I am still chased up the stairs by the monster that lives in the cellar.

Well known to all that watch the show, Scooby and Shaggy take diazepam to reduce the psychic stresses associated with the trappings of mystery-solving.
Scooby and Shaggy take diazepam (aka ‘Scooby snacks’) to reduce the psychic stresses associated with the trappings of a mystery-solving lifestyle.

I always detested Scooby Doo as a kid, because it was so mind-numbling formulaic. But I have been dragged into that particular element of nostalgia by having a daughter who is crazy about the intrepid five, so much so that when she couldn’t find her hairbrush the other day she said, “it looks like we’ve got another mystery on our hands.”

It was on our last all-morning Scooby Doo and pancakes-athon (YES, send me your angry letters) that I was struck by various elements of the show that serve as a commentary on the post-modern construct, as well as drawing a broader parallel with the machinations of democracy.

I have to occupy myself somehow while we’re watching the damn thing.*

Just to recap for the antiquated among us, our protagonist is a dog who thinks he’s a human, which is presumably why he is able to talk. His best friend, contra to what his nickname implies does not possess the white touch, but he does have a penchant for binge eating, a trait that is ascribed to a fast metabolism. Scooby and his four human friends find themselves, episode after episode, dropped into a scenario that follows this familiar formula:

(a) They invariably hear of, and then encounter, some kind of supernatural creature terrorising the locals
(b) They believe in the presence of the monster, even in the face of logical reason (not to mention past experience) and their fear persists even after they have proved that the creature cannot be anything but human
(c) They unmask the ghost and solve the case, but only after some top notch clue hunting, logical reasoning and trap setting.

The point is, for me, that they persist in their belief of the ghost/phantom/ghoul/gargoyle/monster/headless horseman, even in the face of logic and experience as I have already said – even in the face of the characters’ evolution over the decades.

While it was a little late catching the postmodern train (perhaps five decades too late), Scooby Doo is now well and truly there. The dialogue and scenarios reflect a changing society over the past fifty years, adapting not just in terms of vocabulary, but also in style and social ideology – questioning things like gender roles, cultural idioms, determinism, the impact of technology, and the nature of reality. A principle current running through contemporary Scooby Doo is its tendency towards pastiche, with characters referring to themselves and their typical actions at the various milestones that direct the plot. As a consequence of this they break their usual typecast selves, embracing the complexity and contradiction of human character in reality. In the same way, feminist ideas can be gently pressed into children’s minds: While Velma is still the super smart and self-assured geek that she always was (okay, so she may have some body dysmorphic issues going on, but that’s another story), Daphne has undergone a sea change in the past half century. No longer the air-headed bimbo fawning after Fred, she has become the archetypal nu-EU science babe, touting superior knowledge in manicuring and mechanical engineering equally… at least, at times.

In the face of their newly acquired self-knowledge, one is tempted to fall into despair at the gang’s continuing belief in the supernatural goings on that persistently befall them. Why do they not realise this, in the context of all the other things they have discovered about themselves, and become increasingly jaded and depressed at their formulaic lives as a result? If I did indeed feel that brand of despair at a kid’s cartoon, (a) I would probably be mad, and (b) I ought to realise that it would make for some truly terrible (or Kafkaesque?) TV, possibly ending in a suicide pact.

Putting that aside, their persistent fear isn’t exactly irrational. We still fear things we know not to be true; it is perhaps the same as fearing something that cannot possibly, or is very unlikely, to be a real threat – such as being scared at takeoff for fear of the plane crashing (we all know that being in a car crash is far more likely, although – I was thinking about this during takeoff the other day – at least there is a chance of survival in a car crash). Or fearing that the stay-puft marshmallow man is following you while you take the dog out for a night walk. Random examples.

There is useful fear and useless fear, and these are hard to distinguish. But the presence of the monster, real or unreal, fuels the imagination and the fear itself, as we have seen from our intrepid mystery solvers. And we can see the same in the way that the media is used to control a democratic society in place of violent force (as in a suppresive regime). While this phraseology sounds terrifically like a conspiracy theory, the truth of the matter remains, albeit hidden under layers of written text, beaurocratic, sensationalist, or otherwise.

P.S., folks: I am not questioning, especially in the context of the post-modernism discussion, whether witholding things from the public is a good or a bad thing. Neither am I saying that I don’t want to know about what is going on in the world. I am simply stating that things are witheld, or promoted, or fabricated, for the purposes of simplification and manipulation of public perception. I don’t think this is either a new or a crazy notion.

A good example of the above, in the context of propagating fear, is in the publication of foiled terror plots in Europe. These reveal a motive that is resulting in either an intended effect (pessimistic conclusion) or an unintended effect (optimistic conclusion). We can of course assume that a lot more is going on in the secret services that we hear about. It is hard to say what the contrivance is regarding the release of information, such tales of patriotic triumph. But, given that any such plot with a negative outcome (i.e. a successfully execution) is discovered by its very virtue, it can only be concluded that foiled plots are shared with the media in order to boost public morale in “the war on terror.”

The question, for me, the intended or unintended effect, is whether the increased level of societal fear – stemming from an increased awareness of the threat of terror in its absence – is doing our society any good at all. Of course, the threat has solidified in recent memory. And yes, we will all be destroyed by nuclear war sooner or later. But increased societal fear does nothing to avoid that, and it may even propagate it. And this is especially true, in today’s context, when we understand the nation in question so little (note: do not go to the media – whether it’s The Sun or Christopher Hitchens – for your understanding of the Arab states).

*Actually it’s not nearly as bad as I make out. The reason I am there in the first place (which I usually am, unless I’m having a lie-in with the old ball ‘n’ chain) is that it’s actually quite fun talking about the stories. You’d be amazed at the plot holes we’ve unearthed. Might write a blog about it. I won’t.

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2 thoughts on “I am still chased up the stairs by the monster that lives in the cellar.

  1. Chris Sims has some wise words on the subject:

    “There’s an unpredictability and a danger to the supernatural that you just don’t get from someone’s crooked grounds-keeper trying to scare folks away from a ski lodge with a length of rope and a couple of pulleys, and putting characters that are already defined and beloved into a new sort of situation seems like it’d be a great way to shake things up.
    And that would be great, if Scooby Doo was a cartoon about kids fighting monsters. But despite appearances to the contrary, it’s not.

    Scooby-Doo is a cartoon about kids looking for truth.”

    But then Chris Sims is wise beyond his years. You may want to read the whole thing:

    http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/11/25/ask-chris-81-scooby-doo-and-secular-humanism/#ixzz2QjnBhYsl

    1. What a great article. I like also the fact that the liars aren’t always adults – sometimes they are the gang’s peers or children (child prodigies who should probably be working at MIT).

      It’s also interesting when the villain believes that they are acting in the interest of the people, rather than selfishness: for kids, it’s the nascence of ethical debate.

      Well…I use the word “interesting”, but… In any case, it’s not a cartoon about a talking dog that’s for sure! I should probably watch all 324 episodes again just to verify that.

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