I think I had a fairly standard Childhood of the 1980s. I rode my bike around the neighborhood, got into scrapes, brushed the manes and tails of My Little Ponies in a never ending battle for order and prettiness that I always, always lost. Things like that. Just like you see in the movies of the era, really. However, I sometimes feel that maybe I was more impressionable than my peers. Or maybe I was just exposed to films and music that I should have been sheltered from, given my out of control imagination and possible mental problems. I never was influenced to like, act out, or lash out, or really even be a troubling mess in any way. Instead, I became morose. I was one of those little sad and sullen elementary school kids… Actually, no. I was just like an elementary school version of what I am now. So: sometimes gregarious on the outside, sometimes withdrawn and distracted, but ALWAYS crying on the inside. Boo hoo hoo.
But what this article is about is the three animated movies I happened to see when I was around six or seven years old, the age when I started having night terrors and began withdrawing in class quite a lot. I am not sure if seeing these films and having a personality change are directly related, but if they are… Well, maybe writing this out will change me again? Positive therapy! The Big Three that I will talk about have the distinction of haunting my little thoughts more than any other movies of those times. I mean, I guess I could include the cinematic acid trip of the Point, which dazzled me with its drawing style and unrelated songs about obsessive stalking and a ruined relationship. But it never left me feeling worried. I almost included Disney’s the Fox and the Hound because it caused me to dwell on friendships fading, and the grim passage of time (I dwelled on those things to a painful degree), but I quickly realized that there are plenty of Disney films that upset me, so why not save it for its own article some day? Well, the reason to not write that would be because there are thousands and thousands of those articles out there in the world. And I thought of including some Tim Burton short I had seen once that caused me to have waking terrors and a meltdown in broad daylight, but I only saw it one time, and it was not a full-length feature. Maybe I’ll show it to you later. Nah. All I really need to show you today are these three cartoons that you all already know to be traumatizing. Come with me down this Hideous Memory Lane.
the Last Unicorn (1982)
This darn movie. I remember when I was little, it was important that any little girl see it, and all parents thought “hey it’s about unicorns, it’ll work out great!” I sure don’t blame the parents on this one. I mean, unicorn. But man I got the Anxiety from this thing. The unicorn’s loneliness, the terrible fire bull thing, a talking skeleton that worried me a lot when it got really mad, the GROTESQUENESS of some of the characters, and for that matter, how ugly the unicorn itself was. I mean look at it. It’s an ugly thing. And her personality was loathsome, I even thought that when I was young. I kinda felt like if all unicorns were that snotty, maybe it was fine that they were getting so exterminated.
I hated the animation style. Her big dumb eyes and tiny nose and constantly-flowing hair. And that pathetic wizard’s giant nose and voice.. God. Really, this movie would have been remarkable for just disappointing me greatly, but then it also had to scare me. There is an old woman who runs a sideshow or something and there’s some awful harpy thing that kills her and I was like totally scarred by that and wouldn’t have looked away, not even for five dollars. I was forever changed.
Also this happened and I don’t like it.
I actually haven’t seen this movie in many many years, because my friend borrowed the VHS tape of it that I had and I of course don’t have a working VCR left anymore anyway and I haven’t been motivated to purchase a DVD copy of it yet. I probably don’t really need to revisit that childhood state of mind, anyway. Really, I think what I took away from this one was like Loneliness and general ennui of the unicorn. She was fairly depressed, if rather shitty otherwise, too. And then when she was turned into a young woman and basically wanted to die… Maybe that is what primed me for my entire future as a grown up? I related to her disinterest in advance. I wanted to remain a unicorn forever and I did not want to be bothered. So even though I hated that character, I understood. Oh, I understood.
Watership Down (1978)
I never looked at a meadow again without being revisited by sorrow.
So, in first grade, I believe it was the day before winter break – one of those Day Before Vacation days we’d have in school where we’d get to have snacks and socialize and maybe watch a little movie or something. And the teachers were talking amongst themselves and not really paying attention. They decided to turn on the little TV in the classroom, knowing that from the office, they’d be playing a bunch of cartoons throughout the day. I remember a teacher asking us if we would be okay watching the fourth grader movie (I guess they had a little schedule so that kids wouldn’t just be watching movies allll daaayyy). It was decided we would be fine, so she turned it on, and it was this crazy movie where all these rabbits were tormented with struggle and anguish and nightmare material. I’m not sure if all of the kids were paying attention as much as I was, but I was immediately tormented on the inside, watching these poor cartoon rabbits. Eventually the teacher realized that horrible things were happening and turned it off, but at least one child was forever changed. (I’m talking about myself, I was the one forever changed).
Years and years passed and I really had no idea what I had seen. But then one day when I was like fourteen or fifteen I was at the movie store in the mall and recognized this horrible scene on the cover of a video and all of the memories flooded back in a big way. I bought it immediately and went home to watch it and it was actually WORSE than I had realized. Worse than I had ever remembered. Pretty sure not even the fourth graders were okay watching it, honestly.
Art Garfunkel’s voice does nothing to decrease the melancholia.
For those of you who missed out on this one somehow, I’ll give you the lowdown. Watership Down is the story of a bunch of rabbits whose home is filled in and developed by humans so they must strike out on their own, enduring death, hardships, and some kind of Fascist Rabbit Camp – it all culminates in some rabbit war, death, and a dog! A dog’s loose in the wood! And it is animated so well. Too well. The rabbits have pretty distinct personalities and there’s a rabbit that has distressing psychic trances that it falls into and there are these great rabbit mythologies throughout. Actually, this is a wonderful movie and story except that it taught me that life is so hard and everything dies and things aren’t really happy or sad, they just are. And somehow the very ending SPOILER SPOILER where the leader rabbit dies of old age was the part that upset me the most of all. He was the most successful one, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. All he did was happen to live longer than they usually do. Why does this upset me? Twenty-five years later, and I still don’t really know.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
“Rediscover the weeping mess of a child in us all.”
Hey look it’s Don Bluth’s best film offering, imo! I think I just saw this movie on my grandma’s cable television once. It is a simple story of mice and rats and this one mouse widow’s fear of Moving Day (when the tractor plows the field in spring) because her one son has pneumonia and could not survive the trip. So she goes to meet a HORRIFYING owl who tells her to see the rats by the farm house. Those rats are strange. Turns out they are escaped lab rats and hyper-intelligent. There is drama, intrigue, murder, terror, childhood-ending lessons, etc. It’s a real roller coaster ride of unpleasantness – but it is well-done!
I really liked it, though, when I was little. The animation style was the most Disneyesque of these three, and apparently when you are a child that is a mark of excellence, of quality. I knew it was meant for children, whereas the other two seemed kind of like I accidentally saw Grown Up Cartoons – although a rat did use a swear word in this movie!! I remember that shocked me at the time.
This actually made me cry when I was a child. Now, I only frown.
So what did this viewing leave me with? What did I learn? Well, aside from the blatantly scary imagery of the Great Owl, the farm cat, and Nicodemus – world’s most terrifying gnarled up rat-like creature – I was met with anxiety for family, acknowledgment that animal testing is horrific, betrayal, death, blah blah blah. It was not a good time film. Actually the best part about it though was the general lack of goddamn songs being inserted all over the goddamn place. I always have hated that.
It seems that all of this death in cartoons did nothing to comfort me! Betrayal, revenge, and heavy drama didn’t really do me any favors either. I cannot be the only person so affected during childhood.. can I? Man, what I have learned through this brief look back at my distant past is that Looney Tunes were great and I could watch outlandish cartoon violence every hour of every day and not feel bad at all. Cats would pop back into shape, dying was just comically overdramatized and never permanent, and comeuppance was immediate and outrageous. That was all well and good and appeals to me even to this very day. Ugh who ever though cartoons should have any serious elements at all?? They should be dragged out into the streets and hit with as many anvils and pianos as it takes to mete out JUSTICE.
Amanda lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is a complete hermit in many respects, so if you find her out-of-doors, consider yourself lucky, Bucko!
Contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org
or maybe AIM: octocakes