I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
As a shy, awkward kid with a personal style that could best be described as “bully-magnet chic,” I truly enjoyed sick days home from school. I would spend these precious, torment-free days glued to the TV, watching as cartoon characters got their heads flattened by frying pans and bodies smashed into accordions. Not surprisingly, this did very little to reduce my stress levels. But the one relatively nonviolent cartoon I eventually discovered turned out to be the most morbid of all, and it left me with one burning question: What, exactly, happened to Casper the Friendly Ghost?
In the 1963 series The New Casper Cartoon Show, which I watched as reruns, Casper was a lonely creature with a big bald head who longed to make friends despite his spooky nature. He lived in a seemingly abandoned house with several adult ghosts, including not just one, but three creepy uncles. Every night, these ghosts went forth from their home and gleefully terrified every mortal creature they could find (why they didn’t just set up shop in an occupied house and haunt it the easy way was beyond me). His uncles and other fellow ghosts viewed Casper with contempt for his softhearted benevolence toward the living. Not only did he have no interest in inducing mortal panic attacks, he was literally willing to befriend anything with a pulse. The other ghouls taunted him mercilessly, and his would-be friends broke his transparent little heart repeatedly.
In Casper, I immediately sensed a kindred spirit. I, too, felt lonely and invisible half the time, mocked and reviled the other half. I, too, longed for friends with an eagerness that proved to be off-putting. I saw my plight dramatized in each episode, which followed the same basic trajectory: Casper pursues some friend or other and the friend flees in horror. It didn’t help that Casper’s standard icebreaker was to levitate toward his intended buddy and introduce himself as “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” Apparently, when you introduce yourself as a ghost, that kind of cancels out the “friendly” part. In various episodes, he attempted to be chummy with a skunk, a mole, and a fire-breathing dragon, to name a few. Almost without exception, these generally unpopular creatures rejected our hero without hesitation.
Usually, some sort of happy ending was tacked onto the story. In one episode, Casper saves a family from their mortgage debt by convincing the collector that the house is haunted. In another, he provides transportation home to a young Martian who took the family saucer without permission. This episode also features a cool existential argument between ghost and alien; neither one “believes in” the other. Oddly, they form a bond over their debatable realness.
But any goodwill toward Casper never lasted long. By the very next episode, he’d be back to square one in his simpering, plaintive quest for friends. In one story line, he was thrilled to finally make friends with a tree — literally the only living thing that couldn’t run, crawl, or otherwise locomote the hell away from him. As I watched, all I could do was burn with fever and long to someday find friends who would be the trees to my ghost.
Then there was the matter of Casper’s being. When I first started watching the show, I didn’t think to question the nature of Casper’s existence: I accepted the idea of ghosts as their own species. But eventually, I had to question whether Casper was, in fact, dead. I also had to wonder how, in a TV lineup where cartoon characters could get flattened by a steamroller and pop right back up again, had things gone so terribly wrong for Casper?
As I discovered, the backstory of Casper’s mortality is all over the place. In the 1963 TV show, Casper was a ghost simply because his parents were ghosts who “got married,” implying some ghost sex followed by a spectral baby bump. But in both the original 1945 cartoon and the 1995 movie, Casper was a little boy whose life was tragically cut short by pneumonia.
Not only was there no continuity between Casper reboots, there was also little consistency within them. In the version I watched, it’s unclear if ghostliness is a condition one is born into or a vocation one follows. Ghosts were depicted as professional “scaregivers” who had to procure a “haunting license” and attended Fright School in order to actually become ghosts. (Casper flunked, obviously—he was too busy reading a copy of How To Win Friends and Influence People). These ghosts scared humans because that was their area of expertise, not because they were wretched human souls forced to play out their purgatorial unrest on this mortal coil.
So what, exactly, did that make Casper? Was he a true ghost or not, and what even was a ghost? Why was there no one else like him? I couldn’t help but think that Casper’s background, the thing that made him different, was also the thing that made him so lonely. Maybe, if I could figure out what happened to Casper, I could piece together the puzzle of my own friendless state (which I now chalk up to the stringent standards of grade-school popularity, standards which don’t exactly embrace nerds with terrible perms and grandma glasses). Watching Casper, I pondered the mysteries of the paranormal as I struggled with a definition of “normal” that didn’t seem to include me. Or Casper.
Luckily for me, I grew up, grew out the perm, and stopped pursuing friends who wanted to get away from me. But I will always feel a kinship with poor Casper. Whatever the little guy is — dead or alive, trapped in existential limbo, or just bad at his job — I still think about him and his quest. Just as those TV show reruns ended, eventually so did my years of loneliness. But to this day, there are few things as comforting as the sight of a friendly looking tree.