AOL Teens, Eye Drops, and Things That Don't Make Sense

From the "Does anybody remember this, or is it just me?" files

There are a lot of things I could write about right now, in this odd and terrifying time. I’ve started and deleted several different posts in the past few weeks. It didn’t feel right to be writing about scary things. Instead, I think what we need is something light, maybe some bizarre memories of things I am sure only I remember.

So, today I want to talk about a terrible AOL Dating Sim I once played.

I was probably about eleven or twelve, and I did not know what Dating Sims were. For those of you who don’t remember AOL, never used it, or are too young, there used to be these things called “AOL Keywords,” which were something of an alternative to URLs. AOL’s search function was terrible, but if you entered a keyword, you’d be sent to a page they’d made for a brand, like Nickelodeon, or on a particular topic, like Health or Parenting. To eleven-year-old me, AOL Keyword “Teen” was where it was at. (And it was much safer than searching “teen” on any other primitive search engine. That would have just led to porn. Everything led to porn in those days. I remember searching “large earthquakes” for a seventh grade science report and getting the suggestion that I also search for “large vaginas.”)

No actual teens hung out on AOL Teens, I’m sure, the same way that very few actual teens read teen magazines. Well, that might have changed these days, with Teen Vogue and all, but in my day, by the time you were seventeen, you had probably grown out of reading Seventeen and moved onto Cosmopolitan. I don’t remember much about AOL Teens, just that I spent a lot of time there, that there were message boards and articles and the obligatory embarrassing moments, and there were at least two games. They were called Crush! and Mack! respectively: Crush! was supposed to be for girls, and Mack! was for boys. They were basic text-based games, with multiple choice questions, accompanied by some photos of a model playing the person you were supposed to be courting, whose expression would change depending on how well you were doing in the game. They’d say something, you’d have to choose one of three replies to try to win their hearts.

I played Crush! first. The male model was supposed to be playing a high schooler, but he was clearly over 25. I remember him looking kind of like a blond Christopher Reeve — though I may just have him in mind because 32-year-old me watched The Remains of the Day the other night. Older guys didn’t do it for me then, although honestly, neither did most younger guys: I’d decided I was officially into boys the summer before sixth grade, but I found that whenever I had a crush on a guy, he always found a way to kill my attraction pretty quickly. I never had a middle school or summer camp romance (unless you count briefly dancing with my camp crush Shane at the camp dance, then getting furious when he non-consensually grabbed cool fourteen-year-old Stacey’s boobs three days later, and pouring half a bottle of Pepsi in his hair in female solidarity). I had to wait until high school to get my heart broken, and didn’t actually fall in love until college. I was a bit of a late bloomer.

Still, middle school me liked the idea of dating and romance. I liked the idea of there being nice boys out there, and flirting successfully. So I played the game. The goal was to get him to dance with you at a school dance. The description insisted he was the “one you’ve had a crush on forever, the cute jock with the great bod and killer smile” — despite the model looking much more like a teacher — and that finally, you saw him in the corner “at the Valentine’s Day dance, alone.” The game started with you almost bumping into him while he was drinking his punch, causing him to respond, “Whoa. Watch it, sweetie!” From there, you could choose to say “Sorry, hope you didn’t spill your punch,” “Oops, clumsy me!” or “Oh my god, you called me sweetie! Somebody please shoot me so I can die in bliss!” That last answer would lead to several more prompts, with several more creepy prompts about how you had such a crush on him and the two of you were meant to be together, until finally he would end the game by saying one of the most late nineties things ever said: “What are you, a stalker? Go join a Leo fan club and stop wasting my time!”

(I only won the game once, by impressing him with my dancing skills. I think the line “dancing is just a vertical exploration of horizontal desires” was even offered as a choice in there somewhere. Being a terrible dancer in real life, I felt this did not bode well for me.)

Mack!, the game “for boys,” I found far more interesting. By middle school I was starting to suspect that I was interested in girls. I remember getting some uncomfortable tingles when friends of mine did a sexy choreographed dance at the talent show — the song they danced to, was, ironically, “It’s Raining Men.” Then there was the forwarded List of Things Girls Like About Guys/List of Things Guys Like about Girls I kept getting. I can still remember several entries from the list about Girls (“the way their head always finds the right spot on your shoulder,” “the way they always smell so good, even if it is just shampoo,”) but never could, and in fact, still can’t, remember anything from the Guys list. I also definitely had a crush on cool fourteen-year-old Stacey at camp, hence my willingness to take revenge on my former crush Shane for being a grabby asshole. But by eighth grade, with a slate of neuroses and diagnoses to deal with, I figured I already had too much going on and just couldn’t possibly be gay or bisexual, too. And I continued to think this for more than ten more years. When I finally voiced it aloud, as a way of explaining to a friend why I’d been closeted so long, he just said, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Anyway, Mack! remains in my memory not because it was my first time exploring what it might be like to flirt with a girl (I’d gotten a perfect grade on a story I’d written for English class months earlier, from the point of view of a young straight boy in love, and there was far too much detail about the object of his affection), but because of a line in it that didn’t make sense to me. Something that still doesn’t make sense to me. And things that don’t make sense tend to stick around in your mind longer.

It wasn’t just the term “mack,” though at the time, I only kind of knew that “mack” could mean “to flirt with” or “hit on.” I’d heard it in songs, but at our school “macking” usually meant “making out,” not “hitting on,” and those phrases were confusing enough. The setting of this game was a little different: the girl you were into worked at a local swimming pool, and you knew she’d had a boyfriend, but lately you hadn’t been seeing him around, and “you suspect her red eyes have nothing to do with chlorine.” So your aim was to pick her up while she was vulnerable! This didn’t sit so well with me, but I figured (probably unfairly) that boys were more pragmatic and less sensitive. The model was very pretty and probably about 19 (definitely younger than Old Man Crush! over there, who looked like he should have been chaperoning the dance). She was also in a bikini the whole time.

She started the game looking sad and asking “Got any eye drops?” My instinct was to choose variations on “Is something wrong?” I didn’t have much success there. Though that might have actually made sense: after all, this was supposed to be coming from a boy, and “Is something wrong?” sounds different coming from a girl than from an obviously-interested boy. The model informed me that was a personal question, and I ended up losing the game.

I tried a few more times, got frustrated, then finally chose the bottom option, choice number three. It made her laugh! It worked! I went on to make another “joke,” and kept her laughing until she agreed to go get a sandwich with me. But my victory rang hollow. I wasn’t sure what I had done that had made her laugh so hard, because I hadn’t understood the bottom option. I knew it was a joke, but I didn’t understand what it meant.

Adults always said “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” or “when you’re older you’ll understand.” But there are still so many things I, as an adult, don’t understand. I’ve found you can mostly function in adult life without understanding them. (Even if it does still bother me that my friend Taylor laughed at Grease when Rizzo said “Sure it is” when Frenchy said her nickname was Frenchy for the way she smoked, and when I asked Taylor what “Frenchy” really meant, she just huffed, impatiently, “Think about it,” and I did, and twenty-two years later I still don’t get it.) In Mack!, you would respond to “got any eye drops?” with the winning line, “Yeah, sometimes, when I party too hard, my eye drops a little. Is that what you mean?”

WHAT.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN.

AND WHY DID IT WORK?

I’ve been through so many explanations, but none of them make sense. It’s not even a pun! This was written in English, so you can’t blame translation.What kind of “partying” makes your eye “drop,” anyway? He couldn’t have been referring to weed, let alone any harder drugs: this was the very corporate AOL in the late ‘90s, there were anti-drug campaigns all over AOL Teens. Besides, weed makes your eyes red, but I’ve never once heard it say it gave them “eye drops.” “Eye Drops” is not a phrase people use! It was not slang in the' ‘90s! I’ve never heard of eye drops being used to describe anything other than liquid in a small bottle that you put into your eye. So why the fuck would she find it funny? NO. NO, THAT IS NOT WHAT SHE MEANS.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? WHAT WAS GOING ON IN WRITERS’ ROOMS ON THE INTERNET IN THE LATE ‘90s?

As we know, I’ve lost my shit over things that didn’t make sense to me before. I have trouble letting things go. This may be one of the worst cases yet. It’s been there for more than two decades, and I don’t see myself solving this anytime soon. This isn’t Certo, something your grandma might know about. This is going to be with me for the long haul. And I am pretty sure no one remembers these games but me.

If this were an essay for any other site than my own, I’d probably close it by saying what Mack! and Crush! taught me about flirting. But no, I don’t really think they taught me anything. I think that flirting is a skill you have to pick up with real-life practice. Although many of my most successful attempts at flirting have involved being funny, and it is a bit weird that Crush! never gave you the option to be funny. Still, at least I’m funnier than whatever guy wrote the script for Mack! And also, being publicly bi and all, I also bet I’ve had more girls with crushes on me than he ever did. How do you like them eye drops, buddy?

Stuff I Did This Week: Not a whole lot, considering there’s a pandemic on. BUT! The book and audiobook of The Faceless Old Woman Who Lives In Your Home is out this Tuesday, March 24! You can pre-order it now! I love this book so much, and I loved reading the audiobook for it. Stay inside with this wonderful horror-thriller-adventure story!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Boris Boris Boris! Out Out Out!

Stupid Things That Gave Me Nightmares As a Child, #2

Grunge Edition

The second installment of my new series about things I was afraid of as a child, and if they’re still scary to me now.

The Fear

I spent most of my childhood worrying about the end of the world. Nature was terrifying, and even more terrifying was the universe. I was inconsolable when I learned that the sun would someday burn out, and engulf the earth in the process. Maybe some kids are able to shake these things off, but I was a dweller. It didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t happening anytime soon, especially since there were so many other things in space that could kill us, and at any time —gamma rays, deadly comets, and, of course, black holes.

So it’s probably no surprise that a music video I saw at age six, about the sun turning into a black hole, terrified me for years.

I was terrified from the very first “The End is Nigh” sign. I remember wanting to go running into my mother’s arms, but my mother was out for a walk with baby Anna and our friend Lisa Jakub’s mother. My brothers and Lisa, parked on the couch in front of MTV like we often were, tried to console me, but soon as our moms got home I threw myself into their arms. I sob-explained the scary video, and somehow, in that magical maternal way, they managed to calm me down. The creepy, exaggerated faces parts were just special effects, and we weren’t in any danger of black holes.

“They were also saying ‘the end is near,’” I told them, and Lisa’s mom said something that brought me peace then, and still brings me peace now: “People have been saying the world is going to end since the world began.”

The video went on to get frequent airplay on MTV, and I would either make my brothers promise to change the channel, or run out of the room and barricade myself in my room. I couldn’t understand the point of it. Why would someone, especially a band that made so much music that my brothers liked, make a video that just tried to scare people?

Revisiting It

First of all, I want it known that I do not blame Chris Cornell for this video. His voice was a big part of my childhood, he was a brilliant musician, and I miss him. The song itself, while not my favorite Soundgarden song, is technically a very good song (Punch Up The Jam recently did an episode about it, with a trained musician weighing in on its separate parts, and it’s deceptively complex!) The title, which is brilliant, comes from a phrase Chris Cornell misheard on the radio, and the music and lyrics are a mix of ‘60s-’70s psychedelia and ‘90s nihilism. Wishing for and welcoming destruction is not exactly a novel theme, it’s well-covered in mythology, religion, and life. Think of Shiva the Destroyer, the Book of Revelations, desperately wanting your period to come. Not anything new, but it’s still fertile ground. (Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “fertile” there, but fuck it.)

Apparently the band, while happy with the way it turned out, didn’t want to put much effort into this video, and kind of let the director take the reins. They were all really tired at the time, after all the recording and touring, and just wanted to make a video where they didn’t have to do much but stand around.

So I don’t blame the band for the video. I blame the director! It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the director, Howard Greenhalgh, comes from an advertising background. A lot of advertising is manipulation — though it’s also been argued that a lot of art is manipulation — so it doesn’t surprise me that this guy is used to getting a reaction out of people. He’s also known for doing a Pet Shop Boys music video that was apparently really revolutionary in the early ‘90s, but to me just feels cold and impersonal. Probably because there were no actual people in it.

All the thrills of a Windows 95 screensaver!

Anyway, the Black Hole Sun video was also revolutionary at the time. I know this. CG imagery was still new, and the video probably would have been terrifying in that Uncanny Valley way (like our last entry) even if the director hadn’t decide to use every brand-new visual effect possible in 1994 to make it deliberately horrifying. The premise is a tiny suburban neighborhood gets sucked up into a black hole. But first we get to see the dark, sinister side of the suburbs! Now, this feels familiar: there was a lot of anti-suburbia art and entertainment in the ‘90s, all with the underlying message that there was something dark and sinister going on there. I think the truth of it is that suburbia isn’t scandalous. Are the suburbs often exclusive, isolating, dehumanizing? Sure. Dark and sinister? Not usually. Sorry.

Some of the people in the video seem normal but exaggerated: a man with CG-altered eyes mowing his lawn, a woman smiling too widely as she cuts up a fish, a girl roasting one of her Barbie dolls on the barbecue? Weird but not that weird. Show me a girl who didn’t destroy her Barbies as a kind of coming-of-age sacrifice. But then there’s also a woman with a lizard tongue!

She’s pretty much the only truly weird one in the neighborhood, though, which is one of my problems with this video. It’s not really clear whether this is the way the people in the Black Hole Sun suburb always look and act, or if it’s the impending black hole that’s fucking them up. (Black holes do pull you apart atom by atom. They call it spaghettification.) Or is it just the way we’re seeing them, the way they’re being shown, that makes them so weird? Maybe it’s me—I’m not a fan of anything where people are tortured for no reason, it’s why I don’t like torture porn or the movie Meet the Parents—but while everyone in this video is at least slightly creepy and monstrous, I still didn’t want to see them get sucked into a black hole.

Besides, if the weirdness is out in the open, always there on the surface, we aren’t being showing us a weird, sinister underbelly at all. This feels like too messy a message for a supposed suburban satire. This isn’t John Waters or Desperate Housewives or even American Beauty, which I mostly can’t stand but has the good sense to make fun of itself once in a while. (One may argue those were movies, and this is a music video with limited time, Jill Sobule’s 1995 “I Kissed a Girl” video made a delightful mockery of suburban heteronormativity in under three and half minutes.) Apparently the director has said the video was heavily inspired by Blue Velvet and David Lynch. Not only is that what pretty much every director and media artist said in the early ‘90s, but Lynch feels different to me: has a more consistent vision, a kind of internal logic (albeit one that often makes sense only to him), and a better sense of humor. I laughed all the time while watching Twin Peaks, I didn’t laugh at this video.

Rewatching a second and third time, I felt like I could almost get why it would be funny. But then I got to the same parts that bothered me. I think there’s sort of an unwritten rule that babies, young children, or pets being harmed is especially heinous. This video shows all three: children are sucked up into the black hole, a dog looks terrified, a baby is vaporized. This is where the video goes from weird and interesting to upsetting and obnoxious, beyond the typical ‘90s edgy nihilism. It feels adolescent, like the dead baby jokes or Helen Keller jokes that were big when I was in high school (anyone else have to read Lies My Teacher Told Me because of a particularly radical history teacher and get to that weird chapter about the author’s belief that Helen Keller jokes are a subversive send-up of the hagiography retelling of her childhood story, which erased her radical socialist beliefs? Just me?) I get that adolescents were the target audience at the time, but this feels cheap in a way a lot of good ‘90s horror movies, or even other creepy music videos, like Heart Shaped Box or Human Behaviour, don’t.

Poor doggie.

My favorite part is when it cuts to Chris Cornell on some astroturf, with no green screen or CG. It’s just him playing his guitar and lip-synching and looking bored, and it’s the best part, simply because damn, he was pretty! He looks, as my friend Devon pointed out, like he could have been the model for Trent Lane. One day I will write a whole thing about pretty ‘90s grunge and alternative boys and the effect they had on me growing up, but for now, let’s just gaze.

Tell me that’s not a nice sight after four minutes of nightmare CGI.

Is it still scary?

Yes, actually! Not nearly as scary as when I was a child, and not in the same way as when I was a child. It’s not going to give me nightmares or existential anxiety attacks, but it’s definitely still not something I’d watch voluntarily. It’s really more unpleasant and uncomfortable.

I suppose it is an accomplishment to make something that still gives me the creeps twenty-five year later, but Howard Greenhalgh still isn’t one of my favorite directors. I’m not going to hold a grudge, though, because he at least seems like a decent guy. One of the actors in the music video, who played the “jump rope girl” and now keeps a blog devoted to DIY projects and Mormon life, says he was very kind and even gave her his jacket when she was cold. So he might have scared one little girl, but was very nice to another. (He also made the Rhythm is a Dancer music video, which is pretty fun.) The universe is a scary place, but sometimes things seems to balance out.

I’ll leave you with something I was happy to find while researching this video: a cover of Chris Cornell singing Nothing Compares 2 U. If you don’t tear up a little while watching it, well, congratulations on not being me.

Stuff I Did This Week: OH MAN I AM EXCITED FOR THIS ONE. I was on my dear friends Anna Drezen and Andrew Farmer’s podcast, Scary Stories to Tell on the Pod! I loved being on this show so much! We talked about cats, Keri Russell, mystical elderly Russian women, why I’m sure I grew up in a haunted house, and so much more! It’s one of my favorite shows, with two of the funniest people I’ve met in my life! Listen!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Love Amongst the Sundew

Stupid Things That Gave Me Nightmares As a Child, #1

A Series of Re-Evaluations

This is the first in a new series. Yes, I was afraid of enough stupid things as a child to provide enough material for an ongoing series.

The Fear

One day when I was five years old, I woke from a nightmare, covered in sweat. I couldn’t really put what I had seen into words, I just knew that it terrified me, and I had seen it on MTV.

In 1993, my family was more of a PBS household. We could watch Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel only if my mother knew what which shows we were watching: we understood, for example, that Ren and Stimpy had become off-limits. And yet, MTV always seemed to be on in our house. My older brothers and I weren’t yet old enough to complain about how MTV wasn’t what it used to be, or to prefer VH1, as we would in a few years. (Those Behind the Music episodes on The Go-Gos and The Bangles weren’t going to watch themselves.) Maybe it was just what we all did in 1993. Maybe it was because my mother was eight months pregnant with Anna, and thus too tired to watch everything we were watching.

The video, I remembered, had Peter Gabriel in it — who had seemed so nice before, with “In Your Eyes” and all that — but here he seemed mean and scary, devilish, and he was kicking small people at his feet, and he was a floating head, and then a skull, and all kinds of strange things were happening. After a while I didn’t know what I had seen in the video and what I had dreamed up myself. I hoped I would never have to see the video again.

And I didn’t. For twenty-five years.

Revisiting It

I’m not sure when I remembered the video. Sometimes I just remember things (and then usually spend too much time online looking into them: for example, I opened my laptop today and found that the last thing I had been looking up last night was apparently “Danish Bog Sacrifices.”) I think it was a few years ago, possibly when I was still doing a live show about things that scare people, usually me.

Had I imagined the whole thing, I wondered? I went to YouTube and looked up what I thought was the title: “Steam”. And there was Peter Gabriel, exiting a limo, wearing what back in the early 2000s would have probably called “a pimp costume,” and he was kicking small men who were groveling at his feet. He didn’t look scary, just kind of goofy. And there was a woman with him, a pretty woman, dressed in a very early ‘90s way, and—

Goddammit, I thought. It’s about sex! That’s the whole thing! The song, the video… it’s just about sex! There was nothing scary about it, at all. I wondered what kind of horrific Freudian implications this held about me, but the video went on, and it changed. Peter and his ladyfriend went into a new kind of world, a garden of Eden, but all digital. Rendered in that horrific, not-quite-real early ‘90s pre-Pixar computer animated style. Immediately, a shudder went up my spine.

That’s what had scared me, I realized. Peter Gabriel had wanted to make another of his cool music videos, a la “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”, and had crashed right into the Uncanny Valley. Or maybe a sort of backwards Uncanny Valley, where humans take on creepy, robotic appearances? Anyway, this fear of the uncanny, to me, seems like a logical extension of children being afraid of clowns, or costumed characters. Our minds, which are shaped by evolution not to be perfect, but just decent enough to survive, don’t know how how to categorize them. We don’t know if they’re human. It’s why I believe meeting an alien would be far scarier than meeting a ghost: a ghost would take the shape of a human or some other animal, while an alien could look like anything.

At five, I already felt distrustful of things that didn’t seem quite human. Of course I was scared when I saw a mock-up of Peter Gabriel’s disembodied head flying through the damn air, especially when it went into his mouth and showed us his eyeballs and teeth.

That’s nightmarish! It wasn’t the sexual references that freaked me out, those went right over my head. I wasn’t yet interested in boys (except for my preschool boyfriend Alex, who was actually gay, and babyfaced Paul McCartney in Help!), and didn’t yet understand my feelings for girls. I don’t know if my mother and I had even talked about sex, and if we had, I hadn’t found it scary. Stressful, and baffling, maybe, but not frightening in the same way monsters are. Children, barring trauma, typically see sex as gross, funny, or embarrassing; I was no different.

I’m in my thirties now and know a little more about sex, but I still am not sure if this video is supposed to be sexy. It’s more goofy-sexy, the same humor you might see in a Mad Magazine or Playboy comic. There’s one of those gag pens where a woman’s clothes slide off, there’s Peter Gabriel’s head superimposed onto a male stripper’s body, with bits of it being pulled off by horny 40-something women until it’s just a thumping jockstrap. There’s a steam train, which should by all means be entering a tunnel, but it never does — get your metaphors together, Peter! There is a fun part with a bunch of cute-in-that-early-’90s-way girls in what looks like a sauna, except it keeps tilting side to side, and they’re all giggling and they slide up and down. That’s more cute than outright sexy, though.

Probably the only part that disturbed me as an adult is a sight gag where Peter Gabriel and a woman look a bit like they’re having sex, but are revealed to be shaking a tree with babies in it. Not only is this incredibly unsexy, but YOU SHOULDN’T SHAKE BABIES, PETER GABRIEL! Wikipedia says you have four children, you should know this by now!

Is It Still Scary?

Not scary, no. Uncanny and uncomfortable? Definitely. Some of my friends remember being similarly creeped out by the “Sledgehammer” video, but I actually like the “Sledgehammer” video—not to mention I think it’s a better song than “Steam”. It’s a bit long, but it’s entertaining, and with stop-motion there’s enough of a separation for me to not be so uncanny and weird. You don’t feel like you’re looking at something almost human, you know you’re looking at art. Ceci n'est pas une Peter Gabriel. (Je ne parle pas français.)

Anyway, I forgive Peter Gabriel (and his director, Stephen R. Johnson) for scaring me. He’s written some truly great songs, and collaborated on many others, and made some really beautiful videos. I’m sure I made some questionable choices in 1993, as well. Besides, “Steam” was far from the only music video that scared me as a child, and it was definitely not the one that scared me the worst. That’s for next time…

Stuff I Did This Week: What a week! First, my interview with Sinéad Burke went up on As Me with Sinéad! She’s a wonderful interviewer and person, and I had a great time talking with her. It’s available on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, and anywhere else you get podcasts, and the transcript is available on the previous linked site!

I also recorded my part for Ollie and Scoops! I’m so excited to get to play a creepy little girl: as we all know, I appreciate them deeply. And it was so funny! Nico Colaleo, the creator, was sitting with me trying not to laugh the whole time. We also spent a lot of time talking about cats with his mom and sister after, so a good time was had by all.

Finally, an excerpt from the audiobook of The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, the new novel from Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the writers of Welcome to Night Vale, is out! The Faceless Old Woman is finally telling her story, and she’s using my voice! I loved this book and the experience of reading it so much, and I cannot wait for everyone to hear it and read it. Listen to it here, and remember, both the book and audiobook are available for pre-order now!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Just Florence Pugh Talking as She Does Household Chores (I’m not big into ASMR, but tell me you wouldn’t watch that)

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