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)

On the Care and Keeping of Creepy Young Girls

I do not fear Creepy Young Girls. I fear most things, but I do not fear the Creepy Young Girls. I accept them. I don’t know that I was ever one of them, but I was an “intense” child, and they are similar, if not quite the same. Thus I feel a kinship with them. I can’t say I understand them, of course: no one can ever really, completely understand them.

It’s important to note that Creepy Young Girls are not Bad Seeds. Bad Seeds often pretend to be normal, to be sweet little children, so they can get away with more. Creepy Young Girls don’t care about getting away with things, as their rules are not your rules, and they cannot pretend to be anything other than what they are.

Creepy Young Girls will immediately judge you by the way you treat animals, children, and anyone of a “lower status.” Even if you don’t mistreat these people in their company, they will know. They will know, and they will choose whether or not you are to be trusted. Their trust is a precious thing, and can be taken away at any time. Their sense of justice is a strong thing, even if it doesn’t always look like ours.

You must know you cannot really be friends with the Creepy Young Girls. What is your friendship to them? The companionship you offer is nothing compared to what they might get from the rats, or the bats, or the corvids.

Creepy Young Girls are sometimes not girls at all, but Creepy Young Children. They are almost never Creepy Young Boys, which are a different breed altogether and require a different set of rules for care and keeping (and there are many subgroups there, with different requirements). But you will sometimes meet a Creepy Young Child who has the characteristics of a Creepy Young Girl.

You generally do not need to fear letting a Creepy Young Girl into your home, but fears of vampirism aren’t entirely unfounded. Probably the first tip-off is the way they talk: Creepy Young Girls speak rarely, and with with an innocent wisdom, whereas grown vampires who look like young girls speak like adults. Try asking them a question. If you’re feeling daring, offer your finger or palm and see if they bite it. If they do, tell them you are sorry, but they have to stay outside.

If you have a Creepy Young Girl in your home, you must forgive her when you awake in the night and she is awake, has not slept, perhaps has never slept. It may be startling, but just will make them tea, a special blend you can never seem to find in the daytime. They will hold it and perhaps sip it, but never drink it fully. Their dark eyes —which are always dark, even if they are lightly-colored—will seem to glow in the dark.

Creepy Young Girls do love to play, though it may not look like what you and I would call play. It is often more like “observing.” It may look more like they are performing experiments, or whispering into a mirror. It may look like flying a kite at night. It may involve fire. You may need to set some boundaries with them regarding fire.

Some Creepy Young Girls fear death, some find it beautiful; all are obsessed with it. A Creepy Young Girl will probably predict your death at least once. This prediction may or may not be accurate. As a cautious person, I would say it’s probably best to heed their warnings, just in case, if it seems to be a situation you can avoid. Take the prediction for what it is, either a sign of affection, or a sign that you’re getting on her nerves.

Most Creepy Young Girls love a garden. They may feel drawn to roses and their thorns, but will more likely love carnivorous plants, or any plant that can defend itself. The whole idea of a garden is fascinating to them, beauty and death and rebirth all at once, all these layers of life, the mushrooms that appear out of nowhere and then are gone as quickly as they came. Also, spiders. So many spiders.

Let the Creepy Young Girl read whichever books she wants to read. Better yet, encourage her to read, and take her to the library. Creepy Young Girls love a library. The books she reads will give her power, it’s true, power far beyond your wildest imaginings, but she will remember forever that you are the one who led her to the books.

Be patient with the Creepy Young Girl as she is discovering her powers. She probably didn’t mean to overload the circuit breaker, and she would never intentionally scare the cat. (The cat only hisses at her for the same reason a cat hisses at another cat they don’t know.)

They may befriend other young girls, they may not. The truth is, most little girls, at some point, secretly wish they could be a Creepy Young Girl.

You cannot change a Creepy Young Girl. At most, you can guide them. The best thing you can do is listen to them when they speak, and take them seriously. There is nothing a Creepy Young Girl hates more than condescension. You will see the fire in their eyes the moment someone deigns to condescend to them.

What will happen when they grow up? None of us can say. Maybe the Creepy Young Girl herself, maybe she knows her future, and it saddens her. Maybe she looks forward to it. But for now, they are who they are, and they deserve to be given respect as is. And plenty of time with the books, the cobwebs, the crows and the ravens.

Stuff I Did This Week: I’m proud to announce that I will be playing a Creepy Young Girl myself later this year on the animated short show Ollie and Scoops!

Fake BBC Show of the Week: Tuesdays at the Cattery

Midnight Confession #28: Big Bangs Baby


WELCOME BACK TO MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS! It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Last week in New York, I met up with the kids I used to nanny, the ones who reintroduced me to the word “babyish.” Well, with two of the three: one, who is in college, was on a trip to Washington D.C. Two of them are actually in college now, and the youngest is in high school. This is terrifying to me, but they all grew up to be great, so I’m happy with that, at least.

Until she said so, I’d never once thought of bangs as a childish thing. Bangs were kind of my trademark growing up—hell, they kind of still are! I remember insisting on getting my hair cut into a bob when I was about nine or ten. I was going through an angsty phase, and since I’d had shoulder-length hair all through my childhood, I thought a big haircut would put some distance between me and my past. I wanted to symbolize that I, Mara, was growing up, and was my own person. But it never occurred to me to cut my bangs. In fact, a year or two later a hairstylist on a Made-For-TV movie I was working on suggested we thin out my bangs a little because they thought it would suit the character, and just the thought gave me a panic attack.

I didn’t like change, but I also desperately wanted to grow up. I wonder, are there kids who really like being kids? Who appreciate childhood for what it is? I feel like every kid I knew as a kid wanted to grow up, or at the very least, be a teenager. I couldn’t wait to live a grown-up life, or at least what I understood to be a grown-up life. The only thing I wasn’t looking forward to was having to stand in line for things. (Waiting with your parents at the bank when you’re a kid is agony.)

Funnily enough, the kids I knew who acted the most “adult” (myself included) usually acted out in the silliest, most immature ways when we hit puberty. Think of all the serious children you knew who turned into total geeks as they grew up, the kind of adults who would wear Genius at Work shirts but spend all of our time watching children’s cartoon shows. I went from being a well-behaved, serious child who read Reader’s Digest for fun, to a middle-schooler making lists of “ways to annoy people,” and a teenager who thought there was nothing funnier than just yelling the word “kumquat,” to, well, me. Is it OK to be childish once your appearance is no longer childish? Or did we just realize what we had been so quick to give up?

Still, I like being an adult. Except when I’ve been crying and need new eyeliner at Sephora, and get recognized. Yes, that did actually happen. I have said it before and will say it again, if you’re ever a minor public figure, you won’t ever get recognized when you’re looking and feeling good, you will get recognized only when you are looking and feeling your absolute worst.

Stuff I Did This Week: Tonight I’m monologuing with JV Improv at UCB Franklin for #ThrowbackFriday! I’ll be talking about my experiences at the Golden Globes… as a seven-year-old.

Also, my episode of As Me with Sinead is going up soon! Sinead Burke is a wonderful interviewer and person, and talking with her was a delight.

Fake BBC Show of the Week: A Jaunt Into the Sea (And everyone’s seen this about English Murder Villages, right? Maureen Johnson is a genius.)

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