We’ve never been so scared of ‘The Rugrats’.
Halloween as a kid was the absolute best. You went hunting for big bars and stayed out past eight. You got to go home and watch whatever R-rated movie TNT or USA were airing on basic cable. There was wheeling and dealing, three packets of M&Ms for a bundle of Twizzlers and Jawbreakers. fast food restaurants were solidifying their Halloween legacy. Costumes were a hodgepodge, a Power Ranger with a scythe or Freddy Krueger with a chainsaw (wait a minute…). Better still, and perhaps best of all, the 90s and early 00s children’s television was more than happy to celebrate all things scary with a slate of episodic beats that saw TV-Y and TV-Y7 content go to some genuinely frightening places. Here, in the spirit of the season, we’ll be taking a look back at some classic cartoons and their most terrifying moments.
Down the Drain – Rugrats
“Down the Drain” premiered in February 1993. Sure, it was outside the Halloween season, but that year’s theatrical releases– Hocus Pocus, Jason Goes to Hell– had nothing on the sheer terror “Down the Drain” incited among an entire generation of youth. Here, Tommy watches one of his toy soldiers get sucked down the drain. Naturally, he presumes that could happen to him as well, and he is sufficiently traumatized. Later, when he and Chuckie commiserate, Angelica wanders in to tell the (embellished, obviously) story of a boy down the street. He also feared being sucked down the drain, and one evening, the drain opened into a chasm, sucking everything down. His parents returned, the tub empty. It was horrifyingly animated, and though I was beyond my water rejection stage at that point, you better believe I started thinking twice about taking a bath.
Under Chuckie’s Bed – Rugrats
Here, Rugrats went full Stephen King’s It. Not satisfied with scaring developmentally sensitive kids away from the bath, Rugrats opted to tackle the monster under the bed. Chucky moves from a bed to a crib with no sides, and his first night alone, he hears a voice call for him in the dark. From there, “Rugrats” explores the mythos of monsters under the bed, including an absolutely spine-tingling segment where an unseen monster beckons a boy to come down. Promising cake and ice cream, this little boy leans over, only to be dragged into the infinite nothingness beneath his bed. Pennywise who?
Graveyard Shift – Spongebob SquarePants
“Graveyard Shift” is arguably one of the most popular episodes of cartoon Spongebob SquarePants ever. The incorrigible Mr. Krabs decides to keep the Krusty Krab open for 24 hours to make more bank. So, Spongebob and Squidward are tasked with working the graveyard shift, even though there’s little chance anyone would want a Krabby Patty at 3 AM. To frighten Spongebob, Squidward tells him the story of the Hash-Slinging Slasher. Allegedly a former cook who lost his hand and replaced it with a spatula before being killed, the Slasher returns every Tuesday night to seek revenge on those who wronged him. Of course, the Hash-Slinging Slasher isn’t real (he’s just a sap looking for a job), but “Graveyard Shift” milks his campfire tale for all its worth. Deeply atmospheric, funny, and featuring a cameo from Count Orlok himself, “Graveyard Shift” is frightening gateway horror at its brightest.
What Scared Sue Ellen? – arthur
“What Scared Sue Ellen” inexplicably aired as part of Arthur’s third season in December 1998. Don’t let the post-holiday haze airing fool you, though—“What Scared Sue Ellen?” is genuinely frightening. Sue Ellen is steady, nothing can scare her. While Arthur and the gang are rattled by ghosts and escaped prisoners with hooks, Sue Ellen remains indomitably brave. That is, of course, until she stumbles upon the legend of the Baba Yaga. Appearing in Slavic folklore as either a hero or villain, the Baba Yaga travels the woods in her hut on chicken legs. Here, she hunts Sue Ellen down in a terrifying dreamscape, even appearing in her bedroom the next morning for one final scare. Sure, everyone learns a lesson about bravery and sticking together, but those cartoon Baba Yaga scenes no doubt scarred an entire generation.
The Fright Stuff – arthur
First of all, the title for “The Fright Stuff,” the third episode of Arthur’s fourth season, is delightful. It’s the kind of playfulness and gender awareness kid’s television today could use a little more of. Similar to “What Scared Sue Ellen,” everyone is looking to scare each other. They get their chance, too, when Muffy invites the gang to Castle Manor, an allegedly haunted abode where acclaimed horror author EA DePoe will be reading their new story. With scares aplenty, “The Fright Stuff” is, well, the fright stuff to watch this Halloween for a healthy dollop of cartoon nostalgia with spicy, scary twist.
Haunted Train – Hey Arnold!
Hey Arnold! has a genuine cartoon ghost. Throughout the entirety of “Haunted Train,” Arnold and the gang are pursuing the legend of the haunted train. As told by Gramps, an engineer went mad one day, driving his train down the tracks straight into Hell. Every year since, the engineer returns to prey on unsuspecting passengers, blinding them with white light, a noxious smell, and horrible music. From there, he drives them into darkness whereupon they’re met with the face of a demon. Basically, he drives them to Hell, and a bunch of middle schoolers set about confirming the legend. Like “Graveyard Shift,” it all ends with a big misunderstanding, only… not really. As the camera pans away, the mad engineer is seen sitting atop a phantom train, laughing maniacally into the wind. It’s positively chilling. So, yeah, Hey Arnold! canonically has demon engineers.
Terrifying Tales of Recess – Recess
Recess’ foray into frightening tales had the honor of premiering on Halloween night in 2001. I was there, and what a time it was. Here, perennial bad boy Butch decides to tell three terrifying stories. These include “Children of the Cornchip” and “Night of the Living Finsters.” Allegedly an homage to The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” series, it’s remarkably frightening, accessible, and positively dripping with love for the horror genre written broad. It rarely if ever gets better than that.
Collect Her – The Powerpuff Girls
“Collect Her” basically sees the three cartoon girls—Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup—kidnapped and trafficked by comic book geek Lenny Baxter. A self-described Powerpuff Girl mega fan, Lenny collects all the branded merchandise he can. As his collection swells, he feels the desire for more and more. At first, he (a grown man) breaks into their bedroom one night, stealing their belongings. Even that isn’t enough to satiate his desire, so soon, he decides to just kidnap the girls for himself. While it ends all happy and whatnot, it doesn’t do enough for an audience to forget that their favorite, colorful heroes were almost kidnapped by a genuine, bonafide predator.
A Night at the Katz Motel – Courage the Cowardly Dog
While Courage the Cowardly Dog was technically a horror cartoon, it still merits entry here. Sure, everyone knows “Freaky Fred” or “King Ramses Curse”. But, I’d argue that “A Night at the Katz Motel” takes the cake. This episode is dark. Remarkably dark. Crawl under a blanket and have an existential crisis dark. Courage is almost killed by recurring antagonist Katz. Like, almost smoked and killed until a last-minute save from Muriel. With creepy-crawly spiders, the first appearance of Katz, and a decrepit motel that would make Tobe Hooper proud, “A Night at the Katz Motel” is worth checking into.
Haunted – Teen Titans
While Teen Titans skirts the line of children’s cartoon, it’s nevertheless a seminal piece of millennial pop culture history. After all, almost everyone growing up in the early aughts had a Teen Titans phase. Listen, Raven meant a lot to a lot of people, okay? In “Haunted,” the DC Comics heroes are at a crossroads. Everyone is convinced Slade, a sort of terminator supervillain, is gone for good. His nemesis Robin, however, isn’t so sure, and those suspicions are soon confirmed when he catches a glimpse of him. Unfortunately, Robin is the only one who can see him, and soon, the other Titans are questioning his sanity. Is Slade really back or is he all a hallucination? In terms of the superhero genre tackling horror themes, forget the likes of The New Mutants. “Haunted” did it better than most ever will.
What were some of your favorite cartoon horror outings? Were there any I missed? Is “Freaky Fred” really scarier than “A Night at the Katz Motel?” What about “The Black Puddle Queen?” That episode of Courage had me terrified of rugs for weeks. Let me know over on Twitterand most importantly, have a happy Halloween.