I was an absolute Rugrats junkie from around ages 3-8. It was my all-time favorite cartoon on Nickelodeon or any other channel. Unlike so many of the other Animation Renaissance cartoons I grew up watching, Rugrats wasn’t riddled with adult themes and double entendres. It had a pureness that other shows lacked. It was just babies misinterpreting the world around them, as babies do. With Mark Mothersbaugh’s tinkering, tumbling soundtrack and the soft-colored environments and characters, it captured an essence of early childhood that I’ve rarely seen outside of a Miyazaki film.
Accordingly, Rugrats’ Halloween special isn’t bizarre or full of disturbing imagery. Instead, it shows how very small children might interpret spooky happenings. The special follows the traditional Rugrats format—two 11-minute segments—but only the first,”Candy Bar Creep Show,” is specifically about Halloween. We start with a classic Rugrats close-up that turns out to be an internal view of a pumpkin being carved up. It’s Halloween night and the adults are preparing the house for trick-or-treaters. Tommy, Chuckie, Phil and Lil all watch curiously as the grown-ups don costumes and construct a strange tent in the backyard. Once Angelica comes to tease them about how they won’t get any Reptar bars, they become even more curious about what the adults are up to (Angelica mentions that it’s Halloween and that she gets to go trick-or-treating, but when they ask her what that means, she says she doesn’t know other than she gets candy out of it).
This childhood naïveté and the curiosity that results fuel most of the Rugrats’ best episodes. The babies have no real concept of fabricated fears like ghosts and zombies and haunted houses; babies don’t understand what Halloween is. That’s why you can wheel a 6-month-old around on Halloween night and they’ll be unfazed but some 5-year-olds get paralyzed with fear when they see scary costumes. And the segment plays upon this beautifully. Once the babies see kids screaming and running out of the haunted house holding Reptar bars, they deduce that screaming in there will get them Reptar bars too. (Occam’s razor, ya know?)
So they go on a mission to obtain their own Reptar bars, unknowingly setting Angelica and her friends and even Grandpa up for the scare of their lives. They don’t have the learned fear of fake eyeballs, worms, or skeletons, so to them the haunted house is just another playhouse. But when Angelica sees the twins’ distorted, spaghetti covered hair and Tommy covered in a ghostly sheet, she runs screaming into the night. Grandpa comes to investigate and gets the same treatment while yelling the most hilarious old-man lines ever. (“LEAPIN’ LIBRARIANS!”) At the end of the night, the babies come out on top, lugging huge bags of candy into their playpen while everyone else warily eyes the haunted house, wondering what specters might lie within.
Rugrats may not hold up to repeat adult viewing as well as some of its contemporaries, but certain episodes manage to strike just the right sweet, nostalgic nerve for me. It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with things that were considered over my head. Rugrats gives me that feeling of childlike sweetness in my belly and this Halloween episode in particular reminds me of all the innocent curiosity I had in toddlerhood.
Next week, however, things get a bit (read: much) darker with Rocko’s Modern Life’s “Sugar Frosted Frights/Ed is Dead! A Thriller.” Stayed tuned, boos and ghouls!