What I Learned from Watching Scooby-Doo

Scooby-Doo. Amazing, isn’t it? Here it is, nearly fifty years after the first episode aired, and Scooby-Doo movies and cartoons are still being made.

I’ll admit that I haven’t watched any of the newer programs myself, so I can’t speak as to their quality. I loved the original Scooby-Doo shows way too much to taint my memory of them with some newer (and undoubtedly less charming) version of a classic. Besides, I still watch the reruns from time and time, and you know what? I’ll be darned if they aren’t just as good as they were when I was a kid. Of course, maybe I appreciate them on a slightly different level now.

Because it turns out that the Scooby-Doo shows, in their early manifestations, weren’t about a gang of teenagers and a talking dog. They weren’t about how many ways you can work chocolate sauce into a quadruple-decker sandwich, or how easily villains are fooled by cheap, impromptu disguises. They weren’t even about solving mysteries. What Scooby-Doo was really about was the triumph of reason over superstition. Because what devotees of Scooby-Doo learned from watching the show was simply this: There is a rational explanation for everything.

It’s brilliantly done. You have Fred and Velma, the logical leaders of the group, who are consistently convinced that there’s no such thing as ghosts and are determined to prove it. You have Daphne, who stands on the fence, being sometimes a believer and sometimes a skeptic. And finally you have Scooby and Shaggy, the superstitious “cowards” who fall prey to every supernatural trick. Yet they’re the ones who always end up having to lure their paranormal pursuers into the gang’s cleverly designed trap. They’re the ones who constantly have to find the courage to confront their fears, and who ultimately reap the greatest satisfaction from uncovering the truth. And they’re undeniably our favorites, the ones we identify with and support.

You can’t help but root for the hungry young man and his faithful and equally hungry Great Dane, to hope that they’ll learn to trust the logic of their peers even as we ourselves learn to trust it. Because the show proves, time and again, how needless their fear really is, how silly their conviction that werewolves and mummies and monsters are real. And as viewers, we know better, because we know how it always ends. The phosphorescent alien footprints trailing across a barren field. The eerie thumping of a mysterious and invisible drummer. The green ghosts emerging from hidden hallways and secret staircases to taunt and terrorize our valiant crew. Week after week, we watch and we learn.

There’s no such thing as ghosts. It’s always a trick, a scheme devised by mere mortal men to keep people away from the site of the haunting or other creepy phenomenon. There’s always a plot to abscond with someone else’s treasure, or to foil the attempts of greedy neighbors to abscond with one’s own. No matter how frightening or eerie or persuasive the phantom, it always turns out to be a man in disguise.

That’s what makes Scooby-Doo the ultimate symbol of my generation. It’s why we think the way we do; why we champion proof and science, and why we’ve discarded spooks and angels. It’s why when a door slams shut in the middle of the night we suspect a prowler and not a poltergeist. It’s why we blame trick photography and digital imaging for producing shapes and shadows we can’t discern or identify. It’s why we’ve lost belief in demonic possession and intensified our interest in mental illness, and why we hope to find aliens and not to fight them. Because we know that crime is real. That evil is real. That fear is real. But we also know that no supernatural power lies behind them. Only a human, just like us.

Is it better this way? Perhaps. Except that we’ve gone beyond the golden Scooby-Doo moment of discovering that the spirit of which we were deathly afraid is just a run-of-the-mill crook playing a trick. There’s no revelation here, no joy in finally uncovering the man behind the mask. Because we never thought for a moment that the ghost was real. We never believed it was anything more than another troubled human taking what wasn’t theirs and scaring people in the process. Because that’s how thoroughly we understand humans now, how much more dangerous they are than demons and phantoms. Fear doesn’t come from outer space or beyond the grave anymore. It’s right here beside us, sleeping in the upstairs apartment or working in the next tiny cubicle or tramping down the same tiled hallway.

Science has triumphed. Rationality has triumphed. But they haven’t turned our world into a prettier or less intimidating place. Rather they’ve made us aware that what humans harbor in the darkest depths of their hearts is more frightening by far than any monster we could have imagined. We expect monsters to kill and destroy without thinking, and without reason. We don’t expect spirits to care whom they frighten, or whom they hurt. But we expect humans to behave better than beasts or bogeymen. How do we explain it when they don’t?

Scooby-Doo understands. Because here, in the real world, behind every event we can’t explain, there also lies a mystery to unravel. Perhaps it’s not the mystery we were expecting, because it’s not merely a matter of proving that the ghost is a fake, or that there’s a real live person behind it. This infinitely more complex riddle can never be solved in twenty-two minutes with a jumbo box of laundry detergent and an industrial-sized fan. It’s the mystery of human behavior, of what truly transpires on the other side of the masks that all of us wear.

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