Where Are They Now? Things That Terrified Us in the '90s

Getty Images
Getty Images

The '90s were pretty great. I had a sweet bowl cut, sneakers that lit up when I ran, and all the Ecto Cooler I could drink. But there was also plenty going on during that decade that was awful and scary. Fortunately, most of the things that terrified me when I was a kid have been vanquished, or at least faded away from the national consciousness to make room for new boogeymen. Here, we catch up with eight things that scared us 20 years ago, but don’t get the attention they used to.

1. Acid Rain

Thinkstock

Acid rain is what you get when chemical emissions from man-made and natural sources react with water, oxygen, and other chemicals in the atmosphere to form acidic compounds that come back down to Earth in precipitation.

In the early '90s, the federal government went after acid rain with strengthened environmental regulations. A 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act required reductions in the types of emissions that led to acid rain, by way of cap-and-trade programs like the EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) and the Acid Rain Program (ARP) and technology like smokestack “scrubbers” and low-nitrogen-oxide burners. Emissions began to fall dramatically and are now millions of tons lower than they were in the late '80s and early '90s—at least in the U.S. Lax regulation and expanding industrialization and fossil fuel use in some countries, particularly China, led to an increase in acid rain–forming emissions and instances of acid rain in those places in the early 2000s that have only recently begun to be fixed. So while we've made some progress, acid rain remains a threat

2. The Hole in the Ozone Layer

Wikimedia Commons

The ozone layer is a part of the atmosphere that conveniently protects us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. In 1985, we discovered a big hole in it. As Ethan Trex told us in 2012, it's still there. What’s more, a second hole was identified in 2011. Both are pretty well under control, though. In an unprecedented moment of cooperation, every member state of the United Nations ratified the 1987 Montreal Protocol and agreed to phase out the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—chemical compounds used in aerosol sprayers and as refrigerants. CFCs hang around for a while, but as they disappear, the ozone layer is slowly repairing itself and patching the holes. Given the repair rates, scientists project that we’ll be back at pre-CFCs ozone levels sometime between 2050 and 2080. NASA continues to keep an eye on it

3. Killer Bees

Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, African and European honey bees escaped from an experimental apiary, or “bee yard,” in Brazil and started making hybrid bee babies in the wild. The resulting Africanized honey bees outcompeted native bees for resources and took over their hives. They spread north and south through South and Central America and, in October 1990, reached the United States.

Their arrival was talked about like a monster movie, with swarms of hyper-aggressive “killer” bees swooping down from the sky to maim and murder us. The reality is that, while the hybrids inherited their African ancestors’ tendency to pursue and attack perceived threats in large numbers, and have killed people and animals, we haven’t seen the bloodbath people feared. In the years the bees have been here, people in the South and Southwest have simply learned to live with them. Most people never meet a killer bee, and entomologists from the Department of Agriculture have developed tools and techniques—like bee-proof clothing and “swarm traps”—to protect those that do come in contact with them. But it's not all good news. Recently there have been reports of sometimes deadly attacks.

4. Stephen King

Getty Images

This might just be sampling bias on my part, but it felt like you couldn’t talk about horror books or movies in the pre-Scream '90s without the shadow of Stephen King looming over you. There was even a great library PSA that featured King creeping out patrons.

Not long after his 37th novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, was published in 1999, King was hit by a car while walking along Maine’s Route 5. He suffered a collapsed lung, multiple fractures in one leg, a broken hip, and cuts on his head. During his recovery, King announced that he was going to retire, since his injuries made sitting uncomfortable and working long hours difficult. He continued to write, but held off on publishing, and eventually returned to releasing new material. He now seems to be back to his prolific self. In the past year alone, he won an Edgar Award for Best Novel for the hard-boiled detective tale Mr. Mercedes, published the book's sequel, Finders Keepers, and has a short story collection coming out in November called The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I think he'd prefer you read those stories than these seven tales

5. Y2K


Thinkstock

When the calendars rolled over from the last day of 1999 to the first of 2000, the world’s computers were supposed to be in trouble. Since many computers used six-digit dates (dd/mm/yy) to save digital space, the change from 99 to 00 would cause problems for date mathematics and systems that check valid dates (like credit card processing).

Companies, governments, and individuals spent an estimated $550 million to upgrade and fix their systems, and the world didn’t end on New Year’s Day. There were glitches here and there—including at a few power plants, the Pentagon, an ATF office, and an Amtrak control center—but nothing that wiped out the global economy or brought death raining down from the sky. “I’m pleased to report what you already know—that we don’t have anything to report,” FEMA director James Lee Witt told reporters at the time.

We might have to go through the Y2K headache all over again in a few decades, though. Another dating problem affects systems that use the standard time library, which stores and calculates time and date values using a counter zeroed at midnight on January 1, 1970, 12:00:00 a.m. The farthest these counters can get from that 0 before rolling over to a negative number is 2,147,483,647 seconds, which they’ll hit at 3:14:07 a.m. on January 19, 2038, which some are calling the Y2038 problem.

6. Satanic Cults

Getty Images

Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, some people believed that a nationally organized, highly structured Satanic cult operated in secret right under all of our noses. Almost anywhere a kid cried molestation or a dog turned up dead in an abandoned house, some people blamed the Satanists. They formed community groups and task forces to deal with the Satanists, produced hour-long evening news special reports about the Satanists, and generally threw a lot of time, money, and effort at making the Satanists go away (including the McMartin Preschool case, which produced no convictions and was at the time the longest, costliest trial in American history).

The hitch is that there’s almost no evidence that such a cult exists or existed. What’s more, the cult’s activities, as they were perceived and described, don’t even make sense. “Satanists allegedly have a tightly organized, powerful, infallible network that leaves no evidence of its large-scale abduction, breeding and human sacrifice activity,” sociologist David Bromley says in The Satanism Scare. “Yet these groups also supposedly leave behind a trail of clues such as animal carcasses and open graves that invite official investigation.”

Bromley continues: “Even if satanists sacrificed only 10,000 children—rather than the more commonly cited 50,000 children per year—the time period covered by current survivors' claims would have produced 400,000 victims, a total rivaling the 517,347 war-related deaths from the Second World War, the Korean, and Vietnam wars combined. Yet, not a single casualty of the satanic cult network has been discovered.”

The national Satanic Cult, most sociologists have concluded, wasn’t real. Instead, the Satanism scare was just a collective overreaction to scattered, isolated events and fueled by media publicity given to the cult narrative. One thing that is real: The Church of Satan, which, according to its information for prison chaplains, endorses "a rational philosophy of pragmatism, materialism and skepticism, generally promoting a libertarian point of social view with an emphasis on law and order." Also vengeance.

7. Soviet Nukes

Thinkstock

Before it dissolved in 1991, the Soviet Union had an arsenal of 27,000 nuclear weapons that we all thought were going to come crashing down on us. Since then, some of those nukes have been dismantled, but others remain fully functional. Russia and some other former Soviet republics also still have stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

While Russia probably won’t use a nuke on us any time soon, there’s a valid concern that some of these weapons and nuclear materials—“secured” at poorly guarded, underfunded facilities—might fall into the hands of people who would. Thankfully, the Council on Foreign Relations says that there are no confirmed reports of missing or stolen former-Soviet nuclear weapons, despite hundreds of attempted nuclear smuggling deals. There are, however, despotic or unstable states with nuclear arsenals, including North Korea and Pakistan.

Journalist William Langewiesche dove deep into the logistics of stealing or buying a black market nuke or the materials to build one for his book The Atomic Bazaar. “If you wanted a bomb and calculated the odds, you would have to admit that they were stacked against you, simply because of how the world works—and that this may be why others like you, if there have been any, have so far not succeeded,” he wrote for The Atlantic. “You would understand, though, that the odds are not impossible.” 

8. Stephen Gammell

Gammell has illustrated 16 books since the last Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book, none of them nearly as terrifying. He and his wife live in St. Paul, Min., and he works in a studio over a restaurant. Seems like a nice guy with a quaint life, but seriously, this stuff has been giving me nightmares since I first encountered SStTitD in 1993 (maybe that's why in 2011 the publisher of the Scary Stories series released the books with less intense drawings). The Caldecott winner's latest book is the not-so-scary Mudkin, which he probably wrote in his studio. I picture it as haunted, with bleeding walls and serial killers hanging out in the bathroom. 

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

Amazon
Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

12 Festive Facts About White Christmas

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 1953, Paramount Pictures set out to make a musical built around and named after the most popular Christmas pop song of all time. At that point “White Christmas” had already become a holiday classic thanks in no small part to Bing Crosby’s hit recording of the song, but would it translate to the same success on the big screen?

With Crosby’s star power leading the way and Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair, White Christmas overcame some early development struggles and even some anxiety from composer Irving Berlin to become one of the most celebrated holiday movies of all time. Here are 12 facts about its production and reception.

1. The song "White Christmas" was already a hit.

Though the film didn’t come along until 1954, the story of White Christmas actually began more than a decade earlier, when Irving Berlin composed the future holiday classic that would become the title track. Berlin wrote the song in 1940, and the next year Bing Crosby—the singer still most identified with the song, despite many cover versions—sang it on his Christmas radio show.

By 1942, Crosby had recorded the song, and over that same year it made its first film appearance in Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film helped earn “White Christmas” the Oscar for Best Song in 1943, and over the course of the 1940s the song climbed to #1 on the charts several times. It would go on to hold the title of bestselling single of all time for decades, until it was finally eclipsed by Elton John’s rewritten 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind.” Because of the song’s enduring popularity, particularly during the World War II years, it was only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize, and by 1949 what would eventually become White Christmas began to take shape at Paramount Pictures.

2. White Christmas was originally set to co-star Fred Astaire.

By the late 1940s, Irving Berlin and executives at Paramount Pictures were working on piecing together White Christmas as a movie musical with the title song as its centerpiece, and they had big plans for the film’s stars. The project was originally envisioned as the third installment of an unofficial trilogy of buddy musicals starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The duo had already teamed up for Holiday Inn in 1942 (which also featured “White Christmas”) and Blue Skies in 1946, and White Christmas was supposed to mark a triumphant reunion. Unfortunately, Astaire ultimately turned the project down, reportedly due to lack of interest and a concern that he might be getting too old for such a film.

3. Bing Crosby almost passed on White Christmas.

While most of the casting drama surrounding the film was tied to the Phil Davis character, there was also a point during pre-production on White Christmas that the film almost had to go searching for a new Bob Wallace. In January of 1953, when Astaire decided to back out of the project, Crosby also decided he wasn’t sure the film was right for him, and initially planned to take time off to be with his son following the death of Crosby’s wife, actress Dixie Lee. Later that some month, though, Crosby decided to stick with the project, and White Christmas moved ahead.

4. Danny Kaye was cast at the last-minute.

Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

With Fred Astaire out of the picture, Paramount had to search for a new star to play Phil Davis to Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace, and settled on Donald O’Connor, who was fresh off the success of Singin’ in the Rain. O’Connor was all set to play Davis in the film, but became ill shortly before production was set to begin. Now anxious to find a new co-star in time, the studio offered the role to Danny Kaye, who decided to go for broke and request a salary of $200,000 plus a percentage of the film’s gross. Kaye was apparently certain the studio would say no, but they agreed to his terms rather than attempting to wait it out for O’Connor’s health to improve. Kaye was cast as Phil Davis, and O’Connor would later go on to work with Crosby on Anything Goes.

5. Rosemary Clooney couldn’t dance.

Rosemary Clooney was one of the most acclaimed and beloved singers of her generation, and with White Christmas she became a co-star of one of the most acclaimed and beloved musical films of all time. Clooney was able to do this despite one particular shortcoming, which she was always honest about in both interviews and in her eventual autobiography: She was not a dancer. Clooney’s character, Betty Haynes, only has two real moments of dance in the film—in “Sisters” and in the “Minstrel Show” medley—and both times the choreography is rather simple and (in the case of “Sisters”) makes use of a prop to help make the scene visually interesting without too much actual dancing involved.

6. Vera-Ellen couldn’t sing.

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

To complete the duo of the Haynes sisters, Rosemary Clooney was paired with Vera-Ellen, who was already an experienced and acclaimed movie musical performer considered by many to be one of the best dancers in Hollywood at the time. Clooney recalled feeling “inadequate” when paired with her new co-star in terms of learning her limited White Christmas choreography, but also noted that their dynamic was rather evened out by both Vera-Ellen’s patience and the fact that she couldn’t sing. Vera-Ellen’s vocals were dubbed in White Christmas, largely by an uncredited Trudy Stevens, but by Clooney herself for the song “Sisters.”

“If they could have dubbed my dancing, now, we would have had a perfect picture,” Clooney later joked.

7. Bing Crosby improvised a lot of his White Christmas dialogue.

By the time White Christmas came along, Bing Crosby was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a veteran singer and actor who could pack audiences in and commanded respect on the Paramount Pictures lot. This meant his job came with a lot of perks, including the opportunity to embellish and flat-out improvise much of his dialogue on the fly. As co-star Rosemary Clooney recalled later on a commentary track for the film, when Bob Wallace used phrases like “slam-bang finish,” it was often because the phrases were favorites of Crosby’s. Clooney also recalled that the little monologue Crosby’s character goes on when they meet in the Columbia Inn lounge for sandwiches and buttermilk was largely made up by Crosby on the spot, faux German accent and all.

8. Bing Crosby didn’t like shooting White Christmas's "Sisters" scene.

One of the most famous scenes in White Christmas involves Bob Wallace and Phil Davis rolling up their pant legs and lip-syncing to Judy and Betty Haynes’s song “Sisters” in an effort to cause a diversion so the sisters could escape a vengeful landlord and hop on a train to Vermont. It’s an instantly memorable, and very funny movie moment, but apparently Bing Crosby was actually somewhat uncomfortable about the scene. In an effort to liven the performance up and get a rise out of his co-star, Danny Kaye improvised the moment when he begins to slap Crosby with his feathered fan. If you watch the scene closely, you can see Crosby caught off guard by this, and by the end of the scene the two men are cracking up on camera for real. According to Rosemary Clooney, Crosby was convinced that the take was unusable, but director Michael Curtiz liked the spontaneity of it, and used it in the finished film.

9. White Christmas features an Our Gang cameo.

Early in the film, as Bob and Phil get to know the Haynes sister, they discuss the sisters’ brother Benny, who Bob and Phil knew from the army and who ostensibly connected them for their meeting at the club. Judy Haynes then offers to share a recent photo of Benny, who Phil had already referred to as “Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy.” The photo appears only briefly, but fans of the Our Gang series of comedy shorts might recognize Benny Haynes. He’s played in the photo by Carl Switzer, who was Our Gang’s Alfalfa.

10. White Christmas was the first movie released in a new format.

A scene from White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

At the time White Christmas was produced, film was having to increasingly compete with television for the attention of the American public, and this meant numerous gimmicks were deployed to get people to go to the movies. This included even more prevalent use of color on the movie screen (at a time when television was still a black and white medium), as well as a more ambitious use of aspect ratios to emphasize the “big” in big-screen. White Christmas was envisioned as a Technicolor showcase, but it also became the first film to be released in Paramount’s new widescreen format, VistaVision.

The format featured special film magazines that were mounted to the side of the camera lens, which fed the film negative through the camera horizontally rather than vertically. This created a more detailed widescreen exposure that was then printed vertically just like any other film. The result was a format that could play on virtually any movie screen and offer an increase in quality, unlike other contemporary large format options like CinemaScope, which required an adapter.

11. Irving Berlin was nervous about White Christmas.

By the time White Christmas was in production, the title song was one of the bestselling and most beloved songs in the world, and had already been in heavy circulation for more than a decade. Still, that didn’t stop Irving Berlin from being nervous about how the film would be received. Though he wasn’t always on the soundstage during shooting, Rosemary Clooney later recalled that Berlin showed up every day at the cast’s recording sessions for the soundtrack, and as Crosby and company recorded the finale version of “White Christmas” the legendary composer couldn’t stop nervously pacing around the studio. Eventually, Berlin’s worried look proved so distracting that Crosby went over to him and said: “There’s nothing we can do to hurt this song, Irving. It’s already a hit!"

12. White Christmas was the biggest movie of 1954.

White Christmas was released in the fall of 1954 and, on the strength of Berlin’s songs and the Technicolor and VistaVision production values, quickly became a hit for Paramount. The film was the highest-grossing movie of 1954 with a box office take of $12 million. It was also the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz’s career, which was impressive considering his resume already included classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca.

Additional Sources:
White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney (2000)
White Christmas commentary track by Rosemary Clooney (2000)
Backstage Stories from White Christmas (2009)
Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold (2018)