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