I’m not a child psychologist, but it’s been my (limited) experience and (total) conjecture that children don’t have world concepts. They have isolated blobs of knowledge — basic arithmetic, their ABCs, their teachers’ names, their parents’ occupations — but they don’t yet understand how everything they know fits together. So they take cues from stories we tell them, books, pop songs, movies, and, most especially, TV.
It follows that children’s television should operate according to an internal logic: Protagonists shouldn’t break character without good reason, and their actions should invite predictable consequences. Writers can go nuts with subject matter (manic marine animals; huggable reptilian predators; giant baby heads giggling in the sky) just as long as the form is consistent.
When you dispense with these rules of thumb and throw the kids a curveball, you screw up their concept of how life works. And that’s exactly what happened when, as a child waiting for “Are You Afraid of the Dark” to air on YTV, I encountered “Pyramid,” part of the channel’s “Short Circutz” series of computer-animated bumper videos.
The backdrop is bad enough: a familiar setting rendered uncanny, as if someone scraped the world of detail and then shined it with a floor buffer. But the action is worse: you’ve got stick figures river-dancing on a pyramid, then a veiled woman-entity doing the charleston in front of a golden woman-entity running in slow motion and two mixed-gender entities who appear to be doing it.
Cue some pyschedelic screensaver imagery, more stick figures, a few butterflies — and then leopard lady mumbles something to zebra man, who proceeds to leap to his death. No, wait. He becomes a butterfly. Softens the blow. All of this to a panpipe-and-electric-guitar soundtrack evocative of death and rebirth and the eternal metamorphosis of Being.
Nowadays, the clip is more artifact than entertainment. It started as “The Little Death,” a cutting-edge short created by computer company Symbolics Inc. in 1989, and was revamped in 1992 for “Beyond the Mind’s Eye,” a collection of early animations lifted from various sources and set to music by Jan Hammer, formerly of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. (“Short Circutz’s” material was lifted from this video, as well as its predecessor, “The Mind’s Eye,” and the similar Imaginaria.)
“Pyramid” belongs in a digital museum. It’s goofy as all hell but historically rich, a reminder of how far we’ve come since the early days of computer imaging. But what does it all mean? Unfortunately, Hammer et al have never spoken publicly on the subject. The answer could very well be nothing — nothing more than the vanguard noodlings of a few new media dynamos.
But for the eight-year old me, Pyramid jostled up a lot of heavy questions that that had no straight answers: What is this place? Earth? Heaven? If these are angels, why do they look like crash test dummies? Is zebra man married to leopard woman and, in becoming a butterfly, did he abandon her? Can you remarry in the afterlife? Is leopard lady alone now forever?
Such an off-kilter marriage of sound and imagery can send a naive viewer into a doubt spiral. A friend of mine remembers having a similar response to “Faces,” the NFB short.
Much like the difference between a nightmare and a delirious fever dream, “Are You Afraid of the Dark” was “scary” (pleasant), while the “Short Circutz” clips were “disturbing” (thoroughly unpleasant).
As a child, I loved being frightened: I’d hang out in the horror section of the video store to look at screen caps at the backs of tapes, and grill my parents’ friends on what (restricted) scary movies they’d seen and what the scariest parts were. I scorned “AYAOTD” episodes that were too tame and relished ones like like this, which scared the bejeezus out of me:
“Are You Afraid of the Dark,” in which a semi-regular cast of teens and tweens (the “Midnight Society”) gathered by a campfire to tell scary stories, had sensible storylines and was bookended by normalcy. No matter how frightening the tales were, in the end the flame was doused and the kids went home to their parents. Episodes generally had happy endings, and when they didn’t, it was fairly easy to see what had gone wrong and to draw lessons from the characters’ mistakes. At best the show was, like a run-of-the-mill nightmare, terrifying but easy to shake off.
“Pyramid” on the other hand was a fever dream (the kind one usually has in the throes of a bad flu or a constant ache), which makes no sense and has no ending, defying the hard-wrought mental framework through which one understands the world. To YTV’s programmers, the Short Circutz clips represented computer media’s potential value to children ever in need of stimulation. The shorts were intended as general-audience fun: none of the series’ CGI anthropomorphs got killed or haunted or chased down by bad guys.
However, to kids like me, viewing them out of context, they were disquieting non-sequiturs. They suggested that reality was tenuous, that we could be easily dislodged from the world that was forming around us — which, it turns out, is true. An important lesson, but one I wish I hadn’t learned so early.
To this day, watching “Pyramid” makes me a little uneasy, and no amount of YouTube viewing or Googling for background information will change that. The only thing that tempers the discomfort is discussing the short with folks my own age. It helps to know that, throughout the country, there are twenty-somethings whose minds have the same minor warp as mine does.
- Alexandra Moloktow