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.
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.
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)