We love horror here at Nerdist, but we were kids once too. Not every kid watches A Nightmare on Elm Street at eight years old. Some of us watched regular old cartoons. But, those of us who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s can tell you some of those were scary as hell too. Everyone just wanted to terrify children back then. D’ose were da days. To that end, members of the Nerdist team have delved into their own kinder-fears to give you examples of episodes of cartoons that traumatized us.
We should point out, we’re pretty much leaving out anything that was inherently terrifying. Like Courage the Cowardly Dog, for example. That sh*t was designed to be scary every week. Picking an episode of this would be too easy. Anyway, without further ado.
Rocko’s Modern Life – “To Heck and Back”
To immediately contradict the above, it’s entirely possible Rocko’s Modern Life, Nickelodeon’s fourth Nicktoon which premiered in 1993, was in fact meant to terrify kids. The show, about a Wallaby’s foibles of daily existence, has some of the creepiest and most grotesque imagery this side of Ren & Stimpy. However, I don’t think anything was as nightmare fueling from that series as “To Heck and Back,” the second cartoon of the eleventh episode of the series. In it, Rocko’s best friend Heffer Wolfe (a cow) chokes to death on a chicken bone and as Rocko tries in vain to save him, has a truly disturbing trip to Heck where he meets the avatar of death itself, named Peaches.
It’s not merely that Heffer dies (he has Xs for eyes!) but it’s that Peaches at the end takes off his black hood to reveal his head is made of cow udders and sprays milk everywhere. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have of this entire show, because it scared the poop out of me. – Kyle Anderson
Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends – “The Bride of Dracula!”
Saturday morning cartoons in the ‘80s loved using classic monsters, but always watered them down to a ridiculous degree. One of those times was when Dracula popped up on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and hypnotized Angelica Jones into becoming his bride. He didn’t even know she was the superhero Firestar, he just had a thing for redheads. He might not have picked her if he knew was a living sun. Oops.
In the episode, Vlad takes her to Transylvania, where his Frankenstein and werewolf henchman fight Spidey and Iceman who come to save her. The idea that Drac might just randomly pop into a school dance and choose you as his victim is actually pretty scary when one is nine years old. And his werewolf henchman Bruno was actually scarier to any kid than Dracula, and stuck in my mind longer. Sadly, Dracula doesn’t bite anyone, but at least he’s not as lame as Super Friends Dracula, who turned people into vampires with eye beams. -Eric Diaz
Rugrats – “Under Chuckie’s Bed”
As a late ‘80s baby and ‘90s kid, Rugrats was a huge part of my cartoon lineup. I loved watching those silly babies with large heads go on ridiculous adventures. But one journey I didn’t love was when Chucky made his transition from a crib to a big boy bed in “Under Chuckie’s Bed.” I was long out of the crib stage at this point. However, I still had some serious anxiety about monsters lurking in every shadow of my room, including under my bed. And watching A Nightmare on Elm Street while living on Elm Street didn’t bolster my confidence about sleeping in a bed alone.
Hearing a voice call out to Chuckie, attempting to bribe him into the darkness under his bed with candy gave me chills. Of course, Angelica makes it worse with her story about Barnaby Jones, in which we see Barnaby getting pulled into the abyss in a very It-like fashion. Sure, Chuckie’s monster was only a sweater in the end but the possibility of ending up like Barnaby loomed in my mind. – Tai Gooden
Yu-Gi-Oh! – “Evil Spirit of the Ring”
At its heart, Yu-Gi-Oh! has some truly excellent horror bones. After all, the main conceit of the show is that its characters are basically getting possessed by ancient spirits all of the time. Even the friendlier ones don’t exactly always ask permission. But no character brings the creeps and chills quite like Yami Bakura. And that’s why his introductory episode is the one that makes this list. While other Bakura episodes of Yu-Gi-Oh! are arguably scarier, like his eyeball-filled Battle City duel with Yami Yugi or his graveyard-set, zombie-ridden encounter with the aptly named Bones, this episode is the most quintessentially creepy and also has a great feeling of Halloween.
For starters, “Evil Spirit of the Ring” takes place in the Shadow Realm and involves characters getting their souls sent to a graveyard where they’re chased by the Grim Reaper and see their names on gravestones. And on top of that, Yu-Gi-Oh’s main gang get to play dress up during this episode in true Halloween style. They’re transformed into monsters on the playing field and literally become their favorite cards. It’s horrifying from the perspective of their experience, but also a lot of fun. Taken together, this eerie episode of Yu-Gi-Oh! summons not only evil the spirit of the Millennium Ring but also the spirit of tricks and treats. – Rotem Rusak
Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
I’m gonna cheat a little here and pick the movie Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island. While not technically an episode of the television show, this direct-to-video horror classic made regular appearances on Cartoon Network throughout my childhood and left a lasting impact on my love of all things spooky. With a more serious and genuinely scary tone than the previous adventures of Scoobert-Doo and company, Zombie Island was an essential piece of gateway horror that felt exciting and dangerous and is undoubtedly responsible for spawning many lifelong fans of the genre. – Alison Mattingly
Beetlejuice – “Laugh of the Party”
As a kid I thought the Beetlejuice animated series was the greatest thing on TV, I just couldn’t articulate why. My child analysis was mostly limited to saying, “It’s really funny!” Now, as an adult with an expanded vocabulary and greater media literacy, I realize young me nailed it. If you want to see why go back and watch the show’s delightful first Halloween episode, “Laugh of the Party.” It features Beetlejuice attempting to throw a real-world Halloween bash using Neitherworld aides. Predictably that leads to a hilarious disaster.
The episode, like the entire show, totally holds up thanks to the cartoon’s timeless comedic sensibilities. The series blended silly and smart humor via absurdist gags, memorable characters, and clever wordplay. That was all anchored by the genuine friendship between Lydia and the Ghost with the Most. Their partnership made every party, even ones with Halloween monsters running amok, worth attending. -Michael Walsh
BONUS: Turbo Teen
I can’t pick a single episode of this bizarre 1984 series (which I saw later in the ’80s) because the entire thing is messed up. I’m all for things changing into other things in cartoons. Hell, Transformers was my absolute jam. Even people turning into animals, or animals turning into human-like things. I loved all of it. So why, then, was Turbo Teen so upsetting? Well, have you seen it?! It’s about a teenager who has the power to turn into a car. He’s not mechanical, mind you. He can just turn his body into a sports car. The transformation sequence, which they showed ad nauseum in every episode, is almost more harrowing than the similar scene in An American Werewolf in London.
I mean, just look at this monstrosity!
His face turns into the car’s grill! His friends sit inside him! That’s as gross as it gets. – Kyle Anderson