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Spooky Specials: “Sugar Frosted Frights/Ed is Dead: A Thriller!”

Good evening. Tonight’s selection is a chilling tale of mayhem, shrubbery, and a wallaby who knew too much.” —Heffer introducing “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!”

My previous foray into childhood Halloweeny goodness was pretty gentle; Rugrats wasn’t really one to push the boundaries of children’s television. Rocko’s Modern Life, the subject of this week’s Spooky Specials, did nothing but push those boundaries. Along with the equally disgusting, adult-pitched Ren and Stimpy, Rocko was a media watchdog’s worst nightmare: brimming with crude toilet and nudity humor, thinly veiled sex jokes (the damn restaurant was named the Chokey Chicken for nearly four whole seasons before someone figured out that it was a masturbation joke), and absurdly adult themes and situations. (Does anyone else remember when Rocko was a phone sex operator? ‘Cause I sure do.) So, it follows suit that the Rocko’s Modern Life Halloween special is strange, disturbing, and very obviously not for kids (but fuck if we didn’t watch the hell out of it anyway).

The first segment really typifies the average Rocko episode. It starts off with a normal premise (Rocko and Heffer are going trick-or-treating!) before rapidly spiraling into a cacophony of screaming and toned down expletives. Then begin the non sequitur plot points, the plethora of adult jokes and references, all concluding with an out-of-nowhere or unsatisfying (or both) ending. Since the first segment sticks very closely to this kind of unstructured style I find it the weaker of the two. The plot (and I use that term loosely) has Rocko, Heffer and the ever-petrified Filbert going trick-or-treating and crossing paths with a Headless Horseman-esque ghoul (The Hopping Hessian). There’s a strange sub-plot about Filbert’s childhood Halloween trauma and him cracking out on candy, followed by a completely incomprehensible ending. “Sugar Frosted Frights” works for sheer manic spooky fun, but when it comes to constructing  an actual scary story “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!” just gives me goosebumps.

“Ed is Dead” is one of those great over-kids’-heads episodes that I’m sure many parents got a kick out of. For starters, the segment’s plot is an homage to Rear Window and the whole thing is a Hitchcock pastiche, which I’m pretty sure most kids in my age bracket didn’t catch. Also, the segment centers around Ed and Bev Bighead, two of the least child-friendly characters on the show: middle-aged toads whose embittered bickering and simmering-just-below-the-surface contempt for one another is only outweighed by the amount of disturbingly passionate sex they have. Ed is curmudgeonly and insensitive to his always horny, often frustrated wife, which brings us to the comedy of errors in “Ed is Dead.” A cursory familiarity with Rear Window (or any of its many parodies) is all you need to know the plot of this segment, as Rocko thinks he sees Bev brutally stab Ed to death from his window and begins searching for answers. The truth, of course, is that Ed was fine all along, merely away to get a bothersome wart removed from his ass.

For a child unaware that it’s just a wacky Rear Window parody, however, this shit was actually pretty horrifying. The disturbing sounds of the Bev “stabbing” Ed, the lightning and darkness that surround the Bigheads’ house, the tense moments where Rocko is in the house and Bev arrives home… it was all very scary but when coupled with exaggerated cartoon elements it was also silly and funny. I believed that Ed was actually dead but was still laughing all the while. And therein lies the twisted joy of Halloween specials and the holiday itself. They expose children to terrors that are normally hidden—and they make it fun. “Ed is Dead” makes marital murder into a game, tightly packed in a bright, frenetic bundle, and ready for juvenile consumption.

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Spooky Specials: “Candy Bar Creep Show”

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!

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Spooky Specials: An Introduction

When I was very young and the leaves would fade from vibrant green to burnt orange, excitement would stir in my little gut. The air, heavy with the smells of cider and pumpkin, would become chillier, crisper. It was October. You learn pretty early on that everything suddenly becomes spooky in October: themed cereals pop up everywhere; ghost-shaped chocolates are being sold in bulk; aisle after aisle of costumes and decorations pop up overnight in local stores. And it all culminates in that one blissful night of decadence, running door to door in disguise to get tons of candy. It’s enough to send any little kid into paroxysms of joy.

One of my favorite parts of the Halloween season was how almost every single cartoon I loved suddenly had a scary special to serve up. Otherwise normal cartoons had stories about ghosts, monsters, vampires and often the very holiday itself. And I don’t just mean The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror.” I vividly recall Halloween specials for shows on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and other kids’ channels. I’m especially fascinated by how these cartoons, and really the whole holiday, teach young children to be okay with scary ideas and images.

Often tame by adult standards, these specials were still sometimes a little too disturbing for kids. They often made references that I didn’t understand until adulthood. I think these special episodes deserve a little loving recognition, so throughout this most sacred of months, I’m going to write about some of my favorite spooky specials!

First up: Rugrats’ “Candy Bar Creepshow/Monster in the Garage”!

Stay tuned!

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The Pataki Files: An Intro to Family Dysfunction in Hey Arnold

Hey Arnold was one of—if not the—coolest animated kids’ show on TV during the mid-’90s. With a diverse cast of street smart kids and quirky adults in a thriving city that was just as much a character as its citizens, it was like the smooth jazz of animated children’s shows. It was a calmer show; no bright, flashy colors, frenetic soundtracks, or hyperactive main characters. It isn’t necessarily realistic, but it does feel more grounded in reality and down to earth than a lot of other children’s shows.

The show overall really started to grow when it left behind Arnold’s Cloud Cuckoo Lander personality and concentrated on seriously fleshing out the various characters in the city of Hillwood. Even adult characters like Grandpa, Oskar Kokoshka, and Mr. Hyunh got their time in the limelight and, especially in the case of the Mr. Hyunh-centered Christmas special, it led to some of the most poignant moments in the entire series (or really in animated kids’ television period). One of the characters who often had entire episodes and story arcs devoted to her was the resident bully and passionate secret admirer of Arnold, Helga Pataki.

Most people with even a cursory familiarity with the show can see that the behavior of Helga’s parents are G-rated codes for abuse and alcoholism. I had a vague awareness of this when I was younger; it was easy for me (with two alcoholic parents) to recognize that her mother Miriam’s slurred speech, proclivity for sleeping in random places, and Tabasco “smoothies” indicated more than just her being a wacky eccentric. And since I had a deep and abiding passion for consuming books about domestic violence from the time I was 10, I recognized the abuse in her dad, successful beeper salesman Big Bob, and his habit of yelling; he and Miriam’s constant favoritism towards perfect, repressed older sister Olga; and their neglect of Helga.

But watching as an adult, I’m able to really see just how profound some of these moments in the show were. It’s really important that this children’s show handled the subject of abusive parents—not horribly, call-child-protective-services abusive because that would be too much for a kids’ network—so well, especially because it was placed right along side more normal, non-abusive families like Arnold’s and Gerald’s.

Helga is one of the most interesting characters on the show: bright, insecure, passionately artistic, clever, cunning, equal-parts self-serving and selfless, fearful, apathetic at times, and violent, her character arc is one of the most impressive and nuanced developments in any animated children’s show. As we get to know Helga more, and become more familiar with not just her specific tics and personality traits but also her family life, we see that she is more than just a schoolyard bully with a crush. We see, bit by bit, how Helga struggles with simultaneously craving the love and acceptance of her peers and family while putting up the defensive walls that push everyone away.

In an effort to really understand and share the ins and outs of Helga’s progression to a fully fleshed out and richly idiosyncratic character, I’ve decided to start up a series, à la TTAACMATHPS, focusing on Pataki-centric episodes of Hey Arnold! So stay tuned for the first entry this Wednesday where I’ll start things off with “Olga Comes Home”!

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Link Dump: #46

This week’s kitty is from the ’80s horror classic Night of the Creeps, which gave us Tom Atkins as a zombie-killing cop with an unforgettable catchphrase (“Thrill me”). If you’ve seen the movie—or, really, any horror movie—you know that misfortune awaits this kitty. So let’s just appreciate its brief, non-undead appearance here. And then appreciate some links:

We had one outstandingly weird search term this week: “Чарли Кауфман пьессы,” Russian for “Charlie Kaufman pessy.” Yeahhh. I don’t know what to make of that. But it’s weird.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Children’s television, obviously, is not always cute and friendly. Sometimes it can be a little dark or daring. But one children’s show surpassed all others, to the point that it was explicitly nothing but a bottomless source of Nightmare Fuel. Are You Afraid of the Dark? debuted on Nickelodeon in 1990, and was basically a Twilight Zone-style horror anthology series for kids. Each episode was pretty formulaic: a different member of the Midnight Society would tell a story, in which an average preteen would be put into a strange or scary situation. Each episode would generally have a moral about overcoming personal weaknesses, making a sacrifice, or befriending someone you’d previously disliked. All pretty typical stuff for child-oriented storytelling in the ’90s.

Alongside these morals were the scares, which were equally relevant to the target audience (i.e., kids age 7-12). The show was carefully based around their fears, which usually involved middle school, parents, friends, etc. Look at “The Tale of the Vacant Lot” (season 5, episode 10) for example: a girl trades herself away in exchange for everything she needs to be popular. Eventually, though, she has to pay the price in the form of hideous sores across her face, and is only redeemed when she gives up her most prized possession for her sister. It’s pretty straightforward, fable-like storytelling, where selfish behavior leads to negative consequences. The selling point is the sores across her face, and by extension, the money shot of something terrifying at the climax of each episode.

For me, the creepiest of these came from “The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner” (season 4, episode 9), where a drooling Joker-like supervillain stepped out of a microwaved comic book, but everyone who watched the show had their own favorite AYAOTD? moments. (Ashley mentions “The Tale of the Dollmaker,” in which a girl turns into a porcelain doll.) But the show’s opening sequence preemptively beat out everything, since it’s 30 pure seconds of audiovisual terror. It’s the ultimate hook for the whole series, a catalog of everything that makes us afraid of the dark. Creaking swing set? Check. Windows slamming shut in the rain? Check. Childish laughter from nowhere? Shaft of eerie light through a window? Scary clown doll?? Check, check, and double check.

In fact, I would easily describe this as the scariest children’s show opening of all time. It’s so well-made, with every sound and shadow calculated to scare the shit out of you before you even meet the Midnight Society. Granted, the show itself was pretty uneven, and the silliness could often drown out the horror, but it basically kept with the spirit of the opening. It was about normal kids being subjected to the world of “the dark,” where something was always slightly off, and where nothing could quite be trusted. Maybe the girl you thought was your sister was actually an alien, or maybe your best friend’s place had been taken by a chameleon. But no matter what the story was about, that opening had you ready to be scared.

So, dear reader, were you afraid of the dark? And if so, any favorite episodes?

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