Inside 'The Perils of Punky,' the 'Punky Brewster' episode that scarred you for life

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

[Ed. Note: This post was originally published on Oct. 20, 2015. With Halloween approaching, we thought it was the ideal time to revisit an episode that kept you up nights as a kid.]

Hey…has this image been given you nightmares since your childhood?

How about this one?

Don’t worry; you’re not going crazy. You just had your mind warped by Punky Brewster as a child. That’s right, Punky Brewster: the otherwise adorable series chronicling the misadventures of a spunky orphan named Punky (Soliel Moon Frye), and her adopted father, Henry (George Gaynes). Exactly 30 years ago today, on Oct. 20, 1985, the beloved ‘80s series aired a two-part Season 2 episode that ventured into more horrifying territory than your average kiddie sitcom. Do a Google search for the episode’s title and you’ll find articles like “The Unexpected Horror of Punky Brewster” and “How Punky Brewster Traumatized a Nation,” not to mention Reddit threads where now-grown viewers share their memories about which scene freaked them out the most. (That first picture up top is a perennial favorite.)

“So basically, you’re saying that I scarred an entire generation?” asks Art Dielhenn, who directed “The Perils of Punky,” the terrifying episode in question. “I’m sorry! I wasn’t responsible — I was just taking orders.” Having already directed over 20 episodes of Punky Brewster prior to “Perils” (Dielhenn helmed the majority of the shows first two seasons, nearly 44 successive episodes in all), he approached it as he did any other installment. In fact, the only thing that really scared him during production was the thought of missing his deadline. “It was a challenging episode, and as the person tasked with getting it done, the size outweighed the task of making it scary,” he explains. “So it was a very different experience making it than the experience you describe having seen it.”

Actually, the first half of “Perils” isn’t so different from standard Punky fare. While on a camping trip, the titular heroine and her pint-sized pals — including chipper Cherie (Cherie Johnson), haughty Margaux (Ami Foster) and nerdy Allen (Casey Ellison) — get separated from their adult guardians and wind up inside a dank cave. While telling spooky stories to pass the time, the spirits of a Native American tribe approach them and charge Punky with the task of defeating an evil creature that lurks deep within the cavern.

Part 2 is where things get creepy, as Punky experiences a series of bizarre encounters that grow increasingly nightmarish as she approaches the end of her mission. First, she crosses paths with a man whose body parts are strewn in pieces around the cavern, leading her to christen him as — what else? — “Mr. Pieces.” (The fact that Mr. Pieces is played by instantly recognizable character actor, Vincent Schiavelli, just ups the weird factor. Dielhenn doesn’t recall the exact circumstances of Schiavelli’s casting or what it was like to direct a scene-stealer of his copious talents. “I doubt I had to do much,” he says, matter-of-factly.)

After that, the gang is set upon by a giant spider, which wrestles Punky to the ground, while Margaux, Allen and Cherie remain stuck to its web, screaming. Fortunately, Punky regains the upper hand and she dispatches her foe to the arachnid afterlife with a well-timed tomahawk blow.

Next up, the villainous spirit tests her lingering fears of abandonment, first by spiriting away her friends — replacing them with dancing skeletons or monsters with glowing red eyes — and then showing her a manufactured vision of Henry spontaneously deciding that he’s through being a dad.

But Punky endures these various trials, and finally comes face to face with the architect of her would-be destruction, a glimmery phantom with Freddy Krueger-esque claws and a sinister voice, provided by none other than series creator David W. Duclon. Although the ghost tries to break her spirit once and for all, it winds up withering in the face of her pluck. Punky saves the day and is promptly reunited with her friends and father. It’s also revealed that her whole quest has just been part of her campfire ghost story, although a final shot adds an “Or was it…?” sting to the proceedings.

Seen today, “The Perils of Punky” will likely inspire more laughs than screams, which is how Dielhenn characterizes the mood on set. “We always tried to make the set as fun and playful as we could for the kids. They would be going to school and then they’d come to set, and their buoyancy, kindness and desire for fun played into every scene.” One of those playful kids, Cherie Johnson, confirms his account. Now 39, the actress (and Duclon’s niece) remembers how her 9-year-old self cracked up. “I remember laughing at the spider,” she tells Yahoo TV. “I was on the spider web laughing with Amy and Soleil. We were like, ‘This is so lame.’”

The supernatural perils of “Perils” must have seemed extra-lame to Johnson considering that she and her co-stars were already seasoned horror movie fans. Every weekend, she’d have slumber parties with Moon and Foster during which they’d watch flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Omen, while their parents cooked up big pots of blood-red foods like spaghetti and chili. “We would gross everybody around us out, but we were having the time of our lives,” Johnson says, laughing. “We were just different kinds of kids I guess, because we knew it wasn’t real. When we were shooting ‘Perils,’ we knew there was a props department, and we probably saw them making the spider and hoisting it up on its wires. So I don’t think the crew was worried about us being afraid. If anything, they had to be afraid of us trying to jump and play on it!”

Like Dielhenn, Johnson is surprised to hear that “Perils” left such a deep impression on viewers. “I’ve never watched it in its entirety,” she confesses, likening the experience of revisiting any Punky episode to watching home movies of herself in kindergarten. “My mother still has the molding of my head that was used for the prop with the red eyes. My brother put it on his face recently and I hadn’t seen it in thirty years, so I was like ‘What is that?!’” Johnson’s primary memories of the shoot are the days they filmed on location in the wilderness, before shifting back to the show’s soundstages on the NBC lot for the extended sequences within the cave. Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show was housed on the same lot and Johnson says that she and Frye would often run into celebrity guests at the commissary. “One time we met Cyndi Lauper, and she put us on her tour bus and dressed us up.”

Reflecting on “The Perils of Punky” thirty years later, both Johnson and Dielhenn now have the distance to recognize why it might have triggered youthful fears amongst its audience. For one thing, the episode spoke directly to one of the essential themes of the series and a primal childhood terror: the idea that your friends and family would reject and desert you. “That theme was explored in many episodes,” says Dielhenn, who went on to direct episodes of such sitcoms as Silver Spoons and Head of the Class, before seguing into his current occupation as a professional career coach. “Punky and Henry would have many conversations about wanting to be with her mother and whether Henry would accept her and does she feel safe. There was a fundamental honesty in the emotional life of the characters, and that’s what I liked about doing the show. I haven’t thought about ‘The Perils of Punky’ for thirty years, but scanning it again, I can see how it could have been impactful for kids. No question.”

“Perils” also remains a generational touchstone because there are so few episodes of children’s television that are quite like it, especially these days when so many family friendly shows got out of their way to avoid upsetting or offending young viewers and, more importantly, their parents. Johnson, who continues to act while also juggling careers as a producer and author, has a 14-month daughter and has observed first-hand how the genre has changed. “I think a lot of it is made for adults and not kids anymore. Our generation was exposed to more than this generation is; everyone is trying to shield their kids. [Children’s shows] don’t talk about serious subjects in the way that we used to. They’d probably be scared of doing something like ‘The Perils of Punky’ now because too many people would complain. But I think it’s funny that, 30 years later, this is what sticks in peoples’ minds.” Nice to know that we can all share a laugh about giant spiders, dancing skeletons, girls with glowing red eyes and boys with crooked teeth and lifeless eyes…

On second thought, no. Still freaked out.

All four seasons of Punky Brewster are available on DVD.

More Halloween stories from Yahoo Entertainment:
MVPs of Horror: ‘Gerald’s Game’ star Carla Gugino on the scene making people pass out
TV’s lost Halloween classics: 6 specials from beyond the grave
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