As a toddler, my daughter Emily absolutely loved lions. Her bedroom and playroom were decorated with images of friendly lions, and she had a favorite stuffed lion. She had a lion shirt which she wore all the time, and told everyone she knew, as well as neighbors and random strangers, about her love for them. Once a lion roared at her from behind its glass at the zoo, and she just giggled hysterically.
I tried to limit the amount of television Emily watched, but since we didn't get many channels and didn't have cable it wasn't a big problem anyway. There was a small television set in her upstairs playroom, centered in front of the wall directly across from the window. One time Emily found a show called Jack the Lion (she knew how to use the remote-controller to surf). The show featured a lion hand puppet named Jack and had an extremely cheap-looking savanna poster made from construction paper as the main backdrop (sometimes it would be a jungle backdrop instead). There wasn't much to the show, it was just Jack the Lion sharing facts about lions and other savanna animals and occasionally having adventures with other hand puppet characters. There was clearly only one person doing the voices, and I immediately knew this must be someone's public access project.
I remember the first time I watched it with her and saw just how terrible it was. The audio was bad, and there were lots of ambient noises. I walked into the playroom midway through the episode, and already the person voicing the lion puppet was fumbling over his lines, like he'd just dropped the script, and there was a few-second pause before he nervously picked back up. After a few moments the episode just ended, without credits.
Nevertheless, Emily loved it of course, and it became her favorite show. It came on at seemingly random times, but she was usually able to catch an episode whenever the TV was on in her playroom. There were no other shows on the channel, but she knew how to use the remote-controller to look for it when she was bored of watching other shows. Sometimes I would watch it with her. It was interesting to watch what was clearly someone's budget passion project for children. The theme song consisted of merely a few repeating piano notes, and any musical cues were also short piano or xylophone riffs. There were never any credits, and of course the show was not listed in TV Guide, and since this was before the World Wide Web I could not simply Google the show for information. However, I did notice that the show had improved considerably since that first time Emily and I saw it. The audio was a little better, with not as many background noises, and the actor seemed to be doing better with his lines. Each episode also had at least some arc or structure to speak of, unlike the first one which was just nonsense.
Realizing that whoever was making the show might get tired of it or lose his public access license at any time, I started recording it on VHS so Emily could enjoy it in case it ever stopped airing, or in case she simply wanted to watch it for nostalgia years later. I soon realized there were only about ten repeating episodes, but that never seemed to bother her.
One time I was painting the closet in her playroom (in retrospect I probably should have kept her out of the playroom for this in case she got sick from the fumes). I stopped to just look and admire how beautiful she looked in the sunlight streaming from the playroom window, when an episode I hadn't seen before started playing (when Emily was in the playroom and not watching TV, I would sometimes keep the TV on that channel in case Jack the Lion came on). Since I was busy with the closet, I told Emily to press the record button on the VCR so it would record this new episode.
The episode skipped the opening piano theme, and there was no music throughout. The audio quality seemed even poorer than usual, and the man with the lion puppet seemed to stumble over his lines sometimes. Now and then he would realize the puppet was facing the wrong way and make a quick correction.
As Emily was watching the show and I was working on the closet, a car backfired in front of my house. Emily covered her ears and cried "Daddy, what was that?" I was about to come over and comfort her, but then something popped in my mind. I told her to go make her bed. She seemed upset enough about the scary noise to agree without protesting about being taken away from her favorite show. I ejected the tape from the VCR and went to watch it on the downstairs TV.
I fast-forwarded to this new episode. Sure enough, the car could be heard backfiring on the audio. The person voicing the lion puppet even paused during his line before picking back up awkwardly.
I called the police and showed them the tape. The show came back on eventually, and the police were able to use a special scanner to determine that the broadcast was coming from my next-door neighbor's house.
In a room of his house, they found the savanna and jungle backdrops on one wall, and a set of video cassettes with all the episodes, along with pages of handwritten script.
The man admitted he was planning to abduct Emily. The last episode I recorded was a live broadcast, in which he was planning to lure her out of the house by addressing her directly through the lion puppet. He had jury-rigged a ham radio, television, and special frequency adapter to make the broadcasts, and had used an extremely low amplitude that could only be picked up by television sets within a few meters of the room, on a channel he knew was not being used by any local stations.
This all made me want to throw up, but the most chilling part for me was the mounted spyglass they found in the room. It faced a window directly across from Emily's playroom, where he could watch to make sure she was watching the show. The instances in the last broadcast when the puppet was facing the wrong way were probably the result of him looking through the spyglass to make sure she was watching, and since I was working on the closet and out of view he must have thought she was alone. I then realized that first episode we saw was probably also a live broadcast, and I had probably walked in right when he was about to break the fourth wall and try to coax Emily out of the house the first time.
I pushed the prosecutor to get him the maximum penalty possible, which was still entirely too lenient, and I even talked to the FCC and got them to fine him for making illegal broadcasts for good measure.
I managed to find another kids' show about a lion, this time a cartoon lion, at the library to try to make Emily forget about Jack the Lion. She liked the cartoon, but she still asked if she could watch Jack the Lion now and then. Eventually, I got together with my sister and together we set up a crude set in her basement and started recording our own episodes for Emily.
When she was a teenager, I eventually had to tell her what really happened because she wanted to watch the tapes, which I never had the heart to throw away, and I knew she would recognize the voices of my sister and me in some of the episodes. She was disturbed, but said the fact that my sister and I would do something like that for her made her feel better about the whole thing, and even said she might record her own episodes some day for her own kids.
I was glad she took the news so calmly, but there was one thing she said, nonchalantly enough, that I still found heartbreaking.
"So that's why my new playroom didn't have a window."
Written by HopelessNightOwl