Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Spooky Side of Sesame Street, Part 1: “Don’t Eat the Pictures.”

DVD cover for Sesame Street's Movie Don't Eat the Pictures
By Roxie Guarino, Nightmare Fuel Investigator

In his iconic roles as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Carroll Spinney inspired millions of children to laugh and learn on “Sesame Street”. Now, just shy of 50 years on the air, we’ve said goodbye to one of our favorite childhood friends.  We’ll miss you, Mr. Spinney!

But as with all things…”Sesame Street” has a dark side. YouTube, the Lost Media Wiki, and TV Tropes are just a few sites where you can find generations of viewers talking about the many segments that creeped them out. This new series will highlight some of those most infamous moments. For our first installment, we honor the late Carroll Spinney with one of Big Bird’s greatest moments. It’s brought to you by the letter D, for ‘defeating a demon and defying a deity of death.”

BACKGROUND: Before Elmo, Big Bird was the breakout star of the street. His childlike personality made him the ‘everyman’ who learned some important lessons: about losing a loved one when Mr. Hooper passed away; affirming belief in his not-so-imaginary friend Snuffy; defining a ‘family of choice’ in the franchise’s first film, “Follow That Bird.” In 1982, Big Bird headlined the solo special “Big Bird in China”, where he met the legendary Chinese trickster character Sun Wukong, The Monkey King.

Big Bird in China Meeting the Monkey King

His next trip would be closer to home, but it’d be another meeting of mythical proportions. 1983’s “Don’t Eat the Pictures” would take place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on Big Bird’s home turf of NYC. The museum’s crown jewel is the Temple of Dendur, which dates back to 15 BCE and was brought brick by brick from Egypt. It’s a gorgeous backdrop for any film, so it makes sense that the special would want to highlight it. And given that Big Bird already met the Monkey King, and characters from Western mythology like fairy tales, Egyptian mythology isn’t too far off the map. But this story got pretty metaphysical…and, before its happy ending, pretty dark.

PLOT: Big Bird and several of his friends (Muppets and humans alike) get accidentally locked in the Met overnight. You’d think the art would magically come to life, like in Night at the Museum. Nope- Big Bird and Snuffy meet an actual ghost, who’s been haunting the temple for over 4000 years. He’s a little Egyptian prince- and he’s even got a little ghost cat, how cute! But he’s trapped on earth, away from the spirits of his parents, and he’s being visited by a demon every night. That’s….less cute. Big Bird and Snuffy decide to help Prince Sahu get back to his parents by taking on the demon’s challenge: answering the riddle “Where does today meet yesterday?” As they try to figure this out, we see the other characters explore the museum, looking for Big Bird. Of course, Big Bird eventually guesses the answer- “In a museum!” This is a shock for the demon (the floating head of James Mason!) but the existential horror has barely begun.

Osiris, god of the afterlife, appears to give Sahu the final test. In accordance with The Book of Coming Forth By Day (or “Book of the Dead”, although Anubis doesn’t show up here), if Sahu’s heart is lighter than a feather, he can finally cross into the afterlife and rejoin the souls of his parents. If not, he’s stuck in limbo for eternity. So…in this “Sesame Street” installment, the stakes are slightly higher than ‘Learn how to count to 10.’ 

Sesame Street Movie Don't Eat the Pictures

The feather for the test does not appear, so Big Bird bravely offers up his own. But the prince’s heart is too heavy and he fails. (At least his heart won’t be eaten by a monster…they left out that part of the book!) So what does cute, childlike Big Bird do to help his buddy? He looks at the rules of the afterlife, set down by a powerful god who’s been worshiped for millennia… and basically tells that god to shove his stupid rules, saying “That’s not fair!” Osiris reacts angrily, but Big Bird won’t back down. He explains the prince’s heart is heavy because he is alone and misses his loved ones- but Big Bird and Snuffy affirm that they love him. Now the prince’s heart becomes lighter, and he finally crosses over to join his parents! It’s a heartwarming ending…but still, the themes of death and the afterlife make this special pretty ominous, and many online commentors remember being afraid of Osiris and the demon when they first saw it. I’m no exception! Check it out on YouTube and see for yourself. 

This being an educational show, what did we learn here- in addition to the obvious “museums are cool and friendship is awesome”?  Those lessons never get old, but now that I’m older and Carroll Spinney is gone, I think Big Bird’s defiance drops this knowledge on the kids at home: If someone is being unfair, even an authority figure, don’t be afraid to call them out- especially if it’s to protect a friend. I think we can all get behind that one, so here’s to you, Mr. Spinney. Every time I walk up those big stone steps at the Met, I’ll think of you.

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