The post An Exhausted Parent’s Guide to the 13 Spookiest Moments on Sesame Street appeared first on Consequence.
Halloween brings chaos. I don’t know about you, but we were late to buying costumes, early on eating candy, and the squirrels have ripped the faces off our jack-o’-lanterns. That attack has made them much more upsetting to look at — for me. Our toddler loves them, and cries when we don’t let him bring the rotting guts inside.
Young children enjoy a good scare as much as adults do, and every Halloween it is a parent’s sacred duty to give them the willies without also giving them nightmares. Sesame Street has now invested over 50 years in that pursuit, and this list collects 13 of their most creepy, unsettling, and all around spooktacular sketches.
The videos that follow showcase plenty of classic puppetry and a few horror parodies, but Sesame Street is much more than that. I’ve also included a few of the most disquieting cartoons, plus an episode that got yanked from circulation after a deluge of angry letters. And of course, there’s plenty of The Count von Count, who mellowed in recent years but used to have a lot more bite.
Check out all the tricks and treats below. If you’d like, you can also revisit the Exhausted Parent’s Guide to the Top 10 Musical Guests on Sesame Street.
13. Don’t Die in The Crossing Zone (1990)
“At the end of every street, there’s a special place,” Gordon (Roscoe Orman) says in a Rod Sterling monotone. “A place where horns honk and cars whiz by. At the stoplight up ahead, you have entered ‘The Crossing Zone.’”
This Twilight Zone parody is built around a boy, Jonathan Wilson, who eventually “asks one of my grownup friends to help me,” across the street. Gordon can be Sesame Street‘s most stern character, and he looks the camera dead in the eye as he intones, “Never cross the street alone. Ever.” Combine this message with skin-tingling music, and you might just scare kids into staying on the sidewalk.
12. These Jaws Are Brought to You by the Letter J (1995)
Something lurks beneath the chlorinated waters of this community pool and no amount of shark repellent will keep it away. The “Underwater Letters” series of 1995 is an homage to director Steven Spielberg and the music of John Williams. As strings rise up the scale in a minor key, we see watery images of kids and something getting closer and closer. Suddenly, the letter of the day would rear out of the water. Instead of being devoured, the swimmers would cheer.
The full series ran through the letters E, F, K, N, R, S, W, X, and Y with the same formula, and if you were a kid in 1995, you saw them all. But even if you know what’s coming — even with images of smiling children on a bright sunny day — that theme song combined with those camera angles can’t help but feel like doom.
11. He Vants to Count Your Bones (1979)
Count von Count is always in a good mood, but just because he’s happy you’re alive doesn’t mean you’d be any less interesting to him dead. As proof look no further than “Bones,” his 1979 ode to the osseous. “When you put all the bones together, you may come up with something we call a ‘skeleton,’” he says with his toothy smile. “Remember that word: It’s one of my favorites.”
The Count demonstrates on a friendly-looking chap hanging from the wall, counting toes, chin, and everything in between, as his fingers in the ribcage cause the skeleton to crack up. It’s a funny bit, though “Bones” isn’t entirely humerus; it also imparts some lessons about the human body. But even if you’re not a skeleton, this chilling song might go right through you.
10. Kermit Bares His Teeth (1984)
Grover calls upon his old pal Kermit the Frog to demonstrate the proper care of teeth. There’s just one problem. “You know how I’m a frog?” Kermit says. “Well, frogs do not have teeth, Grover.” Ah but Grover can fix that. Sesame’s Street’s irrational confidence monster tackles Kermit, whispering, “Do not fight this,” as limbs flail just out of sight.
Kermit emerges with a mouth full of chaos. The sight of a frog’s teeth was disturbing enough to become a meme, and while the setup isn’t really in the Halloween spirit, those denticles are more frightening than any vampire’s fang.
09. King Minus, Serial Killer (1972)
Sesame Street did frightening sketches in every decade, but the 1970s reigns as the time when the frights weren’t necessarily intentional. Enter King Minus, a play on King Midas about a monarch cursed with “magic subtraction.”
To rescue a damsel in distress, King Minus can turn four dragons into three, three into two, two into one, and one into none. If he had any thought of attempting some, ahem, addition with the princess, well, she too goes up in a poof, and Minus follows that murder by accidentally subtracting his trusty horse, and then, himself. Math lessons have rarely felt this visceral.
08. A Jump Scare Surprise in A Magical Halloween Adventure (2004)
This 2004 direct-to-video special co-stars Caroline Rhea as Gilda the Great, though Gilda is just about indistinguishable from the role that made her famous, Sabrina the Teenage Witch‘s Hilda. The plot follows the magician The Amazing Mumford as he takes three of Sesame Street‘s cutest monsters to Gilda’s party, and A Magical Halloween Adventure has two running jokes: Mumford’s attempts to teleport the monsters keeps leading them astray, and Gilda and the rest of her party guests are terrified of monsters.
Mumford’s magical mishaps explain why Elmo, Zoe, and Telly land in a pumpkin patch, where they meet the Surprise Monsters. Meanwhile, Gilda’s prejudice against monsters explains why she hides in a closet alongside fellow magician Murray the Mediocre. But those Surprise Monsters have a habit of popping up when they’re least expected, leading to one of the great jump scares in children’s puppetry.
07. Bert, Ernie, and the Maybe-Moving Statue (1982)
Bert does not trust Ernie. For good reason: Ernie toys with Bert’s reality. He disrupts his roommate’s sleep and play’s mind-bending pranks that leave Bert unable to tell real danger from games. When they explored a pyramid in 1982, that “Boy Who Cried Wolf” dynamic left them running for their mummies.
The skit revolves around a pair of good-looking statues, one of which has a tendency of moving when Bert isn’t looking. It’s a bit of vaudeville slapstick, kicked off with a pleasant shudder the first time the statue turns its head.
06. A Horde Is a Horde (2016)
Zombies are one of those horror tropes that run straight past our cerebral cortex to swarm our lizard brain. The overwhelming numbers have the same itchy feeling as marching insects, and that’s before you get to the inability to tell living from dead. Even a Cookie Monster parody can capture some of that hair-raising dread, as proved in The Walking Gingerbread.
This parable about self-control opens with The Sheriff (Cookie Monster) awaking after a nice long sleep. He greets the morning by opening a box of cookies, only to have it snatched away by some spicy Crumbies. This “bad batch of gingerbread” attacks The Sheriff every time he tries to snack, forcing him to delay gratification. The spookiest moment comes as he and his friends make a stand inside an old battered shack, only for the chanting Crumbies to smash down the front door. Even for Cookie Monster, that’s too much of a good thing.
05. The Lost Boy and the Yo-Yo Man (1978)
A boy on a bike passes a fish bus, a hippo on a pogo stick, and a cuckoo clock with real cuckoo birds, before remarking, “I think I’m lost.”
He eventually encounters a yo-yo floating in mid-air, and out of the straight line of the string steps a bottom-heavy, top-hat wearing man. “How’d you get here?” he asks.
As the boy recalls landmarks, the man dissolves and reforms into the locations described. “Can you help me get unlost?” the boy asks.
“You should figure it out for yourself little guy. But I’ll give you a hint,” he says, nudging the boy to retrace his steps. The whole affair has a menacing edge, but hey, Alice in Wonderland wasn’t all croquet and tea parties. And like Alice, “Lost Boy Remembers His Way Home” makes a strong case for getting lost sometimes.
04. Undead Ernie at The Count’s Sleepover (1986)
Count von Count has a sleepover at Bert and Ernie’s, with Bert giving up his bed for the couch and Ernie sharing a room with their guest. But the Count isn’t sleepy.
“Whenever I’m not sleepy, Bert tells me to count sheep,” Ernie says.
“Count Sheep? Who is that?” von Count replies. But once the puns are put to bed, the Count tries to do the same, counting sheep until he gets tired. The problem is, counting is the one thing he never tires of doing. Soon he’s letting out his “ah, ah, ahs!” to the flash of lightning bolts.
It’s a lighthearted sketch, as the famously sleep-averse Ernie finally gets a taste of his own medicine. There’s only one scary moment: The next morning, Ernie emerges in a counting daze, eyes blood shot, skin pale, transformed into something horrible. Dracula gets all the negative press, but a night with this Count is just as draining.
03. Cookie Monster Kidnaps Barb in The Snackside Down
This ode to Stranger Things stars Cookie Monster as the Cookie Gorgon, and from puppets throwing up goo, to cryptic comments about a secret lab, and a number 11 with inexplicable powers, Sharing Things is for Hellfire Club members only.
True, the Cookie Gorgon learns to share, and there’s a few good goofy jokes. But what are kids supposed to make of the taped-and-bound Barb? She wants to go home, but Cookie Gorgon can only offer her an extra waffle. Hey, at least he didn’t forget about her.
02. The Wicked Witch (1976)
This episode is infamous, but no one ever talks about the thousands of kids who did not have nightmares.
The Wicked Witch, played by Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz, loses her broomstick in a wind storm and tracks it to Sesame Street. The Witch keeps demanding her broom back, but she never says please.
The episode was supposed to teach children two things: the value of manners, and appropriate reactions to fear. But hundreds of little ones were left in abject terror, judging by the letters that came pouring in. It was pulled from circulation and disappeared for decades before resurfacing on Reddit and YouTube.
So how does it hold up 45 years later? Well, my toddler thought Margaret Hamilton was a hoot, and as a bonus, the episode also contains a classic sketch with Grover and his blue nemesis Mr. Johnson. If nobody in your household is nightmare prone, then have some retro fun with the Wicked Witch on Sesame Street. But know that showing this to a small child does carry that bit of risk — the possibility of tricks instead of treats.
01. Count von Count’s Mesmerizing Debut (1972)
Count von Count’s first appearance was also the spookiest, as writer Norman Stiles and performer Jerry Nelson created a God-like monstrosity who would bring the denizens of Sesame Street to their one! two! two knees! The Count’s arithmomania — his compulsion for counting — mimicked the vampires of European myth, but it’s his early ability to hypnotize that left Bert and Ernie speechless.
The Count shows no regard for property or puppets, mesmerizing Bert and doing exactly as he pleases to enumerate Ernie’s blocks. The flashes of lightning are a thrilling touch, and we hear an especially malicious take on the Count’s later cackle. It’s so fun, you can just about understand why Sesame Street residents let him do whatever he wants — not that they have a choice.