Scooby Doo, Where are You, Now that We Need You?

What can I say about the glory that is the original series of Scooby Doo? It is one of those shows that makes me want to sound like some BBC arts presenter, who gushes with superlatives about the rich, artistic quality, the genius that evokes Leonardo, Michelangelo. You know, that kind of stuff. I even want to suggest that our brave hero’s cry of ‘Scooby Dooby Dooooo’ reminds me of Yeats…

I know that Scooby is back with a vengeance, and it is a deep pleasure to see youngsters worshiping at his majestic feet but (and now I definitely sound like a BBC arts presenter decrying the decline of western culture) it’s just not as good as it once was. Yes, folks, I am getting old.

But what can Scooby and the Gang tell us about horror and television. Well, first, there is the association with children that we discussed a while back. The show started in the late 1960s, which was only about ten years after horror films were the first major package of films that were sold to television and developed a huge following among the kids.

Indeed, most of the humor in the series relies on a high level of familiarity with the history of the horror film. Each week, the gang would run into yet another classic monster or classic monster movie type, and the series depends upon a familiarity with these monsters, their mythologies and the narratives with which they were associated.

None the less, the show was actually strongly associated with a particular period of horror. Despite the psychedelic clothes and van design, the series is strongly rooted in the monster-hunter narratives of the 1940s, as exemplified by the Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s.

If the Sherlock Holmes films are now remembered as detective stories, they were known as ‘mysteries’ at the time; and the term ‘mystery’ was not a separate category from ‘horror’ but meant stories of the strange, weird and uncanny. Holmes was therefore usually hunting down supposedly supernatural monsters, and even when the mystery was not a monster on the loose, the ‘mystery’ was not just a puzzle to be solved but a seemingly impossible phenomena that seemed to defy logic – even when the work of Nazis or criminal gangs.

It is therefore worth remembering that the Scooby gang drive around in ‘The Mystery Machine’, and they are teenage detectives in search of clues. They were monster hunters in much the same way as Holmes in the 1940s or Carl Kolchak in the 1970s.

This also relates to a theme that is central to the 1940s but also to horror from the Gothic novel to the present: the tension between the rational and the irrational. In the Holmes narratives, the conflict revolves around the possibility of supernatural explanation versus the power of Holmes’ rational logic. Would he be able to counter the supernatural; to give it a rational explanation? Or would the forces of the supernatural and the irrational win out?

Of course, like the Scooby gang, Holmes always finds a rational explanation; as does the detective in The Beast With Five Fingers. But in other narratives, the supernatural wins out and ridicules the powers of rational thought. Think about The X-Files for a moment!

However, Scooby Doo, Where are You? may have seemed to follow a rational logic but, let us be honest, who really cared about the key figures of rational normality, Fred or Daphne? Walking blocks of wood! Instead, it was disruptive monsters on the one hand, and the mad antics of Scooby and Shaggy on the other, that provided excitement. And Scooby and Shaggy were driven by an obsessive preoccupation with food; not the desire to solve the mystery (they ran to food and away from the mysterious and uncanny).

They are driven by the body, not the mind; they continually lapse into irrational panic; and it was usually their slapstick clumsiness that captured the menace, not Fred and Daphne’s carefully laid traps. And then, of course, the two blocks of wood are finally upstaged by Velma, who explains everything; and she was in almost all ways far closer to Shaggy and Scooby than Fred or Daphne, being another teenager outsider: the bespectacled smart girl. God, one can only imagine the humiliation that Daphne must have heaped upon her in the locker room back at school!

At the present, teen horror series a huge on television following Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in which Buffy’s group called themselves the Scooby gang); and, consequently, while Buffy may have been highly important in industrial terms, Scooby Doo hangs over the whole output (from Buffy to Pretty Little Liars, Supernatural, Teen Wolf, and The Vampire Diaries) like some grand ur-text; or some renaissance master: Leonardo, Michelangelo …

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Murder, She Wrote (1984) – No Really!

I know that it surprises people, but I have always been a sucker for Murder, She Wrote. There is something that I find compulsively comforting about the show.

Of course, some people will object that it’s not horror and, while I would concede that it’s not exactly fantastic, except in the sense that it is fabulous, the show was closely related to horror from the first, if only through its association with a version of horror that we have tended to forget. In the 1940s, when Angela Lansbury became a star (Angela plays the show’s amateur detective, Jessica Fletcher), the horror genre clearly included murder mysteries so that the Sherlock Holmes series (with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) was understood as a horror series, and even Rene Clair’s film version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was explicitly seen as a horror film: it was even given its New York City premiere on Halloween.

As if to illustrate the point, the first episode of Murder, She Wrote starts with what appears to be a staple of the 1940s horror film, the Gothic (or paranoid) paranoid woman’s film. The episode opens with a young woman in a nightgown who is cautiously climbing the staircase of an old house while carrying a candlestick, a woman who is suddenly surprised by an axe-welding man at the top of the stairs. Of course, it is then revealed that we are actually watching the rehearsal of a play, the mystery of which Jessica has already solved (she is has gained admission to the rehearsal for reasons that now escape me).

Furthermore, in this first episode, Jessica is writing the novel that will make her famous as a mystery writer, a book whose title also emphasizes that the series is making no distinction between the detective story and the horror story. Her novel is called, The Corpse Danced at Midnight, and when she goes to Hollywood later in the season to complain about a film producer’s adaptation of her novel, she does not object that it is being turned into a horror film, but into an ‘low-budget’ horror film that is directed at teenagers.

All of which should be unsurprising, given the casting of Angela Lansbury, a fascinating actress with a long and illustrious association with horror. Her breakthrough was in the now classic 1940s horror film, Gaslight, in which Ingrid Bergman is tormented by her completely bonkers husband, Charles Boyer. Although she was only seventeen at the time, and this was her first film role, she was nominated for an Oscar in the role; and was quickly cast in another horror film the following year, MGM’s hugely expensive film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Many of her most famous film roles have similarly played on this association with horror and she was brilliantly cast as the evil mother in The Manchurian Candidate. This is a really chilling portrayal in a film that is as much a horror story as is a political thriller; it was after all made in 1962 only two years after another film about a young man who is psychologically dominated by his mother – Norman Bates inĀ Psycho.

Furthermore, for reasons that I can’t even begin to speculate on, she has repeatedly been associated with horrific materials in child-related films (or films that were not always children’s films but played with the association between horror, children and fairy tales). She played a friendly witch in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the singing teapot (Mrs. Potts) in Beauty and the Beast, and also appeared in another story of witchery and childcare, Nanny McPhee. In a more adult context, she also played a rather sinister grandmother/storyteller in The Company of Wolves.

Even on the stage, where she became a major icon of the Broadway musical, she gave a celebrated performance as Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the recent film version of which had Helena Bonham Carter in Angela Lansbury role.

Of course, I won’t try to persuade you that Murder, She Wrote is awesome – you will have to form your own opinions about that – but I love it. But Angela Lansbury is a different matter. If you haven’t discovered how awesome she is, you really need to do some research!