If you approach any American under 40 and ask them how Sesame Street made them feel as a child, there are a bevy of responses you would expect to hear: “happy,” “accepted,” “safe” (to name a few). What you might not expect to hear is “terrified,” “creeped out,” or “plagued with nightmares,” yet this is exactly how one particular 1982 Sesame Street sketch left me–and seemingly countless others–feeling.
I hadn’t thought about Sesame Street sketches in decades when my husband (Tough Pigs’ own Ryan Roe) brought the show back into my life early in our relationship. I don’t remember what sparked the memory, but like a bolt of lightning, I got chills (bolts of lightning get chills, right?), and a conversation much like this ensued:
Me: OMG, I just remembered a Bert and Ernie sketch that terrified me as a–
Ryan: Was it the one where Bert and Ernie were in a pyra–
We were referring to a sketch where Bert and Ernie are exploring a pyramid together when Bert invites Ernie to check out a “spooky, dark tunnel” (way to sell it, Bert!) and Ernie declines. While Ernie waits in the antechamber, a statue that looks exactly like him taps him and interacts with him in various ways. When a frightened Ernie repeatedly calls for help, Bert is convinced the statue’s antics are just in his pal’s imagination. By the end of the sketch, Bert experiences the supernatural oddities of the statue for himself and rushes out.
I felt so validated when Ryan confirmed this episode existed because part of me thought that I might have dreamed the whole thing up. But how did he know this was the exact sketch that terrified me? Well, apparently I’m not alone. If you look it up on YouTube, you will see dozens of comments echoing my sentiments:
“This creeped me out as a kid…”
“This scared me so much when I was a kid.”
“This scene was so freaking scary when I was a kid. Absolutely terrifying.”
“I would hide under a table every time it came on.”
“This gave me nightmares for years as a kid.”
These comments go on and on. The sketch is remarkably even listed on TVtropes.com under “Nightmare Fuel,” right alongside the Flukeworm from The X-Files and Talking Tina from The Twilight Zone. Did the writers of this scene know that they were crafting something that would freak children out for years to come? And what is it about this particular sketch that makes it so scary and memorable? Here are my theories, partly informed by my professional experience in Early Childhood Education and partly informed by this sketch scaring the pants off me:
Ernie is Scared
Children take cues from one another. If their friends are stoked about a new toy or movie, chances are they will be too–even if they have never heard of it. Children are most impressionable before the age of eight and will often imitate what they see. Kids are not alone in this copycat behavior. In fact, following each other’s lead seems to be an evolutionary trait; it is presumed by many scientists, for example, that “sympathy vomiting” is in fact a survival mechanism intended to rid our bodies of the spoiled or poisoned food our fellow clan member likely also ingested.
It’s no wonder, then, that children in the ‘80s felt uneasy with the sketch. Within the first few seconds Ernie tells us outright that he is frightened, and that is enough to assure young viewers that they too have something to fear. The power of suggestion is powerful indeed and Ernie’s admission of fear alters the viewers’ expectations as they subconsciously prepare themselves to be scared. Not to mention that Ernie is usually so jovial and carefree! It’s a good thing Ernie didn’t do any vomiting during the scene.
This is essentially the preschool equivalent of the horror genre. Ernie knows there’s a threat. We know there’s a threat. But the one person who could save Ernie from it all doesn’t believe him. It’s as frustrating as watching An American Tail and knowing that Fievel’s parents are right there above him on that bridge.
Young children already feel helpless for most of their daily lives. They need support to get a snack, to get up into a chair and even to go to the potty. The empathy level is ultra-high when Ernie feels out of control and we all so badly want Bert to believe him. This to me is as big a deal as the whole Snuffy controversy, because there is truly a threat in this scenario.
As if the premise were not spooky enough, the producers thought it needed some menacing music at the beginning and end to help the pants-wetting along. Some of you may remember the music in the middle of the sketch and some of you may not. You’re both right. As Muppet Wiki tells us, additional music was added later, which I think actually makes it a little less scary (but could that really have been the intention?). The eerie silence in the original version as you wait to see what will happen builds even more suspense and establishes a certain rawness (in a Buffy’s “The Body” sort of way).
Now that we’ve explored the myriad ways in which this scene was terrifying, let’s take a few moments to enjoy some “stray observations.”
–In interviews and Q&A events, stories have been told about how Frank Oz was not always “off book” in the early years. That is pretty evident when Bert tells Ernie that the pyramids just might be “centuries or thousands even of years old!”
–Additionally, there is some evidence that Frank was even ad-libbing at points. When Bert is incredulous that the statue can speak, he asks the statue the capital of Delaware. I’m not sure why an ancient Egyptian statue would bother with municipal knowledge of the U.S.A., but Bert then follows with, “Where do I park my bicycle?” Um, Ernie never said the statue was psychic, Bert!
–In case you ever wondered what the magic ingredients are for instantly transforming Ernie’s appearance from affable to antagonistic, the answer is apparently winged eyeliner and a goatee.
–Every time Ernie calls for Bert, Bert is back in the tomb within seconds. That must be the shortest spooky-dark tunnel ever constructed.
–As seen on Muppet Wiki, nobody is sure who performed the Creepy Ernie Statue. The fact that the wiki knows who performed almost every character ever makes it even spookier!
–Ernie begs to just go home and Bert argues “we spent all this time getting here.” Are we to believe that Ernie is suggesting they leave Egypt at once and return to Sesame Street? Come on, Ernie. You could always visit the Gonzo Sphinx!
Click here to be plagued with nightmares on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Staci Rosen