by Phil Shreck

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short fiction

An episode of Sesame Street first released in 1972 was banned and then later disappeared. It featured the actress Margaret Hamilton reprising her Wicked Witch of the West role, more than thirty years after the initial release of The Wizard of Oz. The lore says that the episode terrified anyone who watched it. Parents deluged Sesame Street with letters and calls complaining about the “disturbing” imagery, and Sesame Street, horrified by the outcry, promptly removed it from the airwaves. There is no record of what happened to the original film, though it seems likely destroyed. One vestige of the episode remains. It is a single still showing a noticeably aged Hamilton in her full Wicked Witch costume, with wig, warts, and green makeup, standing next to Oscar the Grouch. She looks at the camera with sad eyes and a slight frown.

It may be the still’s grainy quality, or that Hamilton was far older than her original depiction, but the image, to say nothing of the original episode itself, is unsettling. It exists somewhere on the outer rim of the internet. You can find it if you know how to look.

Another Sesame Street episode never aired publicly even once, and has since been “lost”. “Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce”, filmed in 1992, portrayed the wooly mammoth muppet coping with the initial stage of his parents’ divorce. Prior to its scheduled air date, the episode was screened to hundreds of children as part of Sesame Street’s robust research process. It was received poorly—most children reacted with a mixture of anxiety and confusion. The Floxon-Askey Media Research Group, a company that Sesame Street had not used previously and would never use again, designed a controversial longitudinal study that aimed to study how children’s reactions to the episode correlated with the outcomes of their parent’s marriages. By applying a score to a child’s reaction to a scene where Snuffleupagus listens to his parents argue, was it possible to predict if a child’s parents would later separate or divorce?

There was the video of the coughing man, although there’s no evidence of its association with Sesame Street outside—obviously—the setting.

There was a fourth video. I’ll tell you about that one at the end.

I know most of this due to a strange VHS tape I found working at Data Mountain, and my subsequent investigation. I was doing the Data Mountain job only temporarily. I was on leave—short-term disability—from my analyst position at Antum Health, my real job. The last few months I’d drink a fifth of bottom-shelf scotch each night and think up ways to hide the alcohol smell at work. Mints were ineffective. Charcoal capsules helped. The last week before my leave, I flew down to Clearwater for a data convention. I walked out of Tampa International, Ubered across the bay, and drank straight through the week. I felt a sense of personal accord getting drunk in Pinellas County, where drinking was like breathing. The only thing I remember clearly is that I didn’t bother showing up to a single session of the convention. People at Antum figured things out pretty quickly, but the response was concern, not termination. Back in Connecticut I saw a psychiatrist and was given six weeks paid leave.

Initially, the psychiatrist prescribed me Lithium and Xanax. He told me to go to bed early and maintain a regular schedule. He said “lay off the drinking for a while”—that’s exactly how he said it. He was old, mid 70s, with a mane of white hair and a scrub-brush moustache. His hands trembled gently as he wrote my scripts and he told me he’d see me in a few months.

My parents wanted me to move back in with them for a while, but my father and I were disagreeing about everything. Dad wanted me to go back to rehab, or to look into alternative therapies, but while I thought that made sense, I was terrified that path would lead me to losing my job, and certain failure. I apologized and continued living in my apartment.

I took the psychiatrist’s advice. The only thing I disliked more than work was being out of work, so I looked up some temporary gigs. I applied to UPS and Amazon, and my uncle Jack told me about Data Mountain, so I tried there too. Data Mountain called me back right away and I started the following Monday.

I waited alongside a few young men in the warehouse lobby. One of them was heavyset with a sweat encrusted trucker hat, another kept burping and pressing his hand into his sternum to hold it in. None of us spoke. After about fifteen minutes, a clean-cut guy wearing a smile and a Data Mountain polo directed us over to the small training conference room. He wore a name tag. “Terry”.

On the middle of the table in the conference room was a big box. The training followed:

Remove all the paper from the box. Paper stacks, loose paper, crumpled paper, whatever. Stack it up. If there is paper in a binder, take it out of the binder and add it to the stack. Use the stapler-remover when needed. For paper in envelopes or folders—take it out and add it to the stack. And so on. After we completed a set of four boxes, we were to wheel the stack of paper over to the foreman at the end of the aisle. Non-paper items (everything else) were to be added back to the original box and stacked back on the pallet. That was it.

“What are you gonna do with the paper?” the heavyset guy asked.

Terry looked at him like he was a smartass. “It gets scanned,” he said after a moment. “But don’t worry about any of that.”

Terry handed us each a pair of rubber gloves—so we wouldn’t get paper cuts—and brought us out onto the warehouse floor.

It’s difficult to describe how big this building was. It felt like being outside at night. The main corridor stretched hundreds of aisles beneath a row of endless naked bulbs, disappearing into the distance like a perspective drawing. Each aisle had six levels, each level filled with boxes. To get at any level above the second required a forklift.

We walked for maybe ten minutes. At the far end of the warehouse floor, we reached a section that was closed off with a large, rubber strip door. I adjusted my eyes to the dim lighting. Walking through the larger section of the warehouse, I heard men walking around, laughing, and the occasional beeping of a forklift in reverse. But this area was silent, other than the fast drip of water echoing from somewhere deep in the stacks.

It wasn’t just the act of sorting paper from boxes that was boring, but the actual content of the pages—tax codes, mortgage transfers, accounts payable addresses, print test pages. It was like this, box after box, day after day, for three weeks. There was nothing interesting, that is, until I opened the box with the Sesame Street items. The outside of the box was marked Floxon-Askey Media Research Group, 1997, so at first I thought nothing of it. But when I opened the box I saw a cover sheet that read Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce, Longitudinal Study on Family Status Predictors. There was a black and white image of three muppets—two adults and a baby—that all looked like Snuffleupagus. I looked around, reminding myself I was alone, deep in the stacks. I started to page through.

The report was broken into three sections. The first included a brief questionnaire about the subject’s family status.

Who do you currently live with at home?
Are your parents separated?
Are your parents divorced?
Do your parents argue?
How often do your parents argue?

The second section was the transcript of the children’s general reactions to the episode.

I felt bad for snuffle snuffle gus [sic] because his Mommy and Daddy were fighting in the cave.
I wish Snuffy wasn’t sad.
Why didn’t Snuffy talk to his daddy?

The final section was a single question in regards to a specific scene in the episode.

Why were Mr. Snuffleupagus’s parents arguing in the cave?

The children weren’t identified by name but by a code, always two letters followed by five numbers—EB 37240, XU 37998. The first three-sectioned report was performed in 1992. The box also included reports with the same five questions repeated annually for the years 1993 to 1996.

Who do you currently live with at home?
Are your parents separated?
Are your parents divorced?
Do your parents argue?
How often do your parents argue?

I hadn’t much time to look through the answers before the foreman came snooping around for my stacks of paper. There was something else in the box—a single VHS tape. It had a simple white label with black lettering of two words—“COUGHING MAN”, as well as a street address, but no town or zip code: “772 Claridge Road”. I wanted to see what was on the tape. I stuck it down my pants and brought it out to my car during my lunch break.

Of course, I wasn’t immediately able to watch—I didn’t own a VHS player and didn’t know anyone who did. I ordered one on Amazon. While waiting for the delivery, I spent a lot of time researching Floxon-Askey and Sesame Street on google. This is when I learned that “Snuffy’s Parents Get a Divorce” never aired, due to the unsettling reaction of children during test screenings. There was nothing about Floxon-Askey. The wiki page where I found most of the info linked me to the other “banned” episode of Sesame Street, the one with the Wicked Witch. “The Wicked Witch of the West Loses Her Broomstick” actually made it to air, but was pulled and then destroyed, supposedly, after an uproar from parents. I even found an image of a written complaint that was mailed to Sesame Street which included a line about the “surreptitious recruitment of children for the army of the antichrist.”

I couldn’t wait for the VHS player delivery, and on my way home from Data Mountain the next day I noticed a hand-painted sign on the side of the road—“DVD MAGIC—We’ll convert your VHS Tapes!!”. I never noticed it before. I pulled into the mini-mall’s empty parking lot. The front area had a pizza joint, a copy center, and an antique store. Around back was DVD MAGIC. A bell jingled when I walked into the store, empty except for the lone employee. He wore glasses, parted his hair down the middle, had a pig nose, and I was almost certain we went to high school together. His name tag read “Steve” and in my mind that confirmed it. For $29.99 they would convert the tape onto DVD. For an extra $10 they would create an MPEG and email it. I spent the forty bucks and went out to my car to wait so I wouldn’t have to make small talk.

Thirty minutes later I had the converted video in my email. I opened it up right there on my phone.

I heard static before I saw anything, then the video began with white tracking lines pulling down from the top before dissolving to reveal Sesame Street—the steps leading up to the green door set in a brownstone. To the right of the stairs sat Oscar’s trash can in front of a colorful backdrop of salvaged doors. At the screen’s edge was the 123 Sesame Street sign atop a green lamp post. The sound, which temporarily muted, now kicked back in with a song. Sharp alternating piano notes rang out atop a synthetic, growling rumble. I couldn’t tell if the growl was a human voice or some digital effect. It sounded like a mix of Suspiria and a John Carpenter soundtrack. The disturbing music lingered for another minute and nothing happened on screen. Suddenly, the volume spiked and a man ambled into frame. He wore a trench coat with an upturned collar shielding his face. He coughed incessantly, like he was gagging. His forward lurch was so slow I thought it possible the video was in slow motion. The man brought a closed fist to his mouth and coughed. Here, his collar flopped forward and I saw a patch of his face—gray, ghoulish, the color of death.

Sitting in my car in front of DVD MAGIC, I wiped sweat from my hairline. I turned the car on, then blasted the AC. The AC made a squirrely high-pitched noise, so I turned it off.

The music became even scratchier, like in-between AM stations on the dial. The coughing man slowly looked up, directly into the camera, and yet I could not make out his face. It was blurred, a swirling mix of gray and white, either from damage or an effect put on the recording. He continued coughing violently. The music stopped and there was just the sound of his retching. He bent over, cleared his throat, and the coughing stopped. He turned back towards the camera and now his face was unobscured. It was still gray, wrinkled, with dark, deep set eyes, and hints of yellow teeth flashing from his mouth. He was impossibly old.

Then he spoke.

“YOU SHOULDN’T BE WATCHING THIS,” he said. The camera knocked over, turning the video ninety degrees. I saw nothing but the ground, heard a few footsteps, and the video ended.


I drove home, breathing heavy, and vowed to never again watch the video and forget the whole thing. It was less than an hour later that I rewatched the video. Then again. I studied it, paused, rewound, zoomed in, looked for clues. I rewatched many times, then put it aside and began investigating on Google. Personal discontent somehow prodded my desire to uncover the truth of the video. The banality of my drinking and career problems sat like a dull weight on my chest—this dumb video was at the very least something in a detached, interesting realm. With it I felt opportunity.

What ended up feeling more peculiar than the video itself was that there was no record of it on the internet. It was hard to conceive I had come upon something original. I googled…

Flaxon Askey media group
Sesame street coughing man
Sesame street creepy man
Sesame street fan videos
Sesame street fan fiction

…and found nothing. The only thing I had to go on was the address on the tape. 772 Claridge Road. I found two of these addresses, but went with the Claridge Road in Wilton, a wealthy town in southwest Connecticut, because of its proximity to New York City and Sesame Street. It was an educated guess. I wrote a letter.

?
772 Claridge Road,
Wilton, CT. 06897
To Whom it May Concern,
My name is Ted Rauch. I found a Sesame Street VHS tape that had your address written on it. Could you tell me anything about it? Or perhaps would you like it returned? I have not shared the contents of the video with anyone.
Ted

I soon returned to my job at Antum, emboldened by three weeks of sobriety and a twice daily dose of Antabuse—in addition to the Lithium and Xanax, which were both thrice daily. Still, things started badly. The day I returned was the day after a hundred people were run over by a truck on a crowded promenade along the Mediterranean. Some graphic media leaked online, which I watched briefly before heading off to work. I suppressed the violent imagery so I could get through the day, but then was disturbed by my Antum co-workers reactions, in that they had none. At 9:30 I was in a budget meeting discussing data vendors. In the room were Ravi, Phil, Ben, and Charice, and there were at least fifteen more people on the phone. The group looked through an Excel spreadsheet projected onto a screen in the back of the room, yawning and sipping coffee and checking email. I sat silently, the entire time seeing the gory images of crushed people on a French boardwalk play in my head. At one point I wiped a bead of drool from the corner of my lip.

“Ted?” Someone asked.

“Yes?” I said.

“Jeanette asked you a question…”

I looked up to see all the eyes in the conference room on me, and thought of the larger group on the phone.

“I’m sorry, I’m feeling a little light headed this morning,” I said. “I’m on some new medication, it’s taking some getting used to.” I stood up. “I’m gonna head home and lie down.”

I was halfway down the escalator towards the parking lot tunnel when I heard a voice behind me. “Ted!” I turned. It was my boss. “Ted!” He shouted to me again, then caught up with me at the base of the escalator. “What the hell’s going on with you?” he said.

“I’m out of sorts,” I said. It was the truth. I went home.

I tried sleeping. I spent most of the day watching the coughing-man video, curled up in bed, the shades drawn and the air conditioner blasting. I thought about having a drink, but with the Antabuse it was an impossibility. I went to bed early and woke up the next morning with a shaky half-resolve to do what I could to not get fired.

I achieved this by matching everyone else’s levels of passive effort. Each day I zoned out at my desk, reading cnn.com, dialing into calls where I paid little attention, delaying and rescheduling meetings whenever possible. As a single analyst for a massive corporation, it was surprisingly easy to do very little and stay employed. Nights were back to watching the coughing man and googling Sesame Street. I wondered… how many people were involved with the video? Was someone watching the coughing man? Was there someone behind the camera?

This is the way my life continued, work and the video, until two months later when I received a letter .

Dear Theodore,
Your letter was like a hand reaching from the water. JM 88778. I remember you. Do you remember me?
Come see me at my home on Claridge Road. Friday, October 14th, 8:00 PM.
Yours,
Evelyn Askey

I read it standing at the kitchen counter of my apartment, thunderstruck, my knees wobbling beneath me. I pinched the letter between my fingertips. The hairs on the back of my neck stood and I shuddered. I instinctively looked around my apartment as if I were being watched. I felt a dyspeptic pain in my stomach, my body signaling something to come.

But what?

JM 88778?


Two weeks later, after work on October 14th, I began the drive down to Wilton. It was 60 miles south along the tree-lined Merritt, a two-lane highway carved into dense forest. As I drove I imagined the homes hidden behind the tall trees, the people in them, what they were doing. I became painfully aware of checking my rearview mirror, a routine behavior but something that felt forced, unnatural, like when someone reminds you to breathe.

Evelyn Askey’s home was not what I imagined, though that was probably because I imagined a sort of exaggerated haunted house. My mind ran rampant visualizing a crooked, shuttered home, a yard buried in overgrown weeds, moss growing atop a basement storm door, a stray upside down garden gnome. Instead, the home on Claridge Road was beautiful, modern, and well-lit. Stone walls siding the entrance rose to square pillars, lit beneath lantern heads made of glass and cast aluminum. From there, a cobblestone driveway winded up to the large, L-shaped home with three gables—one at each end and one in the middle. The lawn was a spiky green velour. Their were two chimneys, and the entire first floor glowed from large windows with soft yellow light.

I parked and walked towards the front door. A woman opened and walked out to the porch to greet me.

“Theodore?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Mrs. Askey?”

“Yes,” she said, waving me forward with welcoming hands. “Please call me Evelyn.”

“Evelyn,” I said.

She wore her silver hair in a ponytail and had high-set thin eyes and round cheeks. She was beautiful despite our age difference; I imagined how gorgeous she must have been years ago. She reached out to hug me and I instinctively hugged back. Her skin felt warm and smelled of lavender. “Welcome back,” she whispered in my ear.

“I imagine you have some questions,” she continued. “Why don’t we just get started, and I’m sure they will all be answered.”

“Started?” I said. “With what?” I followed her inside the front door into the two story entryway.

“With the survey. Today your participation ends.”

Evelyn escorted me down a short hallway to a room in the corner of the house. “This is my office,” Evelyn said. It was large, with bookcases built into the walls on either end, and a large window covered with maroon drapes on the opposite side of the room. In the middle sat a chair, facing a video camera standing on a tripod a few feet away. To my right was an empty fireplace and above it a painting. The painting depicted a woman lying down on a daybed, asleep or dead, her head and arms draped off the edge. She wore a flowing white shawl, like a bedsheet. On her stomach sat a small, bronze-colored demon, his hand to his cheek, looking out in thought.

Near her feet, a black horse head with white eyes peeked from behind a red curtain.

“The Nightmare,” Evelyn said.

“What’s that?”

“The painting you are looking at.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Want to know something? A secret between you and me?”

“Sure.”

“This is Fuseli’s original. The piece in Detroit is a fake. A very good fake.”

I looked at the horse’s face peeking out from behind the red curtain. It looked right back at me.

“Please sit here,” Evelyn motioned to the chair in front of the camera.

I sat.

“Would you like a drink?”

I was unsure how to respond.

“Sorry. I meant to say, would you like something to drink—water, tea, soda?”

My throat felt sore, probably from the malfunctioning air-conditioner in my car. “You know, I actually would love tea,” I said.

Evelyn brought me a cup, steam still rising. It tasted funny. I took a few sips and put it down. Evelyn turned on the camera.

“Ready?” she said.

“Sure.”

Subject JM 88778.

“Who do you currently live with at home?”

“I live alone.”

“Are your parents separated?”

“No.”

“Are your parents divorced?”

“No.”

“Do your parents argue?”

“Yes.”

“How often do your parents argue?”

“Maybe a few times a year.”

Evelyn spent another minute writing and then placed the clipboard down on her desk.

“Ok,” she said, “that’s it.” She let out a deep breath. “Did you have any questions for me?”

“Did I have any questions for you?”

“Is that a question?”

“No, I mean—of course. I have no idea what is going on. What’s with these questions? And can you tell me about the video with the coughing man?”

I wanted to press her further, but I felt lightheaded, a bit jittery. Speaking made me nauseous.

“Yes, of course. Come with me, and I’ll show you.”

“Why,” I said, but then began coughing. “Why, can’t you just tell me?” I hear my speech slur. What was happening?

“Really, it will be much easier to just show you. Come with me.”

My curiosity was stronger than my reluctance and I let Evelyn guide me down another long hallway. My pulse quickened and I felt mildly nauseous. Sweat pooled along my hairline. I looked at the walls lining the hallway, but my vision darkened at the edges and it was hard to focus. There were framed items—photos, diplomas, plaques. One of the plaques had the words Data Mountain on it, but before I could ask about it we continued down the hall and it was already half-forgotten.

We arrived at a digital keypad. Evelyn entered a code, and a green light came on. She then placed her thumb to a keypad, a second green light came on. A door opened from the wall with an long creaky sound, incongruous with the digital tech.

We walked down a long staircase and I looked down at my feet with each step. I felt a sense of floating, like I would unanchor from the ground at any moment. Evelyn walked me across the room and sat me down in a large, leather chair. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m feeling a bit dizzy.”

“It’s OK dear, just relax.”

I looked up. I blinked and rubbed the blur from my eyes.

In front of me was the Sesame Street set. A short staircase led up to the green door set in a brownstone façade, which had two windows with the shades pulled halfway down. There was the green lamp post with the crystal ball light, the mailbox, and the circular tin trash can where Oscar lived. It was lit up with white umbrella lights like a movie set.

The Sesame Street jingle began to play, except it was in slow motion, maybe at half speed. It was filled with static, and when the children sang out, sunny day, their voices were not that of children at all but a horrifying deep timbre. There was movement off the edge of the set. I was pretty sure I was about to vomit. I tried to stand, but my knees wobbled and the nausea felt intense. I sat back down and tried to compose myself.

Something huge began walking from the darkness deep in the set. The music continued in slow motion—air is sweeeeeet—and then Snuffleupagus walked right over. A much larger Snuffleupagus, like triple size. Could I be sure that’s what I saw? I couldn’t see any of the puppeteers. Where were they? I felt tempted to put my head on the floor to look for feet but was still glued to my chair due to the nausea.

I slouched over in the chair. Snuffleupagus was being followed by what looked like a smaller version of him. A much smaller version, with lighter brown fur and a white bow on its head, with big white eyeballs that weren’t shrouded in lashes like Snuffy’s. The puppets stood in front of the steps and slowly turned towards one another. They started to speak, but the sound was playing from a speaker somewhere else on the set and I couldn’t make sense of it. I threw up a little on my shirt. The puppets looked at me, then looked at each other.

Evelyn walked over from the side of the set and the muffled dialogue between the puppets abruptly cut off. She handed me a towel and placed a bucket on the floor in front of me. She said something but there was no making any sense of it. I threw up into the bucket, sticking my fingers down my throat at the end. I wiped my mouth with the towel and then tossed it on the floor. I felt a little better. I looked up and said, “Water?” Evelyn was on the phone with someone and held up a hand. “Water?” I repeated. Huge Snuffy and the smaller one turned to Evelyn. Evelyn put the phone down and brought me a glass of water.

“How are you feeling?” she said.

“Better,” I said. “Not great.”

“OK!” she said. “How bout we just skip to the videos. OK?”

“Evelyn,” I said. “I’m familiar with Dextromethorphan. I don’t know what’s going on, but if anything you gave me had alcohol in it, like Robitussin, I’d just puke it up. I’m on Antabuse.”

Evelyn looked at me and nodded. “I see,” she said. “There’s been a mixup here, Ted.”

“I’ve read the whole William White FAQ,” I said.

“I don’t know what that means.”

“It’s OK,” I sat up in the chair. “Can you at least show me these videos?”

Evelyn rolled out an old fashioned CRT box TV, like from health class as kids.

Four videos played, one after the other. I’ll describe them to you in order.

1. Margaret Hamilton sits in her makeup chair and a makeup artist sponges green paint on her face. The paint is no longer copper-based, not toxic, and she need not be as terrified about breathing it in or a stray drop approaching her lips. Still, some things have not changed. Out of the corner of her eye—she must keep her head still—she sees a child fearfully peeking out from beneath a cloth-lined table holding bagels and fruit. He sees that makeup is being put on, that it’s all just make believe, but it makes no difference.

The video ends and the next starts up.

2. Two puppeteers put on the Snuffy puppet, but I can’t see their heads. The actor in the front shouts—“Hold on, are we doing Snuffy cave scene or dad cave scene?” A voice from elsewhere in the studio shouts “Snuffy cave scene.” As Snuffleupagus and his father are portrayed by the same puppet, no scene could be filmed that included both of them in frame. The video continues with the scene—Snuffy and his sister listen to their parents argue elsewhere in their cave, and the viewer is left with nothing but the dull, lifeless eyes of the muppet.

The video ends and the next starts up.

3. A man sits in a director’s chair, looking into the camera. He is balding, has a full beard, wears glasses and a wool sweater, has a lit cigarette in his hand, and speaks with a faint European accent. His cadence is slow at first, then picks up to a playful rhythm. “Erhabenheit,” he says,“the mixture of safe and disturbing, from a distance. The coughing man is like storm upon a mountain. There are three levels to this sublime. The first—the comfort of a friendly children’s tv show and a sickly, wretched, coughing man. The second—the discovery of the video, seemingly at random. Third, the large, welcoming estate tucked into the woods, filled with manufactured mystery, doors within doors. Full sublime—one understands that the journey between the creation of the video and its discovery mirrors one’s own life. Here life becomes meaningless. Did a speck of dust from the cosmos drift your way and plant a seed of wonder? It matters not. A speck is still a speck. One understands the connection between futility and profundity and the sublime washes over,” here he takes a drag of a the cigarette and blows out a ring of smoke, “like the quiet of a wave after it crashes.”

I think the video was supposed to be profound when high on DXM, but it’s all pretty much nonsense while sober.

The video ends and the final video plays.

4. It’s another person in a makeup chair. There are quick cuts—gray paint on the face—patches of gray wrinkled and layered on the cheeks—smoky gray eyeshadow—he puts in a set of microdontic yellow dentures. He turns and mugs for the camera, the ghoulish coughing man in the flesh. It cuts again, he’s now talking nervously to someone off screen. “How long will it last?” he asks. He’s then drinking from a small brown medicine bottle with a white label. He coughs after finishing, then asks for water. Someone says something to him off screen, like “after” and then he really starts coughing.

It finishes.

I looked up at Evelyn and wanted an explanation, but to be honest, I thought better of it. Instead, I ask, “do you mind if I try on that Snuffy puppet?”