Back in the late ‘90s, I bought my first computer. It was hardly the first computer that I’d messed around on, but it was the first one that was all mine.
I customized the shit out of it. By the time I was through, I don’t think there was a single default sound still in play. I can still hear the Undertaker’s gongs alerting me to new arrivals on my AOL Buddy List. (I hated how the audio dropped out before the reverberations completed.)
Naturally, I chose my own screensaver. Many were auditioned, but in the end, I always came back to the Mystery Screensaver.
As I recall, the screensaver was part of a theme set for Windows 98. I’m not 100% sure that it hadn’t debuted prior to Windows 98, but that’s where I met it, and judging by what I see online, that’s where almost everyone else met it, too.
It’s my all-time favorite screensaver. You guys can keep your Doom mazes and waterpark pipes. On its face, this was a simple animated mansion with enough spooky elements to create a haunted ambiance. Upon deeper reflection, it was a world of wonder that let you write whole novels in your head.
Beginning with a burst of pipe organs that sounded like the bark of a Jersey shore dark ride, the screensaver would then fall mostly-silent, save for the occasional creaking door or solicitous owl. There were enough noises to make listening a part of the fun, but those noises were still scattered enough to make each one hit you like a jump scare.
The mansion might not have seemed so creepy if it wasn’t situated in the middle of some gothic wooded hell, full of dead trees, fallen leaves, busy bats and pale moonlight. If you remove the house, I’m pretty sure this was where Jade and Smoke played peekaboo in Mortal Kombat II.
Since this was the “Mystery” Screensaver, it made sense that the mansion was less Munsters, more Clue. It was more ominous than outright spooky. The numerous windows lit up at odd intervals, suggesting all sorts of activity that we could only guess at the nature of.
That was the thing with the Mystery Screensaver. They say great art leaves you with something to think about, and on that basis, this was a freakin’ masterpiece. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who’d sit, stare and dream up stories about that mansion. The visuals were so open-ended that my brain did it reflexively, desperate to make sense of the senseless.
The Mystery Screensaver had two standout moments, shown above.
Every now and again, the front door would open and close. You’d only catch the faintest glimpse of what was inside, but it appeared to be a dimly-lit hallway leading to a second door. I also can’t rule out the possibility that this foyer was flooded with swamp water?
More dramatically, one of the front windows infrequently illuminated, revealing the mansion’s study, along with a man who bore a suspicious resemblance to Abe Lincoln.
It sounds silly by 2018 standards, but I used to just sit and FIXATE on this screensaver, waiting for those two moments. (Of course, it was a total “watched pot” scenario. Neither the door nor Honest Abe liked to do their tricks until you looked away.)
Back then, I almost never turned off my computer. (I’m still terrible like that.) The Mystery Screensaver often acted as my bedroom nightlight, turning perfectly ordinary evenings into lightweight horror movies.
It’s still downloadable if you search the web hard enough, but it’s easier to watch a recording on YouTube. Seriously, go full-screen and let that thing play while you putz around in the background. Semi-sinister bliss!