Recalling dreams has always come easily to me. There are dreams of mine that feel like true memories, where only years later did it dawn on me that the time I was a toddler trapped in a cardboard box and unable to scream for help from the shadowy figure wasn’t real. There was the dream where the floor was covered in orange, living globs, or the dreams where I wake up with an orgasm, or the time I gave birth to a bouncing baby eggplant. But to this day the one that stays with me the most is my first nightmare.
It happened because of the show Ghostwriter.
If you’re unfamiliar, Ghostwriter was a TV show that ran on PBS from 1992-1995. It was a children’s show, in which a group of friends in Fort Greene, Brooklyn solve neighborhood mysteries with the help of the Ghostwriter, a spirit that can communicate by rearranging text found in books or on computers. Fun fact: the ghost was supposed to be a ghost of a runaway slave, whose soul was trapped in a book after he was killed. Or maybe that’s not so fun. It was never addressed on the show.
The episode that scared the living shit out of me was “Attack of the Slime Monster.” It’s a scary story told within the episode by Casey, who wants to submit it to an essay contest. In the story, Casey receives a toy called Gooey Gus as a gift from her cousin Jamal. It’s a purple monster that spits slime into your mouth which, if you chew it, turns to grape bubblegum. The mechanics of this immediately confused me, as the slime appeared to be too liquidy to solidify into gum, but the show was supposed to teach kids reading, not chemistry.
I recently discovered this was the last episode of the series, which makes a lot of sense given how strange it is. In Casey’s story, Gooey Gus comes to life after getting wet, and begins capturing members of the Ghostwriting squad, and wrapping them in gum cocoons. He had a deep, ugly laugh and looked like Alvin the chipmunk had a whole face of just the bad side of Two-Face. At one point, he steals some young girl and marches down the street with her in a red radio flyer. He needed heat and water to survive, and the gang dangerously tracked him across the city, finding clues at steaming sewers and puddles. The last scene I remember is Gus somehow rowing a boat while his captor tried to chew herself free.
The night I saw that episode I couldn’t close my eyes without imagining Gooey Gus behind me. If it was 1995 I must have been 9, probably too old to want my parents in bed with me, yet I remember making my mom lay down next to me until I fell asleep. It worked for a time, but I kept waking up. I heard the screams of the kidnapped girl, and felt Gooey Gus behind me, sliming onto my neck. For years, I could not sleep unless my back was against a wall. I was wary of friends who chewed grape gum.
I’m not alone in being irreversibly traumatized by Gooey Gus. On one Reddit thread about a completely different aspect of Ghostwriter, someone brings up the “little wrinkly purple villain” and everyone flips their shit. Commenters saying things like “This explains some of the nightmares I had as a kid,” “I got latent terror sweat just from reading the title,” and many cite him as the stuff of their first nightmares. A few even said they associated him with the entire show and remain freaked out by the mere concept of Ghostwriter. It feels good knowing I am just part of an entire terrified generation of PBS viewers.
By most scales from the benign to the horrible, my nightmares are a lot worse now. I dream my husband has died or has left me, that my city has blown up, that those I love have been lying to me, that I have accepted some great unhappiness in my life and decided it’s just not worth it to fight. I wake up crying with clawed hands grabbing at the reality around me, unable to believe that this is real and that was fake. I bring up dreams days later to the people who were in them, making them assure me they didn’t mean what they said in my brain.
According to some study my mom keeps telling me about, we’re born with only two fears: loud noises, and precipices. Everything else is learned. Just because they’re learned doesn’t mean they’re not valid, but it’s also easy to convince yourself learned fears are foolish, no matter how based they are in reality. And from there it’s easy to tell yourself you’re wrong, all your fears, all your feelings. It was just a dream. It was just a thought. It’s just your brain lying to you, don’t listen.
I know I shouldn’t be afraid of the dark, so I feel ashamed when I flick off the lights and run back to my bed. I know Gooey Gus isn’t real, so I shouldn’t have spent so many years closing my eyes and seeing a wrinkly, purple face. I fight against being told I’m irrational. Logic can be weaponized against those we don’t think should trust their own feelings. But then again, not every feeling should be indulged. Who am I to judge between my brain and my gut?
This is all to say I’m still afraid of Gooey Gus. I watched the episode, which is on YouTube now. It’s terrible. Not a single child is a convincing actor, and Gus just looks like he’s drooling purple cum. There is no reason to be afraid of him as he is there, but in my mind he’s something completely different, and sometimes he’s still there, eclipsing the thing that inspired him. I remain afraid of reasonable things and ridiculous things, and sometimes I can’t fall asleep unless I know someone is there to protect me from my invented fears. But I still don’t trust grape gum.