If you’re an American of a certain age, chances are you fondly remember the weird and wonderful worlds dreamed up by Sid and Marty Krofft—especially H. R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, and Land of the Lost. Those were their biggest, most memorable hits. Reminiscing about these shows recently, I was stunned to realize that for all their psychedelic silliness and kid-friendly fun, the shows all work from the same terrifying premise: their protagonists are ordinary unsuspecting kids; these kids are unexpectedly carried into alternate worlds against their will, left with little or no help from elders and desperate to return home. Wormholes to hell! It could happen to you!
Lidsville has the most benign setting.
The hat-people of Lidsville
The eponymous town’s walking, talking hat-people inhabit harmless stereotypes associated with various hats: a cowboy hat that talks like John Wayne, a football-toting helmet, a solicitous nurse hat, and so on. Technically there are a few “bad hats,” which you see running (too late) toward our teenaged hero Mark in the introductory song, but they rarely even appear in the plot and never pose a serious threat. All of the characters are good—or more accurately, neutral, all wrapped up in their own limited personalities. Weenie the Genie, a humanoid, likes the Mark and provides him friendship and support. (By the way: did you know that Mark was played by Butch Patrick, a/k/a Eddie Munster? Also by the way: was there anyone, ever, who could not see that Weenie was played by the same actor who’d played Witchiepoo in H. R. Pufnstuf, in nearly the same makeup?)
Outside the town, there appear to be only uninhabited and unthreatening blank spaces; Lidsville is the world. No enemies in town, no enemies outside it. Only Horatio J. Hoodoo, the bumbling wizard flamboyantly portrayed by Charles Nelson Reilly, wants to do Mark harm.
It’s hard to tell exactly why he pursues Mark: maybe he envies Mark’s ability to make friends with the hats; maybe he wants to find out the magician’s secret that brought Mark there. But Hoodoo never poses any serious threat. His magic missiles never connect; his evil schemes always unravel. He’s as scary as a midge cloud.
Still, Mark spends all his time searching for the fabled Golden Ladder leading back to his own world—possibly exactly because he doesn’t have to spend all his energy running for his life. Additionally, Lidsville’s opening number casts a shadow that even silly hijinks can’t quite banish. When Mark falls into the magic hat, he drops in full spread-eagle, “Dooooowwwwwn….doooowwwwwwn…” for many seconds. How did he survive? Consider the closing words: “’Cause everybody who goes to Lidsville really flips his lid!” “Everybody”? How many have there been? What happened to them? Does that number include us viewers? Are we “going” there now?
Pufnstuf’s introduction was pure nightmare fuel. “Little” Jimmy—as he’s always called, emphasizing his fragility and vulnerability; he’s only about ten years old—is lured into a boat, then carried off to Living Island while Witchiepoo screams overhead and the skies grow dark. Then the boat reveals its evil nature and attacks him. Dumped into the waves, Little Jimmy “washe[s] ashore,” where he’s saved from the witch just in time by Pufnstuf and his helpers Cling and Clang: “But who would get there first?” He nearly drowns, and who knows what Witchiepoo would have done?
In the main show, everywhere Jimmy goes on Living Island he finds sentient, talking evil: the trees, the mushrooms, Witchiepoo’s castle itself for heaven’s sake. Pufnstuf’s tiny community is a feeble candle in a thick, menacing darkness.
Even in Pufnstuf’s town—he’s Mayor—Living Island is just a little too Living for comfort. Dr. Owl’s office contains unnerving talking books, candlesticks, and a Boris Karloff-sounding skull.
Whereas Lidsville always seemed on the verge of returning Mark home, such hope is flimsy at best in H. R. Pufnstuf. Finding the Golden Ladder sounds difficult but achievable—and safe. Pufnstuf’s cockamamie schemes are patently dangerous, unfocused, and unachievable. Building a time machine and setting it to the day before Jimmy was kidnapped is the town’s best idea. They also float finding the three-part key that opens a Magic Golden Escape Door (which may or may not even exist); jumping off the island on a supersonic pogo stick; and flying away in a giant kite. (To…?) Every so often the evil witch lands a frightening transformation spell—Jimmy into a Mechanical Boy, Freddie the Flute into a mushroom. And always, always, she keeps close tabs on the good guys from the sky and/or her magical binoculars in the castle, probing for weaknesses, plotting attacks.
Land of the Lost probably edges out Pufnstuf, though, for the title of Scariest Krofft Alternate World. No kid needs to have dinosaurs’ threat explained to them. The show’s opening theme plays it up, showing a toothy Tyrannosaurus Rex (“Grumpy,” they name him, whistling through the graveyard) chase the Marshalls into a cave and then turn toward the viewer and roar at us. Every little chore—gathering wood, finding food, simply leaving the cave—is dicing with death. Just to remind us, father Rick Marshall warns his kids Will and Holly, several times per episode, “Be careful.” (If you played a drinking game keyed to that phrase, you’d be lucky to make it through the half hour.)
The T-Rex provides the main threat, and of course other smaller, incidental creatures come along. But wait, there’s more! There’s also a whole terrifying additional threat in the form of the Sleestak—seven-foot upright-walking lizards, with spiky heads, giant claws, and a constant hissing roar. They didn’t move very fast, but they seemed never to stop coming.
You could see that if Will or Holly took a wrong turn in the Sleestaks’ Lost City, they’d die a horrible, gory death. One episode has the humans sneaking through scores of hibernating Sleestak—who then, as lava warmed the caves, begin to awaken and surround them. On the wall, long ago someone had painted, in English: “Beware of Sleestak.” Who? What happened to him?
Full disclosure: I used to scare the hell out of my little brother zombie-walking toward him hissing like a Sleestak. It even kind of scared me, doing it.
At one point, late in the first season, a multi-episode storyline involving the Sleestak ratcheted up the tension even farther. The Sleestak were dumb and slow enough that you could almost get used to them; but now, suddenly, we were introduced to an intelligent, talking Sleestak—Enik.
Enik thinks he can help the Marshalls return home, and he does try. Consider this exchange between him and Rick in the final episode of season 1:
Enik: I cannot leave here. Nothing can leave here, unless an object of equal mass and temporal energy enters.
Will Marshall: Well, that means we can’t leave either, unless three other people come in.
Enik: Yes, but there is more. You should not be here at all. Your presence here is the source of my problem. Look…
[Enik opens the time doorway onto a view of the Grand Canyon]
Will Marshall: It’s Earth! Enik, if I had a parachute I could jump through!
Enik: Wait, there is more.
[Next Will sees himself, Rick, and Holly]
Will Marshall: That’s us, on the river!
Enik: Pay attention now, this is the troubling part.
Will Marshall: That’s the rapids we were on.
[The time doorway replays - via stock footage of the show's title sequence - Rick, Will, and Holly being swallowed into a cavern by a monstrous earthquake, descending down underground rapids, and plunging down a monstrous waterfall - but Will notices an anomaly the audience cannot see]
Will Marshall: Enik… where’s the mist for the doorway?
Enik: I do not know
[Will now realizes what Enik means by his earlier comments]
Will Marshall: We… we were all killed. Weren’t we.
Enik: Obviously. You should not be here now.
Enik seems to understand clearly what’s happening. He certainly knows more than Rick, who knows more than his kids. If Enik is right, then the Marshalls’ “routine expedition” really did take them through a wormhole to hell!
In the television shows dreamed up by Sid and Marty Krofft in the late 1960s and early 70s, hell was just another world, its portal open, underfoot, and ready to swallow up an ordinary kid at any time. No wonder Lidsville, H. R. Pufnstuf, and Land of the Lost made such a powerful impression on my generation.