The 1990s were a changing time for television. With the rise of syndication and then cable channels offering original fare, the networks were starting to wane a bit in power. But they were still tops majorly as the Internet was years away from being truly effective. That includes for kids TV as well. Things were shifting from the classic cartoons to more inventive fare. The coming of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers led to a new push for live action series that would shift things up. Meanwhile, animators decided to embrace a new style, breaking away from comic-book based kiddie fare for shows that had a new view and outlook. Some shows could be great, entertaining and fun as hell to be beloved. Others could be…different.
Indeed, looking back at the 1990s, it’s amazing just how many kid-themed shows had edges that come off freaky, creepy and even downright terrifying. It’s one thing for shows that were obviously meant to be horrifying or scary to freak kids out. But it’s something else for shows that weren’t going for that but came off bad anyway. Some are among the most loved shows ever, still held up as classics today. But even they can throw you today with how scary they seem and more likely to give kids nightmares than good times. Here are 15 kids’ shows of that decade that can still creep you out today and why that decade is so notable for those series.
The long-running book series had an absolutely fantastic hook. One night, a group of young friends find an alien crashed to Earth. He warns them that a group of slug-like aliens known as the Yeerk have already begun a secret invasion of Earth, taking over the minds of humans. To fight them, the alien gives the children the power to transform into various animals. From the start, the show upped the paranoia as the kids couldn’t trust anyone around them (one realizing his own brother was a Yeerk) and totally on their own. The CGI for the morphs was more than a bit disturbing to see and the show had touches like one kid getting stuck into a hawk form. Episodes could be horrifying such as one member of the team taken over by a Yeerk and trapped in his own mind or a true nightmare showing what might have happened if one kid hadn’t joined. The book series was already dark but the show just upped the ante to show how truly scary a lone bunch of kids against an alien invasion would be.
14 Batman The Animated Series
To many, it’s not just the greatest animated super-hero show but one of the greatest animated shows ever. It may well be the most perfect summation of Batman ever shown in any media. But it can also be damn scary as hell. Kevin Conroy’s Batman is dark to be sure and his appearances out of shadows can make you jump. Mark Hamill’s Joker is a truly terrifying presence with his laugh and demented schemes. But other enemies are just as terrible like the Scarecrow’s mind games and Poison Ivy doing stuff like turning people into trees.
The exploration of how Harvey Dent’s psyche turns him into Two-Face is horrifying and some episodes are stunning in their turns. “Heart of Ice,” which shows the origins of Mr. Freeze, is heartbreaking while “Over the Edge” shows a literal nightmare of Batgirl dying and Commissioner Gordon going after Batman for it. Yes, you can love it as a Batman fan but you also have to acknowledge that it shows how scary the Dark Knight and his world can be and not one you want to live in.
13 The Mask
The original Mask comic was actually amazingly dark and meant to be scary. That was toned down for the 1994 movie that helped make Jim Carrey a star, the man’s mugging perfect for the role. The animated series struck a nice balance between the light-hearted film and the darker source material. It was the same story of a normal guy who dons a mask that transforms him into a zany green-skinned nutcase who goes on adventures. The animation gave the freedom to let the Mask go all out, swapping outfits at the drop of a hat, mixing up attacks and often bestowing nasty fates on evil-doers. The show didn’t shy away from how Stanley, once becoming the Mask, lost all inhibitions and often acted in a brutal manner. Sure, it was played for laughs but disturbing to think of this guy going unhinged and often his “pranks” hitting folks who really hadn’t done more than just annoy him. So while it was based on a classic comic/film, the series could be darker than intended.
12 Tales From The Cryptkeeper
Tales From the Crypt was one of the best horror anthologies ever. Taking full advantage of HBO, the show promoted episodes of pure horror and thrills, laced with black comedy and a beloved hit. Somehow, ABC actually thought they could make a kid friendly version. The Cryptkeeper may not have been as ghoulish but still freaky with his green skin, zombie looks and that same cackling laugh. Several episodes were dark with bad guys who clearly had killed before and the fact they were always hunting kids just made it freakier. The show did lessen the impact by making each episode mix up a “life lesson” of some sort. However, that was combined with storylines of ghosts, demons and more. Worse were episodes where the bad guys were perfectly human like a hunter taking animals just for fun and then moving to hunting kids or a bully harassing classmates. So it may not have been as horrifying as its parent show but this clearly showed the Crypt keeper could freak out in any genre.
This PBS series was clearly meant to push kids for reading but the writers had no idea how creepy it could come off. A group of friends are soon joined by how they alone can see the title character, who appears as a glowing ball of energy and communicates by mixing up letters in messages only the gang can read. Thus, the idea of them with a ghost was a bit dark. Some of the plots had some thrills like facing a guy dressed up as a monster or a serious storyline involving an arsonist. The “Slime monster” was a truly disturbing sight and even the discovery it was just a costume did little to shake a person. Then there were the kidnappers in London abducting an innocent child for ransom. There was how Ghostwriter “himself” would appear without warning to mix up the messages and one episode having him moan that without the kids believing in him, he might just vanish into nothingness. The show was meant to promote reading but it also promoted a few nightmares.
Yes, this show is a classic and fans love it dearly. But frankly, there’s always been something…off about it. It’s the animation, making these kids look a bit freaky and while that’s part of the charm, it can also come off disturbing to younger kids. The original pilot made the kids look truly monstrous and while that shifted over the years, it’s still a bit disturbing to watch today. Some episodes had sequences like Tommy crawling around a post office tunnel system (complete with finding a skeleton) or a lizard’s point of view of the kids which was downright terrifying. The scene of Tommy imagining the potty to be like the electric chair (complete with kids marched to it by a warden) was stunning and that’s without the bullying of Angela on full display. The show is loved by so many but it’s also more than a bit creepy to watch with its animation today.
9 Aaahh!! Real Monsters
With a title like that, how could this not be a freaky show? The focus was on three monsters living in a literal dump while attending a school on how to be scary. Ickis was a red guy outraged when he was mistaken for a bunny; Krumm was an orange guy with rolling eyes who revelled in being stinky as possible; and Oblina resembled a large black and white candy stripe who could turn herself inside out. The entire world was crazy such as robbers trapped into statue form, people literally having their pants scared off, monsters willingly chewing on each other, it was wild. That’s not to mention how the animators seemed to go out of their way to make every monster more disgusting and disturbing than the previous one, designs that would haunt your dreams. The show was actually surprisingly heartwarming with the bond of the three main friends but also showed some very dark edges to live up to its title of a monstrous series.
A show brilliantly ahead of its time, Gargoyles was a major departure for Disney. The setup is awesome: In the 10th century, a castle is defended by the title creatures, monsters by night who turn to stone statues in the day. But a harsh betrayal leads to many of them smashed apart and others put under a spell to lock them into stone. A thousand years later, they’re awakened in modern-day New York and try to help humans. The show was dark and moody with gripping violence and plotlines shocking for an afternoon TV show.
One episode has Brooklyn playing with a gun and accidentally shooting policewoman Elisa, leading to her lying in a pool of blood. The evil Demona was a twisted foe as was the immortal hunter Macbeth. You had battles against evil and magic with other wild bits (the episode where all of New York is turned to stone and the Gargoyles battle in a nearly silent city is gripping) and an overall theme that led to a great show but one that can give kids today some bad vibes.
R.L. Stine had been freaking out readers for years with his YA novels that worked from pure horror to more thriller. Goosebumps may have been aimed at kids but it came off very dark as well and pretty nutty to read at times, especially with those infamously freaky covers. Fox managed to not only capture the series’ vibe but make it even freakier. It’s one thing to read about an evil talking ventriloquist dummy, another to see it on screen. That’s not to mention other freaky episodes involving killer cowboys, aliens with eyes in the back of their heads, smog monsters, mummies, werewolves and so much more. To have this all aimed at kids is gripping but even adults could be freaked out at the wild happenings. The show was a huge hit yet still very terrifying and to this day, one of the wilder shows of any decade, even the 1990s.
The entire premise was guaranteed nightmare fuel: A cat and a dog linked together by their torsos, taking turns as to who would be the “feet” of the combo as they share some wild adventures. From that premise, things just got more insane in a stark animated style. A mutated fish eats them from the inside out; toys come to life to attack them; a contest of hurting the other’s teeth like eating foil or grinding them with a blow torch; alien abductions; the flea attacks; a documentary worker told if she fails with her film, she’ll be stuffed and mounted like hundreds before her; and so much more. The animation of CatDog was creepy to watch with how he/they/it moved around and just thinking how they share internal organs is disturbing. That this got on the air is astounding and lasted so long to make you wonder just what was in the water at Nickelodeon studios in the ‘90s.
5 Are You Afraid Of The Dark?
It’s a classic set-up, something you’re amazed took so long to come to the screen. A group of kids sitting around a campfire and seeing who can come up with the scariest story. It’s the perfect setup for an anthology and this Nickelodeon series was terrific making it work. The stories went from pure supernatural to more thriller but all had great writing and acting to creep you out majorly. The show had a limited budget but used it well for more genuine scares than FX stuff that was far more effective. Even its opening intro was terrifying, flashing lights and shadows about empty playgrounds, an attic, a clown doll leaning in and doors shaking, it was the perfect opening for this show. From the tale of a pair of kids stuck in a dollhouse to the horrifying “Hide and Seek” episode, this show could offer more pure terror than any horror film and to this day, still one of the most disturbing shows to ever be put on the air.
4 Ren & Stimpy
A show probably too smart for its own good, this nutty series took viewers by storm in 1991. With its irreverent style, wild animation and frankly far too adult themes, it rose high and burned out fast but left a major mark for animation. To be honest, so much of the animation is just downright disgusting from Powdered Toast Man to going bonkers in a desert to the sequence of a crazed Ren planning to kill Stimpy in his sleep. The way Ren’s face would seem to melt around his skull whenever he went on a tirade was troubling and even the “lighthearted” moments could be wild such as the head-smashing “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song. One episode actually has them electrocuted peeing on a fence and going to Hell. The entire series was basically a Tom & Jerry cartoon on crack with more stuff like Ren’s skeleton and organs vacuumed off him to his brain replaced by a telephone. That this ever aired is astonishing and no wonder it didn’t last too long as its own network must have been shaken by what they had.
3 Dexter’s Laboratory
It’s historic as the first-ever original series from Cartoon Network and many still hail it as one of the best. The setup was great: A young boy is a twisted mad scientist coming up with one scheme or invention after another to rule the world. He ends up being undone by his dumb as a post older sister who has no clue what’s going on and ruins his plans without ever realizing it. Right off the bat, it was a bit dark with Dexter speaking in a Middle European accent and gloating on his power over the world. One episode had their dead fish’s ghost attacking for not being flushed down the sewer with tentacles. Another had Dee Dee and Dexter turning into mutated monsters doing battle. Even the more lighthearted episodes were marked with quirky animation such as when Dexter gets eye surgery that makes his family look like horrible mutants. It was really the first sign that Cartoon Network could get downright freaky with their stuff and their first series shows that nicely.
2 Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation
Something about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles just works so much better for animation. It’s their comic book roots to be sure but also how animation just serves it better. The 1980s cartoon is still one of the most beloved ever as the Heroes in a Halfshell have been in slew of other cartoons in various forms. They did have success in live action with a trio of ‘90s movies and later a revival with CGI-live action under Michael Bay. However, most TMNT fans much prefer to ignore Fox’s attempt at a live-action show in 1997. The suits of the Turtles looked cheap and a bit freaky seeming them talk with lips moving and such. There was also the addition of Venus, a female Turtle whose design came off rather…off to be frank. Something about a woman in the group didn’t seem right and had more than a few fans wondering about the design work of her body. The series was axed quickly and for good reason as seeing the Turtles in live action makes them far more frightening than heroic.
1 Pirates Of Dark Water
Sadly too short-lived, this fantastic 1991-93 Warner Bros cartoon had a gorgeous setting and gripping plotline. It takes place on Mer, a world made up almost totally of water. Recently, a deadly power known as “dark water” has begun to swallow up islands and threatens the entire land. Ren is an orphan discovering he’s a prince with a magical compass that will lead him to the 13 Treasures of Rule which can stop the dark water. Aiding him are a pair of pirates as they face a monstrous pirate king who wants the treasures for himself. The show had fantastic animation and some very sharp writing. The storyline was gripping as the dark water was shown as a terrifying force, especially when swallowing up innocent people with a single drop taking a man out from inside. That’s not to mention villain Bloth who has a disgusting face and horrific in his actions. The show was sadly canceled before its conclusion but still regarded as a great show of its time despite its own scary moments.
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