Searches for terrifying or shocking kids’ cartoons usually turn up the same old lists of cartoon conspiracy theories (which never make sense and always conclude that the cast of the show is actually dead) or “adult” scenes from old theatrical shorts (which are often taken out of context and come from cartoons that weren’t intend for kids in the first place.) But there’s no need to resort to crazy theories or cartoons that were really for adults to find ‘toons that can leave some permanent scars on young viewers. Even if you just check out one decade – the one I spent my formative years in – and limit yourself to television animation, you can find a treasure trove of shocking and disturbing animation aimed squarely at children. Here are just five of the most nightmare-inducing animated TV episodes of the 80s.
What’s it about? Good guy scientists battle bad guy subterranean monsters with occasional help from elemental creatures.
Why is it nightmare fuel? Inhumanoids is not a great cartoon, in part because the heroes were totally forgettable and wore terribly designed armor. What it had going for it was the monsters, and the creators of the brand knew it because the show is named after them. There was a lava spewing monster, a plant creature, and others. But the most terrifying member of the Inhumanoids is D’Compose. D’Compose had a weird reptilian skull for a head and an exposed ribcage. His power was turning people into monstrous undead creatures.
“Dark Awakening,” TransFormers
What’s it about? The heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime has returned! But has he come back to save the Autobots or destroy them?
Why is it nightmare fuel? Plenty of kids who were shocked by Optimus dying in the original TransFormers movie were no doubt thrilled to see their hero back. Problem is, he’s a robot zombie, reawakened by enemies of the Autobots to do their bidding. Plus, Prime doesn’t just come knocking at the door to the Ark. The Autobots find him in the mausoleum that houses not only Prime, but all of the Autobots who died during the events of the movie. All of this adds up to a lot of robot corpses, one walking around and a lot of very dead ones, and a lot of kids with insomnia.
“Rescue at Midnight Castle”, My Little Pony
What’s it about? The very first animated Pony adventure, also called “Firefly’s Adventure” or simply the My Little Pony special had the rainbow colored ponies meeting their human friend Megan and battling the forces of darkness.
Why is it nightmare fuel? The 1980s My Little Pony cartoon was no masterpiece, but it did have some good villains now and then, such as Catrina the cat-witch and Grogan the centuries old ram. And then there were the bad guys in this special, who look like they wandered in from an episode of Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a bunch of dragons who capture the ponies and drag them off to the titular Midnight Castle. Scorpan is a kind of bat-winged, apelike monster and reluctant villain. And finally, there’s Tirek, the centaur demon who wields the Rainbow of Darkness and turns ponies into dragons to pull his chariot. They may not be the scariest villains out there, but the fact that they’re so unexpectedly present in a My Little Pony cartoon earns them a spot on the list.
“Worlds Without End,” G.I. Joe
What’s it about? A small team of Joes is transported to an alternate universe where Cobra rules supreme.
Why is it nightmare fuel? Alternate worlds where the villains win are common, but few go quite as dark as this one does. The show that has guns shooting red and blue lasers instead of bullets and shows a pilot parachuting away from every downed aircraft got very frank about the fact that people – including good guys – had died in this world. By far, the most terrifying scene is when an already delirious Joe stumbles across the skeletal remains of three alternate universe Joes, including his own doppleganger’s remains. He understandably runs away screaming, as did many viewers.
“The Price,” Bravestarr
What’s it about? Marshall Bravestarr is trying to stop the spread of a new drug called “spin” on the planet of New Texas. Meanwhile, a young boy named Brad tries to decide whether to tell anyone about his friend Jay’s drug use or keep it a secret.
Why is it nightmare fuel? Normally, child endangerment is a big no-no for children’s TV. But if you’re doing an anti-drug episode, you can literally get away with murder. Of course Brad eventually decides that telling Bravestarr what Jay is up to is worth risking their friendship. But when he leads the marshall to their clubhouse, Brad discovers that Jay has died of a drug overdose. There’s no space Western magic that comes along to fix him; just the anguished wailing of his mother and a lifetime of guilt for Brad. I don’t know if this episode convinced any kids to Just Say No, but it almost certainly terrified a few of them.
Got a cartoon inspired childhood trauma of your own? Tell us about it in the comments!