Saturday, September 20, 2014
Staring down the Behind-The-Door
I am told that as a young child I was terrified of cracks.
Also, one handsome son of a bitch.
I don't remember being afraid of cracks, but I damn well remember what would've made me afraid of them - the Behind-The-Door. I saw the Behind-The-Door, as I'd always recalled it, in a 1970's Sesame Street animated short. I didn't remember the details well - there was a woman lying on a bed, and some cracks in the wall above her bed took the form of a camel. Then they went to see something called the Behind The Door, which was a sort-of human face made out of cracks. It presumably lived behind a door. And it was absolutely pants-shittyingly scary.
I know I saw this once all the way through, and possibly a second time. (it is likely that I ran screaming from the room that second time.) This was not exactly a life-ruining event, but it was the gold medalist in the scariest-thing-I-ever-saw-as-a-kid olympics, something even my family only remembered in the vaguest terms.
So the 70's passed on, and the 80's, and the 90's...these were not times to dwell upon or investigate obscure pop culture ephemera that would in all likelihood turn out to be disappointingly mundane when discovered.
But here we are in the age of Google, an age where the voracious nostalgiavore is a beast of limitless hunger. I'm not sure what exactly sparked this, but in the late 00's I went looking online to see if it had ever resurfaced.
I learned a great number of things. Not only had it not resurfaced, but it had suspiciously not resurfaced - seemed like all the other Sesame Street cartoons of the day that freaked people out were easy to find, compiled by nostalgic fans, and had great reverent essays written about them. But the bit with the Behind-The-Door wasn't on DVD reissues, it wasn't on TV reruns, it was just gone. The one youtube link that promised the Crack Monster cartoon turned out to be a Rickroll.
While I was disappointed, I was enormously relieved to find I was not alone in that. For the first time I found people who'd not only seen it but had been as traumatized by it as I was. Tail O' The Rat was that site, and a strange drama unfolded there.
No video would be resurfacing, but somebody had seen it, and recently. He'd been contacted by a mysterious stranger who had it on his laptop and agreed to meet up in some diner in god-knows-where so our correspondent could view it, but not copy it. This stranger had been forbidden to share it under terms he clearly took pretty seriously. The correspondent's account of what he saw was shiveringly in line with what I remembered. He even provided a few sketches of what he saw, all of which was creepily familiar. But that's all, still no seeing the video for myself.
Anyway, years pass, and I check in once in a while to see if there's anything new - once or twice a year, nothing like my tireless keeping up with Braindance's new album. Just this past week I looked in, and...it had been found. It hadn't just been found, it had been posted. It was Out There. Apparently just before Christmas of last year, somebody had anonymously emailed it to the lost media wikia.
So of course I wasted no time in watching the damn thing.
It did not disappoint. In fact, what I want to emphasize here that it is a superbly constructed horror scene - that it is so constructed largely by accident by well-meaning animators who apparently wanted to emphasize something called "divergent thinking", doesn't make it any less so.
View it for yourself on youtube.
Our POV character's lying in bed, bored, rainy day outside, and there are cracks in the wall above her bed.
Hey, don't be a snob. At least the house is well-built enough that staying inside keeps her out of the rain.
She starts to imagine that the cracks take the form of a camel, and they go on adventures together. That all sounds just fine. But between the incessant music - lazy, free-formish keyboard doing a bit of a walking bassline and a slightly more excitable, dreamy soprano sax - and the half-spoken, half-sung narration like this Sigourney Weaver sound-alike can't make up her mind, we're starting off on a slightly unsettling note, and when we see that camel...well, Crack Camel's a little weird.
It's certainly a crack something.
FEAR LEVEL: 2.
This camel's a little bit freaky. But it's immediately friendly and subservient - gets down to allow itself to be rode by the me, the girl. (I kept thinking of the girl as myself, because she is the POV character after all.) It's a little reassuring that the first thing I meet in this slightly trippy otherworld is one that's happy to be my friend.
FEAR LEVEL: 1.
Now we go on our journey, but here's where things get really weird. Here we are in a 3-dimensional world - we accept that what we see on TV is 2-dimensional, especially in cartoons. As long as they stay 2-dimensional, nothing's weird. But Crack Camel's space-warping de-materialization adventure does not travel in two dimensions. Crack Camel smashes itself and its rider into one dimension, then down to a point that disappears entirely, before re-materializing elsewhere, using the same process in reverse.
Thank you for riding Crack Camel Interdimensional Express, where the souls of the screaming damned are only an "Oh, stewardess!" away!
FEAR LEVEL: 4
Okay, this does not look safe. I DO NOT WANT TO BE SMASHED DOWN TO FEWER DIMENSIONS THAN I LIVE IN. But I guess it works for them, they get through without incident, and they immediately meet Crack Hen.
I feel kinda bad for Crack Hen, because she's the most likely to end up in a casserole.
Crack Hen is also friendly, and at any rate, probably harmless. I'm up here on a camel. What's she going to do, peck at the camel's ankles? If Crack Hen pisses off Crack Camel, Crack Camel's going to fuck her up. I don't think Crack Hen's going to give me anything I have to worry about up here.
FEAR LEVEL: 2
So we do the interdimensional transport again, and we meet Crack Monkey. I do not like this monkey.
FUCK THIS MONKEY.
FEAR LEVEL: 5
Look at this goddamn guy. He's crazily overdrawn in a way that Crack Hen and Crack Camel aren't, and he's either sitting on an invisible chair or he's defying his own centre of gravity. Then when he talks he waves his arms around like a maniac. Crack Monkey's one saving grace is that he too wants to be friends, and is excitedly glad to see us. I still don't like the guy, but he's not exactly threatening.
FEAR LEVEL: 4
Not threatening, that is, until he suggests that he knows of one more friend we could make in Crackworld, one more, behind the door...
FEAR LEVEL: 8
NO GODDAMN WAY, MONKEY.
And you know what? That fucking monkey knows exactly what he's doing. Look at this smile. This is not the smile of somebody who's glad to see you and wants to be friends. This is the smile of somebody with a van that says FREE CANDY on the side.
Eat shit, monkey. Eat my shit.
Even if I'd never seen this as a kid, I'd be thinking, WHAT THE FUCK don't go behind that door, it's worse than under the bed! This is a terrible idea. You're not going to find anything friendly behind the door! And we sure as shit do not.
We meet again, once-promising little redhaired boy! I see my damage has been done!
FEAR LEVEL: 10
Things go crazy at this point. Crack Master up there doesn't get a casual reveal - they smash-cut to a whole screen of him, and this flute comes in and this flute just freaks out with this panicked trill. This is what horror movies call a stinger - shock to look at, shock to hear, just there to scare the shit out of you.
And it's not like the terror just drops off after that scare. In the next fifteen seconds, we're assailed with a dense cacophony of music, narration and activity that even now I have trouble figuring out what's going on in the chaos. No wonder 70's-me found it terrifying - it scares the crap out of you and keeps going at that pitch, which even horror movies tend to back off from. Even Jason Voorhees moves on after jumping out at you and sticking a knife in your eye. Crack Master just hangs there on the wall, trying to be scary, while faux-Sigourney's speaking for everybody and that flute player is having a flutefit. In fifteen seconds, Crack Master tries to look extra frightening - which he totally succeeds at.
Behold, extremely young, impressionable children: the true face of evil.
FEAR LEVEL: ALL THE FEAR
He succeeds so well that the plaster breaks apart entirely and drops into a pile onto the floor, revealing house-construction shit behind it.
If only they'd built out of ICF.
FEAR LEVEL: RUNNING OUT INTO TRAFFIC
There's a minor moral here - that if you try to be mean you'll destroy yourself, or something? - but I would never have picked up on it as a kid. All I saw was the scariest face I'd ever seen, that made itself scarier, and then scarily broke into pieces revealing a hole in the wall that's a hundred times more scary than if me and Crack Camel just walked up to it and thought, hey look, hole in the wall.
Everybody's like, Too bad so sad about the guy who destroyed himself trying to be mean, and go back home to their respective crack dimensions. We're left with the possibility that should we have another rainy day where we can't get out of the house and we have to lie around using our stupid imaginations, we'll go and see the cracks again someday. FUCK YOU I WILL NOT.
And neither did a generation of kids. So far as I've learned, "Cracks" aired eleven times before vanishing, though the reason for its disappearance are up for speculation. The 80's crack epidemic was a few years off yet, and while I can see a segment like this being irreparably tainted by the changing meaning of the word, it still leaves a few years. Maybe the prospect of seeing this girl living in this dilapidated house, plaster just falling off the walls, was too depressing? Maybe they learned that holy shit, kids are not relating to this like we wanted them to? Given that the video was provided anonymously, we may never get an answer.
But what impresses me about this now is how it uses that slow ratcheting of inspiring dread, and easing off, earning your trust again, bringing in one increasingly unsettling thing after another but making us go along with it until we're in deep enough that we have to see it through to the end, even if we don't like where it's going. If there's any movie scene I'd compare it to, it's this that comes to mind: