Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 6, 2008

Witches, Ghosts of TV Past, & the Allure of Scooby Doo

My wife just stuck her head around the corner and alerted me to the slight problem that our son gets “a little too excited about the witches” on the Scooby Doo videotape we picked up at the library yesterday. I’m more amused than concerned, though.

That our library offers lots of kid videos and DVDs, for free, is a really nice thing… not just for him but for us, too. I happen to like a lot of what’s considered children’s entertainment. When my very conservative sister-in-law was here last week, for example, we had a superb evening watching the Agnieska Holland version of The Secret Garden from 1993. That was back when Francis Ford Coppola (one of my all-time heroes) was executive-producing and at times directing some outstanding film fare for kids and teens (The Black Stallion in 1979, The S.E. Hinton films The Outsiders and Rumble Fish in the 1980s, and even the Robin Williams vehicle Jack from 1996 is underrated).

But the really amusing thing for me lately is that through the magic of video loans, Scooby Doo –probably the most revered cartoon character of my own childhood– is becoming one of my son’s favorite characters as well. I actually don’t know whether they’re currently producing new episodes or just coasting on rebroadcasts, but I know those crazy teens and their Mystery Machine do still run amok on Cartoon Network. (We only let Graham watch CN sparingly… due to wanting to control his intake of some of the more violent ‘toons, and to curb his appetite for tv –and commercials– in general). 

I’d say thirty-plus years is a show with a lot of “legs”, as they say in the biz. Scooby was one of the cornerstones of the Hanna-Barbera empire, now owned by AOL/Time/Warner, who in 1996 bought up Ted Turner’s vast array of media outlets (including the old H-B back catalog of shows, and Cartoon Network itself).

I now know as an adult that Scooby Doo features pretty crappy storytelling, with the same gags and plotlines re-used over and over (the dramatic unmasking of some character seen earlier in the show, the “accidental” heroism of Shaggy and Scooby, the revenge plots, the small-time aquarium or museum saved from bankruptcy, etc.). But still, Scooby is a palatable introduction for kids to mysteries, suspense stories and thrillers. The fact that I later became an avid reader of the Hardy Boys, Hitchcock’s Three Investigators, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and various crime fiction is probably partly the result of having been a Scooby fanatic.

As for the more recent debates among Christians about witches and wizards –brought on by the immense popularity of the Harry Potter books and movies –it probably did not exist in 1969 when Scooby first started out. I certainly don’t remember any controversy in the Seventies. Ghosts and witches had been tamed by books and movies for generations prior to my own, going back at least to Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol (featuring some “good” ghosts), and considerably lightened up by stuff like Bewitched by the time my generation came along. The rise of the Christian Right as a political force in 1980s America is what got the ball rolling in all these paranoia-driven debates. Since well before the Eighties, though, the power of conservatism has always been derived very much from the identification of “the enemy”, and the drawing up of battle lines.

Not that there isn’t some reason for us to be paranoid. The Wiccan movement’s rise to legitimacy is a sign that, in an age punctuated by an “anything goes” attitude, it’s becoming increasingly harder to hold fast to a few unassailable objective truths. And seeking truth, in a philosophic or theological sense, sometimes requires that we point out the lies and laxity that creep into mainstream cultural products… whether for reasons of greed, hedonism, sensationalism, or more genuinely diabolical reasons.

The rise of Halloween as a commercial juggernaut, for example, is reason enough to keep some screening mechanisms in place. I happen to think there are many better things we can do with our time, money, and brains than develop ever-fancier and bloodier ways to decorate our houses. But maybe that’s just me, and I’m just an old stick-in-the-mud.

So I’m not going to let Scooby or Harry Potter or other horror and fantasy-based products go uncommented-upon with my kid. Nor am I going to let him watch pro wrestling (the most cartoonlike of all live television), nor any kiddie-militaristic crap like Transformers (or whatever TimeWarner/Cartoon Network puts in front of him… thus, I’m not a fan of most anime, either).

But I’m not putting him on a strict diet of Veggie Tales, either (har har). That’s like wearing blinders. It doesn’t prepare him for life’s choices. It’s lazy parenting, in some cases, to eliminate “the competition” from any family discussions. Besides, I’m not going to deny him the thrill of being a little bit scared, and a little bit excited, by the possibility of magic and other “things unseen”. Just because we’re choosing to ignore or re-label the “demons” of our own era, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

I’ve faced down Satan more than a few times in my life, and lost a few battles, too. Maybe someday Graham will be able to unmask a few ghosts, demons, or villains of his own, and expose genuine evil for what it really is, in the flesh or in the spiritual/supernatural realm. Till then, watching Scooby Doo is just a bit of lighthearted practice.



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