One of the… well, I’m not really sure I’d call it a joy of adulthood, but at the very least,one of the most interesting parts of adulthood is looking back at certain things that were just accepted as the norm during your childhood and going, “WTF was that, even???” Such is the case with a wide variety of games ‘90s kids played that were actually pretty creepy. We may not have realized how bizarre they were at the time — but they were. Oh yes. They were.
Even more fascinating, though, is how all of these games trickle down through generations. The ones I’ve listed here certainly were played in the ‘90s — I played all of them myself, and I’m a child of the ’80s who came of age in the ‘90s — but many of them are actually much older than that. They mutate as they’re passed down, of course; the versions I played were somewhat different from the versions my baby boomer parents would have played, and I’m sure the versions that kids are playing these days are, in turn, different from the ones I grew up with. But they seem not to “go out of style,” as it were, whether they're playground games or board games; rather, they’re adapted to suit a new generation of kids each time the tide changes.
And yet, they remain. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that kids need weird and creepy stories and games and songs and such in their lives. It’s how we learn to process things that scare us, enabling us to deal with them under circumstances that are still relatively safe.
Either way, though, these games are all still phenomenally weird when you really think about them.
“Concentrate” was sort of like a form of simple hypnosis — it involved speaking a rhyme in a singsong voice while beating rhythmically on your friend’s back and mimicking a number of unpleasant experiences ranging from the innocuous (eggs getting cracked on your head) to the horrific (getting pushed off a building). The version I played as a kid, though, actually left out what seems to be a key element — which, in my opinion, is also the freakiest part of the whole game: Allegedly, it’s meant to tell you how you’re going to die. I only very recently discovered that this was the actual “point” of the game, and you guys? Wow. Just… wow.
Originally released in 1985 by Milton Bradley, Bed Bugs involved using plastic tweezers to pick plastic bugs off of a vibrating plastic bed. Most of us who grew up playing this game, however — and saying, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite” as a bedtime farewell —didn’t become aware until much later on that bed bugs actually exist… and that they’re horrifying. Although bed bugs have been quite common throughout history, their populations severely declined during the 20th century; in the very late 20th century and early 21st century, however, they came back with a vengeance, with the National Pest Management Association noting bed bug calls increasing by a whopping 71 percent between 2000 and 2005.
The game’s a lot less cute now, isn’t it?
3Miss Mary Mack
What on earth was Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack all dressed in black, black, black with silver buttons, buttons, buttons all down her back, back, back actually up to? As Rookie notes, the two prevailing theories about this clapping game is that the first four lines are actually a riddle where in the answer is “coffin,” or that the whole thing is a reference to an ironclad ship called the Merrimack which was torched in a Virginia harbor during the Civil War.
Playground Jungle points out that the riddle idea doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, which is true; at the same time, though, I do have to wonder why Miss Mary Mack was wearing black. At the very least, it implies that she’s in mourning. A number of commenters on Playground Jungle also remembered versions where Miss Mary Mack died over the course of the rhyme. Spooky.
Maybe this is just me — I spent years terrified of this one after a traumatic experience I had with it as a very young child — but honestly, no game creeps me out as much as Operation does. There’s something about digging around in the body of a man with blunt tools for actual butterflies and horses and things, probably without the aid of anesthetic, that squicks me out like nothing else. Yes, I know it’s a classic. (It’s been around since 1965.) Still, though: NO THANKS.
5Miss Suzy Had A Steamboat
Full of enjambed double entendres, Miss Suzy Had A Steamboat is so profane I don’t know how we managed to get away with playing it. In some versions, Miss Suzy has a tugboat instead of a steamboat; a lot of versions have an awful lot of body shaming in them; and some of them get really, really racist. It's... uh... not great.
The clapping game is interesting when examined as a sort of bonding exercise for girls — as this essay points out, clapping games were often seen in the ’70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s as “girl stuff,” and this particular rhyme let girls be “naughty” in a way that our culture usually penalized them for being. Still, though — as an adult, looking back on the lyrics, I am doing so much facepalming.
6Don’t Wake Daddy
I mean, really, this one is just 1984, right? Instead of Big Brother watching, we’ve got Big Daddy listening, and, well… let’s just say that you don’t want to find out what happens if you accidentally wake him up.
7Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board
Like a lot of these games, how creepy this one is depends on what version you played. I seem to have grown up playing somewhat sanitized versions, because, like Concentrate, I don’t remember Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board as being that spooky (beyond, y’know,the fact that the goal of it was to perform levitation). Scary For Kids,however, details a version that involves a “Storyteller” beginning the game by making up the most gruesome story they can about how the person to be levitated "died" — something I definitely didn’t do while playing this one, no matter how many times I watched The Craft in preparation. Says the site, “The idea is to have the person believing that ‘ghosts’ are helping to lift them.”
8Miss Lucy Had A Baby
While not as overtly bawdy as Miss Suzy Had A Steamboat, Miss Lucy Had A Baby — which was sung to the same tune and dates back to around the 1920s — has some… uh… questionable activities in it, not the least of which is some really irresponsible parenting. Pro tip: Don’t put your baby in the bathtub to see if it can swim. (Notably, when the Wiggles adapted it for their 2014 video Apples and Bananas, they changed it to “Miss Lucy Had A Ducky" — probably for that very reason.)
9The Grape Escape
I loved The Grape Escape when I was a kid for the same reason I loved Mouse Trap: I liked the Rube Goldberg-esque device that took up the middle of the board. But, as Board Game Geek describes it, it’s worth remembering that that device is “a hand-cranked mechanism that will stomp, roll, but, or cause other forms of grape torture” as dictated by the spaces you land on as you move your little clay grape figurine along the board.
It’s Saw. With anthropomorphic grapes.
OK, yes, Bloody Mary is overtly creepy; the point of the game is to summon a ghost or demon via a ritual involving mirrors, and that’s spooky enough all on its own. It’s creepy for a much subtler version, too, though: The fact that it’s a game we willingly play as kids. Small children are A-OK putting themselves in what could be terrible danger for the lulz during sleepovers. What were we thinking?
(I mean, yes, it’s also true that chanting “Bloody Mary” 13 times while facing a mirror in a dark room doesn’t actual conjure anything supernatural; if you see anything while doing it, it’s probably a result of the Caputo effect — that is, it’s science, not ghosts, and there’s no actual risk involved. But still!)
No matter how hard I try, I cannot get over the fact that the whole point of Pokemon is to capture wild creatures, take them out of their natural habitats, keep them locked away in tiny little prisons, and then make them fight each other for their captors’ entertainment. What even is that.