One night in the early ‘80s, my big sister Stacy, my mother and I were watching primetime TV on KTUL, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s ABC affiliate. For those too young to remember the time before digital, affiliates like KTUL showed programming from major broadcasters, but did so with their own style. In KTUL’s case, that style was local and weird, and sometimes so desperate for something to fill air time that they would run ten-year-old PSAs to fill a few seconds. KTUL was an especially magical station, my sister and I thought. They had the nightly sign-off with the Native American guy, the locally produced kids’ show Uncle Zeb, and Don Woods, the weatherman who drew a cartoon character called Gusty to illustrate his forecasts. But that night, KTUL’s magic would become dark, and it would be lodged in my memory as the channel I could never watch again–because they showed Hate Hurts You.
Picture it: a bluish gray background fills the screen, against which a little yellow man who looks vaguely like the Reverend Horton Heat sidles toward the viewer. A window opens into his chest as he walks, revealing what looks like an inside-out recycling symbol lodged in his torso. From the inside of his neck, blood rains down onto the symbol, causing it to rotate. Industrial music accompanies this bizarre scene, but not the fun, dance-club stuff. This is grinding, scraping metal that sounds like “Hirnsäge” by Einstürzende Neubauten. As the little man gets closer to the screen, his face filling more and more of it, a narrator with a baritone voice delivers a grim warning: “Hate is a poison that corrodes, an acid that erodes.” Horton’s head begins to inflate, ++++lumpily, and turns bright red as his features, now filling the entire screen, contort into anger or pain. As the announcer barks the last words–“When you hate, who do you hurt the most? HATE HURTS YOU!”--Horton’s head explodes. In our living room, my sister and I are bawling as our mother tries to comfort us. (She even contemplated calling KTUL to complain, or maybe she actually did. I remember this one way, Stacy another.)
My memory of Hate Hurts You was off in some pretty major ways.While I recalled the visuals more or less correctly, my memory of the audio was completely off. In the real version, there’s no baritone narrator, no droning industrial noise. Instead, it’s a very ‘70s folk tune, minor chords strummed over a Rhythm Master backing track. A nasally voice sings the lyrics I remembered being ominously spoken. Even the exploding head isn’t as sudden as I remember it being. The little yellow bigot’s inflated head fills the screen for a couple of seconds before finally bursting, which probably explains why of all my memories, that enraged face was the most vivid.
It’s not news that memories frequently fail us, but I am fascinated by how my memory failed me in this case. As a very small child, Hate Hurts You was the most intense thing I had ever seen. Its climactic jump scare might not seem like much in this world of Five Nights at Freddy’s and James Wan movies, but to a naturally timid girl roughly five years old who had grown up on nothing more shocking than an airing of King Kong, it was life-altering. For years after I saw it, I avoided my beloved KTUL out of fear that they might air it again. Once I became an adult who loved confronting her childhood terrors, it was my holy grail. If I had remembered it as just a mellow folk tune and simple animation, I would have realized that it’s not nearly as horrifying to an adult as to a sheltered child. I wanted it to still shock me like it had back then. And so, I assume, my mind took over and recreated the much scarier version I remembered, all clanging and portentous, with a head explosion to rival the one from Scanners.
Only one question remains now: what is that symbol in the man’s chest, and is that really supposed to be blood dripping down onto it? I suppose it could symbolize self-perpetuating cycles of hatred and violence, but a wheel of arrows being turned by blood is a decidedly odd way to make that point in an otherwise completely unsubtle PSA. Now that the full cut has made its way to the internet, perhaps someone can finally figure it out.
When I was in art school getting my MFA, my thesis project was all about nostalgia. I made interactive pieces based on distant memories; you could examine my childhood collection of plastic monkeys from 1970s Sonic cups, or listen to a recording of the ghostly voice from the Milton-Bradley game Seance. But the most blood-chilling piece, as far as I was concerned, was the wooden box lined with flocked wallpaper on one side and velour couch fabric on the other. It was just big enough to fit your head inside, and when you did (if you did), you felt the fabric and wallpaper on your cheeks. That was what I felt the first time I ran and hid from the TV, when I first saw the Jewish Chautauqua Society’s hate PSA.
Sure, there were plenty of other creepy things on TV during my childhood – the Sylvia episode of Little House on the Prairie, the Changeling episode of The Waltons, the Wonderful World of Disney movie Child of Glass – but while those things had kept me awake at night, nothing had ever made me want to scoop out my own eyeballs and bludgeon my eardrums with chopsticks while vomiting all over the living room untilI saw the hate PSA. Reality split into the time before the hate PSA and the time after, when I learned there are horrors you can never unsee.
Unlike my little sister Natalie, I remembered it perfectly, except that I thought the final lyrics were, “HATE…THE ONE IT HURTS THE MOST…IS YOU!” I remembered the little yellow man and his horrifying turned-out feet and block-heeled shoes. I remembered the churning recycling symbol in his belly and the indigestion bubbles rising above it (which Natalie clearly remembered as drops of blood dripping down, which is significantly more horrifying than heartburn). I remembered the weird Spanish-style music, which invoked a lifelong phobia of the Spanish-style stucco house near my elementary school, with its arched doorways and wrought-iron gates. I imagined that the yellow man lived in that house, and stomped around inside it being pissed off and exploding all the time.
For as long as I’ve been a citizen of the internet, I’ve looked for this godforsaken PSA; until a few days ago, I’d never found it. But there were a couple of Reddit threads of people searching for it, hoping to exorcise their own childhood trauma. I only remember seeing it once; it obviously wasn’t on very often, probably because local TV stations received reports of children scooping out their eyeballs, bludgeoning their eardrums with chopsticks, and vomiting all over their living rooms. But the rare few of us ‘70s kids who saw it were scarred for life, looking for others on lost-media forums who shared our specific terror.
Nine years ago, a YouTube user by the name of Just Some Random Person uploaded a 10-second clip of the ending, and seeing that exploding head again made Internet People even more determined to find the full-length version. For almost a decade, there was nothing, and then, in March 2023, a Reddit user named Delchi posted in r/lostmedia, “I was able to locate a copy of what I believe is the 30-second version on a 16mm reel in a collection of television history.”
For four months, other Reddit users waited for Delchi to upload a digitized version, but Delchi went silent. In July, they finally commented on the thread again, saying there were “legal issues” with “the location that has it,” where “the media is disorganized and the index is incorrect.” It had all the makings of an urban legend, and at that point, I doubted it had really been found.
But then, on August 13, 2023, an iPhone video of the 16mm film, projected on a wall, suddenly appeared on YouTube. It was like the sky broke open and a faded warning against anti-Semitism rained down on a sea of acoustic guitar chords accented by a haunted cajon that was also, no doubt, just big enough to hold a human head.
(Natalie, a musician, says this was actually something called a Rhythm Master, so while I defer to her, I still prefer to imagine a box with a head in it.)
Seeing the hate PSA again confirmed that there were definitely two versions, as Reddit and YouTube people had speculated – according to Delchi, one was made in 1974, and the other in 1982. In the ‘74 version, the man’s red face fills the screen and holds for a few seconds, and a roar of sound builds before it explodes. In the ‘82 version, the face explodes as soon as it fills the screen. One assumes the Jewish Chautauqua Society heard how many unsuspecting children had been traumatized by this thing and decided to make a less-scary version rather than pulling the ad altogether – an admirable dedication to the message, but dude, there was still a big, red exploding head.
Rumor has it that there’s another, even longer, spoken-word version, but for now, that one remains in urban-legend land. Until someone finds it, the little yellow man will haunt YouTube in his 30-second incarnation, just like he haunted the Spanish house in my hometown, slowly stomping on his pointy-toed, high-heeled boots into the minds of children yet to be traumatized, becoming a kindertrauma for a new generation.