In the spirit of this spiritual season, I did some ruminating on how I got to who and what I am. I ended up with a list of seven spooky/creepy/weird items that are not only thematically appropriate, but are important enough that they should be shared with all y’all. There aren’t in order of importance or anything. Just take them as they come.
I hope it’ll get you to think about the things that shaped you, and that you’ll consider passing on your favorites as well. We’re a great big connected web of people with overlapping experiences and expectations, after all, and a web is at its best when the strands holding it together are strong.
“The Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom”
Jhonen Vasquez is a unique guy. Disfigured characters dance at the edge of decency while grappling with macabre topics in all of his works. He’d been part of the weird fiction resurgence of the late 90s for a while before I stumbled across his existence through Invader Zim, his magnum opus (and I will fight you on this).
Zim is a show about ineptitude and hubris and failure, like a Venture Brothers or It’s Always Sunny aimed at younger minds. The show ran on Nickelodeon for a single season in 2001 before executive meddling murdered it. Its ratings floundered with younger demographics, to the dismay of Nickelodeon suits who wanted it to succeed in the same way as happy-go-lucky SpongeBob or Rugrats, but the show’s grim tone and comparatively mature content, as well as a bevy of sly cultural references that only made sense to someone old enough to have a pool of references to draw upon, sucked in older teens and adults.
Zim saw intermittent rerun, usually at the oddest of hours, but around holidays every network loves having a deep pool of seasonal content to throw into a big, thematically appropriate block. Enter “The Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom,” Zim‘s unsurprisingly spooky, Halloween-themed spectacular where, as befits the show’s despairing feel, terrible things happen to just about everyone. Idle channel flipping one evening during the freshman year of college briefly flashed an image of a ghoulish spider-woman, all teeth and claws and bitter, snarling rage, rallying a legion of angular humanoid mockeries to battle. She was the army’s vanguard, and she intended to expand her nightmare realm’s power by entering and conquering the parallel world. The portal linking the two places? A hole, crackling with eldritch purple energy, bored into a boy’s forehead after an experiment in mad science went wrong.
The spider-witch turned tail the moment she spotted true horror: drooling, vapid, candy-lusted real-world children. I mean, who can blame her? Who wants to rule over a world populated by easily-diverted, nihilistic consumers who gulp down empty albeit comforting promises offered to them by callous forces they feel are beyond their control?
Garfield’s Halloween Adventure
The late 1980s and early 90s were a great time to be a kid. Saturday morning meant something because the structure of network programming set aside a block in the morning, running from 7 or 8 to 11 or 12, where each network ran a series of cartoons distinct from the usual, syndicated weekday afternoon programming. CBS had a ton of hot, licensed properties in their lineup, but Garfield stood out to my younger self. Every Saturday morning at 10:30, rest assured my butt parked in front of the boob tube to drink in Garfield and Friends, though by the time I was of prime, impressionable TV-watching age the show was already a couple of seasons in.
Garfield’s television history went back farther than 1989, of course. The practice of adapting one type of media in another goes back a couple thousand years, so by the mid-1980s it was hardly surprising that the fat orange tabby cat taking the newspaper comic world by storm crossed over to moving pictures. Lorenzo Music voiced Garfield with surpassing mellow and deadpan delivery in all his earlier television appearances (useless fact: Music was a sound-alike for Bill Murray, portraying his Ghostbusters character Venkman on The REAL Ghostbusters; Murray went on to voice Garfield in the live-action movies released in the 2000s).
Garfield, ever the procrastinator, remembers it’s Halloween. He cobbles together a pirate costume at the last minute and cons dim-witted Odie into tagging along. More trick-or-treaters equals more candy, and Garfield convinces Odie that it’s Halloween law that dogs must turn over almost all of their candy to cats.
They head out to scalp sugary bliss from neighborhood adults. After a series of compounded misfotrunes which includes losing their candy stashes, they end up in a haunted mansion and pursued by the ghosts of real pirates risen from their graves to reclaim treasure they buried beneath the mansion’s floorboards a century before. The duo dives into a nearby river to elude them, stumble upon the lost candy, and stumble back to the Arbuckle home. Garfield splits the candy haul evenly with Odie instead of being a jerk.
Great as it is, the Halloween special is, in my opinion, the weakest of Garfield’s three holiday-focused specials, the others being Thanksgiving and Christmas. It lacks some of the emotional punch given by its siblings’ sturdier core messages. But it’s a fun and rompy adventure nonetheless.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
I don’t think there’s a single Halloween special that can hold a candle to this 1966 classic. Echoes of the Peanuts gang’s mischief is an indelible part of American pop culture. Bedsheet ghosts, “I got a rock,” Linus’s fervent philosophizing and the kids’ mockery of the same. It’s the Great Pumpkin is primarly about belief, holding to ideals despite what our logical brain’s cold, utilitarian calculus urges us to do. It’s about tenacity and overcoming disappointment by looking forward instead of brooding on the past.
There’s something ephemeral and good in how Sally joins Linus in his lonely vigil, and there’s something equally good but far more relatable when Lucy drags her shivering and delerious brother home early the next morning. When he wakes, Linus is disappointed the Great Pumpkin failed to show, but it’s alright. There’s always next year.
I dunno. Some things deserve to be experienced rather than communicated, and this special is one of them.
The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby-Doo
The Scooby-Doo franchise has been around for fifty years now and has dabbled in many genres and styles of mystery. They’ve done crossovers with Batman, with Johnny Bravo, with Supernatural. The show started off as a bunch of teenagers and their dog wandering the countryside and getting themselves into (and out of) trouble. Continuity was a thing, sure, but until the 1980s the show never tried to hold itself to a definitive plot arc which played out over an entire season.
After crashing their plane in the Himalayas, Shaggy, Scooby, and Scrappy (we try to ignore this part) come upon an ancient artifact of grave portent which they, of course, disturb. They release thirteen of the foulest monsters to have ever existed in a Pandora’s Box-style whoopsie. As the demons scatter to the far corners of the globe, Vincent Price descends from on high to command the bumbling trio to fix what they messed up. I refuse to see his warlock character as anything but the man himself, and he is bar none the best part of the whole endeavor. I’m pretty sure this was where my life first intersected with the gentleman’s work; I know I saw a handful of reruns of this before seeing Great Mouse Detective.
Anyway, a stupid kid inspired by Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom eventually shows up to joust with Scrappy over which of them holds the Annoying Sidekick.championship belt. The group heads to exotic locations and bumble their way to victory over a different monster each week.
The show ended production before the season was complete, so unfortunately we only got a taste of nine or ten of the promised thirteen ghosts (although some weeks featured encounters with more than one spiritual baddie so maybe the math indeed checks out), and of course there’s no resolution. Nevertheless, Vincent Price alone is worth the admission, and fans of the Scooby franchise can at least be happy that Shaggy and Scooby are mostly unchanged in characterization.
Okay, full disclosure: like Zim, I didn’t find out about this movie until I was well into adulthood. I’m including it anyway, even though it doesn’t do anything a different young-adult, live-action movie about witches (*COUGH* Hocus Pocus) does better. But it does so many, many things worse, and this is how it flips around on the bad-good scale to so-bad-it’s-good.
The plot is paint-by-numbers teenage fantasy. Social pariah has the hots for the hot hottie. Social pariah visits an eccentric woman and finds out she has the power to rewrite reality according to her whims because she is the reincarnation of a puissant magic-user and channels her powers through a mystical amulet. The Amulet of Gyges allows her to cast Domination on her high school crush and humiliate all the teachers and peers who gave her a hard time. In the end, she alienates all the people who once liked her for who she was, and this makes her sad. She surrenders her powers to the aforementioned eccentric woman and chooses to live her life as an ordinary girl.
Thing that makes this movie especially stand out: white boy freestyle rap competitions. There is no force on earth cornier than white filmmakers in the late 80s trying to shoehorn in “rap” “lyrics” that are nothing more than chunky pieces of dialogue clumsily forced into ABAB poetic form (the cringiest example being, of course, the episode of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show where Bowser takes control over Rap Land and the entire episode’s dialogue is like this).
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
If there’s one childhood book that molded my preferred horror intake, it’s this one. Not so much the individual stories; to be honest, I couldn’t recite a single one from memory. They were servicable, essentially the 80s version of generic creepypasta. But the artwork, ye gods, the artwork.
Surreal images implicative of a litany of terrible things that could befall a vulnerable youngster. I recall the pustule-ridden sausage dog. The pasty, impaled scarecrow whose limbs dissolved into formless smoke. A half-rotted woman’s head, teeth showing through gaps where lips or skin used to be. The hand growing from an arm silently serving up a ball of meat made from itself.
It was disturbing and spine-tingling instead of edgy and gory for its own sake. A slow burn that stirred the reader’s hindbrain with patient expertise, rather than relying on sudden shock value whose effects are forgotten as quickly as they come. No, good horror gnaws at the brain long minutes or hours or days after experiencing it. It recurs every time the imagination forms its own chilling conclusions and peeks just a bit farther behind the curtain, dreading what it might find but unable to resist.
Imagery like that sticks with a kid. Now for the sad end to this tale: updated versions of the book toned down or excised a lot of the gruesome artwork which really completed the book. Track down originals if possible, people! But there’s still a glimmer of salvation: they’re making this classic anthology into a movie, and Guillermo del Toro is attached to it.
Courage the Cowardly Dog
Speaking of surreal weirdness. While the show proper premiered on Cartoon Network in 1999, just after what I consider to be my childhood, its pilot came out all the way back in ’96 alongside other cartoon clips for CN’s inaugural afternoon block which included Johnny Bravo, The Powerpuff Girls, and Ed, Edd, ‘n Eddy. The pilot was about an alien chicken that wanted to invade earth. The show is about Satan in the body of a cat, a narcissist sociopathic duck, and a who’s who of monstrous critters that wanted to kill, devour, infest, marry, or generally do uncouth things to Muriel, Courage’s kind-hearted owner.
The thing about Courage is that it’s not really scary. It’s not even really spooky. Though there are tense moments, none of them are oppressive or dreadful. When Ramses demands that Eustace, Muriel’s crotchety husband, ReTuRn ThE sLaB and the man refuses, destructive plagues fall upon the household. It’s fine, though. There’s never any implication that Courage will fail. The show’s underlayment is too optimistic, too comedic, even though it wears a suit made from weirdness and horror tropes.
Courage reveals, maybe better than any other media that comes immediately to mind, how horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin. Strange situations have vastly different implications when one approaches them in an open and positive way instead of being defensive and expecting only terrible things to happen. That’s why Halloween, a time of year positively oozing with macabre imagery and rife with horrors that should make the rational brain pause and consider what the celebrations really imply, is such a joy to share. Its roots lie in a Gaelic tradition to leave offerings near summer’s end for nefarious fey, so they spared one’s family and livestock over the winter. Now we dress up for parties, hand out sweets to kids, and release the pent-up weirdness we, for the most part, keep bottled up over the rest of the year.
And that’s awesome.