By David Perlmutter
Animation and horror work well together.
Both often focus on society’s outliers, those who cannot or will not conform to rigid social standards, and are punished for it. The consequences of this lack of conformity can have both comic results—as in many animation narratives–or far more tragic ones–the results of many horror narratives.
So it is not surprising that animation has adopted horror ideas and motifs from its very beginning. Animation has the capacity to make the most unreal things “real” and understandable. Similarly, horror is about the open confrontation and exposing of hidden and difficult truths, supernatural or otherwise. When combined, they can be a rich and satisfying blend.
Walt Disney, the great master of theatrical animation, was prescient in seeing this relationship to its greatest effect in his black-and-white masterpiece, “The Skeleton Dance”.
Here, a traditional horror setting–a graveyard–and a common trope–the animate skeleton–are cast in a new light. The titular dance is conducted with a gaiety rarely seen in a horror-themed narrative, the clear un-reality of the situation fully embraced. Disney and his animators were having fun with their horror setting in this film, but by the time of the epic “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia, it became clear that the relationship between animation and horror could also be no joke at all.
Still, it wasn’t until the era of television that the marriage of animation and horror became more commonplace.
The key matchmaker of this relationship was Halloween. It first manifested itself in the 1960s through It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, where Charles Schulz’s characters first indicated the importance of the holiday to children. The bittersweetness of Charlie Brown getting a rock every time his friends get candy is a clear reflection of just how unpredictable the trick-or-treat ritual can be.
From then on, virtually every television animation program often devoted at least one episode to The Big Event. However, supernatural elements at this time (and now) were often presented without much of a level of menace to them. Think about all the parodies of Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. that turned up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Unless you were familiar with the novels and stories from whence they came, and/or the classic Universal horror films featuring them from the ‘30s and ‘40s, it’s hard to imagine anyone being remotely scared by them. In shows such as “The Groovie Goolies” and “Gravedale High”, television animation was very much guilty of the debasement of the once scary in the name of co-opting commercialism.
The game-changer for television animation’s horror content–as with content in the genre as a whole–was The Simpsons, with its annual–and frequently brilliant–“Treehouse of Horror” Halloween specials. Capricious, dark, and gallows-humor witty, these programs are extremely unique in the canon of Halloween-themed programs. Their closest recent rival in this regard has been Gravity Falls, an astonishingly daring program with a remarkable dramatic range, from hilariously funny to genuinely scary, in each and every installment. This show was particularly notable and daring for featuring a summertime variant on Halloween, called “Summerween”: an event just as revered and dreaded as its autumn progenitor.
In short, animation and horror have worked well together because, like so many good relationships, they know how to get the best out of each other. And they probably will, forevermore.
David Perlmutter is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is the author of America Toons In: A History of Television Animation (McFarland and Co.), The Singular Adventures Of Jefferson Ball (Amazon Kindle/Smashwords), The Pups (Booklocker.com), Certain Private Conversations and Other Stories (Aurora Publishing), Honey and Salt (Scarlet Leaf Publishing), Orthicon; or, the History of a Bad Idea (Linkville Press, forthcoming), and The Encyclopedia of American Animated Cartoon Series (Rowman and Littlefield). He can be reached on Facebook at David Perlmutter-Writer, Twitter at @DKPLJW1, and Tumblr at The Musings of David Perlmutter (yesdavidperlmutterfan).