I’ve talked before about the transition of cartoons in America from a general medium to what was almost exclusively a children’s medium for almost twenty years. This largely came about because in the 80’s companies discovered that they could use the colorful (and relatively cheap) medium to advertise directly to children and saturated the popular consciousness with animated shows aimed directly at kids, often subsidized by doubling as ‘educational programming’.
However, something I haven’t touched on is what came before. Cartoons in the 60’s and 70’s were aimed at the first generation of young people to be considered teenagers. They were weird, they were high concept and they were subversive. These days, Scooby Doo and its clones seem very kiddy, but they were about teens on their own accomplishing things and that meant something to the teens at the time. Felix the Cat was meant to be psychedelic, while Fritz the Cat was pure ‘adult’ entertainment. Meanwhile, animated sitcoms like the Flintstones and the Jetsons appealed to older audiences while animated adaptations of things like Happy Days of all things were squarely designed to expand the already teen-heavy audience of the shows in question.
Why bring this up?
Well, because as the 80’s approached, all of the people previously used to working on shows meant for teens were suddenly hurled bodily into the world of making things for the 6-10 crowd… and the whole thing was as seamless as a baseball.
The result was a number of creators ostensibly working in the field of kid’s entertainment were still in the mode of thought that weird, creepy and emotionally scarring was still an excellent idea to add to their productions.
And… to a certain level, it worked. When the 90’s came along, the kids raised on the bed-wetting terror of the 80’s ended up liking it enough to launch a genre of juvenile horror that eventually came full circle and gave use the teen horror show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But that’s another post. This week, we’ll be looking at the actual horrors that stalked my youth, innocently and ignorantly perpetrated upon my by my parents who were pretty sure these weren’t things that were going to happen in the shows they set me down in front of.
Now, of course, everyone is going to disagree with some of these or bring up ones I missed, so I’m setting some ground rules for the article from the outset:
One, these are only about scenes I saw as a kid. So, for example, Brave Little Toaster is out because I’ve never seen it, We’re Back: a Dinosaur Movie is out because I saw it in college, and the various things in Teen Titans is out because it came out long after I was a kid.
Two, I’m only counting things that scared me as a child. Things with terrifying ramifications now, when I have adult fears and know about things like pedophiles and terrorism don’t count because I didn’t know or care as a kid. This also means that some things that aren’t scary now show up because they were scary then.
And finally, I am going to freely admit that this list is slanted toward my personal hang-ups as a kid. There’s a lot of body horror, and not a lot of psychological fear or existential horror.
Beyond that, these are presented in no particular order, just as they come into my head or segue into each other.
Trigger Warning for Body Horror, Emotional Child Abuse and Suicide.
With that said, let’s start with…
Number 10 – And Then Kevin Was a Troll… Thing (The Care Bears and the Land Without Feelings)
The Care Bears franchise is about as benign a thing as you can get if you strip away all of the real-world psychological issues they deal with that children usually don’t know about. Essentially, their eternal enemies are apathy and depression and they fight villains who cause these things as a superpower—who want to cause these things as a superpower.
For a kid, however? It’s about colorful bears stopping people from feeling sad and jerks who want to make everyone sad with the power of rainbows made of happiness. It’s cute, it’s simplistic, and it’s non-threatening…
…Except is so isn’t. At least not in the movies and for me, especially not in The Land Without Feelings.
See, the plot of this one is basically the ISO Standard Care Bears plot: asshole messes with kids to make them depressed, Care Bears kick their asses with the Care Bear Stare. However, there’s a bump n the road with TLWF and it’s this: The villain, Professor Coldheart, manipulates children into depression until they willingly transform themselves into terrifying troll/imp creatures.
This is one of the milder body horror moments on this list, but at the same time, it’s kind of worse because we see one of the main kids, Kevin go from a sort of normal if mopey kid into an utterly broken shell in the form of a green troll thing over the course of the movie. It’s not so much that he transformed, as he degraded into this being and it’s a little stomach-churning to this day if I’m going to be honest.
Speaking of sugarbowl shows that crank up the horror factor…
Number 9 – Behold! The Rainbow of Darkness! (My Little Pony G1 Pilot Movie)
A slight correction: I said last week that this one was from My Little Pony: The Movie. I was wrong. That movie involved sentient, purple lava that turned everyone to stone in a terrifying manner. It’s one of the two pilot movies that contain the scene I was talking about.
As said before, G1 was a well-established Death World; from yet another monster (this time a dog golem) that turned whoever he touched into rocks after stalking them like a slasher villain, to someone wishing to drown everyone in Ponyland, not a week went by where the ponies weren’t on the brink of annihilation.
It all started right out of the gate with Tirek—a goddamn demonic centaur (and g1 does have humans in it, so think about that)–decides he needs demon horses to pull his carriage (ignore why a centaur needs a carriage) and so send his henchmen to capture some ponies who he then mutates into demons on screen using his color inverted Rainbow of Darkness. The transformations are shown to be painful and terrifying to the targets too, just in case you thought it was jsut the involuntary shapeshifting that’s a problem.
The topper comes in the finale when the Rainbow of Darkness is turned back upon Tirek by the Rainbow of Light—and it tears him apart on screen, murdering him completely and irrevocably.
To get away from the transformations (a bit) let’s look at…
Number 8 – Everyone Just Keeps Getting Smashed (Gargoyles)
Disney’s Gargoyles is a masterpiece of animation in its first two seasons, which is par for the course of perpetually-cursed show creator Greg Weisman who is capable of producing solid gold, but is doomed to have all his shows canceled for bullshit reasons.
As to be expected in a a slightly gothic series with heroes who are literal monsters, there are some scary and creepy moments. But none are actually scarring in the way that what seems to have become the show’s signature scene of brutality: smashing people to death.
For those of you not familiar with the show, the titular gargoyles turn to stone during the day to rest and heal. This leaves them vulnerable as they are unconscious and immobile during this time. Right up front, we get an example of how this is a terrifying weakness when, in the series premier movie (later cut into five episodes), we see an enemy gleefully take his mace to a bunch of them, smashing them to bits.
Later, series big bad Demona pulls off a spell that turns all the humans to stone and we do indeed see he smash up several people on the street while they’re frozen in place like this. No,t hey do not get fixed.
Mercifully, no one seems to revert from stone if smashed, so there’s no pile of bits, but we do see a character reassembled and brought back to life after being smashed (no, not any of the completely innocent humans—thanks for asking!) and… it doesn’t go well as he seems to have been put to gether with pieces from other gargoyles and now he has multiple personalities. To a kid, this means he got fixed… and came back literally haunted.
Number 7 – From Tall Tale to Nightmare Fuel (Tiny Tune Adventures)
Tiny Tune Adventures is about the younger proteges of the old school Loony Tunes characters and was so well-received that I’m surprised they haven’t become a franchise unto themselves by now. The Jackalope is an incredibly stupid Tall Tale from the frontier days of America about a rabbit with antlers and absolutely nothing else interesting about it.
Now, there seems to be some ‘truth’ in the jackalope story in that some rabbits have benign tumors that look like horns, so you would think this was another body horror issue, right?
Ha ha ha… you’re adorable when you have hope.
No, in the Tiny Tunes Halloween segment ‘Horror of Slumber Party Mountain’, we are introduced to the legend of ‘One-Eyed Jack’, a product of a mad taxidermist gone wrong that is a huge jackalope with a mouth full of T-rex teeth.
Even today, everything about Jack is terrifying to me. His character design and back story are horrific, his has the same ‘cartoon powers’ as the cast, but is never played for laughs or shown to have any comedic nature (until the very end), and hunts the cast in the same manner as a slasher villain, eliminating them one-by-one.
Seriously, watch this thing:
Yeah, the end is meant to take the edge off, but here’s the thing: Up until I did the research for this post, I didn’t remember the ending, only the terrifying rest of the episode, especially the scene where Jack turns to the camera and beckons to the fourth wall as if he knew the viewer was there.
While I purposefully excluded the more intentional efforts at getting a scare such as the Goosebumps juvenile horror series, this one is different as every other Halloween episode WB studios produced at the time were far more funny than scary.
Of course, a half hour of Jack isn’t as disturbing as an hour and a half of…
Number 6 – Literally All of All Dogs Go to Heaven (All Dogs Go To Heaven)
It’s said that the main difference between the filmography of Don Bluth and Disney during the 80’s is that Bluth didn’t keep the kid gloves on. On-screen deaths, genuine pathos, and fairly complex storytelling marked a departure from Disney’s friendlier and more upbeat musicals of the era. Because of that, a lot of Bluth’s work, especially from the 80’s is still well-loved today and with good reason.
I myself have several of his works in my library and enjoy them a great deal.
There is one movie I feel is given a bit too much slack when it comes to how actually disturbing it is to a child: All Dogs Go To Heaven.
If you don’t know the movie, it follows Charlie, a hard gambling implied high-level gangster… who is a dog. He is the business partner of another, more evil gangster dog named Carface, who takes it upon himself to cut Charlie out of the business—but murdering the shit out of him.
And by ‘murder him’, I mean he puts him in a car and pushes it off a dock. The audience gets to see the entire thing as the obviously drunk and jovial Charlie suddenly realizes too late that he’s about to drown to death—and then drowns to death on camera.
As it turns out, all dogs get a free pass into Heaven because they’re inherently good… or something. But Charlie rejects Heaven and uses the watch used to count down his time on Earth to return to life. Once there, he finds he’s without funds and, with the help of his fried Itchy kidnap an orphan who happens to be able to talk to animals and use here to get inside information from race horses.
From there, we get a famous dream sequence where Charlie freaking goes to Hell–
–Lot of attempted murder of a child, a scene where an alligator threatens to eat Charlie until he reveals he can sing and then hold him hostage as a musical number, and Charlie getting drowned to death again while Carface is eaten by the alligator.
Then the goddamn DEVIL spreads his wings o’er the land to try and claim Charlie’s soul only to be beaten back by God… or something. I don’t even…
From start to finish, ADGtH has this dirty and uncomfortable feeling. The character designs are one part hyper-realistic, one part cartoonishly malformed, the backgrounds are intentionally dingy and foreboding… and oh yeah, all the MURDER AND CHILD ABUSE. Don’t make any mistake, it was evident even as a kid that Charlie and Itchy was downright monstrous to the little girl, and characters are straight up killed on screen in agonizing manners.
This movie is a constant onslaught of unsettling things that somehow managed to still be funny and wacky enough that I watched the tape until it failed even while being weirded out by all the horrible stuff in it. Such is the talent of Don Bluth.
That’s where we’re going to stop this week, but we’ll be right back here next Friday, starting with more Bluth madness. See ya then!