Remember that absurdly frightening drunk driving PSA from the ‘80s? The one with the skeletons?
The 1984 TV spot was pretty famous in its time, partly for its use of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, but mostly because the PSA was so shocking in its execution.
After four friends agree to let the drunkest among them drive, the shit hits the fan. As soon as the driver puts his key in the ignition, all four instantly morph into skeletons. (The idea was that the very act of getting in a car with a drunk driver was tantamount to signing your own death warrant.)
I would’ve been around five years old when this PSA began airing, and it destroyed me. I’d eventually see public service announcements that were arguably edgier, but to this day, I don’t know if I’ve seen one that matched this spot’s eeriness.
Between the skeletons, the sound design and the fake fog, it had such an ‘80s horror movie vibe. (Course, back then, *I* didn’t know that. This vibe was new to me, and I sure as hell wasn’t ready to deal with it while watching cartoon reruns on WPIX.)
So with that in mind, let me tell you a story. (Apologies to longtime readers and/or Purple Stuff listeners, because I know you’ve heard this one before.)
It’s 1984. Possibly ‘85, but no later than that. I’m five years old, or six at most. I’m with my parents at one of those old school A&W restaurants, where you eat in the car and rediscover root beer.
(In truth, I don’t know for sure that this happened at an A&W, but given how the rest of the story plays out, it’s the only restaurant that fits.)
Me and my mother wait in the car while my father heads off to fetch the grub. At this point, I don’t have a care in the world, and I’m certainly not thinking about those skeletons from TV.
…at least, not until my father shows up with our food, including THREE GIANT SODAS, which are plainly liquid and can only be consumed via DRINKING.
Immediately, my mind jumps from french fries to INSTANT SKELETON DEATH.
See, I didn’t understand that the PSA was specifically referring to alcohol, nor did I get that the whole “skeletons thing” was pure theater. In my mind, if you drank anything in a car, you literally turned into a motherfucking skeleton.
I pleaded with my father to stay out of the car, screaming at him through the open window. He was not the sort of man to coddle on a whim, and if this was anything resembling a normal tantrum, I think he would’ve carried on as planned. In this case, that wasn’t remotely possible.
I wasn’t just yelling and crying — I was practically exploding. If any of you have had near-fatal accidents and can remember the bad kind of adrenaline that went with them, imagine how a five-year-old boy might act if he absolutely believed that he was about to morph into a skeleton. I was inconsolable.
The way I remember it, my father just trashed the food and drove us home. (It’s possible that we simply dined outside of the car, but by that point, it’s hard to imagine that I would’ve even risked “skirting the rules” of that PSA.)
Even with the few missing details, I’m amazed that I can still remember that night so clearly. Like, right down to that weird pastel blue tracksuit my mother used to wear, which even then was something I knew was off-brand for her. The power of pain, I guess.
It was a terrible experience, yet I can’t help but envy the kid version of me, who could believe in and feel things with that much gusto. These days, I can spend two hours in a theater watching rat-vomiting witches, and I’ll just blink. I don’t miss freaking out in fast food parking lots over imaginary skeleton transformations, but I do miss being capable of it.