Who doesn’t have strange, vaguely off-putting memories of childhood nightmare fuel? You know, those cartoons pitched to youngsters that were full of of imagery and implications sure to terrify you for weeks to come. The shows that were clearly not age-appropriate, and that you can’t believe you sat through now that you look back and see just how disturbing they were.
Except, you know, that’s a lie. You knew exactly how messed up this stuff was—that’s why you watched it. Because you were a kid, and kids are morbid little goblins. People who look back and clutch their pearls at the degree of death and fridge horror we sat through have forgotten just how fun it was to terrorize our squishy little minds. It’s why things like Candle Cove and Five Nights at Freddy’s have an adult audience—we associate childhood entertainment with things that aren’t quite right. After all, if we didn’t kind of dig it, we wouldn’t be revisiting it.
I was born in 1981, which means I caught the tail end of some experimental 70s productions right before the bigtime 80s kids’ franchises took over. Occasionally the two blended together, meaning that my average viewing was a hybrid of marketable and trippy. That in itself made it all a little stranger, since now it wasn’t just some random experimental project messing with you—it was the Care Bears giving you nightmares.
It would be impossible to list every single surreal hot mess of entertainment I connected with in that era. However, in honor of the approach of Halloween, I present three of my regular nightmare fuel fill-ups from my own childhood—things I regularly sought out and watched willingly as a small child who probably should have known better.
Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)
Animator Richard Williams has had one hell of a career. He’s the extremely motivated creator of The Thief and the Cobbler, which spent a whopping 29 years in production. He was the animation director for the groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And he succeeded in making the most messed-up Raggedy Ann cartoon since that one where she flies to the sun to keep her owner from dying.
Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure was a product of the late 1970s—mostly animated, with a few live-action scenes for whenever young Marcella was around her toys. The film follows the ragdoll siblings on a journey to rescue Babette, a French doll Marcella received for her birthday who was subsequently kidnapped by a pirate from a snowglobe. Along the way, they meet the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees—a long-standing friend from earlier cartoons—as well as a tiny king who grows bigger the more he laughs.
And then there’s the Greedy: a giant self-devouring pool of taffy who looks like the sort of thing you’d dream about after too much cough syrup. His goal? To eat Raggedy Ann’s heart.
While the nightmarish aspect isn’t a shock in retrospect, the retro talent involved is. Broadway actor George S. Irving, who also voiced Heat Miser in The Year Without a Santa Claus and narrated Underdog, appears as the piratical Captain Contagious. Laugh-In regular Alan Sues appears as Sir Leonard Loony, who takes Ann and Andy to the laughing King Koo Koo. And if Ann sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things—she was voiced by Didi Conn, best known as Frenchie in the film adaptation of Grease.
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)
Most of us know Mark Twain as a great American writer who created memorable characters and whose birth and death coincided with appearances of Halley’s Comet. What we didn’t know, according to this film, is that Twain built a steampunk airship to go and meet Halley’s Comet personally when it was time for him to die.
The Adventures of Mark Twain had a theatrical release only in the most technical sense of the term, showing in seven theaters in 1985. The film was produced and directed by Will Vinton, notable in the zeitgeist for being creator of the California Raisins, Domino’s Pizza’s Noid, and the ever-present anthropomorphic M&Ms. What really sheds light on the weirdness of this production, though, is the knowledge that he also directed Disney’s Return to Oz.
The claymation release—perhaps the only medium that is inherently terrifying—stars James Whitmore as the voice of Twain, who discovers three of his own characters stowed away aboard his personal airship. With Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher in tow, he leads the viewers through short skits based on his various works. These range from silly (“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”) to outlandish (“Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”). Then it goes completely off the deep end..
Remember how Mark Twain wrote a story about literal Satan? Will Vinton remembers.
The “Mysterious Stranger” segment of the film sees the three children greeted by a headless being with a theatrical mask on a stick in place of a face. It introduces itself as “an angel,” then as “Satan”—to which Huck reacts with a slightly concerned “Uh-oh”—before demonstrating its feelings on humanity and morality by creating and killing a tiny clay civilization. And remember, kids, nothing exists save empty space and you—and you are but a thought!
For all its existential horror, The Adventures of Mark Twain is fascinating in that it separates Twain’s “light” and “dark” sides into two distinct characters. His dark side isn’t an enemy, though—it’s an essential aspect of himself that appeared in many of his works, and which he needs before he can move on to “join the comet.” Or, you know, die.
That aspect may have been lost on kids, but angels and monsters and three-headed alien angels depicted in unsettling claymation had a certain draw. Was it creepy? Yes. Did I watch it literally whenever it came on and I was home from school? Also yes.
The Mouse and His Child (1977)
Sometimes you have memories of a movie from your childhood that’s so weird, you have to hit the internet to make sure it was real and not a fever dream. Despite the sheer amount of strangeness I watched willingly, The Mouse and His Child was the one film I had to get confirmation on when I hit adulthood.
Based on the book of the same name by Russell Hoban, The Mouse and His Child was an American/Japanese co-production distributed by, of all groups, Sanrio. It initially ran as part of a double feature with Ringing Bell, a heartwarming fable about seeking revenge, becoming the thing you fear, and being rejected by everyone you love. You know, good kid stuff.
The Mouse and His Child, on the other hand, ended on a positive note—but only after putting its title characters through several different stages of hell. The characters are two sentient halves of a wind-up toy who, For Exposition Reasons, find themselves enslaved by an evil rat voiced by Peter Ustinov. The broken wind-up toys under the rat’s thumb all have a dream of becoming “self-winding,” an aspiration the two mice eventually also adopt.
It’s an enjoyable film with a lot of familiar voices—Andy Devine, Cloris Leachman, and the aforementioned Ustinov—and it has the added bonus of being one of those cartoons that never tries to talk down to kids. If anything, it goes beyond what many shows made for adults are willing to try. One memorable scene in particular depicts the father and son staring deep into the recursive label of a can of dog food, attempting to find enlightenment beyond “the last visible dog.”
The movie as a whole treats us to odd imagery, wild takes on philosophy and metaphysics, and a scene where our heroes are carted in on a leaf like a pair of dismembered corpses—fortunately this ends well, but still. Everything leads to a happy ending, which even includes a toy wedding. So all things considered, it’s uplifting nightmare fuel.
Kids eat this stuff up. They always have, and they always will. Somewhere on the road to adulthood, we forget just how much we enjoy nightmarish imagery and terrifying implications. Maybe existential horror gets too real for us, or maybe we work out our periodic desire to stare into the void by going bungee jumping or looking at our student loan debts. But for anyone who wants to rediscover that grisly side of their childhood, the three titles above are a great place to start. Sit down, cozy up, and prepare to be seriously messed with.