I love cartoons. I love horror. So what could be better than some scary cartoons? How about some scary cartoons that are supposedly aimed at children!
In this last instalment of my 3-part look at scary cartoons for kids, I look at the creepy cartoons of the 2000’s. Please do check out Part 1: 80s Cartoons and Part 2: 90s Cartoons. But, for now, I present to you My Top 5 Scary Kid’s Cartoons From This Millennium.
5 – Ben 10 (2005-present)
This is a bit of a strange one. Ben 10 isn’t very scary (at all) in itself, but I had to include it on this list because of one particular story arc in one of the MANY series of this show.
Ben 10 follows the story of Ben Tennyson who, along with his Grandpa Max and Cousin Gwen, thwart the plans of evil villains (mostly aliens) on a weekly basis. Ben has a special device on his wrist that just begs for a massive toy franchise (and oh boy, did it get it!) – The Omnitrix.
The Omnitrix contains the DNA of 10 aliens, who Ben can transform into, thus the series name Ben 10. Thinking about it, what an amazing coincidence that his surname is Tennyson!
As the series went on, Ben grew, the series got more grown up, and Ben’s powers and alien list (and toy tie-ins) expanded beyond the original 10.
Now, the particular story I’m thinking of occurs in the series Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, which ran from 2010 to 2012. Many episodes throughout the series focus on an entity named Dagon, which has cropped up, to help or hinder, through human history.
As the series progresses, more of Dagon and its immense power is revealed – including the spiritual possession of his Cousin Gwen, leading to the final confrontation in the 2-part series finale, The Ultimate Enemy.
Here, Dagon is shown to be a massive extradimensional alien God of unfathomable power, from a place of unspeakable horror. This gigantic entity looms from the clouds above, with its green skin, glowing red eyes, and tentacled face.
Clearly this is the writers take on legendary science fiction horror writer H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu; a being that is absolutely not for children and has inspired horror creators for nearly a hundred years.
Such greats as Stephen King and John Carpenter have been influenced by Lovecraft’s work and the tentacled horrors of unknown dimensions. And here, in a cartoon for children, is a homage to Lovecraft’s most iconic creation; the great God Cthulhu.
Watch this episode before bed kiddies, “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
4 – Regular Show (2010-2017)
I can’t tell you how much I absolutely love Regular Show. It’s one of my favourite cartoons of recent times and (along with two more on this list) pays homage to its great predecessor; Ren & Stimpy.
Regular Show follows anthropomorphic best friends, Rigby the racoon and Mordecai the blue jay. They work together as odd job guys in the city park along with a host of other colourful co-workers, including a yeti, a ghost, and a gumball machine – among others.
The name Regular Show describes the seemingly normal set up of the episodes that always end with something surreal or supernatural, and far from regular.
There are many examples of scares in this cartoon including the brilliant episode Ello Gov’nor, where Rigby becomes terrified of a haunted British taxi he saw in a horror film, or Grave Sights where, while hosting an outdoor horror film night, Mordecai and Rigby accidentally raise the dead. See. Absolutely regular.
Regular Show also does a great line in Halloween episodes, which are of particularly high quality compared to other cartoons.
My all-time favourite episode for creepiness, though, is actually the first episode I ever saw. It has a special place in my dark heart and is part of the reason why I love this cartoon so much.
The Episode is from series 2 and is the innocently titled Jinx. In this episode, Mordecai has ‘Jinxed’ Rigby, which, as we all know from school, means he can’t speak until someone says his name, otherwise he gets a punch in the arm.
Rigby frantically tries to get anyone to say his name, to no avail. So he decides to take drastic matters and he performs a ritual in the toilets, whereby he unwittingly releases a demon version of himself from the bathroom mirror. The demon goes on to terrorise the park turning everyone it touches into dark demon versions of themselves.
The creepiest part of this episode is the first scene in the bathroom. Rigby writes his name in the steamed bathroom mirror, only to have it slowly written backwards above by an unseen entity from the other side. Just thinking about it gives me chills and makes me think twice about drawing onto the bathroom mirror!
3 – The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack (2007-2010)
Flapjack never really got a fair run, as I always felt it had a lot more stories to tell. Extremely original, and the second on our list to give a nod to Ren & Stimpy. One of the animators on this show would go on to create Adventure Time, and another would go on to create Regular Show.
Flapjack is a young, naive boy full of wonder and happiness and rainbows. Everything is amazing and everyone is wonderful to Flapjack. His best friend is the mean, selfish and lazy Captain K’Nuckles. Together, they live inside a blue whale, who is a mother figure to Flapjack, called Bubbie, residing in Storm Along Harbour. Each week they seek adventure and the mythical Candy Island.
The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack is unique for two reasons. Firstly, it is set within a nautical theme of pirates, adventures, Vikings, sea serpents, and sailors. Secondly, most episodes had something scary about them, with many of those examples only making sense if you happened to be an adult watching them.
Take, for example, the always hinted about horrors that live beneath Doctor Barber’s floorboards, or the bizarre Norman Bates-like relationship that Peppermint Larry has with his inanimate Candy Wife.
In the episode The West, Flapjack and K’nuckles seek out Candy Island in the direction sailors fear to go, and the monsters and characters they meet get more abominable as the episode progresses.
My favourite scary episode, though, is series 1’s Skooled. Here, a new schoolteacher joins Storm Along, and K’nuckles and Flapjack join up to get an education. The teacher ‘Miss Leading’ (that pun will make sense soon enough) awards candy for correct answers. When K’nuckles doesn’t get any, he and Flapjack break into the school at night to steal some.
However, we learn that Miss Leading isn’t really a school teacher, but a puppet controlled by series regular villain, the giant octopus ‘Eight Armed Willie’ (yep…).
The horror comes when tentacles rise up from the floor to control the school children puppets, and Miss Leading shakes and contorts to reveal herself as the aforementioned octopus.
Honestly, check it out. The shaking head has become a bit of a standard trope of horror films and it works wonderfully to up the creepiness here. Set sail for horror! Yargh.
2 – Invader Zim (2001-2002)
The last on our list that owes a lot to the genius of Ren & Stimpy, is Invader Zim. If The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack was cancelled too soon, then Invader Zim never even got started.
In its original run, Invader Zim didn’t even complete a second series before it was cancelled. It all comes from the brain of comic book creator Jhonen Vasquez, the man behind the lovely little comic book series Johnny The Homicidal Maniac. Perhaps you can imagine why Nickelodeon got cold feet over this one.
Invader Zim is a small alien from the Irken Empire, who has been sent to Earth to ascertain the threat of humans and what it would require to take the planet over. Or rather, that’s what Zim thinks.
The reality is his leaders, The Tallest (Irkens value height over all else, so that’s me stuffed!), are so fed up with Zim that they have banished him to a rock of little interest to them just to get him away.
Zim is small, so very small. He is also highly ambitious, maniacal and stupid. Along with his broken robot Gir, he tries to integrate into human society to take us down from within.
Now Invader Zim as a whole isn’t as frequently creepy as Regular Show or The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack. It’s funny and it’s weird, but not scary. But when it does do scary, it does it very well.
To tell you the truth, I can only think of one episode that is really scary in Invader Zim, but it’s so good it demands to be number 2 on our list. The episode is series 1’s Dark Harvest.
In Dark Harvest, Zim has to visit the school nurse because he has a nasty case of head pigeons. However, if the nurse examines him, she will discover that Zim has no recognisable organs at all, and thus cannot possibly be human. Zim then begins his macabre quest of harvesting the fellow students’ organs to make him appear more human.
This episode is definitely not for children – it’s as horrific as it sounds. Zim gets bigger and bigger as he takes multiple human organs from his classmates and stuffs them inside him. At one point he has intestines trailing out of his mouth like a rogue piece of spaghetti.
The darkest part for me, though, is when Zim stalks the students with his mechanical spider legs in the ceiling of the school, dropping down on his victims like something from Alien or The Thing.
If there’s a line to cross in what’s appropriate in terms of scares for children, then Zim has definitely crossed it here. And he’s probably taken someone’s spleen with him.
1 – Samurai Jack (2001-2004)
The cartoon series Samurai Jack is stunning. Creator Genddy Tartakovsky approaches animation like he’s making a film.
Samurai Jack is overflowing with beautiful shots of sweeping vistas, intelligent colour palates, and long pauses on rain fall and puddles. And, because Tartakovsky’s approach is so emotive, when the scares come, they are all the more effective.
Jack is a prince from historic feudal Japan. He battles the demonic entity Aku, bringing him nearly to death with his magic samurai sword. But just before Jack can strike the final blow, Aku tears open a portal to a reality thousands of years into the future, where he is ruler of the world.
Jack is sent tumbling to a futuristic nightmare full of monsters, robots and aliens, where he spends his days as a wandering ronin, helping people, tracking down Aku, and ultimately trying to get home.
There are several times when Samurai Jack episodes became unsettling. The episode Samurai vs Samurai, sees Jack battling a horde of Aku’s hunter droids. He wipes out wave after wave of them, but that‘s not the end.
The heads and limbs of the droids reform into a hideous mechanoid beast, with clawing hands and chomping droid heads that Jack must destroy. Samurai Jack is often light hearted, even in this episode. But, when things take a serious turn, they get very serious.
The reason why Samurai Jack is number 1 on my list is for the episode aptly numbered XXX, titled Jack and the Zombies. Here the wandering Jack takes the wrong turn on is journey and ends up in a lonely desolate graveyard where, as the mists roll in around the crumbling tombs, his only living company are the crows who watch him with interest.
As the mists surround him, Jack becomes aware of a child giggling and sees its fleeting shadow running in and out of the fog. The child is revealed to be a hideous hag who summons armies of zombies and skeletons to break free from their graves and surround Jack.
This whole episode is effectively a short horror film. I can remember the first time I watched it, but it was late at night and I was alone. Mesmerised and terrified, I was already full grown when I saw this. It’s really fantastic and a great example of what animation can be when it is approached with the care of a traditional film.
The atmosphere that Tartakovsky creates is incredible. Let’s not forget that this is a children’s cartoon, though this episode cannot be aimed at them.
The hag screaming towards Jack over the graves, the long pauses of silence as the zombie silhouettes stare Jack down – it’s outstanding. I highly recommend that fans of horror, and students of film alike, check it out wherever they can.
In terms of children’s cartoons, Jack and the Zombies is the scariest cartoon I have ever seen from any decade. It’s an absolute masterclass. Watch it alone with the lights out, and see just how long you can last without looking over your shoulder!
Want to join one of the fastest-growing horror communities in the UK for FREE? Now you can.Click here to become a member of The London Horror Society