"I think this skeleton-pumped PSA perfectly reflects that era's methods of keeping children away from bad things: Exaggerate until they shit themselves straight."
If you've spent any time in a Western (and probably American) public school system, then you've no doubt seen one of the films, cartoons and filmstrips whose purpose is to inform bright-eyed schoolchildren about themselves and the world around them. Judging by the way many of these films turn out, however, one might suspect that there's a special wing in Hell set aside just to produce them.
The origin of this trope lies in the belief that children aren't all that receptive to positive reinforcement, and therefore must be informed in the least subtle way possible about all of the negative consequences which may befall them if they do anything eviland/orstupid. For instance, tell little Johnny that he has a better chance of living a long healthy life if he avoids drugs. There's a pretty good chance that he'll say "Sure" and then promptly forget every single word you just said. But, tell Johnny that he'll wind up drooling in a back alley covered with sores while jamming a dirty 8-inch long needle into his arm if he takes a single puff from a joint given to him by The Aggressive Drug Dealer, and he'll listen. He may laugh his disbelieving butt off, but he will listen.
This mentality has formed the basis of all sorts of cautionary tales, many of which employ extreme and terrifying imagery in their attempt to keep children on the straight and narrow path. Yes, yes, irreversible psychological damage might occur, but it is all for their own good, so it's okay. So what if a kid winds up a twitching vegetable afraid of venturing into the outside world? At least he won't get kidnapped by a lollipop-wielding child-molester or hit by a bus while jaywalking and smoking crack.
The theory is that when they grow older and "able to understand," adults will be able to give the "real" reasons for such mores. A common reality is that there's less to stop them from engaging in that behavior once they realize that their face won't "freeze that way."
Examples of some of the mind-meltingly scary imagery include: a boy getting run over by a train, vandals poisoning a deer, people in Africa contracting hideous diseases like sleeping sickness and elephantiasis, a choking victim who turns bright blue and nearly dies... Let's not even get into the bloody, windshield-cracking horrors inflicted in Driver's Ed class or what happens when people panic if the school catches on fire.
Of course, not every child who sees these types of films will become traumatized by them. For every kid who pukes at the five-minute mark of Wheels of Tragedy, there will be at least one who will cheer loudly at the sight of karmically-induced gore splashing across the screen. (A phenomenon excellently spoofed in this Onion article).
Note: Sometimes Scare 'Em Straight campaigns will actually backfire, and the ads that were designed to admonish a certain behavior will actually encourage it and make it look cool. There are those who believe that certain companies might be doing this sort of thing on purpose to lure in new customers. After all, why else would cigarette and alcohol companies be so quick and eager to create ad campaigns that are supposedly against middle-schoolers using their products, when most new users tend to get hooked at that age? It's a debate that will probably rage on for as long as alcohol and tobacco remain legal and available.
Scare 'Em Straight as a whole not only covers instructional shorts, but scary public service announcements as well. God forbid you should settle in to enjoy your Saturday Morning cartoons and your Froot-Loops without being reminded of the Lovecraftian Body Horror which can overtake you if you fail to brush your teeth. Some politicians will use these tactics to try and scare people off voting for their opponent, which is known as a Scare Campaign.
This is the modern equivalent of the (hopefully) Forgotten Trope of children's literature intended to scare the kids into good Christian behavior by depicting the torments of Hell itself (or at least a painful, horrible, gruesome death) inflicted on "boys and girls like you."note For instance: most fairy tales, like, say, Little Red Riding Hood. Some fringe sects keep this tradition alive with "hell houses," but these are very much disavowed by the mainstream. However, a Hell House graced the cover of Newsweek as recently as 2006. note ("Visions of Hell," by Matthew Philips and Lisa Miller, Newsweek, November 6, 2006, 52; also "Signaling Through the Flames: Hell House Performance and Structures of Religious Feeling" by Ann Pellegrini )
It could be said that the large number of examples on this page are a testimony to there being too much PSA time available to a vast number of specialized interest groups, each one convinced that theiranvil needs to be dropped, and unaware that people become desensitized at a young age by the sheer volume of Scare 'Em Straight messages.
This is, arguably, also one of the intentions of older forms of punishment, especially where the criminal (or his/her tortured-to-death corpse) is displayed in public as a warning to others.note See also: The "Real Life" examples in the Cruel and Unusual Death article. Just make sure you don't plan to sleep that night.
Can lead to Do Not Do This Cool Thing, if the audience likes looking at gruesome pictures. Oh, and no, it has nothing to do with scaring homosexuals into being straights, at least right now.
Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex does this to a group of med students. Three medical students who are well enough on their own decide to try their hand at stealing organs and selling them on the black market. It doesn't take much to capture the first two, but the leader of the operation runs off into the nearby warehouse. Motoko heads inside to deal with him personally. She pulls out a knife and threatens to kill him and sell his organs herself. He tries to plead and bargain with her, but she keeps advancing. She backs him into a corner, takes the knife and stabs it down at his head. One Gory Discretion Shot later, we see the kid is still alive, though he did wet his pants in fear. Motoko jammed the knife into an oil pipe right above his head. As all three students are being taken away by the police, she tells them that they all have promising educations and futures ahead of them and that they shouldn't get mixed up with illegal activities, especially ones that the Yakuza has a hand in.
Batman is a classic example. The entire point of dressing up as a giant bat and beating the hell out of criminals is to terrify them into not being criminals any more. The intro to The Dark Knight and the mob turning to the Joker for help showed the results, and in the comics, Gotham's crime rate surges on the few occasions Batman is confirmed to be absent from the city.
Jack Chick's Chick Tracts, which attempt to scare people straight quite literally in many cases, by establishing homosexuals as being ungodly deviants who corrupt the young and, in one memorable instance that people have stumbled across, outright state that the homosexual community was willing to deliberately supply HIV-infected blood to the blood transfusion network in a form of political blackmail. They're so absurdly over-the-top ("AAAHHH... my leg's on fire!") that they're sometimes mistaken for parody, except he is absolutely serious about all of this and expects you to take it seriously as well. One of his more famous tracts is "Dark Dungeons," when he rails against Dungeons & Dragons, claiming that players will become involved in black magic and kill themselves if anything happens to their Player Character.
His goal of scaring you into believing in God occasionally veers in a creepy direction. In one tract, a father sexually abuses his daughter and gives her gonorrhea. He then accepts Jesus and all is forgiven. His daughter magically isn't traumatized, and he suffers no legal consequences for the abuse. There's a reason that tract is no longer in circulation.
Adventures in Odyssey, which usually doesn't pull this trope into effect heavily, did a similar thing in their "Castles and Cauldrons" episode, with a version of Dungeons & Dragons so exaggerated you had to wonder if they had watched even one or two minutes of people playing it. (And it still failed to live up to the silliness of the above example.)
Judge Dredd once commented that if you gave him a "Juve aged 5," all he'd have to do was stare at him for a bit and it would scare them straight ... in theory.
Dredd: "Give me the juve at five and I'll give you the model citizen... or one who thinks long and hard before he steps over the line."
The EC Comics story ''The Monkey'' suggests that smoking one joint will result in instant addiction, which, within three months, will lead to heroin addiction and then bashing your father's head in with a lamp for drug money.
The concept is invoked in a Thunderbolts/Avengers Academy crossover called "Scared Straight", in which the Academy students are brought to the Raft to see why they shouldn't become super-criminals. Using Moonstone and the Ghost wasn't quite the right tactic, especially as some of the students tried to kill Norman Osborn shortly thereafter.
Kyon Big Damn Hero: Tanaka Taro in chapter 54 begins his short time in the story reflecting to himself that he is going to become an important and powerful person in the crime syndicate by taking out Kyon. After the attempt, he reflects that after he recovers, he will still become an important and powerful person by working at the docks, getting the Japanese equivalent of a GED, and working his way up to management.
The Trope Namer is the documentary Scared Straight! (1978), which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Film. Several lifers in prison elaborate to a group of juvenile delinquents what prison was like, mainly indulging in lurid tales of Prison Rape. Its effectiveness as a program was pretty hit and miss.
The video "Dark and Lonely Water", which was about safety in and near water, had a Grim Reaper-esque figure (voiced by Donald Pleasance!) stalking through swamps, then looming over children playing by streams and sending them to their deaths. It ends with a chilling voiceover of "I'll be back..."
One Got Fat, a 1963 film on bicycle safety, no doubt scared many a child. Narrated by Edward Everett Horton, it featured kids in creepy paper-mache monkey masks riding their bikes to a picnic, and getting into disturbing slapstick accidents for not obeying such rules of the road as "ride alone," "watch signs", or "use lights." The kid carrying everybody's lunches obeys all the rules and makes it to the picnic grounds in one piece (he's also the only one not wearing a mask, because "he's no monkey"), but seems unconcerned with his friends' plight and eats all their lunches (hence the title of the film, "One Got Fat").
The irony being supplied by the fact that, after generations of ominous warnings about the various dangers Out There, the authorities are now worried about kids... getting, um, fat.
Reefer Madness is a 1936 exploitation film revolving around the tragic events that follow when high school students are lured by pushers to try "marihuana": a hit and run accident, manslaughter, suicide, rape, and descent into madness all ensue. This one was so incredibly over-the-top, it was actually adopted by the pro-marijuana community as an indictment of the hysteria that surrounds marijuana (as well as, perhaps ironically, a really fun movie to watch while stoned). This way of looking at the film turned it into a cult classic, and even led to a musical version, which plays the whole thing off with a wink, a nudge, and a whole lot of catchy songs.
It gets better. For their 2008 Four Twenty celebration, the magnificent bastards at G4 debuted the movie Reefie's Madhouse, in which they took the original movie and gave it a Gag Dub. Like the original, it can only truly be appreciated if one is high while watching it.
Driver's Ed, of course, has had some classics. Like a video about road rage. Here the innocent driver goes, down the highway... and the other driver pulls over, gets a crossbow out of the trunk and shoots him for not turning his high beams on. (Surprisingly, Based on a True Story! http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15302476/)
Or the video about wearing one's seatbelt, and especially the ones about not driving drunk. There are graphic, crash-scene photos of severed limbs, streaks of brains and blood on the pavement leading up to a now-headless body, a body impaled on a tree limb about ten feet in the air, and a partial decapitation - the head had been split horizontally at about nose-level. People have been known to faint halfway through.
There is plenty of this in Driver's Ed. One might recall, for example, the film titled Red Asphalt III. Just about every video, at least one shown each class for 4 weeks, began with no less than 3-5 minutes (and sometimes up to 10) of gory footage and a deep-voiced narration of the tale of Johnny Everyteen and his friends getting drunk at a Sweet 16 party and driving to their corpse-mangling doom... immediately followed by Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" and a cheerful old man ready to teach us how to drive.
Oh, just pray you never do defensive driving online. The videos they make you watch on those pages... one of them, an anti-drunk-driving one, featured the tagline... "Matthew wanted to celebrate winning the big game. So he killed his best friend." Less Scared Straight, more Scared Into Laughing My Ass Off.
The film "Trashed" dissuades new drivers from drunk driving by showing unedited footage of the emergency room after horrific DUI-related crashes.
X Marks The Spot, produced by the New Jersey DMV and eventually featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, shows that you will die on your way home if you so much as run a stop sign. note The main character's other driving habits are exaggerated Up to Eleven as well.
By the 1970s, there were the Public Service Announcements with crash test dummy footage of the consequences of drivers and passengers not wearing their seatbelts in auto accidents. While they avoided the gruesomeness of the above instructional films, the slow motion imagery of the dummies flying about and smashing into things made its point.
Today, most driver's education films shown in class have disclaimers, warning viewers that they could expect to see the grim aftermath of accidents showed photos and live-action film – people lying in pools of blood, mangled beyond recognition, severely burned, and – if not dead – in various states of consciousness. Beforehand, these films did not have these disclaimers, meaning that someone seeing the remains of a high school quarterback and homecoming queen being extricated from a wrecked car and loaded into a hearse – and the events leading up to it (perhaps they were out drinking, or someone else was) – could be shown without warning ... and enough to scare the viewer straight and send an intended message.
Used in-universe in the comedy Moving Violations, in which the traffic-school class has to watch a gory PSA called "Blood On The Highway." Subverted in that one of the attendees is a die-hard horror movie addict and thoroughly enjoys the showing.
Starting with Safety, a chemistry lab safety video that aims to impart a thorough understanding of the importance of laboratory rules. It was made in 1991, but is still a popular choice for beginner labs for preteen students all the way through college labs. Highlights include the "glassware to the palm," the "camera bath," rampant mannequin abuse, and a demonstration of the safety shower complete with uncomfortably attentive classmate. It combines late 80's-brand cheesiness with laughably cheap special effects and somehow manages some genuinely wince-inducing moments.
The film has actually gained a modicum of infamy due to how weird it is. There's even a Facebook group for it.
Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle has an early scene where the two are watching TV and a (fake) PSA shows a guy getting high and claiming he's invulnerable, putting a shotgun to his mouth.
That was actually a parody of several drug PSA's that were out at the time where people who were high were too unaware of what they were doing. The PSA it's parodying in particular has a high kid playing around with a gun and shooting himself or his friend. It's unclear (AKA I can't remember).
Apaches is a British public information film that shows the dangers of playing on farmyards, such as drowning in cow shit. Either that or the dangers of negligent farmers, it’s not quite clear. The entire film and a riff by Larry Bundy Jr. can be seen here.
Played for laughs in Mean Girls when the health teacher tries to scare the teens out of having sex. He doesn't do a very good job.
Teacher: Don't have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die...Now everybody take some rubbers.
One Last Shot, a hunter education film. In it, two kids go hunting (without permission, no less). One kid pretty much forgets every rule of hunting (he wasn't paying attention during the class). Then, the same kid finishes shooting and runs downhill to get the targets, his friend warning him that he's got one last shot. He trips and drops his gun, which fires and shoots his friend; the friend dies in surgery, the kid gets legal action against him, and that's the film. Much less graphic than many of the things on this page, with the only truly graphic part being the surgery — just brief shots of blood pools. Still scary, though.
In Little Shop of Horrors, this is parodied when the sadistic dentist shows Seymour a picture of what a neglected set of teeth look like. It's a parody, because it's clearly a close-up of a horse's teeth.
While the films aren't used, a horrifying slide show about VD horrifyingly graphic detail is still a common part of regular US military training. It still does the job of serving as a warning against soliciting prostitutes. And yes, syphillis and gonorrhea are among the "classics" amongst the slides. They also like to show these right after everyone's eaten.
In John Krish's The Finishing Line, another British PIF, almost all of the children along with some innocent train passengers and even the train's conductor get killed during the "games". The PSA was later replaced with "Robbie", a PSA about a boy who loses his legs and can no longer play football. Robbie was soon replaced with yet another PSA not long afterward.
There's this VHS called "The Dangers of Smoking" that shows this smoking cessation class watching an old video that shows graphic cancer surgery and then shows this cancer patient with a huge chin speaking in a deep voice. It then shows a montage of photos of his chin getting bigger and the last photo showed his dead corpse. VERY grotesque!
This one old bus safety film with a cartoon duck (The title was something like "Sam on the Buses" or something) has graphic scenes of what happens when you stick your head out of a window and vice versa. The worst scene in that film shows a mischievious student scaring the bus driver, which cuts to several scenes of school bus crash tests showing huge buses crashing into brick walls with the child dummies inside them being tossed around like leaves in a salad while scary xylophone music plays.
The Lost Weekend, though not explicitly an educational film, depicts the protagonist's descent into alcoholism very much this way.
Struwwelpeter is a classic (1845) German children's book that warns the reader against misdemeanors like not trimming their nails or playing with matches with rather gruesome cautionary tales. One of them, for example, features a boy who sucks his thumb, so a tailor (the "Great Red-Legged Scissor-man") comes out of nowhere and cuts his thumbs off with a pair of scissors.
In the Discworld book Hogfather, Peachy used to suck his thumb as a child. As a grown man (not to mention a violent gangster and thug), he suddenly finds himself in a world based on a child's mind - he is unfazed until the Scissor Man actually appears. He flees in terror and is never seen again.
The previous governess of the novel's two children was apparently a great believer in this trope, making up all manner of monsters to threaten Twyla and Gawain into proper behavior. Susan finds it exasperating to no end, having to beat these prohibitory monsters into submission once she becomes their governess.
Jenny Green-Teeth, a monster encountered by Tiffany in The Wee Free Men, is identified by Miss Tick as a creation of parents who wanted to scare their kids out of playing too near the water.
Hilaire Belloc wrote a series which is the English equivalent of Struwwelpeter. It includes Cautionary Tales, A Moral Alphabet, and A Good Child's Book Of Beasts. Things like getting blown up, crushed by falling statuary, and eaten by lions happened to bad children. However, the stories are all in verse and have a kind of ghoulish glee about them, suggesting that they're not necessarily supposed to be taken totally seriously.
This was also parodied in a cutaway gag on Family Guy.
This character has gained a sort of tongue-in-cheek fame in Finland. There is a famous children's song named after him that's basically 'stop telling boring stories!'
The Red-Legged Scissor Man, along with several creatures like him, appear in The Fourth Bear, a novel by Jasper Fforde. There's a village where these monsters actually exist, and the children are downright creepily obedient, in order to avoid the possibility of thumbs being snipped off and suchlike. While definitely both Nightmare Fuel and Paranoia Fuel for the children, the effect this has on them, the Uncanny Valley creepiness, is also Nightmare Fuel in the books (both in-universe, for people who haven't grown up in the village, and for the reader). For decades the parents had decided that Utopia Justifies the Means, but eventually the parents rebel, demanding normal things like teenage arguments and untidy bedrooms (things they never got a chance to experience as children either ...).
The History of the Fairchild Family, a popular Victorian Sunday school prize, had lots of these, including a child nearly dying of a fever for eating stolen plums, a father taking his quarreling daughters on a walk in the woods to see a dead man hanging on a gibbet, and another girl burning to death while playing with a candle. Later editions either toned down or completely removed the latter two incidents.
The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series had the desperate parents of naughty children going to an old lady in a weird house and getting strange concoctions to teach their children the error of their ways. Often involved magical candy.
An entire discredited subtrope of this are the tales, often presented through allegory, of young women who place unwise trust in male strangers, slip into their abodes, and are never seen alive again. Famous fables of this type include "Little Red Riding Hood" (before the Brothers Grimm version introduced a hunter to save the day) and "The Spider and the Fly."
In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, this seems to be the job of the Ghost of Christmas Future.
The entire point of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is to do this. At least it didn't go as far as "No Pressure" above...
German author Gudrun Pausewang does this so well, it makes her the queen of HONF. Most (in)famous example: Die letzten Kinder von Schewenborn (The last kids of Schewenborn), about the life of an ordinary German family during and after global thermonuclear war. Including excessive descriptions of radiation sickness, mutilated people, lots of children dying (incl. all the siblings of the narrator), a baby born eyeless and armless, the mother of the family going mad and forcing the family to return to Frankfurt which she believes wasn't destroyed (of course it was, being one of Germany's most important cities), and also the description of the helplessness of the people. She also wrote books about a nuclear power plant going Chernobyl in Germany, the poorness of people in third-world country, another right-wing populist taking power in Germany, and a biography of young Adolf Hitler. Some of these books even got prizes for being (supposedly) good literature.
Danish fairytale legend Hans Christian Andersen. Everywhere. Most blatant example: You go to hell for a "C" school note equivalent. No, I'm not making this up, read "Ole Lukøje."
Charlotte Temple, by Susanna Rowson, is a badly written, overdone, Anvilicious, ham-fisted morality tale laden with hackneyed stereotypes; it was also the bestselling novel in America from its publication in 1794 to when it was finally overturned by Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852.Charlotte Temple is the story of a young English girl who, sincerely in love, runs away with a soldier to America, beyond her family's ability to help her. Her soldier then abandons the girl when she's pregnant for a prettier, wealthier model, leaving Charlotte to eventually beg in the streets, and get a "happy" ending in that she dies in her father's arms.
Arguably deconstructed in Theodore Thomas' short story, "Test," where a man applying for his driver's license experiences a horrific accident through hypnosis. The end of the story hints that no one gets a license — those applicants who still want to drive after experiencing that are presumed insane and dragged away to an asylum.
"The Boy Who Cried Wolf" was told to scare children who lie all the time. (See Crying Wolf.)
Jean Valjean attempts this in-universe in Les Misérables. When a young fop of a street thug, Montparnasse, tries to mug him, Valjean asks why, and Montparnasse retorts that he's lazy and honest work is hard. Valjean, who spent nineteen years in prison for the Felony Misdemeanor of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family (and a few escape attempts), is disgusted, and gives him a vivid description of how Montparnasse's criminal laziness could very well land him in prison, where the work is so backbreakingly awful that honest employment looks like a restful paradise in comparison. When this doesn't work on its own, Valjean points to Montparnasse's fine clothes and fancy hair and says he'd be shaved bald and issued a hideous uniform. This part seems to have some effect.
Live Action TV
The Brady Bunch: "Bobby's Hero," from the fourth season, sees an elderly man, whose father had been killed by outlaw Jesse James during a robbery, set Bobby straight on the legend and the facts about James and his gang.
My Two Dads: The 1989 episode "Story With a Twist" sees teenager Nicole come home drunk. When her two fathers, Michael and Joey, learn she also drove with someone who was drunk, they decide to teach her a "scared straight" lesson ... by themselves getting very drunk and then announcing they were going for a little drive. Judge Wilbur stops Michael and Joey just in time, before a petrified Nicole says she understands the consequences of drinking and driving; Wilbur then confides that she was in on the lesson all along.
On Saving Grace, Grace's niece and best friend went to a "scavenger" party where they took random drugs, and the best friend died. Her father and Grace dragged the niece down to the morgue and forced her to look at her friend's corpse.
Also happened on an episode of Crossing Jordan, where Macy took his daughter to the morgue to show her the corpse of a girl who was killed by a mobster after falling into an unsavory life.
A similar thing happened on an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation when Catherine dragged Lindsey to the morgue to look at a random corpse after the latter was caught hitchhiking during a particularly rebellious period.
Also in CSI: Miami - As part of their sentence, convicted drunk drivers would have to show up at the morgue, where Alexx would show them corpses of people who made the same mistake but weren't lucky enough to live through it.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation also featured a more comical example of this when Nick arrested a stoner who was shining a laser pointer at commercial airliners. The kid was dumped in a holding room with a dozen hardened criminals who gleefully played along when Nick mentioned how "popular" the kid would be in jail.
Threads. Oh God, Threads. You'd go from first-strike proponent to head of the CND after you watch it.
Parodied in The Colbert Report. To complement The Wørd "Just Don't Do It," Colbert did The Talk in a way it would disencourage sex:
Alright, teens. Sex is as natural as the birds and the bees because if you do it you will be stung to death and have your eyes violently pecked out! (If you do it right) Girls, you could become pregnant. Boys, you could become pregnant too! Sometimes it goes back up and you grow a baby in your ball sack. (How kids get nut allergies) Unbelievably painful, women will never understand. If you don't tamp down your physical desires boys, you could go insane and find yourself copulating with the coin return of a vending machine. (Bright side: Free Kit Kat). And girls, if you give into your lust, you could end up copulating with something even worse. (A teenage boy).
Pretty much the point of J. Walter Weatherman on Arrested Development, who was a one-armed man that George Bluth hired to help teach his children a lesson. Several lessons. Through graphic traumatizing deceit, fake blood, and a fake arm, he managed to burn into the kids' minds that everything from talking too loud in the car, to leaving the house without putting a note on the fridge will inevitably end in someone's arm being ripped off.
Although Lindsay came away from the "fridge note" incident thinking he wanted them to avoid dairy somehow.
George Sr. also hosted a "Scared Straight" presentation at the Church and State Fair. Accidentally walking into the Church one, he ended up telling a bunch of young gay men about a place where you work out and have sex with other men without anyone treating it like a big deal, and was asked if there was a cover charge. Funnily enough, his original plan of talking about the horrors of his house confinement and constant sex with Lucille, along with visual aids, might have been more effective here. Though a Space Whale Aesop.
In an episode of The Wire, there's a scene of some elementary school kids sitting in on a gangbanger's autopsy while someone lectures them about the dangers of a life of crime. But they don't seem particularly fazed at all. The coroner later jokes that it was more "bored stiff" than "scared straight."
On Dexter, we see a flashback wherein Harry takes young Dexter to watch an execution, telling him that this is what will happen to him if he doesn't follow the Code.
Parodied on a regular sketch on Saturday Night Live, which has a group of prison inmates trying to "scare straight" a trio of teens, inevitably by retelling the plot of some film or the like. Usually, the horrible consequences the inmates use are based on story elements that aren't that horrible, actually.
In one episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun, Don shows a Driver's Ed class one of these. Amusingly, Sally comes in later so that the two of them can watch it together... backwards, so that it has a happy ending.
Sally: Her head came back on!
One episode of Police, Camera, Action! had a group of self-confessed speeding drivers who were taken to a mock-up of an accident scene where a motorist was doing at least 60 miles in a 30 mile zone. The car he hit was of a married couple and their three-month old daughter who was reported as not breathing when the ambulance arrived. The daughter survived — they brought her out in a wheelchair and the mother explained that she needed round the clock care (two carers during the day, one during the night) and that if they removed a device around her neck, she would die. A few of the group were horrified and promised never to speed again; one stated that they would only speed "if it was safe to do so."
On Party Down, after catching Henry and Constance smoking marijuana, Ron produces a photo he uses whenever he's tempted to use to scare them straight. He had a friend who smoked pot, and one time he got drunk and crashed the company van and got his foot amputated. The photo is of "a leg made footless by pot."
Sometimes Maury's guests would be victims of domestic abuse. Their abusive partners would be talked to onstage, then a big, buff man (usually a prison-guard, or a former abuser, or a cop) would take them out for a day or so. First they went to a prison to see where they would be if they kept hurting their partners and then they were taken to a coroner, to see the dead body of an abuse victim. The guy in charge would then force the abusers to take a good, long look at her and basically tell them "This could be your partner." A "Where are they now?" segment would be brought up at the end, mentioning that some of those couples were currently getting help.
They also do this with the "delinquent teenager" episodes. Usually the girls (most of whom will admit to sleeping with any man that agrees because they want a baby) will be lectured by women who were teen moms, and usually the older girls will let them take care of the baby for a day. Often, at the same time, they'll be taken to this inside of a prison and screamed at by female inmates.
One episode of Drake & Josh had an episode called "Steered Straight". The boys are taken into a cop car, and on the way to the station, the officer who picked them up stops at a gas station robbery. Unfortunately, the robber steals the cop car and the boys are forced to pretend to be criminals so the robber won't know they're innocent. Of course, hilarity ensues.
Parodied in The Office episode "The Convict". Michael attempts to seriously warn the office of how horrible and frightening prison is by using this technique as he pretends to be a rebellious ex-convict, with ridiculous reasons of why to avoid prison... like the Dementors.
The Young Ones has a parody of a road safety PSA in which a cricket bat with a brick tied to it represents a car, and various squishy foodstuffs represent vulnerable pedestrians. This was a parody of a real road safety campaign that had aired a few years previously, using the image of a hammer smashing a peach to represent people being run over.
Played with in an episode of Hill Street Blues. The Captain (a sort of costumed public relations guy for the precinct) tries bringing in a young juvenile offender to show him around and try to put a scare into him about crime. It not only doesn't work, when Mick lays into The Captain with a tirade that includes "people don't scare him, he scares people" the kid in turns lays into the officer with a death threat. The Captain STILL thinks he's getting somewhere.
An episode of Orange Is The New Black has a group of prisoners excited to take part in a scared straight program, where they have to yell at delinquent teenage girls. The prisoners even practice for the role.
"YOLO" by The Lonely Island spoofs the "you only live once" meme and the backlash against its risk-promoting nature by being the diametric opposite: a song telling the listener to avoid doing anything risky, to the point of boarding up one's windows and wearing a straitjacket. "You oughta look out."
Another version involves only the genitals being fused together, and the boy is so traumatized that he throws up in the girl's mouth. The smell of the vomit attracted a bear, which proceeded to eat the girl's face. Oh, and the boy didn't even have a phone, so he had to drag himself and the girl's half-eaten corpse to the highway, traumatizing some Girl Scouts along the way. When he was finally taken to the hospital, the doctors managed to separate the couple, though the boy's penis was destroyed in the process.
This Urban Legend is a bit pointless, as a more appropriate Aesop would be "don't be on mountains during thunderstorms" rather than "don't have sex".
Though not the origin of the mythos, vampire legends became popular in 1500s England to discourage teenagers from having sex before marriage (as well as being a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases). This was during a time when religion and salvation as a whole were significantly more important, so losing your soul to vampirism greatly outweighed the benefits you would get.
The Christian play Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames. It's a series of vignettes where people die and stand before the gates of Heaven. If they accepted Christ beforehand, they're allowed in. If not, cue the creepy music as a guy in a black coat comes out and drags the "heathen" off to Hell, whose only crime in many cases was skipping church.
Parodied in the "Scared Straight to the Altar" segment of the musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. A group of adults with defined standards in what they're looking for in a spouse are forced to listen to a convict's story about how he grew so bitter over being single for so long that he eventually snapped and murdered all of the couples at a New Year's party. This terrifies his audience into abandoning their standards, grabbing the nearest member of the opposite sex, and running off to get married on the spot.
A Half-Life Modification called Afraid Of Monsters is a complete videogame version of this. The main character is David, a drug addict who seeks help for his obsession with painkillers. But before he gets treatment for it, he takes more of them in a hospital's bathroom, and everything goes awry after that. After a nightmare sequence, David encounters Dogs with Shaved Human Heads, Gibberish-spouting nonsensical Zombies, Giant Flickering Faces that laugh like children, Levitating aliens, abominations made of human limbs, Random Ghosts appearing, Even more random noises without sources, and a world that is Dark and changes form. After all that, all the endings in the game are unhappy but one, and all show the consequences of what an addiction to drugs can lead to.
It is made more elaborate, by the fact that to see the happy ending, you have to get the others first. That requires 3 playthroughts, which goes to show that, yes, Drugs are bad.
Anders' personal quest in the second chapter of Dragon Age II ends with him losing control and menacing a young female escaped mage while glowing blue. If Hawke stops him from killing her, you run into her again outside, where she asks you what happened; Silly!Hawke's response is that it was all a demonstration to scare her away from the idea of ever summoning a demon.
In BioShock 2 we get to visit Ryan Amusements, the centerpiece attraction of which is the "Journey to the Surface" ride. Since Andrew Ryan has an almost obsessive need to keep his underwater city secret, the exhibit was designed to discourage Rapture's youth from wanting to visit the surface. As such, visitors get to ride faux-bathyspheres down streets labeled "Curfew Alley" and "War Road," and watch creepy animatronics of families, artists, and scientists be menaced by Wallmaster-esque figures representing The Government. Apparently, it was quite effective.
The webcomic version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid has Gregory go to the dentist once, which has pictures of all the people who never brushed their teeth in their lives or never even used floss. This unfortunately doesn't do anything to help Gregory with his fear of the dentist... and you can bet your ass that a lot of people are afraid of someone with metal tools poking around in their mouths.
Benzaie got hired to make a PSA about seat belts. He made a Flipnote animation of Yarn Kirby turning into a car and crashing into a rock, causing his face to fly off and splatter against a boulder. Watch it here.
A Moral Tale by Joe Bethancourt — "There is No Cure. Even Banjos Anonymous cannot help this one."
Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: The episode "Busted" is one of the best animated Scare 'Em Straight episodes. Series' host Bill Cosby warns at the beginning of the episode that some graphic language is used, and indeed it is: When Albert and his buddies are given the prison tour by a police officer, they hear lots of hooting and lurid comments from the inmates. Even without the use of strong profanity, the remarks that various inmates make about wanting the kids to join them in their cell (so they can have sex with them) – not to mention the strong commentary from two of the other inmates about not having any rights or freedoms, and the strong probability of lost opportunities once released – is enough to convince the gang to stay out of trouble and the hell away from people like Rudy's buddy, who got them in trouble in the first place.
The massive, multi-series crossover special Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue featured just about every major Saturday morning cartoon character of the early '90's inflicting massive amounts of psychological torture on a teenage addict to try and scare him off of drugs. (They'll be lucky if their efforts haven't driven the kid to drink.)
Made even better when you consider that the real purpose of this special wasn't revealed until it aired! Instead, all the ads displayed it as a fun adventure starring all the big cartoon stars of the day. Cue deer-in-headlights look on parents' faces when their seven year old son turned to them and asked what marijuana was.
Too bad nobody showed the producers of the PSA about how publishing companies can't always give you the rights to use characters from their publications, and that you may actually need the original author's permission. They used Garfield, but only got permission from the publishers of the comic, who legally could not give permission for the use of the character without Jim Davis's approval, which got them into a bit of trouble (and spared the world from re-airings).
There is some question whether the series was a straight attempt at this Trope, or a prime example of Poe's Law.
One episode of Home Movies had a schoolteacher who was a former prison guard locking the kids in a cell for a few hours in order to scare them straight. They used the time to brainstorm about their next film project.
And it was a white-collar prison — the kids thought the whole setup was pretty sweet. Coach McGuirk even commented that the cells were better than his apartment.
Another episode had Brendon filming a cautionary warning about putting marbles in your nose, which led to a rash of kids putting marbles in their noses — of course, it had a metal song in it with the lyrics "Don't put marbles in your nose/Put them in there/Do not put them in there!"
The Finnish primary childrens' TV show had a segment in the '80s and '90s that seems to have been out to intentionally traumatize toddlers about thin ice. Featured were panic, Uncanny Valley animation, and music that was just plain wrong. Good thing, too — the way Finland is crammed full of nature means that each winter fills the country with open, inviting death traps. Falling through lake ice doesn't dick around but kills you in a hurry.
The clip also does a good job by showing kids what to do in case someone does fall into an icy lake.
The bear's voice is plain horror. If you're curious, he says "Beware of weak ice." In a creepily low tone.
The cartoon Play Safe delves deep into the well of horror to convey a somewhat dubious message about train safety. Complete with jerky rotoscoping, Deranged Animation, a horrifying soundtrack, and a Space Whale Aesop to boot (playing in train yards results in... hijacking a sentient streamliner and crashing it into another train?). You too can view the madness here.
Beavis And Butthead go to prison on a school-sponsored 'Scared Straight' program — you can guess how they absorb the message. The episode ends with B&B promising to return to the joint so they and their new jailbird friends can "party again".
The dumb duo also take in a 50's drivers-ed video, starring two meatheads with a suspicious resemblance to our protagonists. They then proceed to replicate the accident during their own driving test.
As seen in Pinocchio, if you drink beer, smoke cigars, or play a round of pool (which, as we all know, is every 6-year-old boy's greatest fantasy), you'll turn into a donkey. No, it's true.
According to Roger Ebert in his review for the VHS release of the film, this may subconsciously be the reason why he doesn't smoke.
And now, Disney repurposed bits of footage from Pinocchio into an anti-smoking PSA, seen before some animated films. Here, at the bottom
The "Deathrace" episode of Metalocalypse has Toki and Skwisgaar forced to go to driving school after a DWI arrest. The school forces them to watch a film about drunk driving, with accident scenes so graphic that they become afraid to drive a car, and fail the test as a result.
In the 90s British primary school children were treated to a rather well-done fire safety animation called 'Frances the Firefly'. The aforementioned Frances lives in an insect village, but she can't fly very well nor glow as brightly as the other fireflies. So, a bratty cockroach persuades her to use a large match instead, which results in her burning off her wings, dropping the match in pain and burning most of the village down.
An episode of Rugrats had the dentist suggest weaning Tommy at age one. And he showed how bad it would be if they did not wean him at Age one, showing a chart with two kids - one kid had a trophy saying "Best teeth," while the other had huge blanks in between each of his deformed teeth, and apparently, he wasn't weaned.
Another episode features Didi encouraging Lou to eat healthy in which he downright refuses, but when a video depicting the importance of heart healthiness that he is suggested to watch gets accidentally played in front of him, it convinces him well enough to change his eating habits, which starts out with Lou deciding to chow down on a dish of soybean casserole that Didi cooked for him.
"Proper Condom Use" of South Park had Ms. Choksondik showing the 4th-grade girls all the STDs they could contract if they had sex without the boy wearing a condom, complete with graphic pictures.
But she fails to mention that the danger is only while having sex. Hilarity Ensues.
South Park also did a particularly vicious and (ironically) anvilicious takedown of these tactics in "My Future Self 'N Me." Town parents hire actors to fake being "future" drug addict versions of the kids, scaring them away from ever trying drugs.
Let's not forget the crew in Butt Out that tried to get the kids to not smoke. However, with their actions and their final statement "If you don't smoke, you can be just like us", immediately causes the boys to start smoking.
In the episode Faith Hilling, a teacher forces Butters to put a gun inside his mouth and shows the class a violent PSA on "Long Johnsoning", both intended to scare the children away from using memes.
In "Duffless," Homer is shown one of the gruesome driver's ed videos after receiving a DUI. He's laughing his butt off. "It's funny 'cause I don't know him!"
Really, it's not like it's totally Homer's fault. The makers of the film apparently thought its subject matter was too scary, so they softened it with "zany" circus music and the narrator (who happens to be Troy McClure) making some puns. ("Here's an appealing fellow. In fact, they're 'a-peeling' him off the sidewalk!")
Parodied in an episode of The Venture Bros.. The boys visit a prison "Scare 'em Straight" program... a supervillain program, even. The Monarch, as per usual, shows quite a bit of genuine concern over the boys being there, while other supervillains lament that they've made the wrong choices in life that led to them having horrible facial deformities and so on.
In one episode of The Boondocks, Huey and Riley are sent to a Scare 'em Straight type of program where they go to a prison and see how bad it is. Another episode parodies anti-piracy PSAs, comparing stealing movies to beating up the elderly and MURDER.
Mr. Krabs did this twice on SpongeBob SquarePants. First concerning the hooks, then about the main drain. Squidward also did this about the Slasher.
The mash bringing... the slash singing... the rash slinging... the flash ringing... the ash pinging... thethethe HASH SLINGING SLASHER!!!!!
SpongeBob himself does it when he is made hall monitor. Seeing a couple's window open, he decides to scare them into leaving it closed by dressing in a balacava, jumping through it and shouting "I'm the Open Window Maniac!", sending them running out the door. Soon, the police are looking for the Maniac... as is SpongeBob, not knowing that he's actually looking for himself.
Toy Story used this to epic effect. In order to beat Sid (a kid who loves to mutilate and blow up his toys), Woody decides to reveal to him that all toys are alive. As a result, Sid is terrified of toys. The whole scene can be seen here.
Played for laughs in American Dad! where it shows a younger Hayley refusing to eat her vegetables until Stan tells her she needs to eat them in order to get strong and fend off sexual predator Bill Clinton. Stan then knocks under the table and say "Oh! I think he's here right now!", which causes Hayley to quickly finish her food out of fear.
In the Family Guy episode "Prick Up Your Ears", the school brings in a PSA group advocating for abstinence in the most hyperbolic terms possible. Such claims include "Sex turns straight people gay and gays into Mexicans", "If you have sex, your penis will fall off, and land in another dimension, populated entirely by dogs, who will eat it", and "If you have sex, you're automatically in Al-Qaeda".
In criminology and studies of delinquent rehabilitation, Scared Straight programs are infamous for being, well, bullshit. Almost no credible scientific evidence has ever backed up that these programs reduce rates of delinquent re-offending (recidivism), and in fact many studies demonstrate the exact opposite trend occurring, as noted in the blurb above. For example, delinquent teens sent off to boot camp-style rehab programs often come out of them having learned new techniques for running faster, climbing higher, and building up their muscles. Basically, they're being trained to be better criminals.
The old flour sack baby assignment you would be given in health class.
With more advanced technology, this assignment has been upgraded. It now includes a realistic, electronic baby doll that cries at more or less random intervals, even in the middle of the night, needing to be "fed," "changed," or "rocked." Included with some sets of dolls is a "crack baby," which, once switched on, cries almost all the time in a far more high-pitched and desperate tone than the other dolls.
Students at a school in Oceanside, California were told that some of their classmates had been killed in drunk driving accidents. Most of them were sad, some cried hysterically. Hours later, it was revealed that their friends were alive, and the whole thing was a hoax to scare 'em straight.
This must have "inspired" a few schools, because this also happened in Marysville, Washington in 2008. Complete with candle light vigil and tearful speeches given by the students' mothers, and no indication that it was false during the assembly.
There's a less extreme version of this at many schools. They have a person dressed as the grim reaper come get you. For the rest of the day, you aren't allowed to talk at all or be called on in class. Then, at the end of the day, there is an assembly with all the kids selected laying down pretending to be dead while someone talks about the dangers of drunk driving.
Anyone who lived in Ontario around 1998-2000 while in grades one and two was probably scared shitless by the Ontario Hydro Diorama. Essentially, it was a little model town filled with kids doing various stupid things with electricity, such as flying kites too close to hydro lines or jamming forks in toasters. The presenter explained the obvious danger in the below situation before pressing a button that caused the kid to light up like a Christmas tree, spew sparks, and let out an indescribably horrific zapping sound.
They also had a similar one about house fires, including a kid lighting matches in a closet full of clothes and someone falling asleep with a lit cigarette; after the presenter explained the danger the rooms would light up like they were in flames and the presenter would tell you a gruesome story about dying in a fire.
"I was thrown from a horse and I had a laminectomy and I ended up in the San Francisco General Hospital. I was operated on by the same physician who had operated on the late Jayne Mansfield's son Zoltan when he was mauled by the lion."
Hell and similar concepts in many religions are examples of this.
This gets parodied in Dilbert: apparently, there's a whole realm that deals with little stuff that Hell ignores, like drinking bad milk and stealing extra ketchup packets. It's called "Heck," and it's ruled by the pitchspork-wielding Prince of Insufficient Light. Scott Adams came up with this idea when Executive Meddling kept him from making a strip involving Satan.
Mick Stevens' Poodles From Hell (1984) goes into detail about Purgatory: who goes there (people who drink right out of the bottle or eat from the second layer of chocolates before finishing the top) and what happens (you are put on the staff of Heaven, chauffeurs, waitresses, etc., and are subjected to a wide range of petty annoyances).
In the US, tobacco companies have begun to put images on the outsides of cigarette boxes, depicting things such as rotting teeth, bleeding brains, and other things.
Australia's recently gone a step further — in addition to the photos of what smoking can do to the human body (and yes, we're talking full-blown photos of the real-deal for those who weren't sure), tobacco companies are now limited to plain packaging, meaning no colourful logos or eye-catching boxes.
Alfred Hitchcock detailed a story from his youth about how his father sent him to the police station with a note that told the desk sergeant to lock him in a cell for ten minutes. When he was let out, the sergeant told him, "This is what we do to naughty boys." It instilled in him a lifelong fear of the Man, as evidenced by its use as a recurring theme in several of his movies.
Harlan Ellison tells this same story on himself. He was opening boxes of cereal in a grocery store to see if any of them had the one premium of a collect'em all set he did not have.
Dentists may often have pictures of their worst cases or pictures of people who didn't take care of their teeth at all on their walls, or charts showing signs of peridontitis or Gingivitis.
"The Third Wave." Originating as a high school experiment to teach students how German citizens were blinded to the Jewish Holocaust of WWII, also a book and a couple of movie adaptations. Seriously freaky stuff; some people have said, on watching accounts of it, that they could see themselves most likely joining in the Wave right from the start. It started in a classroom, and spread to the entire school, evolving a prejudice against non-members and basically turning said school into a small scale version of Nazi Germany, with less killing.
Many sex-ed programs — regardless of whether they preach safe sex or abstinence — will show pictures of STD-ridden genitals to drive the point home.
The Drivers Ed films "Red Asphalt I, II, III, IV, V" is basically just a compilation of video footage shot at the scene of particularly grisly car wrecks.
Driver's Ed in general tends to trend this way in most Western countries. This is not entirely without reason, as most major cities gain a few new gruesome examples of the results of bad driving every week. And the victims are, almost invariably, the ones who didn't listen to the warnings from their elders/teachers/what have you. Scare 'Em Straight is tolerated far more for driver's education than in other places because it's proven over and over again to be the most effective way of teaching the consequences of unsafe driving.
A lot of British children have been to "Firm foundations", a day out set specifically for this trope. The one which sticks in people's memory is when the site stages a kidnapping of the children, with up to the two members of staff staring evilly at a group of terrified 10-11 year olds before finally letting them know that it was all a test on stranger danger.
Some of the more radical churches in the USA will host what are essentially 'Scare 'Em Straight fests' called "Hell House", often on Halloween. These are sort-of like your typical carnival haunted house. The notable difference being: instead of zombies popping out at you or what not, each of the rooms/scenes you're lead through will feature 'immoral acts' — such as gay marriage, under-aged sex, etc. — or terrible things happening to people who participate in said 'immoral acts.' It often ends in hell. As in, a recreation of the commonly-held Western image of hell (fire, lots of red, etc., etc.). A man dressed as Satan will usually be screaming at you at this point.
Some High Schools like to put wrecked cars near the entrance around prom time to show kids "This is what happens when you drink at prom!"
Heck, some schools have a whole assembly based around this. There are plenty of "rehabilitated" drunk drivers who travel around and speak at high schools about how it ruined their lives. Unlike most of the examples on this page, though, the effects of the accident are not exaggerated.
The US military does a similar thing, except that the "rehabilitated" drunk driver is an actual driver who survived who also provides pictures of how she or he looked before the accident, when the medics arrived (severed limbs optional) and, if they were lucky, after several sessions of reconstructive surgery.
This is actually a custom in several cultures. There's a (North) American Indian tribe where parents told their kids if they didn't behave, some fantasy beings (actually disguised relatives or friends) would come and take them away. So the kids will be actually scared if these beings appear, only to be saved by the caring family. (And later, there's even a ceremony where the Masquerade is unveiled, so to speak.)
Actually, Santa Claus or his sidekick The Krampus also supposedly take naughty children with them, too... actually, what exactly they do with the kids is rarely if ever said...
Some US high schools now have a component of their sex ed classes for the younger grades, if this is a school that has sex ed taught by older students. One of the students will come in crying on the last day and explain how she (it's always a girl) went to some foreign country and got AIDS and the various horrible things that have happened to her since. Her boyfriend dumped her, she's dying, she can't go to college for some reason and so on. Eventually she'll run out of the room in tears and then the others will explain that this is a true story, or it could be, but it's not hers and the girl doesn't have AIDS. Basic emotional manipulation.
Sex ed classes taught by guest speakers sometimes have a guest speaker that's quite obviously pregnant, and they're sometimes quite young (sometimes even in high school). However, instead of the intended "That could be me!", it tends to become "why is this hypocrite telling me not to have sex?" Perhaps the most infamous case of this in the US was the Bristol Palin abstinence campaign.
On a more adult level, the famous 1987 "Grim Reaper" ad to raise AIDS awareness in Australia has been credited with successfully informing the public about the very real risks of the virus, and that transmission was not limited to gay men through its terrifying imagery. It backfired somewhat in that some interpreted the reapers in the commercial to symbolise gay men and not the AIDS virus, however.
Traffic safety films before the 1970s used to feature the gruesome results of actual car accidents and the people involved in them who were often horrifically injured and even died on camera. In the 1970s onward, this was replaced with slow motion footage of crash test dummies in collision tests; it drove home the point of how accidents happen without getting into the gore.
Operation Lifesaver is this with railroad safety.
''Dumb Ways to Die'' also turns out to be about railroad safety. Until they get around to that, though, it's mostly hilarious (and set to a fairly catchy song).