Monday, March 4, 2019

Lost Memories, Lost Episodes, and What We Gain From Context

I had Sesame Street blankets on my bed through junior high.

It wasn't like I insisted on having them.  It was just that I never really envisioned not having them.  The concept of changing my sheets to anything else never occurred to me, and the faded characters were so incredibly familiar that having sheets with any other design would have felt as weird as sleeping in a different bed entirely every night.

By the way, I Googled those sheets for this article, and discovered that the design is now considered "vintage."  You can find my old sheets on eBay for anywhere from seventeen to thirty-five dollars.  The moment I saw Bert and Ernie on their little tandem bike, the memories came flooding back.


...or did they?

Here's some back story about Sesame Street.  Sesame Street has been around since 1969; it's poised for its 50th season, boasting over 4,000 episodes, 189 Emmies, and 11 Grammies.  Also, according to Wikipedia, 95% of American children have seen the show before the age of 3.

The funny thing about Sesame Street, though, is that most of us cannot name a single fucking episode.

The simple fact of the matter is that there's a thing called "childhood amnesia," and we all have it.  It's part of normal brain development; you don't remember being a baby, or probably even being a toddler.  Memory before the age of five is, at best, single snapshots that are memories of memories and not much more; it might be more accurate to call them "mythologies" than "memories."


I know that I loved Sesame Street.  I still remember the theme song.  I think I remember one episode that had a song about not wasting water.  (Lyrics: "Don't waste the water, water, water" to the tune of a dripping faucet.)  I also think I might remember one that involved a back tooth reminding the person brushing it "Don't skip me!"  But I don't know.  A talking tooth demanding attention sounds more like a fever dream than a childhood memory.

And most people agree that childhood amnesia is absolutely terrifying, if you really think about it.  The idea of losing our memories, our sense of self, or of having false memories implanted into us, is the kind of stuff we make horror films about.  (For example, Before I Go To Sleep, Inception, The Island, Memento, Shutter Island, The Bourne Identity, The Number 23, and, perhaps scariest of all, 50 First Dates.)

And the subject of childhood amnesia is especially frightening, because as children, we lack the context to really understand everything happening to and around us.  Kids get scared of all sorts of shit.  Kids also stumble into scary situations that only make sense later in life.  Childhood amnesia bears an implication of potential trauma, the idea that we have always had a dark monster lurking, locked away in our own brains, and we never even knew.


So Sesame Street.

It might delight you to know that, if you were a toddler in 1976 and you saw an episode of Sesame Street that scared the shit out of you, that isn't a false memory, but a real one.

Because in 1976 there was an episode of Sesame Street that aired once and was never seen again.

Episode 0847, called both "The Lost Episode" and "The Banned Episode," aired on February 10th.  There's no clips of it available online, though we've been reassured that the footage wasn't destroyed and is archived... somewhere.  There are periodic suggestions that the episode might play someday, but as it stands, it never has been, nor has there has ever been any news confirmed about an eventual release date.

We do have stills, though, and a basic plot.  The Wicked Witch of the West (played by Margaret Hamilton of the original Wizard of Oz) flies over Sesame Street and loses her broom.  It's found by David and Big Bird, who refuse to return it to her because they're worried she'll do evil magic with it.  The Witch loses her shit and proceeds to terrorize Sesame Street with various threats, including turning Big Bird into a feather duster (that's racist?) and David into a basketball (that's racist).  She trashes Mr. Hooper's store by making it rain indoors and filling it up with brooms.  Eventually, she gets her broom back from Big Bird by tricking him into thinking she's nice, and flies away.  (Although it ends on a sort-of cliffhanger where she drops her broom a second time.)  The end.


It doesn't sound scary, perhaps, but again, children have vastly different concepts of what "scary" really means.  (It's worth pointing out that, when I was a kid, I was scared by the following: sewing machines, my fingernails melting off, and the pollution monster from Fern Gully.)  The idea of a thunderstorm indoors is actually ridiculously terrifying if you're a kid; thunderstorms are scary enough when they're outside.  And the idea of being transformed into an inanimate object, one without a face... well, yeah, I can see how that might scare children.

Incidentally, it was reported that the Witch was literally supposed to "teach children about fear."  So, yeah, they were definitely angling for a "scary" episode.

As typically happens when this sort of thing airs, enraged parents wrote into the show, saying it had made their kids upset.  Kids cried, kids had nightmares, and PBS never showed the episode again, leading to a strange cult following from people like me who really, really want to see the "lost episode."

Google search it all you want.  
You won't find it.
Side note: don't Google "Sesame Street" memes, or click that link.

This wasn't the first time Sesame Street overstepped, either.  While the show has had plenty of controversial and serious episodes dealing with very real issues, the "scary" episode wasn't the only one that had to be pulled.  In 1992, episode 2985 was quietly thrown out without ever being aired because the producers decided kids didn't get it.  Titled "Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce," it was supposed to reassure children whose parents were splitting up that they were still loved and it wasn't their fault.  Apparently, it missed the mark and tested poorly, so they scrapped it, not wanting to confuse children who might already be troubled.

I don't want to sound like I'm being overly critical of Sesame Street, here.  Sesame Street has been so successful in a very large part because of its willingness to tackle serious issues in an age-appropriate way.  This includes the iconic episode wherein characters discussed another character's death (the actor had actually died and their tears were real), and the inclusion of HIV-positive puppets in South Africa and Arab puppets in Israel.  Few shows have tackled as many real-world issues, or done it as gracefully, as Sesame Street, although I do want to give a shout-out to Mr. Rogers, who also did a Wicked Witch episode that was never banned, as well as an episode about divorce.  (The witch episodes were nearly concurrent, being released in 1975 and 1976, within one year of each other.)


What did Mr. Rogers do differently?

In the Mr. Rogers segment, he introduces us to Margaret Hamilton, and she actually puts on her witch outfit on screen.  The children understand that it's merely "make-believe."  If there's one failing of Sesame Street, perhaps it's that it blurs the line between fantasy and reality.  When a giant elephant puppet tells you that your parents might break up, it's unclear to what extent that's true.  Mr. Rogers never bullshitted kids; his puppets were, by design, "make-believe" and not part of his actual real-life house.  The actress who portrayed the witch explained how her skin wasn't actually green and that it was only paint that wiped off.  "Sometimes, Mister Rogers, I'm a little unhappy because lots of children are quite scared by [the witch], and that always makes me feel a little sad," said Hamilton.


The thing about kids is, their brains are little sponges, and they absorb a lot of stuff.  But they don't always understand it.  Yes, Cookie Monster is supposed to be a metaphor for drug addiction.  But do kids really get that?  I sure as shit didn't.

Child psychology is a complex subject and has grown a lot since the '70s, so we can't fault Sesame Street too much for their famously controversial witch episode.  But if there's anything we should take away from it, it's not that children should not be exposed to things that are scary, sad, or uncomfortable.  It's that they should be given age-appropriate context.  That's what Mr. Rogers did in his show; he soothingly explained things that were scary, sad, or uncomfortable in a way that helped give children the context they lack due to their lack of life experience.

Childhood amnesia is scary to us, as adults, precisely because of what it represents: The Great Unknown.  Lack of information is terrifying; the monsters we can't see are almost always scarier than the ones we can, which is why The Blair Witch Project was actually a fantastically scary and unsettling movie.  (Had they shown the witch, it would have ceased to be scary to everyone except for toddlers, who probably would have been terrified, especially if it turned out Margaret Hamilton was the Blair Witch all along.)

As adults, we sometimes get little jolts of memory from those lost years of our lives, and without the surrounding circumstances to understand it, those jolts are often unsettling.  For example, my memory of an anthropomorphic, lonely tooth.  Now imagine you're three years old and that uncanny sense is your constant state.

 Fortunately unlike kids us adults are sooooo smart and good at remembering stuff.

It's no wonder kids are constantly having meltdowns.  They're small, and the world is big, and everything is moving loudly and quickly around them without any rhyme or reason.

The solution?  We need to be more like Mr. Rogers.  His show was calm, slow, soft, and comforting.  It explained what was happening, and why, with saint-like patience.  And no kid, to my knowledge, has ever been confused or traumatized by Mr. Rogers.  His message of unconditional love is timeless.

Sesame Street isn't worse than Mr. Rogers.  It's simply different.  It's more political and more focused on current affairs.  There's a place for both.

Also, Sesame Street did an Avengers parody and I have to give them credit for that. 
They're even mean to Hawkeye around the 3:30 mark.

That being said, though, if I had to go back in time and choose new sheets for my bed... well, I don't know if they made Mr. Rogers sheets, but I would have opted for those.  Because as an adult, I feel that the thing that best prepared me for my adult life was context.  I was offered, like all children, a feast of information; the stuff that stuck with me was the stuff that was explained.  It's no coincidence that the favorite question of children under five is "why?"  They don't merely want information; they want to know what it's good for, and how it relates to their place in the world.

One of the lessons we, as adults, can learn from this is that things lacking context are scary.  It's easy to forget, as adults, that we have our blind spots.  We don't always know the "why" of things, even when we think we do.  Adulthood is a lot like living in the Sesame Street universe, where reality and the perception of reality mix together seamlessly.  But often, the things that upset, scare, or anger us lack a greater context, and so it's important to handle our Sesame Street lives in a Mr. Rogers manner: by calmly, quietly seeking out more information and coming to an understanding that lets us live our lives in the best way possible.

Children's programming often stumbles into shockingly profound and poetically beautiful philosophies, and I'd like to quote Captain Planet here, who stated that there are two things that make bad things worse: ignorance, and fear.


Whoops, wrong clip.  (That's from episode 11, season 3, and if you think it's fake, think again; here's the full climax.  In my opinion, though, this is an amazing example of how to educate kids directly on serious issues.)

My point is, we don't stop being scared just because we grow up.  We just get scared of different things.  And Sesame Street's scary episode may not have done what it intended to, but in a way, it did fulfill its mission.  It taught us about fear.  Contrasted with the Mr. Rogers episode that feature the Wicked Witch, it showed us what the remedy for fear is: knowledge.

As Captain Planet once told us, "Protect yourself and others with knowledge. Remember, the power is yours."