Unintentional horror is often the scariest kind of horror. That’s because it means that somehow someone has tapped into the depths of something scary by mistake, which probably means you’re not ready for it. Here are five horrifying shows that are definitely not meant to be scary. And it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that all of them are children’s shows.
Just look at those terrifying eyes and acid-flashback inducing colors. If you were to accidentally stumble across former British children’s television show Boohbah late at night you might find yourself lost in a trance equal parts terror and wonder.
But to be fair, Boohbah deserves some credit. Created by the people behind Teletubbies, the series promotes fitness for children through sequences where the Boohbahs dance or perform simple workout routines in an attempt to get children to participate at home. Of course, those very same sequences are also the ones that would provide the horror for adult viewers with a trademark lack of speaking and costumes that are impressively weighty and have a very surreal look as they perform dance steps.
2. Rocko’s Modern Life
Nickelodeon had a ton of creepy shows in the ’90s that twenty-somethings can point to as enjoyable, yet scarring experiences. It ranges from the shows meant to be scary like Are You Afraid of the Dark, to the intentionally creepy shows like Ren and Stimpy, and finally to the many, many unintentionally creepy shows like Rocko’s Modern Life.
When it comes to the indirectly creepy, Rocko’s Modern Life feels the most notable because of its sustained sinister undertone that permeates the entire series but never really makes itself completely known. With a visual style that could sometimes approach Ren and Stimpy‘s surreal crudeness, certain episodes of Rocko’s Modern Life also clearly steer into surprisingly creepy places. One episode for example casually introduces kids to Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho in an episode loosely inspired by the classic film, while another sees a character go to hell where the Devil appears to him with udders on his head that spin and spray milk. In many ways the absurdity of the series is very close to that of Ren and Stimpy, but it tries much harder to keep it below the surface.
3. Worzel Gummidge
No, this isn’t the newest movie monster ready to pray on the next generation of teenagers. It’s actually the lead character in the former U.K. children’s series Worzel Gummidge, which is also the name of this character. I’m not the first person to point this out, but the character looks incredibly similar to the terrifying “monster behind the diner” in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive — so much so that it wouldn’t be surprising if Worzel Gummidge was the visual inspiration at some point.
As for the Worzel Gummidge, the series synopsis is an example of something that feels fairly common in the children’s programming world — switch around a few things, change the tone, and you have a scary movie or TV series. In Worzel Gummidge we have a walking, talking scarecrow that springs to life on a farm, and who later gets children into all kids of adventures and mischief before reverting to a lifeless scarecrow if the children are caught doing something wrong. That right there could easily be the starting point for a horror film about a demonic scarecrow or child psychosis, or both, but Worzel Gummidge is actually one of the most celebrated children’s TV shows along with the character being one of its most iconic.
4. Pee-wee’s Playhouse
Let’s all try and forget the incident where Pee-wee’s Playhouse star Paul Reubens was arrested for masturbating in an adult movie theater — at least when it comes to the purposes of this article. Because while the incident unfortunately colored the history of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Reubens in a profoundly negative way, it shouldn’t take away from how great the show was during its run from 1986 to 1990 on CBS Saturday mornings. And it definitely didn’t need that incident to already be incredibly weird and creepy.
While later iterations of Pee-wee were more adult-oriented (including the Tim Burton-directed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), the original run of Pee-wee’s Playhouse was squarely aimed at children. The show revolved around Pee-wee as a host who would enter the magical house known as the Playhouse, which was located in Puppetland. Inside the Playhouse, viewers would then experience a mix of puppetry, video animation, and a whole host of other effects-driven segments in what can feel like schizophrenic fever dreams.
The original terror of course needs to be on this list. Just look at those soulless eyes and bizarre costumes. Or the fact that they speak gibberish that infant children respond to. Are they telling our children to destroy the world? Possibly.
Part of the reason that Teletubbies is so scary for adults is because the show is specifically trying to cater to the needs of infants and toddlers. So the bright, psychedelic colors and focus on simple tactile things is meant to trigger the creative faculties of an infant’s brain. Throw in short attention spans as another thing the creators are combating and you have a show that can be terrifying for adults even as their children laugh and smile.
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