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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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


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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

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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

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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. 

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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

Find It: Amazon

2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

Cover of The Butchering Art
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Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

Find It: Amazon

3. FOR THE GENEALOGY OBSESSIVE: IT’S ALL RELATIVE: ADVENTURES UP AND DOWN THE WORLD’S FAMILY TREE BY A.J. JACOBS; $27

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What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

Find It: Amazon

4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

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Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

Find It: Amazon

5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

Find It: Amazon

6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

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An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

Find it: Amazon

7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

Find It: The Public Domain Review

8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

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At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

Find It: Amazon

9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

Find It: Amazon

10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

Book cover for Her Body and Other Parties
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A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

Find It: Amazon

11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

Find It: Amazon

12. FOR THE GENERALIST: A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH SUBSCRIPTION; $45 FOR THREE MONTHS

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Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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