When I was a small child, I was deathly afraid of the Hamburgler.
For some reason, that striped, masked, bizarre fellow just disturbed my child self. I can’t place exactly why. I had other fears, of course. Certain clowns, moths, the dark, being alone and lost… all pretty common things. Like most children of my era, I was raised on a steady diet of Sesame Street (1969-Present), Mr. Rogers, The Muppets, and other edutainment programs. I’m not going to pretend that these were bad things, either. I learned a lot about self-confidence, tolerance, numbers and letters, friendship, and other important aspects of socialization that are necessary for being a human in modern society. Nor did my (at the time) stay-at-home mother leave me isolated in front of the TV; I received much love and attention from both of my parents as well.
But there was something strange about the Hamburgler that bothered me on a deep level when I was a kid. The McDonaldland characters were superficially similar to those of the Children’s Television Workshop (I had not encountered Sid and Marty Krofft yet), led by Ronald the clown, with his friends Grimace, Mayor McCheese, Officer Big Mac, and the rest. Yet, you didn’t learn anything from them. They had adventures, certainly, but they all revolved around acquiring McDonald’s food. The surface was there, but the depth was not. I would learn, when I was much much older, to think of this as the second stage of Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra, where the copy is a perverted image of the original.
If Sesame Street is of the first stage, a reflection of profound reality, a distilled essence of humanity portrayed by puppets and humans, then McDonaldland is its dark reflection: simple consumerism dressed up in Sid and Marty Krofft suits. It still reflects aspects of reality — we struggle to feed ourselves everyday, the acquisition of food being, along with shelter, one of the most basic of human drives –, but it is transformed into a playful jaunt where burglars and monsters can be stopped simply by “catching” them, rather than, for example, violent conflicts for farmland or disputes over the ethical treatments of animals and workers.
The Evil Grimace, everyone knows,
is round and purple and has big toes.
He carries shakes in every hand,
as he scurries through McDonaldland.
More on this in a moment.
One well known side effect of repeated exposure to something is desensitization — when we experience something over and over again, it has less of an impact on us, it becomes more familiar.
Horror movies of the goreporn genre, for example, can be distilled down to one core film that came out in 1971: Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, a film that, after viewing, makes most horror movies seem tame by comparison. The film is simply footage of autopsies, carried out slowly and methodically in a Pittsburgh mortuary by doctors. There is no need for jump cuts, splashes of blood across walls, screaming women stalked by large men with knives… Instead, there’s the silent workmanship of a trained medical expert simply doing their job, however gory and disgusting it might be. Another is the minimalist Elephant (1989) by Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle — a series of 18 murders carried out without dialogue or context, giving action and crime viewers “exactly what they want”.
So, if purity won’t achieve the desired effect on jaded viewers, what is required is something a bit different, something more subtle, some way to enter into the desired effect through unexpected means. This has worked very well with the genre of “Action-Comedy” typified by the Marvel superhero franchise, where exciting fights and massive explosions are bookended with sight gags and knowing meta-humor about the absurdity of the situation. Unlike, say, Ghostbusters (1984), a comedy that has action elements towards the end but is mostly word play and sight gags, the action-comedy takes what would be a serious film (be it Dirty Harry (1971) or any of the recent DC superhero films), and makes the main characters tell jokes and quips constantly (The recent Marvel films, the entire oeuvre of Joss Whedon). If the jokes begin to lag, simply blow something up. Rinse and repeat. It’s a winning and successful formula, and I don’t mean to sound flippant or dismissive. There are some really excellent movies in this genre. It’s a pairing that works.
And by pairing children’s TV and horror, Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared, excels as well.
By using the appearance and structure of a familiar and comforting children’s program, it lures the viewer into lowering their guard, into wondering what, exactly, is going to happen. Each episode has a structure — the characters are put into a situation, a singing “teacher” appears to show them about a concept, the concept is not explained, and the show begins to break down while the characters are tortured both mentally and physically — but the overall product is something much more strange and unusual than a “monster of the week” sort of production.
But before we delve into DHMIS further, one more thing we need to discuss first.
One theory that has always intrigued me is the connection between the Muppets and Gnosticism. Advanced by the always wonderful Geoff Klock, it states, basically, that the Muppet movies are a perfect expression of the beliefs of the ancient Christian sect. The Muppets are not treated as different from humans in any noticeable way, yet they instantly recognize one another, especially in The Muppet Movie (1979). To quote Dr. Klock:
The main thing that stuck me was the ending of the first movie. Kermit has traveled from the swamp to Hollywood picking up muppets along the way, finally getting to the office of Orson Wells’ Lew Lords, who gives them the “standard rich and famous contract.” The next scene is the muppets themselves making their movie, which is the movie we have just finished watching, with cardboard sets. The film could have ended there, and if it had the point would have been that their hard work paid off, and that they found friends and became successful so you should follow your dreams and so on.
But it does not end like that. It ends as Gonzo floats up high on the movie set and crashes into the cardboard rainbow which falls and breaks the whole set and then the ceiling explodes opening up a huge hole — and a REAL rainbow comes through. There is a close-up of Kermit singing which backs out so that you see all the muppets, then backs out some more so we see a host of Jim Henson creations all bathed in the light of the rainbow. This ending is quite different because it identifies the rainbow light of the imagination (which Shelley uses at the end of Adonais) as an otherworldly force, something emphasized by the fact that the rainbow lights characters that are beyond the scope of the film — this is not the imagination of Kermit or the muppets, but of their creator.
(And THE Creator — remember that the rainbow is figured in the bible as the sign from God after the flood, his promise that he will not destroy the world again.)
The other major film to exploring Gnosticism to come out “recently” is The Matrix (1999), in which our protagonist Keanu Reeves learns that reality is nothing more than a simulation, and that humanity is under the control of a gigantic network of computers who run a simulation that their minds live inside.
Notably for us, Reeves and his companions travel from the “real” world to that of the simulation via telephone.
So, given all that, Why shouldn’t you hug me? Why am I scared?
We are given multiple glimpses of a world behind the camera in the various episodes: in the first, before the world breaks down thanks to creativity, we see a 3D model of the characters and their world being filmed, before they are transformed into larger caricatures of themselves. In the second, we learn that Yellow Guy’s father, Roy, is a computer. In the third, we are introduced to a false god who eats the Earth (“gravel”), demands name changes, and makes his followers forget everything they know, except for love. In the fourth, the computer draws them inside himself, repeatedly exposing Red Guy to the illusion that is the world, and allowing him to follow a red cord, leading to a “realistic” version of the first episode. He isn’t invited to the party, however, and his head explodes from the new knowledge he has acquired. In the fifth, Duck repeatedly answers a ringing phone, exposing himself to the world of the operating theatre, where he is dissected and eaten by large cans, while Yellow Guy is taught about food and healthy eating, eventually eating Duck, who was also not invited to the party. In the last, we are exposed to dreams, Red Guy in the “real world,” and meet the big machine that controls everything.
This loss of innocence is inevitable. Childhood is a precious time in which all sorts of horrible things are happening, but the child is, usually, only superficially aware of them at best. Responsibilities like rent, work, taxes, relationships… These usually don’t exist. This period will look idyllic in retrospect, even though going by the actual evidence, the world will be as horrible as it always was. There’s always an unspoken “the adults took care of the problems, so I could just relax and play” in these reminiscences. We try to delay this realization as long as possible, because it hurts when it happens.
And this is why, for me, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared works. By pairing the soft and comfortable world of children’s television with the horror that is losing innocence, we can revisit, however briefly, that terrifying liminal space between childhood innocence and adult responsibility. When one is still watching cartoons and playing with toys, but also needs to learn proper nutrition (rather than just eating what tastes good) and computer programming (to stay competitive in today’s modern world), even if the latter things make almost no sense. (It should be little surprise that by spending too much time digging deep into the computer, Red Guy loses his innocence first. The internet is a terrifying place.)
The Gnostic Muppets present this ultimate horror in Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) as Kermit being transformed into “Phil”, a boring frog who works at an advertising firm alongside other frogs that dress and act just like him. Unlike the cool, fun jobs that Kermit’s friends get all over the country, Phil is barely a Muppet. Thankfully for him, it doesn’t stick, and his friends recognize him as he taps out a song with his spoon at the diner. Not so for Red Guy, whose “dancing file” is met not with disapproval or disdain, but with disinterest, and whose attempts to sing and dance are simply boring to the rest of the adults. He isn’t a cool rebel or agitating alternative we, the audience, can root for as he pulls the other adults out of their workaday lives. He’s just sad. He doesn’t have a cohort of special people who will embrace him. The closest he has is his old friend’s dad, Roy, who shows Red Guy that while it may be too late for him and his friends, he can at least improve things for the next generation.
And this, for me at least, stands in contrast to the complacency and desensitization that allows me to watch a much more violent and grotesque film like Dogtooth (2009) or Suicide Club (2002) and laugh at the absurdity of the situations. When the point of the media is to get a catchy song stuck in your head while reflecting on the incomprehensibility of adult life from a child’s perspective, it tends to linger longer and deeper than the surface level depictions of the horrible. As awful as, for example, being tortured by an evil doctor would be (as depicted in so many movies), how much worse to meditate on a horror that was already inflicted upon you?