I'm going to tell you a secret. But first, you have to promise me you won't laugh. This is still an uncomfortable subject for me, so I'd appreciate your understanding. Do we have a deal?
When I was five years old, I watched a movie no child should ever see. I don't remember much about the circumstances of my viewing other than that it was at the house where my family lived, late at night, in the dark with only the television providing light. The film was an animated feature, and depicted themes of animal cruelty, death, and dismemberment. The scenes were surreal and terrifying and left a deep impression on me.
For years afterward, the only scene I could remember clearly was when an evil woman was drowning a family of cats in a stream, which I would have nightmares about for years afterward. I remember seeing it early in the movie, followed by many more disturbing and surreal scenes.
Remember your promise, because this is the part I was talking about. I never told anyone about what I saw, but the name of the movie was well-known: The Aristocats.
I suppose I can forgive you if you broke your promise, but I must emphasize that I am not joking. I saw a movie called The Aristocats, filled with the scenes I have described, and it scarred me for life.
I didn't think about the experience very often, but it was always in the back of my mind in some way. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I know now that it caused me to shy away from animation and children's shows. It subtly informed my whole outlook on the trappings of childhood. I found myself bracing with dread whenever I had to watch any children's animation in school. My childhood was relatively normal otherwise, for an introvert anyway, but every once in a while I would think back to the movie and find my inner peace disturbed.
It wasn't until maybe third or fourth grade that I started to realize that my experience with the movie had not been typical. I didn't tell anyone, not even my parents, about what I had seen in that dark room at age five, but I eventually figured out on my own that there was nothing horrific about the version everyone else had seen. I still wasn't willing to see it for myself, but I figured if they had seen what I had, I would have been able to tell whenever they spoke of the film. Anyone who had anything to say about it seemed to consider it either a nostalgic classic or unremarkable.
When I was in middle school, I asked my mom if I had ever seen The Aristocats. She said I had, once, having stayed up past my bedtime and watched it secretly. She said I seemed strangely disturbed by the film, and I had never wanted to watch it again as a small child.
I asked if we still had it in the house, but she said I had been so afraid of the movie that she had thrown it out. It had been a home VHS recording she bought at an estate sale, rather than a retail copy.
I finally decided to watch the movie again. I ordered it from the library and watched it one Saturday. It took me a couple hours to work up the courage to finally hit "Play."
I found it to be a wonderful film. Immediately I realized that whatever I remembered seeing at age 5 had nothing to do with this movie. There was no graphic violence, no psychedelic scenes, nothing that should have traumatized me as a child.
And yet, what I had seen all those years ago definitely shared elements with this movie. The kittens and their mother were drugged and kidnapped, not drowned, but I instantly recognized the moments leading up to this divergence, and almost had a flashback to the cartoon drowning I had seen. I was hoping to find closure, but instead I was more troubled than ever. There was no question in my mind now that I had seen some awful and perverted version of this classic film.
I told one of my friends about it a few days later. I didn't let him know how convinced I was of what I had seen as a young child, instead simply relating it as a vague and confused memory, like "hey, the other day I saw The Aristocats. I used to be terrified of that movie because for some reason I thought I saw gore scenes and cats drowning when I watched it at five years old. Funny how your memory plays tricks on you at that age, isn't it?" He told me about the movie Felidae. He explained that it was an animated movie with a similar animation style that contained graphic gore scenes and was definitely not for children. He said maybe I had somehow seen that movie instead of The Aristocats.
I streamed and watched Felidae. I saw what my friend meant about the style having the same feel as The Aristocats except dark and bloody, but it wasn't what I had seen. I knew, I knew for sure, that five-year-old me had watched a movie with the same characters as The Aristocats, and I also knew for sure that it had contained bizarre and disturbing scenes not shown in the mainstream version.
This whole thing was driving me up a wall. To try and get some kind of closure, I started seeking out and watching old children's animation that contained graphic and disturbing elements that would never be included today, such as Watership Down, the 1978 version. While these works were interesting and gripping in their own way, they were decidedly non-Disney. While other studios may have been willing to take such risks with their works decades ago, the fact that The Aristocats is a Disney property made me sure that the version I had first seen was something I was absolutely not supposed to, ever.
I let it go after a while. A few years passed, and in college I learned about this internet urban legend called "lost episodes." People claimed to have seen episodes of TV shows or altered versions of movies, usually animated, that contained graphic and disturbing content. The episode or movie was often found in unexpected places, and those claiming to have seen it often said it mysteriously disappeared, whether through a VHS tape appearing to have somehow self-erased, a website going dead immediately after viewing, etc.
To be honest, I didn't put much stock in the validity of these stories, but with my Aristocats experience still in the back of my mind, I decided to look further into it. I found a Youtube channel called Cartoon Geek, who was discussing a certain "lost episode" for his 40 thousand subscriber special.
After going through the obligatory thanks and talking about how much his subscribers meant to him and all that, he began: "Now for those of you who are new to this channel, I'm basically just a guy obsessed with all things nostalgic and geeky about cartoons and other media. Most of my content is simply reviewing old cartoons and what not, usually superhero related, however I also do a side series on the strange and creepy side of animation. For example, my 20K sub special was a three-part series on Disney and their alleged subliminal messages in film and television, and this video you're watching now is sort of in that same vein. We're going to be taking another look at a certain 'lost episode.' For those who don't know, lost episodes are basically this urban legend about episodes of TV shows which were 'lost', as the name implies. These episodes are said to contain graphic and/or disturbing and surreal elements and are generally regarded as material that the public was not meant to see.
"A few months ago I covered an alleged lost episode from the 1968 animated series 'The Adventures of Batman'. I loved this show as a kid, even though it was a few decades before my time, and there was one episode with a scene where Batman and Robin fall through a trap door set by the Joker and slide toward their doom; at the end of the slide tunnel is a giant open furnace, looking like the Joker's face. Of course, since this is a kid's show, they don't actually slide into the furnace and burn alive, they get out with their gadgets.
"So to recap, in 2009 this anonymous internet post started circulating online about an alleged lost version of this scene. In it, the Dynamic Duo actually do slide into the furnace, burn alive, scream, and are shown graphically being burned to a crisp, followed by surreal and non-linear scenes of grieving friends of Bruce Wayne in mourning and the funeral service.
"Now when I did my first video on this subject, I was honest with you guys: I didn't really think there was much credibility to this story. I like to keep an open mind on this show, but there were just certain elements of the post that made me say, okay, this is probably bullshit, like how the tape conveniently erased itself after the anonymous author viewed it. But since then I've gotten a lot of comments and emails talking about how allegedly this lost episode has been posted online. Naturally a lot of you are already saying this is fake, but this topic won the poll for this special, so let's find out."
After some more preamble, the video cut to the alleged lost episode, at the part where Batman and Robin are sliding down the tunnel toward the furnace. All the parts where the two use their belt gadgets to get free were removed, and when the two were close to the furnace, the screen filled with fire, and two poor-quality shrieks played. After that, there were some strange abstract scenes, but all of these seemed to be simply random clips from other episodes with some editing effects thrown at them.
Cartoon Geek returned. "Okay, so right off the bat, Batman and Robin die off-screen, which is obviously not what happened in the lost episode post that was shared around. They basically just used the flames from earlier in the scene and cut them over to make it look like Batman and Robin died, adding in a canned scream effect. The surreal scenes that follow are also just random clips from throughout the show with various editing tricks applied. I could have done some of them. So while this is impressive work, I think it's pretty clear that this is a fan project inspired by the anonymous post. I'm going to rate this animation myth as debunked for now."
He gave some more breakdown and deconstruction of the clip, before ending with some kind of promotional giveaway. What really got my attention however were some of the comments. There were at least a few people insisting that the lost episode was real and that they had seen it with their own eyes.
I PM'd one of these people. I asked if he had really seen the episode and about the circumstances. He responded within the hour:
"Yeah, I was at summer school and during recess I snuck off to the school library's backroom to be alone. I put a VHS of the cartoon that was there and saw it. Honestly I wasn't really disturbed back then since my parents let me watch R-rated horror movies and stuff back then lol. But yeah man this thing is real."
I asked if he knew any information about the other supposed "lost episode" phenomena, but he said he did not.
I did some research of my own. There were a few lost episode stories floating around on the internet, mostly about children's shows. To be honest, not many of them seemed all that credible. Still, I strongly felt there was something real here behind all the embellishment and fictionalization.
I decided to see if there were any such stories surrounding The Aristocats. My searches for disturbing content in the movie returned nothing but the expected "hurr hurr this one scene in The Aristocats totally scarred me for life as a kid" stuff or more information about that Felidae movie. I tried reaching out to some of the credited animators, writers, and crew members, varying the content of my emails so as to cast as wide a net as possible. For example, some of my emails focused more on disturbing content that may have been cut, while other drafts asked more generally about alternative versions or cut scenes.
I also expanded my web searches. I used all the search engine tricks I could find, and started using obscure and foreign-language engines. After a few months of no information and no responses to my email queries, I started to think that maybe I should just forget about the whole thing. Maybe my real memories of watching The Aristocats had merged with some nightmare I had to create my present memories, and maybe repeating those memories to myself so many times during my childhood had falsely convinced me of their reality. I was about to consign to this newfound self-closure when I found something during one of my foreign-language searches.
It was a thread on a Chinese message board. The OP had a JPEG image and text that roughly translated to "Aristocats Movie. Creepy?"
If I had had coffee to drop and spill all over my computer, I would have. The image dashed away any hope I had of passing off my childhood experience as just a traumatic nightmare that had stuck in my head longer than it should have. The image was a frame from whatever twisted version of The Aristocats I had seen, and while I hadn't actually remembered this particular still until I found this message board, the instant I saw it I remembered the clip and more memories started flooding back, still vague but vivid and definitely real. I was now more firmly convinced than I had ever been before that the violent version of the movie was real.
The image was of the black kitten, Berlioz. His face nearly filled the image, and his eyes were wide and terrified, red veins bulging, his fur standing up as if charged with electricity.
The image itself wasn't any more inherently disturbing than the grotesque fanart you can find for all kinds of different shows and movies, but unlike those other images I knew this one had a genuinely sinister story of some kind behind it. As such it haunted me like no other image ever had. There were only a couple replies on the thread, both of which were short and neither of which provided any more information about the image. I used Google Translate to try to ask the OP for more information, but never received a response. I performed a reverse-image search of the file, but it returned no other results.
However, a few weeks later I finally got a reply to one of the emails I had sent to the production staff. The reply was to one of the emails I had written that hinted more strongly at the reality of what I had seen as a kid. The response was short and curt, but gave me new hope for finding answers:
"Hello. Sorry for the late response, but I read between the lines of your message, and if you've seen what I think you were hinting at, you need to look into the Lost Media Group. That's all I'm going to say on the subject."
I Googled "lost media group", but the closest thing I could find was a website for an online club called the Lost Media Society. It was a site for media enthusiasts to collect, trade, sell, buy, and discuss "lost media" including lost episodes as in, real lost episodes that simply never aired, not the urban legend ones that contained surreal, disturbing, or even supernatural content.
This community was interesting in its own right, and I became involved with it, eventually even becoming a site moderator. Once I was established as a respected regular, I decided to PM one of the head admins and ask him about the lost episodes legend.
He responded that he had heard of it, but it wasn't really something the site dealt with. He recalled that in the past it had been talked about and some had even suggested banning discussion about it since it was seen as a spam topic after a while. I asked if he knew about an organization called the Lost Media Group. He said he had heard of it, but didn't know anything about it, and suggested that I contact a certain other admin who did know more about this entity.
I messaged this admin, and got a response within the hour. He told me the Lost Media Group was the group alleged by some to be behind the "lost episodes" phenomenon. According to him they produced not just altered versions of movies and television episodes, but were also said to make their own versions of other media such as video games and comic books. He said he did not know much else about them other than that some lost media collectors were willing to pay large sums for an authentic work by this group, and that before the Lost Media Society had banned discussion of the lost episodes legend some of these collectors had asked about them on the site.
I asked if he could refer me to such a collector. He said my best bet would be a certain retired site admin who was no longer active in the Lost Media Society. He linked me a couple of archived threads by this individual asking about lost episodes, and gave me the man's email address. I shot him an email asking about his interest in lost episodes, and even went as far as to directly ask if he knew about a "lost episode" type version of The Aristocats.
A few months went by with no response. During this time I researched as much as I could about lost episodes. I found out about another alleged "lost episode" of "The Flintstones". The story behind this episode was much like other "lost episode" stories: a special episode of the show aired on an otherwise unused television channel and had gory and surreal content. The main difference between this story and the others was that this one had a somewhat credible outside source. The original forum post had a link to a digitally archived local news article from 1979. The FCC had received complaints from dozens of people claiming to have seen the episode. The complaints came from the Lake Kabetogama region of Minnesota, with most originating from a couple of specific lake resorts. The incident was locally known as the Kabetogama Broadcast.
I decided the next logical step was to contact the FCC for more details. They responded within a week saying that unfortunately they were not at liberty to give out such information. At that moment, I considered filing a Freedom of Information Act request, but decided to take a different route. One of the two lake resorts most heavily involved with the incident was still in operation. I scheduled a vacation from work, and a few weeks later I was on my way to Lake Kabetogama.
Kleck's Cove was a collection of 15 cabins, a bar-restaurant, and a small boat dock with boats available for lease. I had rented an old A-frame unit and planned to stay for two weeks.
The resort was a nice place to stay. I spent a few days fishing and seeing local attractions. I fell in with a group of regulars who fished at the resort every year. We went on several boat trips before I had enough courage to ask the oldest of them about the Kabetogama Broadcast.
"Oh that, funny thing, I actually just missed out on that whole thing. It happened a week before I stayed here in summer of '79. I heard a lot about it though. You'll want to talk to Ed about it, he was there."
He was referring to Ed Kleck, the founder and proprietor of Kleck's Cove. I had considered asking him about the Kabetogama Broadcast before, but wanted to feel out the locals first. However, at this point I decided I was being overly cautious and chose to follow the man's advice.
Mr. Kleck was in his late seventies, but his memory was still sharp. He liked to tell stories and I took advantage of this by starting a conversation with him about the history of the resort and the lake. This got him going for a couple hours before I brought up the Kabetogama Broadcast.
"Now why do you wanna know about that?" he asked, seeming taken aback. I told him I had read about it on the internet and what the story said. He shrugged and said "oh well, that's pretty much what happened. Nothing much else to tell really."
I asked if he had seen the episode, to which he responded that he had caught the end of the broadcast after being told about it as it was happening. He said he saw Barney die a horrible and bloody death in some faux-stone age contraption but didn't remember much else. He was reluctant to continue the conversation much further, but assured me that the incident was very real indeed.
I pondered all I had learned on my drive home. I had been left with more questions than answers, and didn't seem to be getting any closer to tracking down the Aristocats lost recording. The more I learned, the more new questions came up. Was the disturbing Aristocats version I had seen connected to the Kabetogama Broadcast or the alleged Batman and Robin lost episode, or was I making connections where there were none? Did that person on Youtube who claimed to have seen the Batman lost episode really see it, or had he just been trolling me? Surely all these claims couldn't be coincidental, but there was no explanation for the existence of these lost episodes.
While I was churning all this information over in my mind, I didn't notice the vehicle behind me until it was right up on my bumper. I swerved as it made contact, and careened into a ditch. The other car drove on without stopping. I wasn't injured, in fact my airbag hadn't even deployed, but I sat in shock for many, many minutes afterward.
When I finally got my bearings, I called 911 and told them my location based on the nearest mile marker. It took about 45 minutes for a state officer to find me. I told the police what had happened, but wasn't able to provide details such as the make and color of the car that had hit me or the license plate. I did not tell them what business I was on or my lingering suspicion that the incident had to do with my investigation of the Kabetogama Broadcast.
Despite this experience, I decided to stick my neck out a little more. This was getting serious, and I needed a clear picture of what I was up against. I had an acquaintance in the FBI who owed my family the favor of a lifetime. I convinced him over dinner that I paid for to look into the Lost Media Group for me.
A few weeks later, he had a document for me. It was an analyst report containing all the information the FBI had on this mysterious group:
The information known by the Bureau about the Lost Media Group is so scant as to strongly suggest that the group does not really exist. This report assumes the existence of the group for investigative purposes, however most of the information contained herein is more speculation than confirmed fact. Most of the testimony concerning the LMG has been hearsay and off-the record...
The exact nature, size, organization, origins, and goals of the LMG are mysterious. They are said to be a multinational organization that has embedded in multiple entertainment industries and is most active in cities with large concentrations of entertainment companies, such as Las Angeles, New York City, Atlanta, Toronto, and Tokyo...
Membership is by invitation only and is rumored to include a number of wealthy entertainment executives and financiers. Secondhand informants report that the group uses a variety of criminal tactics, including bribery, blackmail, and violence, to prevent the dissemination of information concerning them...
It is speculated that the LMG uses other crime syndicates as proxies for their operations in order to obfuscate investigations into their activities, and that they mislead people into believing they are more powerful than they really are. Claims that the group possesses supernatural powers are likely the result of selective disinformation campaigns...
The Lost Media Group first came to the Bureau's attention during the 1970s, but is said to date back to the early 1900s. During the 1920s and 1930s, an urban legend emerged concerning "mystery reels", which were said to be altered versions of syndicated movie theater reels that differed significantly in content and tone from the standard copies. The Bureau believes that the lack of public awareness of entertainment industry standards and copyright contributed to the fact that such works were not reported to the media or law enforcement... A recurring theme in testimony concerning "mystery reels" is that they often contained violent content that was more extreme than mainstream theater content, and several former members of censorship boards have claimed to have received complaints about them. Witnesses also claimed that mystery reels based on live-action films featured different actors, and that these actors in retrospect seem to have been coerced. One witness claimed that an actor in a silent mystery reel appeared to be saying "help me" before being silenced by someone off-screen. These claims have led the Bureau to believe that the LMG may have participated in trafficking in human beings. The group is also rumored to have been involved in the production and distribution of "snuff films", though there is as little evidence to support this claim as there is to support the very existence of snuff movies...
Other crimes the Lost Media Group is suspected to be involved with include media piracy, drugging of actors, trafficking in endangered species (for use in films), and recording executions for other criminal organizations...
I pondered over the report. Membership by invitation only...well-funded, well-connected, must be well-organized. Yet their activities seemed nothing short of bizarre. Why would a group with the kind of resources this group apparently had—unlike the FBI, I was beginning to take the existence of the Lost Media Group for granted at this point—not spend them on more traditional and profitable criminal activities? Why would that many people commit so many resources and risk so much just to make movies? There was no way such a sophisticated syndicate could make enough money off of simple piracy to be considered profitable, and the other crimes listed in the report would seem beyond the scope of expertise of a group ostensibly comprised of people in the entertainment industry.
Was it not about money? An ideological or religious motivation, perhaps? Certainly it didn't fit any religion I could think of. And it didn't seem like they were interested in influencing elections. Their motives must be subtler. They had a message they wanted to send, or an influence they wanted to create, using the power of mass media, and were willing to dabble in any number of crimes toward whatever their ultimate end was.
A few weeks later, I received a reply from the former Lost Media Society admin, the one who was said to be attempting to collect lost episodes. He told me he was not aware of an Aristocats lost episode version, but that he was nevertheless now in possession of several lost episode copies, and was willing to show them to me, for a price. To be exact, he wanted a thousand dollars. I agreed without hesitation. I was not at a point in my life where I could comfortably spend a thousand dollars on anything let alone a prospect that might not deliver, but I was afraid trying to talk him down to a lower offer would make him break contact, and something in my gut told me his claims at least were sincere.
He gave me the address of a secluded cabin he said he would rent for the purpose, which was several states away. He said to come alone, and gave me the exact date he expected me there. I was a little put off by his curt tone, but figured he was paranoid of someone stealing his collection, or worse, being hunted down by the people who made the items. I prepared for the trip and left immediately. When I arrived in the state where the cabin was, it was still a couple days until our meeting date, so I checked into a hotel.
I was up late, watching TV in my hotel room with the lights off, when I found a channel playing The Aristocats. It was in the middle of the movie, but I kept watching. I grew nervous. I had already watched the whole movie, and knew there was nothing unwholesome in the standard version. But the setting, alone in the dark with just the light of the TV, was strongly reminiscent of my traumatic virgin experience with the movie.
Soon though, my unease turned to comfort. I realized there was nothing to fear. Sure, at this point I was convinced that somewhere out there existed a violent and twisted version of The Aristocats, one which I had been unfortunate enough to somehow see as a child, but that didn't matter. It couldn't hurt me now. I laughed as I realized I now had the chance to relive the memory without the trauma. So I grabbed a snack and continued watching in the dark, for once able to enjoy the film as it was intended to be enjoyed. I was able to appreciate what a truly great movie it was, how much effort was put into the animation and voices, how great even the music was.
The soundtrack was a little distorted though. As I turned up the volume to hear it better I realized it wasn't the TV. The music became faster and more distorted, and the scene began morphing into abstract images. I heard screams from the TV, and disturbing images too brief to make out clearly flashed on the screen.
This all ended with the still image of Berlioz, the one I found on the internet with his eyes bloodshot. On the image were two words in red caps:
The screen then went to black.
I sat in total darkness, my body quaking, tears and snot running down my face, hardly able to catch my breath.
I turned on the lights, threw up in the bathroom, and switched the channel. All the stations were playing normal television, which was somewhat comforting, but I still checked out of the hotel and went to a different one.
At this point I considered giving up the hunt. My first goal had been to find out if lost episodes were real, and I had certainly achieved at least that. Whether going further and finding out the exact nature and origin of them was worth it was becoming an increasingly dubious prospect. Whoever was behind them had powers and resources to seriously threaten me, and I didn't know if full closure was worth risking my neck any further.
In the end I decided to keep going though. I was close now, and if there was some secret, powerful group behind all these lost episode stories, the world needed to know. Who were they, to try to intimidate me into giving up?
No, I wouldn't give up the hunt. At that moment I doubled down in my determination. At the appointed time, I showed up at the cabin.
It was night, and the moon flooded the lonely cabin in an eerie glow. There was a vehicle in the driveway, but the lights were out and there were no other signs of occupancy.
I timidly went up and knocked on the door. Without turning on any lights, the man greeted me. For his own safety I will not describe the man save to say that he appeared middle-aged. "So, you were serious about this. Good. Do you have the money?"
I gave him the suitcase of cash. He turned a lamp on and counted it out, then motioned for me to follow him to another room.
He closed the door behind him before turning on the light. The room had a high ceiling and nature paintings on the wall, along with a single shelf of old books that were clearly there for decoration. Centered on one of the walls was a large plasma television. There was a lot of space, but the man himself had only put a couple chairs and some plastic storage tubs on the floor.
"So, here's my collection. It ain't very big, but you'll have a hard time finding these items anywhere else. Sorry to have to charge you so much, but you gotta realize I'm taking a huge risk by showing this stuff to a stranger, so you gotta make it worth my while."
I trembled with anticipation. At last, I was about to have some real, concrete answers.
"Like I said in my email, I don't have, nor have I previously heard of an Aristocats video made by these people, but from how you described it I completely believe you saw it. It fits right in with the kind of thing they would make," he continued.
"By 'they', you mean the Lost Media Group?" I interjected.
"Yeah. They would be behind the thing you saw, along with that Batman lost episode if it indeed exists, though I haven't been able to find it myself, but again, wouldn't be surprised. I don't know what their goal is in making these things, but they're interesting as hell so I collect them."
I asked if he could share some of his contacts, but he flatly refused. "I only give that information to trusted friends, and even if you were one of them I would make you pay more than you could afford. Please don't ask me that again. You're lucky I even agreed to show you my collection."
I was a little flustered by his tone, so I just nodded, then we got down to business. He opened one of the tubs and pulled out a VCR, along with a black VHS tape with a white label that read "Pink Panther" in black sharpie. He hooked up the VCR, inserted the tape, and played it.
It was a lost episode from the Pink Panther cartoon series, which was a show consisting of short sketches, about five or six minutes each, with the Pink Panther going on various solo adventures and getting into trouble with other characters and situations, which he manages with his superior mastery of cartoon physics. There is never any dialogue, save for the occasional wordless exclamation or babbled nonsense, like in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, and every short has the Pink Panther theme playing throughout. I had watched a little of the show as a kid, but didn't have many memories of it.
This episode was called "40 Shades of Pink", which I assumed was a pun on how Ireland is said to have "40 shades of grey", since this was a St. Patrick's Day themed episode. It took place is a green land that, while not explicitly identified as Ireland, was obviously supposed to be the Emerald Isle or at least some generic insular Celtic fantasy land. The short involved the Pink Panther trying to steal a pot of gold from a leprechaun, or rather, the recurring "Little Man" character dressed as one. As the Pink Panther was walking over a rainbow like a bridge, a storm cloud caused it to disappear from under his feet. He fell, and there was a sickening crunching sound. The Pink Panther was shown bleeding out on the ground, bones jutting out. Then he saw the leprechaun’s pot and crawled over to it. Despite his injuries, a smile of victory crawled across his face. As he peered down into the pot, the leprechaun appeared from behind and pushed him in, closing a lid over him and then roasting him alive over a fire. The episode ended with the sound of the Pink Panther screaming.
Lame, I thought. Someone basically just took the Pink Panther cartoon and gave it the Itchy and Scratchy treatment. It was somewhat disturbing that whoever did it clearly had access to the original animation resources to make it look exactly like a real episode, but overall it was underwhelming compared to what I was expecting.
The next item was a copy of The Lion King. This time it was a proper factory copy with a retail jacket. The man told me the movie itself was normal, but there was a special animated short at the end of the tape with "psychedelic properties." He warned me that the experience would be far more intense than the Pink Panther tape and even asked me if I had any heart conditions. Despite his warnings, I insisted on going through with it.
He refused to fast-forward to the short, saying he wanted to keep the tapes from warping even though he had the footage digitally archived. After the credits, there were some special features, including some animated shorts I had never seen before. When the title appeared for a short called "The Lion", the man paused and asked once again if I was sure I wanted to proceed. I nodded, and he played it.
The short featured what was apparently a version of Scar, but the art style was completely different. It was a 2D animation, but somehow much more realistic than Pixar animation. It's hard to explain, it wasn't like CGI realism, but there was so much detail and effort put into the character that it gave the impression of realism while still being paradoxically fantastical.
The clip showed Scar walking around a white background before stopping to face the viewer. The "camera" began slowly zooming in on his face, and his eyes began glowing red. Threatening "jungle music" began playing.
Suddenly I became very nervous. A vicious grimace emerged on Scar's face, the kind a predator makes before striking. His mouth opened wide, showing rows of sharp teach, and I heard realistic growling sounds. His face wrinkled in a pattern consistent with the face a lion makes before pouncing.
My nervousness turned to terror. My gaze was transfixed on the screen, and I couldn't look away. I knew it was only animated, and even if it wasn't the lion couldn't get to me through the screen, but I was paralyzed as if facing a real predator.
I was in a trance, one that didn't break until Scar jumped and I screamed for my life. I kept screaming until the man shook me out of it. "Sorry about that," he said "but I did warn you."
Once I got my bearings back, I asked for the next item. He gave me a puzzled look, as if he had expected me to just give up and want to go home after the last tape, but he shrugged and got the next one. It was another home VHS tape labeled "Super Bowl 2000".
"This next one won't do anything to you like the lion video, but it's disturbing in what it shows. In fact I'll just tell you what it is: this tape shows a riot that didn't happen. If you didn't know, there was no sports riot at the 2000 Super Bowl, certainly not in the stadium itself. But the tape shows just that."
Once again, the man refused to skip to the interesting part to preserve the integrity of the tape. In the third quarter, a referee made a call that didn't sit well with Titans fans, and someone threw a beer bottle. More people started throwing things, and it escalated into a full-scale riot in which spectators swarmed the field and attacked each other. You could see the majority of the crowd slowly evacuating the venue while a small but determined segment began vandalizing the place and having sporadic brawls. There was no commentary at this point, just raw stadium footage that cycled through various venue cameras. About 20 minutes into the riot, the tape ended.
This tape did not cause me to experience abject terror like the last one, in fact the riot hadn't even been that bad compared to other sports riots I'd seen, but I found it disturbing on a deeper level. The fact that they could alter a recording of a sports event to make it show something that so blatantly didn't happen in reality terrified me. They could only have done it in one of two ways: with editing techniques that were well beyond what was publicly known to the world, or with some type of magic.
I still asked to see the next item. The man said it was the last one. It was a plug-and-play video game this time. The man explained that the Lost Media Group was known to dabble in other mediums besides movies and television, and that in particular they were said to produce a lot of "lost" video games, though this was the only one he had been able to acquire.
The game was labeled "Pokémon: Black Carbonite." I actually remembered hearing about Nintendo making a Pokémon plug-and-play game that was cancelled, but I didn't know if that was the title. The thing was black, and bore a white image of Pikachu, sporting a menacing grin.
"I'm not going to let you play this. I myself will never play it again. This thing will mess you up and is downright dangerous. You can examine the hardware though."
I took it from him and did so. The first thing I noticed upon closer inspection was a fissure in the control pad. A lot of force had been applied to make the crack. Then I noticed that some of the plastic was warped... melted.
I looked at the man. He gave me a look back, a look of understanding that there was nothing more that needed to be said. I handed the game back to him.
The man said some goodbye formalities, put his hand over my shoulder, and aggressively led me to the door, closing and locking it behind me.
He never saw my camera. During the "Lion" short, I had managed to snap a quick digital photo of the TV screen while the man wasn't looking, and had put the camera back away before the whole bad acid trip thing. I had the photo enlarged and enhanced and studied it. It was still frightening even without the psychedelic properties of the animated short. Again, despite being a cartoon, it had such detail and realism that it seemed more alive than I thought a cartoon could.
I did some research on art and animation styles, and learned that this technique was known as "hyperrealism", a style intended to give intense lifelike detail using traditional (non-digital) art methods. Some pieces of this genre were almost indistinguishable from photographs. The "Lion" wasn't quite that realistic—you could still tell easily enough that it was a cartoon, yet it was somehow as visually striking as a real photo of a lion.
I continued my research, now focusing on finding people who were knowledgeable about this art form. I narrowed my search down to a few academics and animators, and emailed them the Lion still.
I got a response from one expert saying the style reminded him of Johann Strobl, an Austrian artist and animator who had moved to the United States in the 1930s. He had worked for Disney briefly before starting his own animation studio. He was known for his bizarre, deconstructionist approach to animation and started his own small anti-art movement of sorts. Animators and cartoonists trained at his studio produced their own bizarre works, which often included violent and grotesque themes, despite the fact that the studio ostensibly marketed to children.
The email went on to explain that Strobl became increasingly obsessed with magic and the occult during his career. He became less and less functional until his studio was forced to close due to bankruptcy.
Curiously, the studio was known to produce only a handful of original works of its own. Apparently, the animators had spent a lot of time deconstructing and replicating the works of other companies, mainly Disney since they were the only major animation studio at the time, and altering them to make them surreal or disturbing. This would have opened the company up to piracy claims, except that they never sold such works to the public, instead gifting them to a handful of collectors within the anti-art elite community.
Strobl had also self-published a book, a manual of sorts which contained prints of some of his still cartoons and instructions on his technique. It was simply titled "Animation Deconstructed." I immediately determined to read it, but it took me ages to find a copy. I managed to track one down at a public library headquarters three states away. The book was in their special archive collection, so I couldn't get it through Inter-Library Loan. I had to drive there, where they would allow me to examine it in their archive reading room.
The room was sparse, dusty, and poorly lit. It had the feel of a 1950s police interrogation room. I was allowed to read the book of interest at the single table under the supervision of a librarian. It was yellowed, and the jacket was wrapped in protective plastic. The volume was short enough to read in an hour. Strobl was not as good at English as he was at drawing, so the self-published aspect really showed in the numerous grammar errors. There were a couple dozen prints in the book, all made in his unique hyper-realistic style. Again, they weren't photorealistic like other artists in the genre, but had a depth of detail and perspective that made them appear alive all the same. None of them did anything paranormal or anything like that, but there was one that managed to seriously frighten me. It was a cartoon snake, a cobra, with its fangs bared and a menacing look in its eyes.
You know how some paintings of people have the eyes painted in such a way as to give the impression of the subject's gaze following you as you view it from different angles? Well, this piece didn't do that, but it had some similar thing going on where the eyes of the snake appeared to bore right into you straight through the page. I felt like the snake was going to strike up and dig its fangs into my arm. I didn't have a trippy experience like with the Lion animation, but it was still surreal and unnerving.
In addition to sections on art technique, Strobl had also included a number of seemingly randomly placed critiques of the state of animation that could generously be described as educated rants. A frequent target of his criticisms was Walt Disney, whom he decried as an amateur buffoon who was holding back the animation medium from its true potential. The author went on to emphasize the need to be bold and daring in animation, and willing to push social taboos.
I returned the volume to the librarian. I hadn't discovered anything that would help me with my search for the Aristocats tape, but at least I had come away with some interesting insights into the philosophy of the man who may have been behind it all.
My next step was to visit Strobl's studio, which involved yet another cross-country road trip. I started to wonder how much gas money I would have ended up spending by the end of my search for that damned video. Was it really cheaper than flying?
At least the studio was still standing, though I had arrived anticipating that anything of major interest would have been looted decades ago. Still, I held out hope as I pulled into a shopping center parking lot. The rest of my journey would have to be on foot since the studio had predated modern roads. I crossed the interstate, there being only light traffic, and found and followed the old dirt road that would have been the sole source of vehicle traffic back then. By now it was largely overgrown, and I cursed myself for not bringing a machete.
It took me two hours to reach the location. It was a one-story wooden building, with its windows boarded up, and foliage growing all around it. I walked the perimeter, looking for a way in that wouldn't open me up to charges of "breaking" and entering, though I seriously doubted anyone would ever know or care I had been here in any case. To my disappointment, no entryway had been left by previous urban explorers, and I had to hack away the boards of one window with a hatchet I had brought (it may have been easier to smash down the door, but that felt somewhat less ethical.)
There was of course no source of light, except the now-open window-way, but I had had the foresight to bring three high-powered LED lamps in my backpack, which I now set up around the floor, relieved that I did not see any scurrying or slithering.
The place seemed smaller on the inside, barely more spacious than my basement at home. There was no furniture except a couple broken easels on the floor. They probably sold off the tables and desks to pay off their debts, I thought. Some scuff marks were visible on the wooden floor. There was a low wooden partition that sectioned off a small segment of the room. I guessed that this was where the administrative desk had been, while the rest of the floor was used for the actual animation work.
Like I said, I hadn't really been expecting to find anything important, but it was still disappointing. I spent the next couple hours pacing the floor, wondering if the whole trip had been a waste of time and mileage. I was about to pack up my lamps and leave when I discovered a trap door behind the floor partition.
I had taken one of the lamps off the floor to perch it on top of the partition, and the light now allowed me to see outline of the trap door along with its hinges and latch. The door was about three feet by two feet. I grew excited and opened it.
Annoyingly, the door did not appear to have a mechanism for staying open, and was too heavy for me to hold up. I had to back out through the window and back several time just to bring some rocks to prop it up. But the contents of the compartment were worth it.
The compartment was about three feet deep, and contained what looked like diagrams for animation or film devices, along with various little parts; knobs, bolts, lenses, and the like; all scattered at the bottom. I studied these with fascination, but couldn't make heads or tails of the schematics. I tried fitting some of the parts together, with no success.
I decided against taking these items with me. I had rationalized that violating the law by entering this place unlawfully was worth pulling back the curtain on whatever had caused my childhood trauma, but these items were unlikely to be of value to that end and thus stealing them for my own curiosity would go beyond the bounds of that justification. However, I did photograph each one of them just in case.
The next few months were uneventful. Once again I felt like I had hit a dead end. I took a break from the mission and focused on life obligations. I had just managed to comfortably put the Lost Episode search on the backburner and feel contented when I received an email with the subject "What You've Been Looking For."
I hesitated a good few minutes before opening the message. "Hello. If you want answers, meet me at this address and time."
My heart raced. This email wasn't from any of the addresses I had messaged. I instinctively felt I was about to finally get closure, and was suddenly terrified. Perhaps even more terrified than I had been at any point before in this journey, more than when I was run off the road, more than when I was hypnotized by a cartoon lion, more than when I had been threatened through the TV in a motel room. My hands were shaking so much I could hardly use the keyboard to navigate to a new tab and look up the address.
It was an empty lot from an abandoned building that had been razed years ago. The Google Maps street view looked somewhat foreboding, but it was within comfortable driving distance of my apartment, which terrified me even more to realize the sender knew what city I lived in. Still, I asked off work for the specified date (and was racked with dread until it arrived, barely able to concentrate on my job) and drove to the lot three hours ahead of time, parking my car in the street as was typical for the neighborhood.
It was a sunny spring day, and the wind made me uncomfortable despite the warm weather. Each passing car made me apprehensive, particularly the ones that appeared to slow down. I had an overwhelming urge to drive away as the appointed time drew near.
When the car stopped at the lot exactly at the time, I was surprised to see a woman get out. She had cropped red hair and appeared to be in her early 40s. She was wearing a black leather jacket and walked right up to me.
She smiled slightly. "Hi, you can call me Cathy. I'm from the group you've been looking for."
I swallowed and rendered a quiet greeting. She didn't look threatening. I had trouble imagining what could have possessed her to join an organization like the Lost Media Group, but right now I had other things to be concerned with.
"Don't worry, this isn't a setup," she reassured, reading my apprehension. "If we wanted to do you in, we could have and would have done it already."
"So then what do you want?" I interjected.
"We want you to stop looking into us," she stated plainly. "And to that end I managed to convince the higher-ups to let me show you what you've been looking for so that you, and we, can put this behind us."
"You mean the Aristocats video?" I asked. She nodded.
"For security reasons, we obviously can't just give it to you. The best I could arrange was for you to be allowed to see it, under supervision, at one of the abandoned movie theaters we use to give private viewings of our works for select patrons. We're about to leave that location anyway, and needless you say, you shouldn't even think about telling people we were ever there."
I nodded and grunted. If it meant finally getting answers, I was willing to put up with a little more bullshit.
"I hope you have the whole day free, because the theater is several hours away."
I nodded again, suspecting that she already knew the answer. We got in her car and were off.
We drove in silence for the first hour or so. Then I asked her why the group made lost episodes.
She waited a few moments before answering. "Well, I guess you could say we aim to challenge the status quo of programming, and give animators a chance to really test their limits. That's why I joined when the organization invited me."
"And why do you leak them to the public if you want to keep them secret?" I prodded.
"We don't leak them. Sometimes they just get out and people who weren't intended to see them do. I don't know how you ended up seeing one of our works as a kid, but it wasn't supposed to be."
"And what about the Kabetogama Broadcast?"
"Some member of our organization was messing around when he wasn't supposed to, or maybe it was a TV broadcast only intended to be seen by members back when we were a little more lax about security. Look, I said we'd show you what you've been looking for. Beyond that, I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to satisfy your curiosity about our inner-workings."
I was silent for a few more minutes. Her answers were suspect. The Lost Media Group seemed like the type of group that would find pleasure in shocking and traumatizing random people with their twisted "works", and I didn't quite buy that all exposure to non-insiders was unintentional. I thought back to the FBI report. I also wondered if she was completely happy with the choice she had made to join the organization.
"Well, I've already seen part of your Aristocats edit recently," I finally said.
Cathy pursed her lips, and I could see in her eyes that she was briefly considering whether it was worth trying to pretend she didn't know what I was talking about. She decided against it.
"Yeah, sorry about that I guess, but I guess they figured if we gave you a good scare you might give up and leave us alone."
I was annoyed at her choice of words, as if they were the ones who only wanted to be left at peace all that time. I could only wonder if it had been her idea. I also wondered if she knew I had seen several of their other projects as well.
"When you visited Strobl's old studio, that was when we decided it was time to make a peace offering to get you off our back."
The theater appeared to be one of those many theaters that had been opened during the 90s blockbuster boom and then abandoned during the 2000s. It was along the interstate, isolated from any other buildings. We entered through a side door Cathy had a key for.
The lobby was unlit except for the sun outside. I could see a ticket counter, a concessions area, and posters for old blockbusters on the wall. Covering the floor was carpeting of a faded colorful pattern. Adjacent to the small food court was an empty room that I guessed used to be the video arcade.
Cathy told me to give her my phone, which I did. She then escorted me down the gallery hallway, to the last gallery.
She asked me if I was sure I wanted to see this. I answered yes, and she said I could sit anywhere I wanted. I chose a seat near the back while she went up to run the projector.
I began feeling scared. Sitting there in the dark abandoned gallery was very reminiscent of sitting in the dark watching The Aristocats all those years ago, except that all the extra space made it even more ominous.
When the feature started, I could tell immediately that the audio was off. It sounded shrieky and low-quality. Otherwise, the movie was normal up until the point when the old woman decided to get rid of the cats. Instead of drugging them and leaving them abandoned like in the normal movie, she drowned them in the river. It went downhill from there. Suddenly I was a five-year-old boy again, watching in horror as characters were mutilated, decapitated, and burned, all while strange visual and audio effects were applied.
One particularly shocking scene featured real footage of cats attacking and killing a man. In real time, lines were drawn over the scene, covering it in sketchwork until it had become a completely animated version of itself. It was done with such absolute perfection of technique that I was sure Strobl must have done that bit himself.
I eventually got a grip and was able to sit through the rest of the thing calmly. It wasn't pleasant, but I was at least relieved to finally be getting it over with.
When it was over, I think I had tears in my eyes. "Cathy" drove me back to the empty lot, and it was dark by the time we arrived.
Before I got out, she spoke to me one last time. "Now listen to me, you've found what you were looking for. And now that you have, you need to let it go. I took a big risk even pushing to let you in behind the scenes for that brief moment. If you continue pursuing information about our organization, we will have to take more drastic measures."
We exchanged goodbyes, and she drove off. For years I kept my end of the agreement to never speak a word about our encounter to anyone. However, recently I have been reconsidering the bargain. A few days ago, someone reached out to me on the Web asking me for information on Lost Episodes. They claim to have seen one as a child and are hoping to find closure for their experience.
I'm debating with myself whether it's worth letting them in on the secret, or if it would be better for their own sake if I convinced them they imagined the whole thing.