Happy October, everyone! Once again, autumn ensues as the T.V fall season gets underway, giving people plenty of new shows to enjoy their pumpkin-flavored everything with. Plus, it’s time for another annual T.V tradition: Halloween specials out the wazoo! It’s the most spooky-full time of the year on T.V, especially for cartoons.
For many cartoons, the Halloween special is a chance for them to cut loose and infuse their usual antics with some horror, scaring kids while still entertaining them. I’ve usually found the Halloween specials to be among the most memorable episodes from a show. Something about their eerie images always stood out to me, almost haunting me. Growing up, I watched the Halloween specials for a ton of shows: Tiny Toon Adventures, Kim Possible, Hey Arnold, The Fairly OddParents, and many, many more. They all jumped at the chance to switch gears to horror for twenty-two minutes, only to switch back once the holiday was over. However, there’s one show I recall without an official Halloween special, not that it needs one. Courage the Cowardly Dog never waited for October to be scary. Its spooky episodes, rife with Halloween-esque horror, actively terrified me as a kid year-round.
Premiering on Cartoon Network in 1999, Courage the Cowardly Dog is famous (infamous?) for scarring childhoods worldwide. Seriously, if you just Google the show, you’ll quickly find a bunch of articles and videos of those same scarred victims describing its top 10 scariest episodes, every episode haunting them to this day. The show is about a big chicken of a little dog—or rather, a fraidy-cat; that is to say, he’s a pink but yellow dog…He’s cowardly dog. Rescued from abandonment, he lives in a farmhouse in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas with the ever-loving Muriel Bagge and her crotchety husband Eustace. You might not think that’s a suitable premise for one of the eeriest cartoons of the late 90s, but, as the intro says, “creepy stuff happens in Nowhere.” And boy does it! Ghouls, witches, aliens, psychopaths, zombies, demons, and many more monsters of the week come out of nowhere to Nowhere to threaten Courage’s peaceful home. The creators of this show seem have an appreciation for the horror genre and all it entails, judging from all of the references and send-ups to well-known horror films and conventions (from Psycho to zombies, from The Exorcist to mummy’s curses). As such, they know how to make things scary, creating horrifying images that have been forever burned within the psyches of every six-year-old that saw them. There are two qualities about this show that make it so scary: its subversive nature and its music.
Courage the Cowardly Dog can be unpredictable, very unpredictable, which makes its scares even scarier. Despite all I’ve said, this show is not 100% horror, far from it. When Muriel gets possessed by a legion of demons, Courage confronts the demons to save her, and, after a brief but epic stare-down, he challenges them to a game of thumb war for her soul. Bear in mind, this was done after they twisted Muriel’s head 360 degrees and before the projectile vomiting. Courage the Cowardly Dog is still a cartoon aimed at kids, meaning it has plenty of gags and tender moments to warm hearts, but those soft moments can come between horrifying scares. What’s more, it’s not only a matter of when it might scare but how it scares. The show goes out of its way to scare you in the most inventive, unexpected ways. Some of the scariest moments are when it subverts its own 2-D animation, leading to terrifying results. Everything’s hunky-dory until a ghastly cgi ghost of King Ramses threatens you with 3 plagues or a Claymation monster girl screams at you like a banshee.
Another way Courage the Cowardly Dog draws out scares is through its music. Simply put, it’s evocative, adding to the mood of the episode. Whenever a threat appears, the music indicates how to feel: a chillingly fast piano melody signals incoming danger, slow chiming bells instill a sense of impending doom, and screeching violins draw out heart-pumping fright. There are moments when the soundtrack sounds like it could be from a gothic horror movie, making its images seem all the more otherworldly. What’s more, the soundtrack has a lot of range, sometimes using it to build up to the horror or drama. One of the best examples of this is Human Habitrail, an especially memorable episode. In just eleven minutes, the soundtrack goes from a gentle southern twang (when the smooth-talking Doc Gerbil comes knocking) to booming horns and drums evoking an oncoming dread (when Doc kidnaps Eustace and Muriel for his tortuous experiments) and culminates in a hauntingly operatic piece sung by a woman backed by the Gregorian chants of a choir (when, in the climax, Courage escapes with his family, prompting a dramatic chase scene as Doc pursues). Basically, this show can put you on an emotional rollercoaster though sound as well as sight.
Courage the Cowardly Dog makes an effort to scare and unsettle people, especially kids, but it rattles in order to create an appreciation for what we have: the things that bring us peace and joy, foundations to stand on. Horror can remind us that frightening stuff happens in life. There are evil forces out there that try to intimidate us and threaten to take away what we hold dear, but we have to be willing to hold on tighter to them, desperately so. Look at Courage: he gets frightened by shadows, let alone every other monster on the show, but he’s still willing to risk life and limb to protect Muriel (and, to a lesser extent, Eustace), explaining it as “the things I do for love.” While he may be a coward at times, Courage lives up to his name by being so filled with love that he never lets his fear stop him, and because of that he always gets home safe and sound with Muriel. At the risk of sounding cheesy, Courage the Cowardly Dog shows that, at the end of the day, love trumps fear, and it asks, “What are we willing to do for love?”
Thanks for reading! Keep an eye out this Tuesday for Jordan’s thoughts on Wonderfalls.