When I was little, back in the mid-50s in the early days of television, there was a cartoon show on every morning that showed old Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. The Fleischer Studios did some wild animation. Usually the outrageousness delighted and amused me, and my thoughts were stimulated by the cartoons’ extravagantly imaginative details. A couple of them, though, always gave me the willies.
“Snow White” was the one that rattled me the most—not that I could ever turn away when it was on. I’d soak up every frightening second, and it’s hard to say what bothered me most: the funereal images of the wreath-like garter on the “grave” and the icy “glass coffin”; the fluttering, sweeping phantoms and owls that swoop around the Cab Calloway ghost as he sings “St. James Infirmary Blues”; the moment when the ghost and Bimbo morph into hideous figures of frost or plaster, it’s hard to tell; or when the restored Bimbo grabs the witch/dragon and turns her inside out so she runs off as a skeleton.
Actually, I’d forgotten all about this cartoon until I attended an animation festival at University of Cincinnati back in the 1970s. I was on a nostalgic kick as I watched some of the old cartoons I hadn’t seen in 20 years or so, but “Snow White” knocked me cold. I watched it in utter horror and was haunted by it for weeks. Certainly, it brought back the memories of my reactions when I was around four years old, but why were those memories so intense and upsetting? I never knew. The transformation of the figures got me the worst. I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and it was all so much more terrifying because I didn’t understand my reaction.
I saw “Snow White” about a decade later, and I watch it every so often on YouTube. It’s still nightmarish to me rather than amusing in a macabre way, and I still don’t know why I was so shaken by revisiting the images back in the 1970s. Maybe if I could have continued watching “Snow White” throughout my childhood, as I could the Popeye and Bugs Bunny features, I could have worked it all out. It’s still a puzzle I’m trying to solve.
Here’s “Snow White,” if you’ve never seen it. What do you think? It was voted one of the 50 greatest cartoons in history by 1,000 members of the animation industry for a 1994 book. (Choose the full-screen option if its being a little cut off on the right bothers you.)
NUDGE: Write about an image sequence or character from your childhood that frightened you: a commercial, something in a cartoon, a scene from a movie. All the better if your fear wasn’t rational or if the instance wasn’t intended to be scary. It can differ so much from generation to generation, it’s hard for me to give examples that don’t go straight back to Boomer childhoods. (Maybe your heart froze when Fess Parker heaved that axe at a tree at the start of “Daniel Boone,” or perhaps you had nightmares that Mr. Whipple was squeezing you.) I think the tolerance for disturbing images changes drastically over time as well, especially for today’s children with the surreal nature of cartoons such as “The Amazing World of Gumball.”
Or it might simply be the child herself. Some of us are more easily haunted than others.