Remembering the Scariest Moment to Happen to Viewers Like You: Ghostwriter’s Gooey GusPhoto Courtesy of PBS TV Features Ghostwriter
When Apple TV+ announced its new programming, one series really stuck out—besides Dickinson and The Morning Show—and that was the Ghostwriter “reboot.” As someone who has written about knowing how to differentiate between reboots and revivals, I use quotes for reboot, even though that is actually what it is, because Apple TV+ bills it as a “reinvention”… and its approach to telling the Ghostwriter story looks absolutely nothing like the original Ghostwriter:
The announcement naturally turned into people discussing the original series and a trip down memory lane. If you look at any discourse about Ghostwriter online, you’ll almost immediately be “greeted” by either the memory or the image of the Slime Monster from the final original Ghostwriter arc ever, the four-part “Attack of the Slime Monster.” I’ve never been afraid to share how the Slime Monster (which is actually called “Gooey Gus”— the goo is actually grape bubble gum) traumatized me as a youth, because as it turns out, it did the same for a lot of Millennials. (PBS was big for Millennial youth. I’m not sure if that’s still the case, as I cannot remember the last time I’ve spoken to a child.) As the arc originally aired on PBS between January 22 and February 12, 1995, I would’ve been six years old, the perfect age to be haunted in my dreams for the first time ever by something that sounded like a generic mobster named Smitty and looked like this:
This particular arc in Ghostwriter—the whole series was made up of four-episode mystery arcs (with the series premiere consisting of five)—followed youngest Ghostwriter team member Casey (Lateaka Vinson) as she embarked on writing a scary story for a Gooey Gus the Slime Monster contest, all while the team taught each other (and “viewers like you,” the young PBS audience) about suspense and atmosphere. There was also the subplot about this being the week of Jamal (Sheldon Turnipseed), Alex (David López), and Lenni’s (Blaze Berdahl) middle school graduation and prom, but that is definitely not the thing people remember about this episode.
In fact, other than the look of the Slime Monster—and that it talks, repeating lines like “You laughin’ at me?,” “I’m burning mad! I’m steaming mad!,” and “Slime, anyone?”—I didn’t even realize until I went back to rewatch the episodes how much I did remember, at least deep in my subconscious. There were a number of memories that came flooding back to me, despite it being 24 years since I even saw the episodes in full. There is no official streaming or home video release of Ghostwriter, but there are VHS rip uploads all over YouTube.* They even have the little moments before the episodes that I could suddenly vividly remember, like Sega’s “USE YOUR HEAD” and Nike’s “P.L.A.Y.” ad campaign, as well as the whole “viewers like you” preamble. The same went for the Ghostwriter opening credits too:
“He’s a ghost and he writes to us. Ghostwriter.” … Sheldon Turnipseed. … “Ghostwriter, what a trip.”
I also remembered way too much about the character Lenni’s (now in hindsight, upsetting) rap aspirations, but then ended up realizing that she may have been a very early (and deeply buried) crush for me, with her vests and her hats and her Prince-like wrist ruffles. I’m not proud of that revelation in all of this. Outside of the Gooey Gus the Slime Monster stuff, Lenni’s story in this arc was about her and Tina’s (Tram-Anh Tran) older brother Tuan (Wellington Yang) coming up with a song for the prom, with the fuel for their will-they-won’t-they relationship stemming from the fact that neither character had apparently heard that rap and rock could co-exist.
I’d also blissfully repressed the memory that two times in these episodes, Lenni and Tuan rehearse their song. Both times, it is a very bad song about being friends forever (not in a catchy Zack Attack way) with the PBS version of an MTV-style presentation, meaning a lot of zooms. I prayed for the return of the Slime Monster in these moments, as they made sure to perform full versions of the song.
One truly important thing about these episodes, that seems to have been forgotten with time but also led to my aforementioned trauma and nightmares, was that the majority of the Slime Monster’s story—the majority of the things that made the episodes scary—was made-up by the team. The episodes even put slime on the edges of the screen to show when it was in story mode, and a Gooey Gus the toy existed in the “real” world, but the majority of the scares came from the team. The episodes weren’t as much of a non-stop nightmare-fueling endeavor as I’d remembered, and there was actually a bit of levity and fourth wall-breaking in the story that told the young audience to keep calm and carry on. However, I did not keep calm at the time, and neither did a lot of other ‘90s kids.
But not remembering that particular fact exactly wasn’t just a matter of childhood memories blurring due to lack of brain development at the time: The previously-on for each episode noted the story contest, but then quickly conflated both the real world and the Slime Monster story. Then the episodes eventually made it so the “real” Gooey Gus was creeping around from setting to setting, from showing up on Jamal’s shelf bundled in winter clothes** to inside Lenni’s dryer to almost attacking Lenny’s father, leaving a trail of goo as evidence. The episode’s final scene, at Tina’s post-graduation party, found Gooey Gus appear in a grill, ready to strike. (Well, the final scene is actually the whole gang back in Jamal’s room in front of the computer they wrote the story on, telling the audience, “gotcha.”)
**The source of the Slime Monster’s power was heat, based on the “DON’T OVERHEAT” warning on the Gooey Gus toy. So him being “steaming” or “burning” mad was also a matter of puns. The Ghostwriter team didn’t give a lesson puns, though.
But no one remembers the “gotcha” to end the series or the fact that it technically meant that almost none of the four-episode arc could’ve happened, if they were also “gotcha”-ing things like the other “real” moments where Gooey Gus showed up. (Or the fact that “gotcha” is uttered many times in these episodes, as the previously-on voiceover says “gotcha jokes,” like that is a thing. Then again, in this world, middle school prom is a thing.) All they remember is the Slime Monster being unstoppable to end the series. They remember it popping out of a hot pot, like a demonic purple bunny that had been boiled; they remember the ominous trail of purple goo; they remember it sun tanning and then growing like one of Rita Repulsa’s monsters (fulfilling the ‘90s kid Venn diagram over here); they remember the suffocating cocoons of grape gum that it put kids (kids like them) in. At least, that’s all I could remember before rewatching and having the episodes finally remind me of all the things that could’ve prevented my child brain from being so scared. But again, the Slime Monster looked like this:
Even now, this is a scary thing to look at. Imagine a child in any era wanting a toy that looks like this. Even the Garbage Pail Kids method of thinking doesn’t make Gooey Gus less creepy. In the story, at one point, the kids question the Slime Monster’s “You laughin’ at me?” because why would anyone ever laugh at something that looks like that and kidnaps children? The Slime Monster’s response is, “I’m all twisted and ghouly and purple.” All the stuff at nightmares, not fun. Even Furbies weren’t as upsetting to look at, so it made sense to hop on the bandwagon of capitalism to get one. (A Furby was one of the few toys my parents actually got me after a bunch of begging when I was kid. It talked all night and scared me, and I didn’t know how to take out the batteries, so I hid it in my closet and couldn’t sleep a wink. It was a short-lived Furby experience. But hey, I’m not still scared of Furby.)
Rewatching “Attack of the Slime Monster” has finally erased any possible latent Slime Monster fears I may have had, even though Gooey Gus is still unpleasant to look at. In 2016, The Toast published an article about remembering this arc, citing Reddit threads about the Slime Monster being the stuff of people’s first real nightmare, while also acknowledging just how ridiculous and not scary the whole thing is now (and what the purple goo actually looks like… which is not gum). In an interview with Miranda Barry, who served as writer and supervising producer for Ghostwriter, it was revealed that the most trouble the series ever got in with PBS was over this episode… because PBS was worried about the violence of children throwing frozen vegetables at the Slime Monster. Not the child cocoons or the scariness factor, the violence of frozen vegetables being chucked at the monster. Speaking for every adult who ever had a nightmare about the Slime Monster as a child, I can say that I’d throw more than frozen vegetables at the Slime Monster in order to kill it deader than dead.
Also as an adult, rewatching these episodes, I can finally appreciate the most insane cameo I have ever witnessed in my life, which is Cece Peniston (of “Finally” fame) in Part 3. In the scene, Peniston shows up in the bodega, joining in on Tina and Gaby’s (Melissa Gonzales) discussion about sparks flying between Lenni and Tuan. No one reacts, other than Tina saying “Cece Peniston!” and continuing on with the conversation. Lenni shows up for a moment, sees all three of these characters—and despite her music tastes, does not react to the famous singer right next to her—and then leaves, only for Peniston to say, “They got a love thang.” Something often talked about when nostalgically discussing children’s programming of yesteryear is of course all of the jokes and bits for adults that we all missed when we were kids, but I don’t understand how this Cece Peniston cameo was supposed to pop for any human being. Ironically, it’s now like a brilliant Adult Swim bit. In reality, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it since on television.
I also don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like “Attack of the Slime Monster” on television since. Well, the prominence of episodes like “Attack of the Slime Monster” on children’s television, as this era of television (for this particular generation), had a number of memorable shows and episodes that also scared its young audience enough for them to recall those nightmares vividly many years later. The original Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Salute Your Shorts’ “Zeke the Plumber”, Goosebumps, Boy Meets World’s “And Then There Was Shawn,” even the “Mr. Fiend” episode Rugrats. The premise of Apple TV+’s Ghostwriter doesn’t lend itself to having that kind of episode. But then again, who would’ve thought Ghostwriter would’ve lent itself to such a thing, until it did, for its series finale. That’s the even crazier part: This is how the series ended.
This brings me back to Apple TV+’s Ghostwriter. I might eventually check the show out, but I’m not in any rush to nor am I worried about it bastardizing the original. Because it’s not for me or other 30-somethings who watched the original Ghostwriter. Nor is it for anyone who would’ve gotten a kick out of that bizarre Cece Peniston cameo. It’s for kids now in 2019, viewers like them. But it’s kind of a bummer that there’s zero chance that any child will be traumatized by new Ghostwriter like many of us were by old Ghostwriter. I mean, at least we got a shared nightmare story out of our childhood viewings.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.
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