terrifying episode, but somehow it always seemed to be on when I turned on the TV, and I just couldn’t look away. The premise was pretty basic–a group of kids who call themselves the Midnight Society regularly gather around a campfire and tell stories in an attempt to scare the shit out of one another. And they were really good at it–or at least they were really good at scaring the shit out of me. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if more of their stories had dealt with traditional, Halloween-esque monsters like vampires and werewolves (although the episodes with those things were still scary enough) but a lot of them took things that should have been innocent, happy signifiers of childhood and ruined them for me forever (well, for a few years, at least). For example, episodes revolved around things such as a girl who turns into a doll, an eerie library, and a haunted red bicycle. Even mundane items weren’t safe: Are You Afraid of the Dark? also taught me to be afraid of mirrors, bad paintings, and radios. Also, take a look at this fine fellow:
He featured in the Season 4 episode The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner, popping up after a kid puts a comic book inside of a microwave. Looking back on it, I’m not sure why anyone would put a comic book inside a microwave, but it doesn’t really matter because that episode led to a brief period of time when I was scared of kitchen appliances. Thanks, Nickelodeon.
The Furby was probably the trendiest toy of 1998-1999, and I’m pretty sure even top social psychologists have no idea why that was. I guess I can sort of see the appeal, if you’re interested in owning a useless robot that looks like a cross between a gremlin and a rabid marmoset. I’ll admit that there was a short time in elementary school when I wanted a Furby because other kids had them, and that’s the kind of sound logic that children (and many adult consumers) use. However, after getting a closer look at a friend’s Furby, I quickly changed my mind. You see, there was a popular myth around the ol’ schoolyard that Furbies were cognizant beings capable of evolving beyond their primitive Furbish language and learning English. I’ve since learned that everything a Furby says is pre-programmed, but how was I supposed to know that at the age of 9? No, I was sure that Furbies were intelligent beings, and as such, would eventually gain the ability to rise up and overthrow their human oppressors. Okay, I might not have been thinking quite that long-term when I was 9, but the fact was that the Furby represented a loose cannon to me, and I lived in fear of the day that one’s eyes would start glowing red and bat-like wings would burst from its body, allowing it to fly directly at my face.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
What’s that, you say? I cited Harry Potter as one of the positive pop culture influences of my childhood? Well, let me clarify: I’m a huge Harry Potter fan and I think the series played a big role in teaching me about doing the right thing even when it’s not easy, trusting in the power of friendship, etc. I absolutely don’t regret reading (or repeatedly rereading) the series. However, I read Prisoner of Azkaban for the first time when I was 9, shortly after it came out, and I’m here to tell you that HP3 is pretty frightening when you’re an imaginative prepubescent child and are still vaguely under the impression that Hogwarts could be a real place. I know a lot of astute readers might point out that Voldemort, the primary antagonist and arguably the most frightening element of the series, doesn’t even feature in The Prisoner of Azkaban. What’s so scary about that book? these imaginary blog readers might ask. Isn’t this the one where Harry goes to a candy shop, gains possession of a very invasive magical map, and kicks it with his awesome godfather? One word: dementors. This was the book that introduced dementors–the hooded, wraithlike creatures that are capable of sucking out a person’s soul through their mouth and leaving them as an empty husk. And if that’s not frightening, I don’t know what is. To make matters worse, the uninitiated reader spends most of the novel not knowing what’s underneath a dementor’s hood, and in a climactic moment, J.K. Rowling gives us this description:
“Where there should have been eyes, there was only thin, gray scabbed skin, stretched blankly over empty sockets. But there was a mouth…a gaping, shapeless hole, sucking the air with the sound of a death rattle.” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter Twenty)
I slept with my light on for several nights the first time I read that book.
Don’t Wake Daddy
One of my friends from preschool owned this board game and would occasionally suggest–quite sadistically, in my opinion–that we play it. Before I go any further: yes, as a 4 or 5 year-old I was scared of a simplistic board game, but this was no ordinary simplistic board game. Opening its cardboard casing was tantamount to opening a Pandora’s box of unspeakable evil.
The game starts innocently enough–the goal is to move across spaces on the board in order to reach the fridge for a midnight snack. Sneaking around the house and eating are both fun concepts, right? The catch, however, is that certain spaces have certain numbers on them, and the player has to hit the game alarm clock however many times the space indicates. And, if you hit the alarm button too many times, you would wake the plastic “daddy” in the middle of the game board, causing him to suddenly spring upright in bed, his eyes wide and his pupils narrowed in an expression of utmost horror.
I guess this wasn’t so much frightening as it was incredibly startling, but the worst part was that you never knew when you were going to trigger the demon-possessed dad. Looking back on it, I’m sure there was a pattern to the number of times that you had to hit the alarm clock, but at a young age the game was an unknown entity, and that dad was a ticking time bomb. Playing that game was like waiting for a balloon to pop–I knew something terrible was going to happen so I was tensed up the whole time, and my mental preparation never did anything to lessen the momentary shock of “waking daddy”. I’m not really sure what this game was supposed to teach children, other than to practice constant vigilance and to be slightly afraid of approaching their fathers.
I’m pretty sure that if I’d played this popular PC game for the first time when I was in my teens or early twenties, I would have loved it. You get to explore cool landscapes, solve puzzles, and unravel the bigger mystery at the heart of the game. However, my first experience with the game came around age 6 or 7, when my dad purchased it and let me watch him play it. Every now and then he’d put me in charge and let me click around to different locations, but seeing as I hadn’t fully developed the problem-solving (or attention span) part of my brain yet, I wasn’t much help with the actual puzzles. In fact, I’m pretty sure my main contribution to the gameplay was hiding behind my dad’s chair and occasionally uttering helpful phrases like, “No, don’t go in there!” And there were a lot of places that I instructed my dad not to go, because Myst has some pretty creepy locations. For example, there’s one room that contains a slightly reclined, red leather seat generally referred to as “the dentist chair”. There’s an overhead light that shines directly onto the chair, and even at my young age I put two and two together and–even if I couldn’t quite articulate it–sensed that the chair was used for scary things. I was convinced that there would be a cut scene in which we found our character strapped down to the chair with a deranged dentist standing over us, brandishing a drill and demanding that we reveal all the secrets of the puzzles that we (okay, my dad) had solved.
Of course, no dentist ever popped up–and that was almost creepier. Myst takes place in a land that shows plenty of signs of human habitation (I mean, there’s a rocket ship, and that didn’t just build itself) yet as you wander around, you never see any people. And in popular media, whenever you see indicators of human habitation but no people, it’s generally a bad sign. It means that something has driven the people out, or that they’ve become radioactive zombies and are hiding in the bushes, watching you solve complicated puzzles and looking for the right time to ambush you. In this respect, it was sort of like a large-scale game of Don’t Wake Daddy–I kept expecting some creeper to pop up, but they never did, and so I was just constantly on edge. This was another situation, like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, where I really could have just stopped watching, yet somehow couldn’t seem to drag myself away. Whenever I heard the eerie Myst music coming from the computer room, I found myself inextricably drawn to it. I think with Myst, as well as the other items on my list, I felt like I was testing my bravery, like the pop culture item had thrown down a gauntlet and I was accepting its challenge. So maybe even if I did have a few sleepless nights, these things helped prepare me to face bigger fears. Or, you know, they could have just permanently warped my young imagination. Either way.