As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated and often terrified by the PSA as a format. An early memory of mine involves me laying in bed, holding aloft my Cookie Monster stuffed animal and miming what it would look like if Cookie was the talking head in a PSA; not saying any words, just trying to approximate the subtle movements. I ended this with a mock freeze frame. I scared myself with this enough to throw the covers over my head and try and will myself not to think about Cookie Monster freeze-frame, lest I would never get to sleep from the terror of a freeze-frame in an imaginary PSA.
Yeah, it’s pretty weird. So time marches on and various PSAs come and go, and I’m scared of them in degrees from 0 to 99. The mid to late 80s anti-drug obsession starts to take hold and it instills a general sense of paranoia in us suburban preteen kids, but it all still seems like the “other.” In our little sheltered burg, we thought some stranger in a van (perhaps a clown) was going to come and offer us “druggggggggs” and maybe kidnap us. It was all a vague (but real, it sure as hell seemed!) threat. Welp, the vagueness showed it’s power when I was maybe a couple years too old for a genuine kinder trauma, but I can’t under estimate the terrifying grip that one fucking Partnership for a Drug Free America spot had/has on me. I was like fucking 11 or 12 and I don’t remember the first time I saw this thing.
The sound of an orchestra tuning. A low angle shot with cold, cold, diffuse light. A ballet studio. Slow-motion dancer is spinning, spinning out of control. Onlookers with crossed arms of disapproval in the background. Voiceover of little girl: “I wanna be a ballerina when I grow up.” Cue fake Psycho violin stabs, then adult male voiceover: “Nobody says they wanna be a junkie when they grow up. Don’t let drugs get in the way of your dreams.” This fades into the standard Partnership for a Drug Free America text and black screen. This spot started showing up in weird places immediately…Siskel and Ebert (yeah, i was a kid watching S&E on Sunday mornings), Wonder Years and Doogie Houser MD were prime spots. It showed up in an airing of the Rankin Bass Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 90 or 91. I think I closed my eyes for that one. See, cuz I took different tactics to get over this fear; I’d close my eyes and just listen, I’d pay strict attention to every detail, I’d count the times the dancer spun (it’s not even one full spin). Nothing worked. I even had a wake up paralyzed screaming nightmare about it once.
Me and my few loser friends in middle school would talk about this spot, and the few others in the series (none of which bothered me a quarter as much) and talk about how “freaky” they were. It was a good word to avoid seeming weak in that junior high shark pool. But I was obsessed with it as it left rotation and went into PSA retirement. So, as I got into collection weird VHS years later, of course that would be a thing I was on the hunt for. As I picked up home recordings of broadcast tv I’d be always hoping it would lead me to this terror. I found tons of fascinating, and at times terrifying PSAs but I never found the ballerina. I even found collections of Partnership for a Drug-Free America tapes and it seemed they were erasing that spot from there history for some reason. Even as youtube emerged as, I found almost everything I wanted to see from days past…couldn’t find the particular spot.
Eventually, it did show up on youtube, and get taken down immediately. Was this secretly a controversial ad? I did give in and watch it on youtube sadly right before I found it was on a tape I had of an ABC primetime broadcast I never bothered to look at cuz it was Young Indiana Jones or some garbage like that. Anyhow, I’m still fascinated by this, because I think I’ve been truly terrified by this thing entirely because of the power of film language. Whatever who these anonymous creatives were going for, they found it purely through scary creepiness. Frankly, I think the anonymity in these spots are partially what make them so elusively unnerving. Who made this? Who is the ballerina? Did they believe in what they were doing? Cuz the implementation of creepy style certainly indicates a certain dedication. Did they know they’d be haunting the minds of kids as they became functional adults? I still can’t quite put my finger on what this particular thing gives me such intense unease. But it’s still there.
Thanks Dan! You reminded me of a PSA that freaked me out that I’ll be posting about soon!
Here’s your junkie ballerina PSA:
and the fuller version…
It looks like in the Youtube comments a lot of folks agree w/ you!
Was that Jim Carrey in the third skit with the woman pounding on his chest? Totally looked like him from Once Bitten.
Maybe I’m imagining things but I swear it looks like you can see nipples through that dancer’s shirt.
That one freaked me out the most. I think it was the expression on the ballerina’s face as she fell. She looked so crazed. Still gives me chills.
Yes, yes, yesss. Intimately familiar with this one, as well as its companion pieces in the series, and tracked them down obsessively several years back. For some reason this one was the most haunting… I’m sitting here alone on the sofa in a dimly lit room after Domestic Partner has gone to bed, and I still am not doing great with those still frames above!
I have never heard anyone else point out as you did, and I think it’s a great take, that all the missing information, the ambiguity, is what makes something like this worse. Not knowing anything about the character, the storyline, the manufacturing behind it. Not to mention I have no idea what drug she’s supposed to be on, if she’s just flailing about stoned or if she’s actually in the middle of dying.
I feel like these things are decent art pieces, but pretty crappy cautionary tales, since they never developed any association to drugs or lifestyle in my mind. I just came away with unnerving imagery that seemed apropos of nothing, as if in a vacuum.
P.S. Forgot to say: WTF is it about freeze-frames?? Ack! And the absolute creme de la creme of them all, which captures everything that gets me about them, can be found in David Lynch’s short film “The Grandmother”.
I’m glad I’m not the only one, cuz I really did think I was kinda crazy being as frightened as I was of these things. As far as the companion pieces go, one thing I left out of this was that I never saw the “mega mix” version until relatively recently. When me and my two friends would discuss how “freaky” these spots were, one of them mentioned the “nurse” spot. My other friend and I nodded along, but I assumed he was lying. Cuz kids would just make shit up like that all the time. When I finally saw that as part of the “long version” it was like a weird little block in my brain became removed. The only other one I remember besides “track star” and “ballerina” was a “I wanna be a millionaire” one with a guy panhandling. Def the least frightening and offensive in the “homeless as cautionary tale” as opposed to a person.
Onlychild1213, the unnerving shock in a vacuum is a perfect descriptor. I was way more scared of just being subjected to these spots than I was of drugs themselves.
Honestly, I haven’t checked back here much cuz the stills put me on edge!
If you want to be assaulted by one of these in a really unfair shocking way, check out the “heroin monkey” psa from the 70s….oh wait, maybe I found out about that on Kindertrauma!