"The Witches"

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Writing about The BFG the other day, I was shocked to realize that I hadn't yet taken a look at Roald Dahl's work.  Surely no other author tapped so well into a child's complex psyche-- he gave us the terrifying thrills we craved, the naughty humor we guiltily loved, and he never talked down to us.

After I'd devoured all of Dahl's books in the "Juvenile" section of the library, I remember eagerly moving on to his other titles-- the ones way over in the "Adult" section.  They didn't have Quentin Blake's illustrations, but they did have a man who had his skin flayed for his tattoo, a woman bludgeoning her husband to death with a leg of lamb, and a compulsive gambler who chops off people's fingers.  Such wonderful, twisted stuff!  I imagined that all those "adult bookstores" I saw signs for downtown must have shelves full of similar stories.

For some reason, just the label "Adult" had prepared me to expect the morbid twists and turns in those books, but the same Hitchcokian plot devices absolutely shocked me in Dahl's fare intended for children.  The one that most stuck with me was from the end of The Witches.  The hero, a little boy, gets turned into a mouse and doesn't ever get turned back!  Then Dahl goes for another turn of the screw--the boy asks his grandmother how long a mouse can expect to live.

‘A mouse-person will almost certainly live for three times as long as an ordinary mouse,’ my grandmother said.  ‘About nine years.’
‘Good!’ I cried. ‘That's great! It's the best news I've ever had!’
‘Why do you say that?’ she asked, surprised.
‘Because I would never want to live longer than you,’ I said. ‘I couldn't stand being looked after by anybody else.’
There was a short silence. She had a way of fondling me behind the ears with the tip of one finger. It felt lovely.
‘How old are you, Grandmamma?’ I asked.
‘I'm eighty-six,’ she said.
‘Will you live another eight or nine years?’
‘I might,’ she said. ‘With a bit of luck.’
‘You've got to,’ I said. ‘Because by then I'll be a very old mouse and you'll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we'll both die together.’

Yes, this is "the best news [he's] ever had!"--the fact that he will only live another eight or nine years, that he will remain a mouse, and that he will die in tandem with his aged grandmother.  Way to dream big, kid.

Now, I realize that if this plot were to be found on the shelves of an "adult bookstore," it would only appeal to a very, very, very specialized kind of audience-- folks more twisted than even Dahl's tales.

Lesson learned:
Did you know that the heart of a mouse beats at the rate of five hundred times a minute?

Dahl, Roald.  The Witches.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1983.
Buy The Witches

Doggone it.

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I grew up convinced that I was totally deprived because I didn't have a dog.

At one point, I even came up with a half-baked plan to play with a lit firecracker so I could get blinded just enough to merit a super-smart seeing-eye dog like in Follow My Leader.  (Eventually, I realized that I might also miss seeing, so I tabled that plan until I could think of something less permanently disfiguring.)

In fairness, I should mention that my family actually did have a dog.  But Choo-choo was sixteen years old, blind with cataracts, and pretty much just liked to sleep.  Sure, she was gentle, tolerant, obedient--but what did that matter when she was old and couldn't do any cool tricks?

She weighed about twelve pounds, so I couldn't ride her like Belle from "Belle and Sebastian," or  Falcor from The Neverending Story.

She couldn't talk, like Poochie, or Cooler from "Pound Puppies."

She wasn't a scrappy ragamuffin from the streets, like Boomer, or Benji, or Sandy from Annie.

She lacked heroism.  She was never going to save me from imminent danger, like Chips the War Dog or the wolf-dog from The Journey of Natty Gann.

She also was not an alien.  There went my "Fluppy Dogs" theory.

After reading Julie of the Wolves like a how-to guide then coming home to watch "Lassie" reruns on Nickelodeon in the afternoon, I was pretty convinced I would be an awesome dog trainer.  "Lie down, Choo-choo!" I would say.  (She would remain prostrate on the couch.)  "Good dog.  Now beg!" (She would open one cloudy eye, if I was lucky.)  "Okay then, drool, Choo-choo, drool!"  (This she would do with utter abandon.)  "Good girl."

Why did the '80s have so much dog-centric programming?  Was it to ensure against a new generation of Cat People?  Was it to make the allergic kids feel even more unloved?  Or was it just to put us off guard, so that when we were all subjected to Sounder, and Shiloh, and Where the Red Fern Grows in middle school, we would all feel appropriately devastated?

Lesson learned:
Of course, when your dog goes all Old Yeller on you and dies, you could always revive him, per Frankenweenie.



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By popular demand, I'm addressing the timeless children's classic Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman, author of the similarly-themed Slovenly Betsy.  I somehow was lucky enough to miss out on being subjected to these tales as a child, but it sounds like if you were, you never forgot them. 

The most infamous story in the collection has to be "Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher," or, in English, "The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb."  The story is presumably intended to dissuade children from sucking their thumbs.

There is a way to humorously cure children of nasty habits, but I don't think Hoffmann's story is it.  I remember whooping with laughter as a kid at Shel Silverstein's poem "Warning," which reads:

Inside everybody's nose
There lives a sharp-toothed snail.
So if you stick your finger in,
He may bite off your nail.
Stick it farther up inside,
And he may bite your ring off.
Stick it all the way, and he
May bite the whole darn thing off.

See?  Direct and to the point, but hilariously absurd.  Roald Dahl's The BFG teaches a fine lesson about burping in a similar fun fashion-- the BFG advises Sophie that burping is "flithsome," so "us giants is never doing it."  As a kid, the BFG seems completely awesome, so if he says burping is taboo, you believe him.  (Of course, whizzpopping is another matter entirely, a bodily function to be celebrated, even, so you should feel free to fire a whizzpop at will.)

But now we must get back to "Little Suck-a-Thumb" to see how Hoffmann's parable plays out.  Mother warns Conrad not to suck his thumb while she's gone because:

"The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he's about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off—and then,
You know, they never grow again."

Why a tailor should care about thumb-sucking I have no idea.  A manicurist I could understand, but a tailor?  Perhaps he specializes in constructing thumbless mittens.

Regardless, Conrad fails to heed his mother's warning and sure enough, the tailor barges into his house, and--"Snip! Snap! Snip!"--he cuts both of poor Conrad's thumbs off.  Thus are vanquished Conrad's future plans to effectively hitchhike, become a movie critic, or play Nintendo.

Lesson learned:
One must presume the tailor only punishes children with anatomical-oral fixations, since I imagine that with adults, the potential consequences might prove far more dire.

Hoffmann, Heinrich.  Struwwelpeter: Merry Tales and Funny Pictures.  1845.
Struwwelpeter: Or Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures


YA books: a cure for optimism

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Hey kids, do you ever feel happy, laugh at funny jokes, dance like no one's watching?  Do you ever take pleasure in uplifting stories that speak to the triumph of the human spirit?  Do you, in short, have faith in humanity?

Let's cure all that for you with your middle school reading list.

Yes, reading YA fiction is an exercise in masochism, offering a dystopic worldview and a sense of the futile struggle for decency in the face of man's inhumanity to man-- in short, it is much like the experience of middle school itself.

Here, a brief rundown of some perennially popular YA titles:

* Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, 1960.
Island of the Blue Dolphins
When everyone in Karana's tribe is setting sail to leave their island home forever, Karana sees her brother being left behind and jumps ship to stay with him.  Shortly thereafter, her brother is killed by wild dogs, and Karana must survive in isolation for many years with only the animals of the island for companions.  What's even worse is that the book is based on the true story of Juana Maria, who was rescued after 18 years alone on an island, only to find that no one could understand the language she spoke--and she died a mere 7 weeks later.

* Watership Down by Richard Adams, 1972.
Watership Down: A Novel
War seems somehow even more brutal when the soldiers are all cuddly little bunny rabbits.  Humans appear here too, as a kind of faceless, menacing threat of evil--they destroy the rabbits' homes, shoot them, and catch them in snares.  This is "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" but with blood and urine and carnage, and where Mr. McGregor isn't the only antagonist to fear; Flopsy might make a shiv out of a carrot and go after Cottontail.

* Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, 1977.
Bridge to Terabithia
This is one of those books that the older kids warn you about before you even know the basic plot-- you know beforehand that it's going to be sad, much like Where the Red Fern Grows or the movie My Girl.  So, while you might anticipate Leslie's death, what you don't realize is that the book will also ensure you will never use a rope swing again in your entire life.  Most elementary school-level books encourage imaginative play, but this book's message is unequivocal: imagination kills.  LARPing ruins lives. 

* Good Night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, 1981.
Good Night, Mr. Tom
Books set during World War II are rarely uplifting, and that goes double for YA books.  So how do you make a WWII YA book even more soul-crushing?  Why not add in a heartbreakingly self-loathing, bed-wetting child who is horribly abused by his own mother?  I remember not being able to sleep all night after reading one scene where the boy is locked in a closet for days holding a dead baby.  How can one face 7th grade gym class after something like that?

* The Goats by Brock Cole, 1987.
The Goats
I remember the description of the story on the back jacket of this book began with the words: "Stripped and marooned on a small island by their fellow campers, a boy and a girl..." and that was all I had to read.  I knew what "stripped" meant, but not "marooned," but the co-ed context gave me hope that "marooning" must be the term for one of those tips described in Cosmo that I didn't quite understand yet.  Sure, the kids on the front cover were quite possibly the most unattractive pair I'd ever seen, but still!  Ultimately, despite my imaginative "maroon" ideas, there was no purple prose, just some message about bullying in its stead.  Disappointing.

Lesson learned:
Even at age 13, YA lit confirms it: you will die alone, misunderstood, and unloved, and--if you're especially unlucky--marooned.


"The Truth About Mother Goose"

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Writing about Mother Goose Rock 'N' Rhyme recently, I was reminded of another Disneyfied look at Mother Goose nursery rhymes that was--if you can believe it--even more macabre.  It was the short "The Truth About Mother Goose," which is a kind of exposé of the origins of popular nursery rhymes. 

One has to wonder how many of these explanations are apocryphal, in the same spurious vein as the "true story" everyone hears about "Ring Around the Rosie" being about the Black Death.

The most memorable part for me was the bit considering "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary," which the cartoon claims tells the tragic story of Mary, Queen of Scots.  In this segment, we see, among other things, the beheading of one of Mary's lovers and the exploding(!) of her "weakling" husband.  As the camera then pans to reveal the innumerable corpses of soldiers who died defending Mary's honor, all piled into sky-high mounds, Mary reflects on the carnage with an unruffled, "Oh dear."

After Elizabeth I grows jealous of Mary's popularity at court, she has her cousin imprisoned in the Tower, and the jester-narrators sing the saddest, most dirge-like rendition of "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" that you'll ever hear as Mary ascends the Tower steps and the screen fades to black, indicating her botched execution via multiple strokes of a butcher's axe.  Ouch.

Lesson learned:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? / With silver bells and cockle shells, and the tears of kids who watch this show.

"The Truth About Mother Goose."  Dir. Bill Justice, Wolfgang Reitherman.  Perf. Page Cavanaugh Trio.  Disney, 1957.

Watch Part 1 on YouTube here and Part 2 here.
Walt Disney Treasures - Disney Rarities - Celebrated Shorts, 1920s - 1960s


"Mother Goose Rock 'N' Rhyme"

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Here's a fun puzzler for your pub trivia night: Where can you find Little Richard, the Stray Cats, Debbie Harry, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel all working together on a 1990 musical project?  Nope, it's not Band Aid.

What if I tossed in Ben Vereen and Pia Zadora for good measure?  Or, just for kicks, Shelley Duvall, Woody Harrelson, Katey Sagal, and Cheech Marin?  Still stumped?  There's a Dweezil Zappa cameo in there too...

The film is Mother Goose Rock 'N' Rhyme, a former staple of Disney channel daytime programming in the early nineties.  And if you've ever wondered at the possibility of bestiality between Mary and her Little Lamb, this is the movie for you.

The basic story is that Mother Goose has been kidnapped and her son, Gordon Goose, tries to rescue her with the help of the "Rhymies" who inhabit Rhymeland.  Gordon feels superior to the Rhymies because he believes himself to be Mother Goose's biological son, but at the end he learns he is simply a product of one of Mother Goose's earlier, less memorable poetic endeavors and his entire life has been a lie.  ("What was that, sweetie?  No, of course you're not secretly adopted!  Wherever did you get that idea?  Have you been watching that movie again?"  As a child, I remained skeptical.)

Bobby Brown plays all three blind mice (what, Stevie Wonder wasn't available?), and ZZ Top play the three men in a tub, although strangely, given that they're in a film that promises both "rock" and "rhyme," they never sing or play any instruments, just silently point.... and float along in their tub.  Very odd.

But the most terrifying part has to be when Gordon is banished to the castle dungeon by Old King Cole and is shackled to the wall and tortured by a metal band whose aesthetic falls somewhere between Gwar and KISS.  (Just follow the bouncing ball to sing along--it's an interactive torture experience, kiddies!  Sample lyric: "You've been a BAD BOY, a VERY bad boy, / we'll have to PUNISH you!")  

Apparently they are called "The Dank," which is actually kind of awesome, and the lineup includes the lead guitarist for Ratt.  Then, because being subjected to karaoke-ready dungeon death metal Guantanamo Bay-style somehow hasn't cheered Gordon up enough, he is tickle-tortured by two creepy clowns in yellow fright wigs.  And this is a kids' movie?

Lesson learned:
After The Shining, Shelley Duvall must have wanted to tackle a really dark film for a change.

Mother Goose Rock 'N' Rhyme.  Dir. Jeff Stein. Perf. Shelley Duvall, Dan Gilroy, Jean Stapleton.  Disney, 1990.
Mother Goose Rock N Rhyme [VHS]
Sing along with the terrifying dungeon song on YouTube here.


Taking a gander at what brings you to the Goose

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I have never really promoted this blog anywhere, so it's been pretty interesting to see how folks wind up finding it.  The most popular posts have continued to be the Uncle Arthur analyses, with many searches in particular for "Jesus Understood," "The Hollow Pie," and "The Two Carolines."  Judging from the accompanying search terms, it seems there's a whole coterie of individuals who were traumatized by these bedtime stories and who now strive to exorcise their childhood demons via Google search.  "Uncle Arthur horror," "Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories scared me," and "Why Uncle Arthur?," you are not alone!

There's also a large contingent of educators who seem to find the site.  To those looking for "Not Now Bernard lesson plans," "Teaching Itsy Bitsy Spider hand movements," and "Love You Forever classroom activities," I'm afraid I can't help you.  I think you could probably effectively impart the same key life lessons by sitting the kiddos down in a semicircle on a cold concrete floor and having them watch Requiem for a Dream, and then at the end, telling them you're all out of Goldfish and juice for the day.

To the surprising percentage of you seeking out "smother stories," I regret to inform you that this is not a fetish site.  No one here is getting smothered with feather pillows, silk, or various body parts as you seem to so fervently desire-- at least that I know of; I haven't finished going through all the Disney movies yet.  I do sincerely hope you're not looking for smothering instructions for some kind of real-life application-- instead, might I humbly suggest couples counseling?

The most recent bump in page views can be attributed to a sudden upswing in people Googling "David Bowie's crotch."  If my blog was not what you were expecting, crotch-ogling-Googlers, let me direct you to this (SFW) vintage photo of the Thin White Duke.  Since I can't accommodate the other searchers here, I thought I'd at least try to throw you a--ahem--bone. 

Lesson learned:
For those of you looking to actually make "smothered goose," this Emeril recipe sounds quite promising.


"The Cat in the Hat"

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It started a book,
Then it was a play.
Next movies and sequels
Joined in the fray.

I guess we've all read it
At one time or two,
But in fact it's quite twisted
When you think the plot through!

These two too-young kids 
Are left all alone,
On their own when a stranger
Barges into their home.

He ruins their stuff,
Then boxes he brings
And demands that these kiddos
Must play with his "Things!"

(In fact, if this tale
Had a different editor
This story might end like
To Catch a Predator!)

By the end of the story,
The cat has now fled.
The house is cleaned up,
And no one is dead.

Then when Mother comes home
And asks what occurred,
Of the stranger who'd been there
They say not a word.

The Lesson learned here is,
When Mom's at the store
Beware all strange felines
And lock the front door!

Seuss, Dr.  [Theodor Seuss Geisel.]  The Cat in the Hat.  New York: Random House, 1957.
The Cat in the Hat


"Follow That Bird"

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Sesame Street taught me a lot of valuable life lessons.  Through it, I learned some rudimentary sign language, how to count to 12, and the fact that when people die, like Mr. Hooper did, they don't come back (and that revelation in itself is a post for another day).

This is part of why the message of Follow That Bird comes as such a shock.  The main antagonist is Miss Finch, a social worker who places Big Bird with a family of dodos so he can "be with his own kind" (a strange choice since as we all know, Big Bird is actually a lark).  Instilling a fear of social workers in young children doesn't seem like the best idea, especially since in this case she does seem to have a point: Big Bird is just six years old and living on the street, his only best friend is an extinct and possibly imaginary woolly mammoth, and he regularly hangs out with grouches who live in trash cans.  So, living in a suburban home with a nice nuclear family doesn't seem like such a bad tradeoff.

In an attempt to flee from Miss Finch, Big Bird takes refuge with the Sleaze Brothers, an aptly-named pair who run a traveling funfair.  The Sleaze Brothers kidnap Big Bird, paint him blue, and force him to perform in their show as "The Bluebird of Happiness."  As said "Bluebird," Big Bird sings what is perhaps the saddest song ever written, "I'm So Blue."  Criminal psychologists could show this scene to easily diagnose sociopathy; in fact, if you don't shed at least a tear or two, you're probably not even human.

Five years after Follow That Bird, the band They Might Be Giants released a song called "Birdhouse in Your Soul" that never failed to remind me of this heartbreaking scene.  Luckily, I felt no dubious emotional connection to "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" so the album wasn't a total loss.

Lesson learned:
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.

Follow That Bird.  Dir. Ken Kwapis.  Perf. Carol Spinney, Jim Henson, Frank Oz.  Warner Bros., 1985.
Watch Big Bird break your heart as the "Bluebird of Happiness" on YouTube here.
Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird


"Are You My Mother?"

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What are a new mother's most innate, primal fears?  Perhaps the thought that she will be a bad mother, or that something bad might happen to her baby, or--if she watches a lot of Lifetime movies--the anxiety that, due to some mixup, the wrong mother will raise her child

How about a kid's most immediate fears?  Getting lost, losing a parent, or perhaps finding out that your parents aren't really your parents after all.

With the classic children's book Are You My Mother? P. D. Eastman has tapped into every single one of these fears, all in clear, simple language, that, as the cover boasts, your child can read all by himself.

In the beginning of the book, the mother bird realizes her baby is about to hatch, so she goes off to find food.  The baby thus enters the world cold, alone, and abandoned, and promptly falls out of the nest.  He asks a kitten if it is his mother, but "the kitten just looked and looked."  This is perhaps the most implausible aspect of a book that contains talking animals, a robin sporting a polka-dot kerchief, and an excavator gentle enough to transport a baby bird.  I cannot imagine any cat that would "just look and look" should it be approached by a helpless baby bird fallen out of its nest.  Just saying.

Over the course of the next few pages, the baby bird is devastated to learn that a hen, a dog, a cow, a boat, a plane, and a "snort" (excavator) are not its mother.  The scene where he futilely chases after the airplane in an image reminiscent of a reverse-but-equally-desperate North by Northwest moment is particularly poignant.

Eventually, the baby bird meets and recognizes his mother (he knows it is she because she is "a bird," although I'm not certain how that reasoning disqualifies the hen), and the reader learns that phenotypical biology trumps all, even though she is a neglectful parent who abandoned her child in the first hour of life and maybe her offspring could have been much better off as the adopted son of the cow.

Lesson learned:
Make sure your child knows that the excavator is not actually called a "snort."  Otherwise, when your hyperactive, jittery offspring pleads loudly in the toy store that he really needs a "snort," someone might call Child Protective Services.

Eastman, P. D. Are You My Mother?  New York: Random House, 1960.
Watch the story told on YouTube.
Are You My Mother?


"The Itsy-Bitsy Spider"

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Much in the same vein as "Baby Bumblebee," "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" is a children's song that has built-in hand gestures to reinforce the lyrics.  I always found the thumb-to-forefinger climbing movement to be impossibly difficult for some reason; I think that as a toddler I would have likely failed any and all field sobriety tests out of implausibly bad hand-eye coordination.  Or perhaps my preschool spiked our juiceboxes to get us to pass out at naptime.  Either way, the nuances of the isty-bitsy choreography still elude me.

The lyrics of the song go something like this:

The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.
Down came the rain, and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun, and dried up all the rain,
And the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.

So, the protagonist of the song is a spider, which is a surprising choice given arachnids' bad reputations.  The only other exception to the spider-as-antagonist rule that I can think of is Charlotte's Web, which is devastating in its own right as a book that will make you cry when a spider dies, and--here's the kicker--be happy that it laid eggs and had lots of little spider babies!  "Hooray," the child reader thinks, "now the barn is full of brown recluse spawn!  Now that cool rat will have some new friends to play with!  ...Mmm, I bet Wilbur would make a pretty radiant BLT."

The itsy-bitsy spider of the song is an excellent exemplar of the tragic hero.  He shows determination and resolve in his quest to climb the water spout, but fails through his own frailty and the cruel intervention of the gods (I mean come on, how convenient was that sudden downpour?  I'm looking at you, Zeus).  He is brought low through these external forces (Have you ever seen what happens to a wet spider?) and yet continues in his Sisyphean pursuit.  The song's preschool-age audience, however, rarely appreciate the enormity of such peripeteia, and continue to laugh and wiggle their fingers in glee.

Lesson learned:
If itsy-bitsy spiders climb up your spout again, 1-800-TERMINIX.

 Fisher Price: Itsy-Bitsy Spider


An Eclectic List of Nightmare Fodder

So I will admit, as a child I might have been somewhat... oversensitive.  I was also pretty prone to nightmares, and there was no rhyme or reason for what exactly would trigger them.  Here I offer a brief roundup of a variety of nightmare source material that doesn't quite each merit its own individual post.

* The front cover of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
It didn't matter that the content inside was relatively tame, this illustration stuck with me and visited my brain in the wee dark hours for years.  What's that movement outside my bedroom window?  Could it be a giant disembodied smoking clown head?  Of course it could.
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* "The Red Shoes" cartoon from Fairy Tale Classics (1983)
I had this cartoon on a Beta tape along with anime versions of "Cinderella" and "The Ugly Duckling."  As I recall, the girl's red shoes would force her to dance, and because of them she nearly danced herself to death, or at least to complete exhaustion.  When we'd go to Stride Rite, I'd shriek at the mere suggestion of buying red shoes.  They would not touch my feet.  Later, I'd wonder how Dorothy Gale could be so foolhardy; didn't she know those ruby slippers would propel her into a They Shoot Horses, Don't They?-like nightmare scenario faster than she could say "Auntie Em?"
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 * Spike Jones
Best of Spike Jones
Not Spike Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich, but Spike Jones, the bandleader.  We had this album in our car for years, and this face would leer at me from the front seat tape deck every morning on my way to preschool.  Just look at those wild, red, beady eyes--doesn't he remind you of Judge Doom in psychopathic toon form?  Not to mention how catchy his song "Der Fuehrer's Face" was, although it didn't take me too long to learn that a preschool singing ditties (albeit satirical ones) on the playground tire swing about "der führer" attracted the wrong kind of attention.  Thanks for nothing, Mr. Jones.
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 * The "Study" in the board game Clue.
Clue Parker Brothers Detective Game 1972
Surprisingly, I had no problem playing a game predicated on the idea of homicide.  Instead, it was the game board itself that gave me the heebie-jeebies.  In the version of the game that we owned, the Living Room was represented by a doily, the Hall by an Oriental rug, and the Study--well, looking back I guess it's supposed to be some kind of wood grain, but to my eyes it looked like the Study was on fire.  My fear of fire being well-established at this point, I simply couldn't handle the thought of moving my plastic playing piece into that inferno. 
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* Any "Francis the Talking Mule" movie, but specifically Francis Goes to West Point (1952).
The Adventures of Francis the Talking Mule, Vol. 1
Now I don't really understand the appeal of a whole series of films dedicated to a talking mule, but as a kid, I was always drawn to the talking-animal genre.  The Shaggy Dog?  Loved it.  "Mr. Ed?"  Of course, of course.  And one of my all-time favorites was a little gem called The Cat From Outer Space.  So, at some point I saw Francis Goes to West Point, and there's this scene where Francis the Talking Mule sits on a football during the game and deflates it.  I'm not sure exactly why this bothered me so much, but I think I was convinced that, having been to football games and witnessed firsthand how unreceptive most fans are to any interruption in play, the spectators would soon descend upon the hapless Francis all Lord of the Flies-style.  I couldn't watch any of the movie after that, so I don't know what actually happens, but it did leave me A) not a fan of football and B) terrified of mules.  Luckily, mules are relatively easy to avoid in the suburbs.
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* This 1987 commercial for the original NES game The Legend of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda
This guy started making regular cameo appearances in my nightmares as soon as I saw this commercial.  A man with the cadence of Max Headroom, dressed all in black, shouting nonsensical bad guy names into the darkness?  What was this supposed to sell?  So when my brother received The Legend of Zelda for Christmas that year, I was almost too scared to see what the actual game would be like.  Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with this deranged reject from mime school, and I found that I loved the game (although unfortunately I would never be able to play the sequel). 

Lesson learned:
Philip Larkin was right about Mom and Dad, but he should have included all misguided marketing toward kids in there as well.


"Flowers and Trees"

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"Flowers and Trees"--an innocuous title, no?  Who doesn't like flowers?  Or trees?  And you know what kind of a cartoon this is?  Why, it's a "Silly Symphony"-- silly means good goofy fun, and the symphony means it's classy.  And yet, I hate this cartoon.

They used to show the Silly Symphonies all the time on the Disney Channel back in the day--classics like "The Three Little Pigs" or "The Grasshopper and the Ants" or "The Ugly Duckling."  I like the idea of the Silly Symphonies, because, like Disney's "Peter and the Wolf," or Fantasia, they presuppose that classical music is for everyone, and that even toddlers have the attention spans necessary to enjoy a cartoon propelled primarily by the tones of woodwinds or stringed instruments.  (Forty-two years after the last Silly Symphony was produced, we would have the advent of MTV, which still suggested that kids can relate to music, but showcased just how much their attention spans had deteriorated.)  So, I want to like them, but I just--yeah, I still hate them, this one especially.

I hate the anthropomorphic gendered trees, I hate the racist caricature daisies, I hate the creepy smiling dancing phallic mushrooms, and I hate--oh how I hate--the male trees' long, spindly root-fingers.  They are hideous--shades of Max Schreck's gnarled claws as Nosferatu, only so much more horrible since they're in cartoon form. 

The plot of "Flowers and Trees" goes like this: boy tree likes girl tree, but girl tree gets abducted by an evil tree stump with a nasty knothole bellybutton (do anthropomorphic trees have a fetal stage?).  Boy tree fights for the girl and wins, so the evil stump starts a fire (here we go again) and the trees, being made of wood, are pretty darn flammable.  The forest goes up in flames as the flowers, the birds, and the bugs all flee for their lives.  The evil stump winds up lying dead as vultures circle his rotting (he's a hollow stump after all, so I'm assuming here) corpse.

But then it ends with a tree wedding, so I suppose this is meant to be in the vein of a Shakespearean comedy.  Although, like The Merchant of Venice, it's not very funny.

Lesson learned:
Hath not a tree insidiously creepy hands?

"Flowers and Trees."  Dir. Burt Gillett.  Walt Disney, 1932.
Watch it on YouTube here.
 Walt Disney Treasures - Silly Symphonies


"The Cat Came Back"

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This song has been around since the late nineteenth century, and has its origins in overt racism, but for some reason it's stuck around for over a hundred years.  There's no getting rid of it... much like the eponymous feline itself, I suppose.

I'm pretty sure I saw the cartoon version of the song on Nickelodeon, back in its early days when it used to broadcast a lot of shorts, not to mention a lot of Canadian content.  (Remember "You Can't Do That on Television?"  Barth terrified me, and why did they have a recurring sketch depicting a child's execution by firing squad?  Perhaps that's a post for another time...).

Anyway, the cartoon is essentially about a man's repeated futile attempts to abandon his pet.  Mr. Johnson tries dumping the cat deep in the woods, launching him into the air in a hot air balloon, and tying him up in a sack and drowning him at the bottom of the sea.  Mr. Johnson's home furnishings and sanity slowly unravel as he continues to try to dispose of the cat--and at one point we learn that there are women tied to the railroad tracks all around his isolated little house.  Who is tying these women to the tracks?  Our protagonist is clearly a psychopath.

This diagnosis is confirmed when old Mr. Johnson finally tries to explode the cat with about a ton of dynamite.  He blows up his house and himself in the process, and his dead body lands on the cat, killing him and leaving the cat's 9 ghost lives to torment Mr. Johnson forever in the afterlife.  Thomasina this is not.

Lesson learned:
Adopt your next pet!  Or your next pet might just adopt you.

"The Cat Came Back."  Dir. Cordell Barker.  National Film Board of Canada, 1988.
Watch it on YouTube here.


Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories: "Through Fire and Water"

I had a real fear of fire growing up.  In fact, I demanded to have a fold-up emergency ladder installed in my second-floor bedroom when I was in elementary school (and I got it too!  That was an awesome birthday).  Who could blame me, when everything from Charlie Brown specials to Disney flicks used fire as a plot device to warn naughty children?

The one that stuck with me the most, though, was the Uncle Arthur Bedtime Story "Through Fire and Water."  While not as purely horrific as "Mother Love" (or its tamer revised version, "Mother's Hands"), "Through Fire and Water" terrified me because its message was directed squarely at me.  Did I quarrel with my brother?  Why yes, I did.  So this story surely outlined the fate I deserved.

Our story begins with Mother threatening to whip her children, Gordon and Clarice, because they are quarreling.  And yet this is not a story about the evils of child abuse; this is a story about how they totally get what's coming to them, and why a whipping would have been preferable.

Mother then leaves the children alone (obviously a model parent), and the children squabble about Gordon's amazing alcohol-burning toy train (I wonder if Mother went out to get more alcohol--for the train, of course).  Gordon warns Clarice that if she touches his engine, she'll "be sorry," and Clarice retorts that he "daren't touch [her]."  Ah, but daren't he indeed?

Clarice knocks the train off the tracks, and Gordon goes to clobber her, but soon they notice that the upset train set has now set the living room on fire.  Clarice tears down the curtains and stamps on them, but her dress catches fire, and Gordon throws a bucket of water over her.

But poor Clarice's legs are "burned, badly burned" and she must spend the next few weeks in the hospital.  And Gordon, who is astonished that "a girl could be so brave," brings her flowers, and when she comes home--here comes the moral--"while neither of them said anything about it, they both determined in their little hearts that they would never be mean to each other again."  Perhaps the afterword about suing the toy company that manufactured highly combustible toy trains got lost in my edition...

Lesson learned:
Don't mess with your brother's toys unless you want to wind up horribly disfigured.

Maxwell, Arthur S.  "Through Fire and Water."  Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories.  Vol. 1.  Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1950.  291-96.
Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories

"Babe: Pig in the City"

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The original Babe movie was a charming fable replete with singing mice, a gallant piglet, and fluffy sheepdogs, all bathed in sunny, sweet light.  Then there came the sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, which, despite its ostensible G rating, is essentially a David Lynch film set in a Tim Burton world with a cast of Tod Browning freaks.

The following is a list of the Five Most Terrifying Scenes Ever in a Live-Action G-Rated Film:

* The kind farmer Hoggett plunges to the bottom of a dank well, smashes his fingers, and is severely injured by a falling engine.  

* A paraplegic terrier is hurled into the street from under the wheels of a truck, and the wheels of his wheelchair still spin as he lies prostrate in the middle of the road.

* An infant chimpanzee clings to a frayed, still-sparking electrical cord thirty feet above the floor, then loses his grasp as his mother looks on in horror.

* An elderly Mickey Rooney, dressed and made up as the world's saddest clown, has a nasty fall and accidentally sets fire to the children's ward of a hospital.  His performing animals barely escape the leaping flames; the clown himself eventually dies.

* A convulsing bull terrier dangles helplessly from a chain wrapped around his hind leg, the only thing preventing him from plunging headfirst into a river and drowning.

Not to mention how the clothed primates will hit you right in the uncanny valley, and then there's the strip search of Mrs. Hoggett, the firing squad that shoots at the duck, the poodle that seems to be a former hooker, and all the pig-nosed people that keep popping up... sheer horror, I tell you.

Lesson learned:
Bah, ram... ew.

Babe: Pig in the City.  Dir. George Miller.  Perf. Magda Szubanski, James Cromwell, Mary Stein.  Universal, 1998.
Babe: Pig in the City


"Love You Forever"

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Any book with a toilet on the front cover is already signalling that the content inside it is going to be slightly off-kilter.  But nothing can truly prepare you for this story.

In the beginning, a woman has a baby.  This mother initially reveals her mental instability by repeatedly saying, to no one in particular, that "This kid is driving me CRAZY."  Remember this foreshadowing.

At night, the mother likes to crawl over to her child, pick him up (but only when he is sleeping) and rock him and sing a song reminding him that "as long as I'm living my baby you'll be."  This seems like a threat, particularly when the mother is berating her offspring for causing her mental illness during the day.  She also threatens to sell him to a zoo (!)  Luckily, her son grows up and moves out of this psychologically damaging environment and away from his mother who still has been compulsively rocking him even once he is a sleeping teenager.

But even after that... "sometimes, on dark nights," (shudder) "the mother would drive across town" and, "if all the lights at her son's house were out," she would creep through his bedroom window and covertly rock this unconscious adult man.

This is not cute, not sweet, not heartwarming.  This is a mania, and her son needs to get a security system and possibly a restraining order.  Imagine how this story would sound if it were a female asleep in her bed and someone was creeping into her bedroom at night out of "love" to watch her sleep?  That would be horrifying, wouldn't it?  (Or, you know, Twilight.)

Then, her manipulation grows worse-- she calls her son and warns, "You'd better come see me, because I'm very old and sick."  Having grown accustomed to this type of emotional blackmail, he complies, and then is compelled to rock her and sing the song.  When he returns home, he continues the cycle of emotional abuse by rocking and singing to his own daughter, poor thing.  How he managed to ever produce a daughter with his mother creeping into his bedroom every night, I can't imagine.

Lesson learned:
In the words of Norman Bates, a boy's best friend is his mother.

Munsch, Robert.  Love You Forever.  New York: Firefly, 1986.
Love You Forever


"Benji the Hunted"

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Most kids have a fascination with animals, which is why we use lovable, furry critters so often in children's stories... and then kill them off, one by one.

Benji the Hunted wouldn't be made today; it's unlikely to hold the fleeting interest of the MTV-short-attention-span generation.  There is very little dialogue, no CGI, and no famous actors.  The only star power here is our protagonist Benji, the scruffy mutt with a heart of gold.

Benji is lost in the woods and witnesses a mother cougar get shot and killed by a hunter, leaving behind four adorable orphaned cubs.  The death of the mother, as in Bambi, should elicit enough pathos to carry the rest of the film, but no.  Next thing you know, the cubs themselves are in peril from a hungry wolf, and Benji is caught and tethered by a trapper, and then an eagle swoops down and carries off one of the cubs who is never seen again, and then the wolf is back again after Benji this time, and by the time you see that wolf plunging off a cliff to his doom, you're bawling in rage and horror, wondering who will die next in this movie that sets out to define what Tennyson meant by "nature red in tooth and claw."

Lesson learned:
"For by the hearth the children sit / Cold in that atmosphere of Death, / And scarce endure to draw the breath, / Or like to noiseless phantoms flit"

Benji the Hunted.  Dir. Joe Camp.  Perf. Benjean, Frank Inn, Red Steagall.  Walt Disney, 1987.
Watch the trailer on YouTube here.
Benji: The Hunted


"Little Red Riding Hood"

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"Little Red Riding Hood," or "Little Red-Cap," as the Brothers Grimm called it, has recently been revamped as a major motion picture involving werewolves.  Critics say the film is a "darker" or "more adult" version of the fairy tale, but those critics have obviously never read the Grimms' original story.

The fairy tale was probably intended as a lesson to little girls not to talk to strange men, those metaphorical wolves who would prey on unsuspecting young women.  A Freudian analysis--particularly given the importance of the cross-dressing male wolf, the bed (see image at right), and the young girl's scarlet cape--is fairly easy to perform here.

There are numerous versions of the story, some in which the wolf merely borrows Grandma's bonnet while she's out until Grandma returns and chases the wolf out, some where the story simply ends after the wolf gobbles Little Red Riding Hood up, and some that have both Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood swallowed whole by the wolf until they are saved by a huntsman who cuts them out of its belly.

The latter ending, found here in the Grimms' version, is rendered in delightfully gruesome detail: the wolf is vivisected and his belly filled with heavy stones until he collapses in death and the huntsman uses his pelt as a cloak.  There is even a little coda about another wolf who tried to go after our crimson-capped heroine, and he is ultimately drowned in a trough of sausage-water (again, quite Freudian).  

Lesson learned:
The sole consistency among all the story versions is that Little Red Riding Hood comments on what big body parts the wolf has.  Unfortunately, this aspect of the tale does not fit with my Freudian reading.  Hmm.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm.  "Little Red Cap."  Nursery and Household Tales [Kinder- und Hausmärchen]. Berlin, 1812.