Here’s hoping this is the year the Great Pumpkin finally visits your pumpkin patch!
Here’s hoping this is the year the Great Pumpkin finally visits your pumpkin patch!
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.
When I was in the seventh grade, my English teacher assigned us a creative writing project for Halloween. We were to compose short stories, which we would then read aloud before the class, coupled with a competition of sorts in which the students would vote on who had written the best one.
Now in my pre-teen years, I was not what you would term the most popular kid in school. Perhaps it was those horrible “Student-of-the-Month” photos of me hanging in the main hallway, which they somehow always managed to take right after gym when my hair was flying every which way, or perhaps it was the oxford shirts and corduroy trousers in which my mother dressed me because I refused to participate in ridiculous wastes of time like school-clothes shopping. It certainly didn’t help that in addition to being smart and studious, I was also very, very shy, which led many to believe that I was stuck-up. I suppose if you’re naturally adept at making conversation, it’s difficult to understand that other kids might not be.
You can therefore easily picture the scene in the classroom that day: the anxious adolescent girl slouched in her seat, sweat drenching the armpits of her button-up shirt as she watched the clock, fervently hoping that time would run out before her turn came. You can imagine my nervousness when, five minutes before the bell, my teacher called me to the front of the class, the last reader to go; my terror as I stumbled up to her desk clutching the half-sheets of paper on which I’d scrawled my assignment. As usual, I had pushed the limits on the suggested length – my story was at least twice as long as anyone else’s – and the only saving grace of this enforced public humiliation, I thought, was that I would undoubtedly run out of time to finish it before the lunch bell rang.
Tucking my loose hair back behind my ears and focusing my eyes firmly on my papers, I began to read. It turned out that reading wasn’t so bad; unlike giving an oral report, you didn’t actually have to look at any of the other students. And it was a decent story, I reflected as I flipped through the pages, concentrating hard on not losing my place. At least my classmates were sitting silently, which made them easier to ignore.
At last I reached the climax of my tale, which was where it turned gruesome. The main character had gotten trapped in a fire, and I remember describing, in disgusting detail, the sizzle of the hairs frying on his arms as the hot flames neared. I remember describing the flames devouring his flesh, great flaps of it falling from his skeleton as his skin seared away. And I remember the silence of the classroom; I remember it breaking, the moans and groans that swelled all around me as I depicted my main character’s excruciating demise, only to be interrupted by the harsh clanging of the bell.
No one stirred; no one rose; no one left. I glanced at my teacher, who nodded. The other students sat rapt while I finished my story, and they applauded when I was done. There was no question that I had won the contest.
I was pleased that my story had gone over well, of course, but it wasn’t until the following week, when other kids were still coming up to talk to me about it, that I understood that I had somehow made an impression that went beyond my gruesome, graphic horror story. It was as if I had revealed that somewhere beneath that classic nerdy exterior was a real honest-to-goodness person, a kid who thought about things like destruction and death, and flames eating flesh, and how best to describe such horrific events.
I’ve never been big on Halloween, myself. I’ve never liked the pressure of having to pick out a costume and then explain why I chose it; I’ve never even understood the appeal of dressing up and playing pretend. I have other ways of exploring my dark side. Nowadays you won’t find me in a starched, striped shirt, or in old-fashioned slacks, but don’t be fooled by the sweats and sports bra in which you’ll typically see me lounging about the house, because that’s not who I am, either. It’s just a costume; an innocuous mask meant to show nothing, to reveal nothing, to suggest nothing. My thoughts are inside me. They can never be exposed by a mere choice of outfit.
“On Viewing Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21″: The search for cinematic meaning in one of the most famous early German avant-garde films.
The Perfect Filmic Appositiveness of Jack Smith”: Impressions of the films of one of cinema’s most eccentric auteurs.
Dated, but still educational. (Not to mention groovy!)
Last week I decided to find a new home for my fake Christmas tree. Formerly it resided in an awkward and difficult-to-navigate corner of the basement, and I’ve finally relocated it to the upstairs closet with the rest of the Christmas stuff. Logically I know I ought to just get rid of the stupid thing. It’s a pain to put up, the branches are all bent way out of shape, a chunk of the topper is missing, and it’s still wearing tinsel from 2006. Yet somehow I’m never able to do it. It always surprises me how attached I am to that tree, even though I know full well the reason why – it’s because it’s exactly like the one my family had when I was growing up. I’m ordinarily not the nostalgic type, but to me that big ol’ fake tree with its pretty, colorful blinking lights is what makes Christmas Christmas. That and my one other indispensable holiday tradition – 1970s Christmas specials!
Yes, it’s true – Christmas was never more meaningful than it was during that wondrous era in which we celebrated the most important holiday of a child’s year not by going to church, not by singing carols, not by hitting the mall at midnight on the day after Thanksgiving, but by plopping our butts down in front of a nineteen-inch black-and-white at eight pm on Saturday nights in December and losing ourselves in these classic tales of childish wonder. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the story of an outcast who saves Christmas. Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the story of an outcast who invents Christmas as we know it today. How the Grinch Almost Stole Christmas, the story of an outcast who… Wait, I’m starting to sense a pattern here.
Now, I am not going to confess that I still watch these specials every year, and sometimes more than once, even with no children in sight. I will decline to admit that I have all of my favorites on both video and DVD, or that the one day of the year in which even I will almost certainly tear up is when I witness The Grinch having his big change of heart. I will, however, be happy to share my thoughts on that most thought-provoking of Claymation creations – the story of Rudolph.
Yes, because there’s more to the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer than the patently obvious lesson about the worth and value of misfits. This 1964 Rankin and Bass drama is chock full of enough subtext to satisfy the most diehard of film enthusiasts, and it is still, nearly fifty years later, remarkably evocative of the socially progressive era in which it was born. Let’s look at how.
1. The authority figures are jerks. There’s the nasty coach, who, after Rudolph’s secret is revealed, informs the other children snidely: “From now on, we won’t let Rudolph play in any more reindeer games, right? Right.” Look at Rudolph’s dad, Donner, who forces him to wear a fake nose, which is not only uncomfortable, but wholly undermines Rudolph’s budding self-esteem. “You’ll like it and wear it!” he commands. “There are more important things than comfort. Self-respect!” Consider Clarice’s father, who reaffirms Rudolph’s worthlessness by rejecting Rudolph on sight: “No doe of mine is going to be seen with a… with a red-nosed reindeer!” And how about the mean elf-boss, who yells at Hermey and then (illegally) refuses to give him his break until he finishes his work?
And then there’s the big man himself, Santa Claus. Not content with merely trashing the new elf song his pint-sized slaves have spent weeks writing and rehearsing, he quickly turns his temper to the subject of Rudolph. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he tells Donner. For what, we wonder? For siring a red-nosed son? “What a pity – he had a nice take-off, too.” In other words, Santa is so closed-minded that he can’t even consider the possibility of putting someone who’s a little different on his team, no matter how good he is or how much potential he has. It’s the attitude of guys like him that gave rise to the idea of Equal Opportunity Employment.
The message is as clear as a bright red bulb on a foggy winter night. Don’t trust anyone over thirty!
2. The one authority figure who isn’t a jerk is King Moonracer, that good-looking lion. Although he speaks smoothly and with conviction, he is unfortunately an idiot. Every evening he circles the entire earth, collecting toys that no little girl or boy loves, and bringing them to his Island of Misfit Toys. Yet practically the first thing he says to Rudolph on meeting him is, “When one day you return to Christmastown, would you tell Santa about our misfit toys? I’m sure he could find children who would be happy with them.”
Okay, Your Highness, you may seem majestic with your wings and your crown and your cool castle and all, but you need better advisers. You’re telling me that you circle the entire earth every night seeking abandoned toys, but you never once thought to stop off at the North Pole and talk to Santa yourself? Heck, I mean, it’s not even that far – no farther than one can travel by ice floe, at any rate. The misfits may be all right, but the ruler of the misfits… Well, he obviously isn’t roaring with a full mane.
I’m not quite certain about the intended lesson here, though. Is it merely a dig at autocratic rule, or are we being taught that monarchy consists largely of pointless exercises in futility? In either case, it’s none too flattering to the man in charge – and in the end, it’s the brash young upstart who actually solves the problem of the misfit toys.
3. There’s a hint of underlying feminism. When Rudolph goes missing, Donner naturally decides to go out looking for him. “Mrs. Donner wanted to go along, too,” narrator Burl Ives assures us. “No! This is man’s work!” Donner blusters in response. But the days of mindless obedience to one’s husband are passing. “No sooner did the man of the house leave than Mrs. Donner and Clarice decided to go out on their own…” It’s also interesting that all of them – male and females alike – wind up in the cave of the Abominable Snow Monster. The buck, it seems, really was no better equipped to take care of himself than the ladies.
Notice, too, that the women aren’t jerks like the men are, perhaps because they have no actual authority. Why, that Clarice is downright sweet. She doesn’t laugh along with the others; rather, she compels Rudolph to keep his promise to walk her home. She sings to the unfortunate misfit to ease his dejection and pain. She even defends his “deformity,” declaring, “I think it’s a handsome nose! Much better than that silly false one you were wearing.” She’s kind of a forward gal, too. The way she whispers “I think you’re cute!” into Rudolph’s ear just before takeoff practice, the way she nuzzles noses with him on their first date – this is not a doe who is suffering from sexual repression.
Strong, independent, free-thinking females – you can practically see women’s lib being born right in front of your eyes.
4. It’s about coming-of-age. Because there’s no need for Rudolph to actually get rid of his red nose. He just needs to learn to control it. Am I right? The young Rudolph’s “blinkin’ beak” goes off at random, shocking nearby observers with both the shining light and the horrible high-pitched whine that accompanies it. Indeed, his secret is discovered during one such unexpected episode – and worse, he and his friends are almost caught by The Abominable during another. But by the end, Rudolph is flicking that thing on and off on command, and that’s the point at which it becomes useful – even desirable – to Santa and the others.
“Control! Control! You must learn control!” Yoda scolds Luke Skywalker, another youngster with unique and special powers. And what about Harry Potter? There’s a story that’s all about learning self-control. Misfit or no, Rudolph, too, must gain mastery over his body and his emotions before he can become a productive member of society.
And that, of course, is the quintessence of growing up.
5. It’s about the growing acceptance of babies born out of wedlock. Surprising, but quite possibly true. Have you ever noticed that Hermey has rounded ears? Strange, isn’t it? Not only is he the only elf who doesn’t like to make toys, he’s also the only one with round ears. Indeed, except for his stature and classy powder-blue attire, he might not be an elf at all. He might even be – gasp – a human!
Of course, among elves, the outcast would naturally be human; the anti-Vulcan, if you will. But why did Rankin and Bass decide not to give Hermey pointy ears? Why did they decide to make him a misfit not just by personality, but also by physical characteristic?
The answer seems obvious. Hermey is – as such children used to be called – illegitimate. Because if Santa and the Missus are the only humans in Christmastown, then where did Hermey get those rounded ears? Hmm, maybe Santa’s a jerk in more ways than we thought; taking advantage of an employee – oh, no, wait. There’s also Yukon Cornelius. Maybe he popped into town one day and decided to pop in on some cute girl-elf’s cottage. Oh, wow. What if Hermey was, in fact, Yukon Cornelius’ son? Think about it – they reunite, escape death, hang out, solve problems together… I may have to compose my very first piece of fan fiction.
There’s no question that the ranks of single mothers grew in the sixties – all that free love was bound to have consequences, after all – and perhaps, in a time in which the term “bastard” still prevailed, Rudolph gently reminded us not to judge the child by the actions of its parents. It’s a lesson that we’ve evidently learned, because look at us today – even our most respected celebrities are having babies without ever getting married, and without having to apologize for it, either. And their children, too, are no longer scorned or held down by society because of their birth; they are quite as likely to succeed in life, perhaps to become celebrities in their own right, or even, if they’re very lucky and study hard, dentists.
Programs like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are arguably the reason why children of my generation grew up the way we did. Consider the lessons it teaches. Question authority, especially when authority is wrong. Make your own decisions. Judge people by their actions, not by their appearance or their circumstances. Respect those who are different from you. It’s liberal thinking in its broadest, least political sense, and it was born in an era of idealism, in which people really thought it was possible to change the world; in which they truly believed that one person could make a difference.
Rudolph lights the way.
Want to share the story of Rudolph? This essay is now available in AUDIOBOOK on the following sites: