Tune in Tonight: "Nightmare on Drug Street"
People of Generation X are fast catching up with Baby Boomers when it comes to false nostalgia, that sense of small, meaningless things like drinking from a garden hose (back before garden hoses were banned in all fifty states) meant our childhoods were superior to the younger generations. Risking our lives by riding bicycles without helmets, drinking orange flavored sugar water, being beaten with wooden spoons, what a glorious time it was to be a child in the 70s and 80s, you kids today don’t know what you’re missing with your smoke-free households and proper diets.
What you don’t see anyone getting misty-eyed over is being inundated with messages about how taking even so little as a single hit off a joint would lead to certain doom. Actually, inundated is too light a word for it: mercilessly clobbered over the head would probably be more accurate. Even before DARE, which encouraged children to turn in their own family members to the police, anti-drug propaganda was practically a horror movie genre in and of itself, with its victims meeting every sort of terrible fate from disease to sexual assault to death, with no hope of rescue or survival. And yet, somehow, drug use was significantly higher among teenagers in the 1980s than it is now. And when I say “higher,” I mean a double digit difference. It’s almost as if these programs, specials, and commercials where a guy angrily cracks an egg into a frying pan were so over the top that it was impossible to take them seriously. But more likely it was because the real reasons young people experimented with drugs weren’t peer pressure or wanting to be popular, but because they were anxious and depressed. Focusing on that would mean adults having to take responsibility for their impact on their children’s mental health, and we wouldn’t be ready for that for at least another…well, we’re still not quite there yet, but it’s certainly an improvement over thirty years ago.
1989’s Nightmare on Drug Street is peak hysteria, suggesting that experimenting with drugs would result in eternal damnation. The film opens with three young people sitting in a dark, empty room, wearing the rags of the penitent. The girl in the middle chirps “Hi, I’m dead. Well, actually, my name is Jill…well, it is, or it was or whatever. Anyway, I’m dead.” Jill and her companions, Felipe and Eddie, have all died as a result of drug use, and are existing in a sort of purgatory, where there’s no pizza, no MTV, not even homework. “I would love some homework now,” Felipe says. Instead, they’ve been condemned to relive the events leading up to their deaths, and to act as a cautionary tale for the living. That’s right, kids, try drugs just once, and your suffering will continue even beyond the grave.
Jill introduces Felipe’s story first. Felipe is, of course, a star basketball player, because anti-drug PSAs only seemed interested in how drugs affected middle-class suburban children from otherwise “good” homes. Felipe is also utterly incapable of thinking for himself, as he cites other people doing it as his sole excuse for drinking a case of beer, smoking a joint, and driving drunk. Felipe’s story is fairly straightforward: he somehow gets into a fatal car accident on a cul-de-sac, even though you’re far more likely to just hit a mailbox. But since the theme of this PSA is how much suffering your rampant experimenting with the booze and the pots can cause, the accident is witnessed by Felipe’s younger brother, who just minutes earlier demands to be let out of the car. One gets the impression that if the filmmakers thought they could get away with it, they’d have shown the car exploding, or a severed leg in the middle of the street.
Next, Eddie tells Jill’s story. Jill, ostensibly a 14 year-old but played by an actress who appears to be no younger than 25, is shown at a party, wearing an outfit that looks like Laura Ingalls Wilder cosplay. She dances with the new boy in school, who busts out a vial of cocaine barely five minutes after they meet, assuring Jill that it’s safe and “One day they’re gonna legalize it so we can do it all the time!” That’s good enough for Jill, and all it takes is one “toot” and she instantly becomes addicted, snorting it in the school bathroom in full view of her classmates, stealing, selling her grandmother’s heirloom necklace, and hanging out with women who have visible tattoos and bitchin’ Debbie Harry haircuts. One scene implies that she even considers selling her body for more delicious cocaine, but thankfully (and surprisingly) the film pulls that particular grotesque punch at the last minute. The natural trajectory of drug addiction isn’t present here, she goes from trying a single line of coke to frantically licking it off her fingers like barbecue sauce in what seems to be about a week. Quickly running out of things to sell and friends to borrow money from, Jill gives up in despair and commits suicide.
Eddie’s story manages to somehow be the most tragic and hilarious at the same time. Eddie, maybe 11 at the oldest, goes to hang out at a friend’s house, and they’re barely a minute in the house before the friend brings out a bag of crack and a pipe, with all the casualness of a box of Fruit Roll-Ups. “This is crack, and this is what you smoke it in,” the friend says, thoughtfully holding them up so the audience can see. “It turns the inside of your head into a video game!” After some weak protests, Eddie gives it a try. Worried that his mother is on to him when he returns home, Eddie calls his friend, who suggests that the best way to negate the effects of smoking crack is to smoke more crack (and this is why you shouldn’t take advice about drugs from a sixth grader). Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work, although Eddie’s ability to produce crack seemingly from the air is impressive. Eddie doesn’t even get a downward spiral montage like Jill – he tries crack in the afternoon and is dead by dinnertime, the drug exacerbating a previously undiagnosed heart defect. Again, because the message here is “even after death the suffering continues,” Eddie dies in his father’s arms.
Okay! So that was an enlightening experience. Surely now that we’ve heard their woeful tales, Felipe, Jill, and little Eddie will get to go to Heaven, like Clarence earning his wings in It’s a Wonderful Life, right? Nope. There’s no redemption for these innocent children who’ve committed the sin of poor judgment. “If you’re ever around, stop in again,” Jill says. “We’re not going anywhere,” Eddie replies, in a “whaddaya gonna do?” voice. All three of them look pretty resigned to this netherworld, where there’s hardly any light and the only sound is wind blowing, like the beginning of an Iron Maiden song. Their only reward is the comfort of discouraging other idiotic-but-at-least-they’re-not-fuckin’-dead teenagers from making the mistakes they did.
If you’re a fan of Christian “hell houses,” evangelical versions of Halloween haunted houses where instead of vampires and mummies the monsters are abortion providers and same sex couples, you’re going to love Nightmare on Drug Street. It’s the same level of unrelenting bleakness and callous judgment, where the punishment is portrayed as both tragic and wholly deserved at the same time. Suggesting that there’s no difference between smoking an occasional joint and nodding off on a filthy mattress in an abandoned factory, let alone that there’s no hope for redemption in either scenario, is so intellectually dishonest there should have been a law against it, and instead it was crammed down young viewers’ throats for nearly two decades, while root problems that were the cause of drug and alcohol use were minimized or ignored.
All three of the young victims in the program tried drugs because someone else told them to, as if teenagers are malleable lumps of clay who can’t tie their shoes without being given a diagram and a generous amount of time. In being unable to face their own fears about teenagers, and what sort of problems they might need to solve with controlled substances, adults scared children with false narratives about how once you deigned to try drugs, there was no hope, no recovery, no chance of turning it all around. With that sort of nihilistic message, it was no wonder that it had virtually no impact on its target demographic. Either way, you were screwed.