“Not even once”: PSAs and horror

So, I haven’t posted in 2 weeks and Ashley has not in 1 week. This is very sad, but the facts are these: we both have significant non-blog obligations (e.g., writing other things, going to classes, illustrating, studying, etc.), which unfortunately must come first. However, since it’s the Halloween season – a season I have been greatly enjoying, whether by watching movies like Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case or by writing scary stories/comics/oral narratives – I’d like to try and post as much as I can on the subjects of fear and horror.

They’re both really near and dear to my heart, for a number of reasons that begin with fear’s huge role in my life. What can I say? I am a generally fearful person. And I think fear is important: first, on an evolutionary level, to keep you from being killed by scary things and second, on a personal level, because fear is fun. Let’s face it. We like being scared. It engages the body, it gets neurochemicals flowing, it’s just really appealing to us as human animals. And so I continue in my extensive study of the horror genre. I’ve recently started thinking about one curious location where horror can be found: public service announcements, or PSAs.

PSAs are frequently government-produced or else made by nonprofit organizations, and their purpose is, for the most part, to direct behavior – to guide people onto one path or another that will presumably be better for their physical and psychological health. Often, this leads to accusations that PSAs are ridiculous on one level or another for their presumptions that they know how you should act, as well as their attempts to “scare you straight.” These are the kinds of tactics I’m talking about. This type of PSA, from what I’ve seen, predominates. They’re basically cautionary tales, but adapted to the medium of advertising, which means they’re usually about 30 seconds long. I have to applaud the organizations that produce them, because they often compact such a huge, effective message into such a small time-span.

Granted, some PSAs may appeal to your intelligence and sense of responsibility – I think, for example, of Smokey the Bear’s “Only you can prevent forest fires!” – but even these would often resort to showing the consequences of the behavior in question (i.e., a forest fire and its horrific implications). The simple fact is that you can sway more people by scaring the shit out of them than by trying to convince them that they should be smart enough not to do drugs (PSAs’ most frequent target), or drink poison. You want to really show kids why they shouldn’t drink poison? Overwhelm their senses with a melange of darkly psychedelic animation, represent household cleaning products as monsters, and top it all off with a menacing voice reciting a chorus of nursery rhyme simplicity: “Mr. Yuk is mean. Mr. Yuk is green!”

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on the TV Tropes page for “Nightmare Fuel,” which is basically where people can post supposedly innocuous bits of media from their childhood that scarred the shit out of them. Children have interestingly undeveloped mental processes. While adults may have a relatively full understanding of the world – like knowing that no, Mr. Yuk labels aren’t really anything to be afraid of, and household cleaners are not marching to attack you – children just don’t.

I’m not well-versed enough in child psychology to explain how and why this happens, but I will link to Wikipedia’s page on Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Basically, children experience the world differently, because there are various orders and properties of objects they haven’t yet discovered. Even preteens will often have strange misconceptions about how the world works, physically and socially. And often, PSAs will play to these misconceptions in order to permanently scare the child away from an undesired behavior.

So we all pretty much have little ads or segments from shows that scarred us in childhood. One classic example is the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. They’re relatively understandable to adults, acting as the Wicked Witch’s henchmen. But a child, seeing a monkey with wings (an unusual combination), flying through a dark sky accompanied by the Witch’s leitmotif, then picking up the protagonists and carrying them away?

It’s a nightmarish scene that can inspire intense fear, and the same goes for the “Wondrous Boat Ride” scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Many Internet pundits can have commented on this scene: it comes out of nowhere, takes up a few minutes of intense, frightening screen time, and is then forgotten by the film. It’s also effective in further establishing the unpredictable nature of Wonka and his factory. But to a child, seeing “Pure Imagination” followed by scenes of graphic mutilation and a trippy light show? My point is that it’s fucking scary. And this doesn’t just apply to children (I can say from experience), but for children these scenes can leave a deep emotional mark, inspire lifelong phobias, and color their still-developing perceptions of the world.

That said, you can see how PSAs aim to reach kids while they’re still young and impressionable, and guide their behavior for the rest of their lives. Yesterday Ashley linked me to the Montana Meth Project, which I first ran into in my melodrama class last year; their methods are similar to the more child-oriented PSAs I’ve been discussing, but their target group is teenagers. Hence, we get ads going after teens’ anxieties about peer pressure, sex, and their futures.

As Ashley pointed out to me, this is like a horror movie in half a minute. It’s got a concise little narrative: the girl’s going to deceive her parents and probably go to a party and try meth. But first she’s going to shower, and it’s in the shower, while she’s at her most vulnerable, that this apparition appears, of her future self, covered in scabs and scratches, begging her, “Don’t do it… don’t do it…” It uses horror iconography to communicate a very real-world message: if you go and do meth at this party tonight, you will end up a different, less happy person within a year or two. (This is the overarching theme of this campaign and the origin of its slogan, “Not even once.”)

The website notes, “This new concept is based directly on input from Montana teens,” and I find that very interesting. They’re addressing the teens’ fears head-on, building the ads around them, but twisting them into terrifying, violent mini-narratives. I think this connects to another series of ads I’ve long found very disturbing, and I think I’ll end this post by talking about them. They’re Canadian PSAs about workplace safety, designed specifically to horrify adults in high-risk jobs, and they’re produced by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario.

What exactly about these is so scary? Maybe it’s the slogan “There really are no accidents,” which places responsibility for the gruesome manglings directly in the hands of the victims, their coworkers, and their companies. Maybe it’s the accidents themselves, clearly evocative of horror/disaster movies, or maybe it’s how self-aware the victims are. “I’ve got this amazing fiancé,” says a chief, “who I won’t be marrying this weekend, because I’m about to be in a terrible ‘accident’.” The fact that she knows her face is about to be scalded, yet goes on mechanically about her work, is just spine-chilling.

This is an aspect of the PSA that might be interesting to examine later, in more detail: the voice of reason, or of the government, that pervades them, whether through a narrator or superimposed text stating, “This is your brain on drugs,” or through these victims of meth and workplace carelessness telling their own stories. We have these grisly 30-second vignettes, and it’s all framed in such a knowing, authoritative way. This is the way the world is, the PSAs seem to say, as a woman falls off a ladder or as a scab-riddled meth addict turns up in the shower. Now you have to adjust to it.

Pleasant nightmares.


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