The Horror In COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG
The horror genre is no stranger to the world of animation. For as long as I can remember, we have been provided many cartoon programs that lean hard into the world of scares and terror. Some shows deal with horror in a more playful tone, such as the cartoon series’ Beetlejuice and The Real Ghostbusters, based on their respective motion picture properties. However, others lean into the genre with a more serious thematic presence, playing it straight and delivering an emotional and thrilling story, such as the HBO animated series Spawn (based on the Image Comics hero) and the recent Netflix adaptation of the video game series Castlevania. I, personally, find it more interesting to discover horror in places where you might not expect it. I have seen my fair share of odd and offbeat stories layered into such shows as SpongeBob SquarePants, Hey Arnold! and Dexter’s Laboratory, delivering relatively genuine creepiness for children and adults alike. In the past week, I’ve been watching one show that has had some truly memorable creepy episodes. These are shows that are not PG-rated scares, but ones that border on unsettling, creepy and downright terrifying. I have selected three specific episodes to discuss and display how this series has produced some of the most horror heavy plots and characters that I can think of within the animated realm. Readers, allow me to introduce you to the awesomeness of Courage the Cowardly Dog, which premiered on the Cartoon Network in November 1999, before finishing up its run in November of 2002. I will be running through three episodes that are some of the best examples of how Courage the Cowardly Dog is a great outlet for animated, horror-tinged episodes.
First up is the seventh episode of Season One, named King Ramses Curse. This episode involves Courage uncovering an ancient Egyptian stone slab near the water pump of his house. It was dumped there the previous night by two thieves on the run from the police, and before they were suddenly attacked by an unknown entity. As the show progresses, we learn that the stone slab was stolen from a pharaoh’s tomb and is haunted by a spectral spirit that promises to bring about three different curses upon whoever holds the slab, unless they return it to its rightful resting place. Eustace, the curmudgeon that he is, refuses to give up the slab without some sort of reward payment. The horror in this episode starts immediately, as we are treated to the two thieves who stole the slab, who appear to be foxes, are confronted by someone off camera in their car after dumping the slab. After a creepy voice utters “Return the Slab”, the car is suddenly overtaken by a sea of locusts, which in turn devour the entire vehicle, with both thieves still inside. A few minutes later, after Courage has returned with the slab and Eustace has established he will not give it up without a reward, we are treated to our first look at the ghost that is haunting the slab (and killed those fox thieves). He is a computer-generated thin figure, draped in a tattered green covering, wearing an unusual mask and with red strands of hair protruding from different parts of his head. His mannerisms of wavering back and forth in the frame, uttering the phrase “return the slab” over and over again in a sleepy, melancholy tone, all work in tandem to create an unsettling creature. The curses themselves (torrential rainfall, a piercing sound that drives them crazy, and the aforementioned locusts) are not particularly creepy, but do serve their purpose. This episode’s horror cred is really all about the spectral spirit that bestows pain on to whoever possesses the slab. He is a terrifying character whose sole presence makes the episode worth watching.
The second episode I will address is the fourth episode of Season one, named The Demon in the Mattress. Finally fed up with her uncomfortable bed (complete with springs popping out from all over the place), Muriel demands that Eustace order her a new mattress. After finding a great sale in the newspaper, and despite many initial warning signs when calling the store (how does the mattress store know her address already?), Muriel ends up ordering the mattress anyways. After being delivered to her house, by a horse-drawn carriage manned by suspicious and creepy looking deliverymen no less, Muriel immediately goes to take a nap on her new bed. Unfortunately, as we might have already guessed, the mattress is possessed, and in turn takes over Muriel’s body via emitted green vapors. Can Courage successfully save his owner, Muriel, with literally next to no help from Eustace, before Muriel is forever lost to the demonic comfort of her new bed? This episode is more or less Courage’s homage episode to the classic 1973 flick The Exorcist. This is definitely the more playful and fun episode of the three I am dissecting today, especially in the wavering tone between horror and comedy. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have creepy moments. The entire sequence after the phone call, which shows the bed being retrieved from the bowels of some cave, and then tossed onto a creepy carriage, being delivered by two odd looking animal creatures that hiss and gnarl at Courage, is done quite effectively to show that no good will come from this purchase. After Muriel is possessed, the voice she begins to take on is properly evil and demonic sounding, and multiple occurrences are meant as direct references to the classic Friedkin flick, primarily the vomiting of pea soup and the 360 degree twisting of Muriel’s head. This was a great example of having thematic tones akin to horror, but it definitely aims to be more playful than the other two episodes I am discussing today. I just had a blast with those eleven minutes.
The final episode is, in my opinion, the best horror episode that Courage the Cowardly Dog has to offer, is actually also the fourth episode of Season One (each episode contained two stories), named Freaky Fred. The plot basically surrounds Muriel’s seemingly demented and odd nephew, Fred. Eustace and Courage are wary of this fellow, and for good reason. After a series of events leads to Courage and Fred being locked in the bathroom, we soon learn that Fred has escaped from the “Home for Freaky Barbers”. After enduring multiple attempts of Fred shaving Courage of whatever hair he has on his little body, Courage makes a last ditch attempt to contact the home and get them to retrieve Fred before it’s too late. I am a huge fan of this episode, not just for the horror elements, but for the sheer ingenuity that is on display through its brief 14 minute running time. That is all thanks to the wonderful creation of the character of Fred, and that is due to many reasons. First off, Fred talks in a constant narration throughout the episode, spouting Dr. Seuss-ian rhymes and wordplay in the same sinister monotone voice, always ending his limericks with an elongated pronunciation of the word “naughty”. He is truly one of the most original characters I have come across in an animated series, drawn with a menacing alluring gaze and smile that works gangbusters in making you feel uncomfortable every time. On top of that, his shaving torture of our poor dog Courage is truly menacing and unpredictable. Fred ended up getting further than I expected with his shaving attempts, and I was pleasantly surprised how uninhibited the episode ended up being. Fred is just an interesting figure that could easily be a modern horror villain like Freddy or Jason, and is someone I would love to see come back in one form or another.
I always thoroughly enjoy the times where I discover things that do an admirable job of creeping me out, especially when they end up coming from the most unlikely source. Courage the Cowardly Dog is a great example of an animated television series that seemed to have a great deal of creative freedom from the network to essentially try out anything that came to mind. In this case, it meant envisioning unusual, bizarre and creepy scenarios that bred innovative stories, and layering them in within the more “typical” episodes. I had seen this show sporadically as my kids were growing up, and honestly must have not come across these episodes or viewed them in their entirety to appreciate them for what they accomplished. Now that my kids are older, and still watching these great classic cartoons, my more intuitive mind has picked up on the truly great horror aspects that have been crafted within these imaginative walls. Courage the Cowardly Dog is a horror-centric series dressed in the guise of a normal cartoon show featuring a spastic dog and his elderly owners, and I truly love every minute of it.