There was a time when horror wasn’t just for adults. In the ’80s, movies given a PG rating and touted as family films would sometimes be terrifying. It shaped us growing up. By the time the end of the decade and the ’90s rolled around, this trend had made its way to Saturday morning-style cartoons made specifically for kids. These were among my favorites as a child. I was afraid of everything, but if it was a cartoon, I could enjoy the horror visuals without actually being too scared. Most of the time, anyway.
Below, in honor of it being Halloween month, the best month ever for horror dorks, I’ve compiled a list of seven of my favorite horror or horror-themed cartoons from my formative years, that, looking back, were actually pretty darn scary. This is by no means a definitive list, and I didn’t rank them. They’re just in alphabetical order. So, let’s begin!
Aaahh!!! Real Monsters
Nicktoons were a brilliant innovation in the ’90s: a channel kids watched ad nauseum anyway finally making its own brand of slightly off-kilter and highly original programming. With the exception of Doug, the rest of them could be pretty darn creepy. Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life were very disturbing, and even Rugrats had its fair share of nightmare fuel. But it wasn’t until 1994 when they decided to actually go for straight-up scary. Or, humorously scary. Think Monsters University but instead of being adorable, it’s putrescent. Our three hero monsters, Ickis, Oblina, and Krumm, have to learn to be proper scarers of humans and their headmaster is the dreaded Gromble. They head to the human world quite a bit and usually have to scare their way out of a predicament. Or just run away. Either way, this show was freaky, but in a fun way.
All the way back in 1988, Tim Burton made a horror comedy about newly dead people who needed to get a dopey family out of their house and called on a “Bio-Exorcist” to do it. Only a year later, Beetlejuice became a cartoon and forgot all about the newly dead couple. Instead, it focused on the decidedly less pervy Beetlejuice’s friendship (or, I don’t know, maybe more than that, it never went that far) with goth human Lydia Deetz, who lives with her new-agey parents. Most of the show’s episodes took place in the Neitherworld (the afterlife) and that’s where all the scary stuff came in. The look of the cartoon was especially macabre and they definitely decided to go for gross-outs instead of pure scares. I have a very definite memory of an episode which featured the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe. It was trippy and surreal and unnerving as all get-out. I was like 6, though, so I feel like my fear was justified.
The character of Count Duckula was a recurring villain of Danger Mouse, the British spy spoof in the ’80s. For whatever reason, Cosgrove Hall decided to spin him off into his own show and make him the protagonist. You can’t have an evil vampire as the lead of our children’s show, of course, so it was established in the show’s opening credits that he’s a vegetarian vampire duck, and he wants to be an entertainer. While the show delved into the silliness, it was very true to its Hammer Horror roots, including needing a blood ritual to bring Duckula back from the dead. Even just the opening credits was enough to give me the willies, and I think it still looks pretty great today.
I maybe didn’t realize it at the time, because I was 9, but Mighty Max was a horror show masquerading as an adventure. Sure, it had a young boy with a cosmic cap which could generate portals, leading him, his fowl mentor, and his giant sword-wielding bodyguard, into different settings (very like Doctor Who), but almost all of the baddies had some kind of dark and monstrous tinge to them. There were werewolves, zombies, xenomorph-looking aliens, human-absorbing blobs, and the main villain lived in a fiery volcano pit and was named Skullmaster. This is easily one of the best shows of the ’90s, even if it was just based on a toy, and I think I responded so strongly to specifically because of all the monsters and old ’50s horror movie tropes and situations. It was funny too, of course, but you always laugh after a good scream.
The Real Ghostbusters
While this program, based on the behemoth film from 1984, eventually became very kiddish and safe, the first couple seasons of The Real Ghostbusters were doing some weird and definitely horror-filled things. They had a Cthulu storyline, for Gozer’s sake! While, like most of the entries on this list, the show was still a comedy, the paranormal plots for seasons 1 and 2 were very complex, and the ghosts and otherworldly entities were gruesome and quite nefarious. Genre luminaries like Michael Reaves and J. Michael Straczynski were writers on the program and they brought in not only Lovecraft references but Norse mythology, riffs on the Bermuda Triangle, and references to every old horror and sci-fi movie under the sun. This was a really smart series, until Slimer became the focus in 1988.
Tales from the Cryptkeeper
Yes, of course let’s make a cartoon series based on a super-adult HBO show which in turn was based on hyper-gory comic books from the ’50s. That sounds like a great idea. And, actually, it kind of was. What made the EC Comics and HBO show great was the anthology aspect of the stories, and the fact that they could always blend the violence and comeuppance with a strand of dark comedy. While the cartoon series didn’t have nearly the mean streak as the earlier material, it did maintain the level of scares by ensuring the animation style stay as true to the EC Comics origins as possible without showing anything graphic. The stories also focused on kids, which was compulsory for the time period and genre, but a ton of shows were doing this for horror anthologies and it usually worked. The third season, made several years after the first two, introduced a lot more content guidelines, such as the Cryptkeeper teaching morals. Just stick to those first two gloriously ghoulish seasons of 13 and you’ll be sitting pretty.
The Toxic Crusaders
This is an example of a show that didn’t scare me at all when it aired from 1990-1991 but scared me to pieces in retrospect once I’d accidentally watched pieces of the film, The Toxic Avenger. That movie traumatized me as a 7 year old and thus meant I was suddenly afraid of this cartoon. But, can you really blame me? It was a show where superheroes are made by being constantly exposed to toxic waste, but the gross and uglifying kind. This, along with Swamp Thing, were the two grungy, eco-message superhero shows of the era, and they both featured a giant green monster guy as our hero. Neither were very good, but at least Toxic Crusaders had our pal Toxie.
And there we have it. These are but 7 shows that fit the bill. By no means is this a complete list. Why don’t you share some of your own favorite horror cartoons for kids in the comments below? And enjoy Nerdist all October long during #Nerdoween!
Featured Image: Nelvana/WB
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!