Kids TV shows, like books for children, should be positive, upbeat, and happy, right? They should leave their young viewers with a smile on their faces and maybe impart a little education along the way. What they shouldn’t do is cause nightmares and emotional trauma. We should all be able to agree on that.
That’s what makes it surprising – not to say disturbing – that it was pretty easy to come up with a list of children’s shows that undoubtedly left a trail of PTSD-afflicted kids in their wake. Sometimes, it seems like the creative team of a show somehow deluded themselves into thinking that certain characters were cute, when they were actually horrifying. We’re not sure how it happens, but we’ve got the evidence. There are TV shows for kids that are meant to be scary, but sometimes, the creators go over the top in their quest for thrills and chills. A good ghost story shouldn’t haunt your dreams decades later.
Here’s our list of 15 kids TV shows that, over the decades, have left generations of scarred children who grew up into the adults who gave us the messed up world we have today. Coincidence? Maybe not.
15. Peppermint Park (1987-88)
You may not remember Peppermint Park, even if you were a TV-watching kid back in the late 1980s. If so, count yourself lucky. The series used puppets and songs to teach kids about letters, numbers, colors, and other subjects. Sound familiar? That’s because it was a pretty blatant rip off of Sesame Street – except Sesame Street had talented writers. And they had Jim Henson, who created the adorable Muppets. Televidics Productions and Mark V Productions, creators of Peppermint Park, gave the world the eerie, disturbing puppets you see in the picture, with quasi-realistic heads and gardening gloves for hands. Characters included Maynard, an old man who is depressed and eats blue cheese to symbolize how blue he is. Scary and depressing aren’t usually the kind of adjectives you’d use about a kids’ show. It’s not just us who finds the show’s imagery troubling — it gets a mere 3.9 rating on IMDb, although it’s become something of a YouTube hit.
14. Jigsaw (1979-1984)
Overall, Jigsaw was a mostly typical children’s show made in the UK. Targeted at kids aged 4 to 7, and hosted by mime artist Adrian Henley, the show aimed to entertain as it presented puzzles to be solved and a supporting cast of wacky characters. But then there was Mr. Noseybonk, which was played by Hedley wearing a creepy white mask, a dinner suit, and white gloves. It’s one thing to purposefully create a scary character, but this was supposed to be some jolly neighborhood dude. Essays have been written on the damage that Mr. Noseybonk did to a generation of British children, and he’s become a cult phenom. This is what happens when you let mimes run amok, we figure.
13. Courage The Cowardly Dog (1999-2002)
Was this show really for children? He plays with a red yo-yo and builds sand castles — so far so good. There was a kidnapping involving his parents which left him abandoned as a puppy. In the show, the pink dog lives with Muriel, who rescued him, and Eustace, her miserable husband. Muriel loves him, but Eustace is cruel to him, and Courage is paranoid and scared most of the time — not exactly a warm and fuzzy story. The farm they live on is home to spirits and an assortment of other odd and bizarre enemies, and each week, Muriel ends up in danger. Courage must overcome his fear to save her, and occasionally, Eustace too. What are kids to learn from this, we wonder? People will abandon you and life is cruel?Sure, it may actually be true, but do we really need to dump all that on 8-year-olds?
12. Tales From The Cryptkeeper (1993-1999)
Tales From the Crypt was a show for adults that ran on HBO in 1989 and starred a young Brad Pitt, Demi Moore, and many others. It was a popular show that was syndicated widely, so why not come up with a version for kids? It was someone’s bright idea, anyhow. Tales From the Cryptkeeper was a cartoon rather than a live-action show, granted, without the blood and gore, but with enough demons and spooks to haunt a young child’s dreams. The cartoon version was closer to the original version from EC Comics where the spooky tales often had a kind of lesson behind them. In the first episode, two kids rob an abandoned mansion, but they run into monsters. In “The Sleeping Beauty” episode, Chuck Charming and his twin brother wake up the princess, only to find she’s a vampire — you get the idea.
11. So Weird . . . (1999-2001)
This show aired on the Disney Channel, and while it wasn’t particularly scary per se, it took on topics and had a dark tone that was a bit much for its preteen audience. The show followed a kid by the name of Fiona. Her dad was the member of a hot rock band that disbanded after his sudden and suspicious death. After 10 years, her mom, also a musician, goes back out on the road. Fiona travels around the country with her, running into sinister supernatural goings on wherever she goes. People don’t believe her stories, so she posts them online on her website called SoWeird.com. While some of the action had its fun side, the series was well made and had a gritty feel for the first two seasons as Fiona tries to unravel the mystery of her father’s murder — like a junior X-Files. Once Cara DeLizia, who played Fiona, left the show, however, it came back for one more season, replacing her with Annie, played by Alexz Johnson. The show took on a lighter mood. Fun fact: At one point, Eric Lively, Blake’s bro, co-starred on the show.
10. Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992)
Director Joe Dante had already made Gremlins and The Howling when he took on Eerie, Indiana, a live action kid’s show about Marshall Teller, a teen who moves from New Jersey to the appropriately named Eerie, Indiana. Eerie is a small town with the ominous population of 16,661 and a problem with ghosts, mysterious deaths, and other supernatural weirdness. The show’s genius was to have the very ordinariness of a small town serve as the backdrop for all the bizarro stuff like kids who sleep in plastic containers and ghosts in the library. From glasses that turned people into zombies to battling the menacing ghost of an old bank robber, the series was inventive and well written — and most of all, scary AF. It lasted only one season, but has haunted our dreams ever since.
9. Goosebumps (1995-1998)
Goosebumps had to be on this list. If you were a kid in the 1990s, your pants were scared off by R.L. Stine and the fiendish imagination that spawned book series along with Goosebumps and other TV series. A couple of decades ago, children’s programmers could get away with a lot more than today’s censors would allow. In one episode, a family goes to a theme park called Horror Land where they all die gruesome deaths. In “The Scarecrow Walks At Midnight,” Jodie and Mark are visiting their grandparents’ farm where Stanley the farm hand has made the scarecrows come to sinister life by reciting from a book of magic spells. The stories were genuinely frightening and the production designers pulled out the stops when it came to providing thrills, at least according to standards of the day. The worst part was, Goosebumps had a way of making even the most innocuous settings seem potentially sinister. Who could forget “Stay Out of the Basement” or “Strained Peas”?
8. The Nightmare Room (2001-2002)
“When the lights fade and the moon rises, anything can happen. The world becomes a carnival of shocks and chills. A whirling merry-go-round that never stops, spinning faster and faster, taking you on a frightening ride. I’m R. L. Stine, don’t fall asleep… or you might find yourself in The Nightmare Room…” This series began as a young-adult novel series that was released in the early 2000s. Like Stines’ other successful series, it features kids thrown into otherworldly dangers. The Nightmare Room was even darker than Goosebumps, and the kids didn’t always win in the end. You can spot young versions of Shia LaBeouf and Amanda Bynes in the series, among other proto-Hollywood types. It was a solid TV series, but it came at a time when networks were shifting away from Saturday morning cartoons and sadly, it was canned after only 13 nightmarish episodes.
7. Are You Afraid Of The Dark? (1990-1996, 1999-2000)
The 1990s to early 2000s were a golden era of children’s horror programming — if we can call it that. Once Goosebumps set the tone, the stakes were raised, and so we come to Are You Afraid of the Dark? — a series that upped the ante. The premise was the Midnight Society, a gang of kids who met in the woods once a week to tell each other scary stories. Our parents didn’t let us travel across town to light fires in the woods and stay out late to tell stories, so it was a cool escapism from the start. We could also relate to the kids who fought with their siblings just like us and whose parents got divorced. That’s how the show drew us into its web of horror. Particularly disturbing was the fact that adults in the show were usually either negligent or evil. It was always kids on their own, battling evil and supernatural forces, and not always winning.
6. Ghostwriter (1992-95)
Ghostwriter, which aired on PBS, is proof that there is a darker side to the Sesame Workshop people, responsible for Sesame Street and The Electric Company. The show revolved around a group of kids in Brooklyn solving mysteries by using words and books. That was the hook — getting kids to think books were cool. On the way, they added a ghost who helped them solve their mysteries, but it was an unseen entity. The ghost would rearrange letters and words to give them hints, and his clues were visible only to kids. The audience could help solve the mystery each week. Some episodes were fairly innocuous, but others were pretty creepy. There was Gooey Gus, who spit purple slime into the kids’ mouths. Even the way he looked, as a purple monster, was nightmare inducing. On a weird note, Kermit Frazier, who wrote the series, has said in interviews that the ghost was a runaway slave, “killed by slave catchers and their dogs as he was teaching other runaway slaves how to read in the woods”— because that’s not a disturbing back story.
5. Land Of The Lost (1974-76)
Previous generations didn’t really have kids’ horror shows as a genre to fuel their nightmares. They did, however, have Land of the Lost, a live-action show that was the creation of Sid and Marty Krofft, the creative team who also brought the world H.R. Pufnstuf and other psychedelic fantasy shows that have become cult faves. The show followed the Marshall family, being dad and two kids who find themselves in a strange world of dinosaurs and other monsters. To adults and generations of college kids since the 1970s, the show is filled with weird whimsical puppets along with human actors. To kids back then, it was a scary world full of menacing characters like the Sleestaks — reptilian creatures with black eyes who hissed and squealed — and the Cha-Ka — huge ape-like monsters. Talk about a family vacation gone wrong.
4. Gravity Falls (2012-16)
For those still too young for slasher flicks, animated shows like Gravity Falls pave the way. Dipper and Mabel Pines are 12-year-old twins who have been sent to live with their great uncle Stan in the small town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. Uncle Stan owns a weird museum called the Mystery Shack. Dipper finds the Great Big Book of Everything, which explains the strange and mysterious goings on in the town, including otherworldly beings, and even a government cover-up. “Trust no one,” warns the book, and so the twins embark on a summer of supernatural adventures. The show didn’t look to scare so much as generate some creepy feels, but unsettling enough for the younger set. For adults watching along, there are even classic horror movie references like riffs on The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The show was a hit with critics and audiences, and surely resulted in some prolonged night-light usage among its young viewers.
3. Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1987)
The Storyteller was a British series that you might remember from 1987. Made by Jim Henson, the series let him explore the dark side of puppets and live action. The premise was simple: An old dude tells his dog European folk tales. Veteran actor John Hurt played the Storyteller, and the dog has some sarcastic lines, but it was no comedy. As anyone who has studied folk tales knows, the original stories are far from the sugar-coated Disney versions you learned as a child. Henson’s puppets and animatronic creatures were strange and menacing, far from the sunny, funny Muppets of Sesame Street. Many of the tales were pretty grim, like “The Soldier and Death” where a soldier comes home after 20 years of war and plays cards with a bunch of devils. If he loses the game, he loses his life. Not exactly lighthearted kid’s fare.
2. Scooby-Doo (1969-Today)
Oh sure, now that you’re older, you can laugh and get all post modern and ironic about Scooby-Doo. Zoinks! Jinkies! Hahaha! But, back when you were like 8, don’t tell us you weren’t terrified of all those ghosts, mummies, and other spooks encountered by the intrepid foursome of Daphne, Shaggy, Velma, and Fred, and of course, the talking Great Dane that gave the show its name. What about the creepy doctor in “The Harum Scarum Sanatorium” or that horrible cackling laugh in “Nowhere to Hyde?” Say what you want, but we know they haunt you still, and you’re not the only one. Created by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, Scooby-Doo and all its various incarnations, is one of the most successful cartoon franchises in history. It’s been on the air since its debut in 1969, skipping only a few years in all the time since, and it’s continues to air today.
1. Dead At 21 (1994)
Aimed at teens, Dead at 21 aired on MTV and was one of the first dramatic TV series made by the cable channel. It was no horror story, but it left us scarred all the same. Actor Jack Noseworthy (Encino Man) plays Ed Bellamy, who discovered a microchip has been planted in his brain on his 20th birthday. It turns out that he was the subject of a government experiment that gave him the implant when he was a baby. The addition makes him super smart. But, there’s also a downside to the microchip — if he can’t get it out of his head, he’ll die when he turns 21. As the microchip deteriorates in his brain, it also causes vivid nightmares. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s been framed for murder and is on the run with his friend Maria. Now the dramatic tension, the suspense, the sense of being constantly on the edge and under threat — that all makes for great TV week after week. But, in the end, the dude will get the microchip out at the last minute, or at least buy some time to launch into season 2, right? Wrong. He dies. So does Maria. Sorry kids.
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