Looking for some spooky or weird classic cartoons to enjoy or maybe just run in the background while you type? Well, as someone who loves animation as much as I love horror, I can list off quite a few of my favorite olde timey cartoons; most of which have a unifying theme of weirdness or goofy horror.
While there are certainly quite a few modern classics of horror animation out there, such as The Sandman or The Killing of an Egg, I want to limit this article to just some selections of classic shorts, pre-1960, perhaps.
Some of these cartoons are available on DVD, either on public domain disks or on overpriced box set collections (like the Disney Treasures line), so tracking them down that way might be a little difficult. However, there’s always YouTube…
The Skeleton Dance (Walt Disney, 1929)
What better place to start than with the classic Walt Disney/Ub Iwerks creation, The Skeleton Dance?
In this short, midnight awakens a gaggle of cavorting skeletons that frolic around a graveyard until the break of dawn.
Though harmless (you’ll find a lot of my selections to be so), it has its own spooky and hypnotic quality. Animation historian Leonard Maltin described it as, “…an eerie, almost magical film. There’s something disarming about its utter simplicity.” The music by Carl Stalling certainly helps, hitting several familiar tunes we subconsciously recognize as being “scary”, such as Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” and Edvard Grieg’s “The March of the Trolls”.
Ub Iwerks would try to recreate the film for his 1937 color short, Skeleton Frolic, while working for Columbia Pictures. The remake (having been directed by Iwerks but not animated by him) just doesn’t stand up to the original’s presence, even if the design work on that short is far more menacing in appearance and some of the newly created gags are genuinely creepy on a visual level.
The Devil’s Ball (Wladyslaw Starewicz, 1934)
I first encountered The Devil’s Ball, a stop-motion animated film, on a DVD set of public domain works called “The Complete Weird Cartoons” released by Johnny Legend and Shout! Factory. I found out later that The Devil’s Ball was actually the middle-section of a 30-minute animated film titled The Mascot that was later recut into a stand-alone short film.
In this segment of the film, a slew of characters (toys brought to life) attend a ball thrown by the Devil himself, populated by freakish monsters of all shapes and sizes.
While taken by itself, the narrative loses some impact (mostly in regards to the motivations of the main characters); it’s nevertheless a very fascinating piece of obscure animation and more widely available than the complete Mascot film, mainly due to its shorter length being more palatable to audiences. Only being the second segment of the film, though, it resolves one conflict (the main protagonist defies the Devil’s influences) while leaving another wide open (the love interest is left in a rather precarious situation by the segment’s end, being fondled by a gorilla) to be dealt with by the film’s conclusion.
The full segment is actually closer to ten minutes, while the often seen “short version” is only five, so you get a lot of good stuff cut out when taken in such a dose.
Starewicz was a highly imaginative guy and a master of stop-motion animation in the earliest days of the technique. His 1922 short Frogland might give you an idea of how nutty the dude was, as it features a community of frogs praying to Zeus for various favors, only to end up pissing him off and getting devoured one-by-one by a monstrous heron. But films such as Frogland almost seem mundane in comparison to The Devil’s Ball, as Starewicz goes all-out and really lets his dark vision fly.
All manner of objects spring to life so that they can attend the Devil’s Ball; such as shreds of newspaper, rags, wads of straw, the skeletal remains of a dead bird and other various chunks of litter. They all have a gruesome and twisted look about them that can be more than a little unnerving. Starewicz employs a number of techniques that were truly novel in their day, at least in combination with stop-motion animation. For instance, a number of band players are portrayed by balloons that gradually deflate and inflate as they play. With this being stop-motion, that means a precise fraction of air had to be released or pumped in for every frame.
The entire sequence is pretty nightmarish and totally bizarre, including a scene where a skeletal bird lays an egg and flies away. The egg proceeds to hatch into a baby skeleton which then dances a jig while still partially inside the egg shell. It’s all that kinda stuff.
Sadly, I do not know if The Mascot is available anywhere on DVD (it certainly isn’t in R1), but you can get the truncated version if you want. It cuts out a lot of the good stuff, though.
Shiver Me Timbers! (Max Fleischer, 1934)
For a guy who was in about six trillion short films throughout the 30s and 40s, Popeye the Sailor did surprisingly few “spooky” ones. One of the earliest, though (Popeye’s 13th short, fittingly enough) was Shiver Me Timbers!, an exercise in old school Fleischer Brothers animation of the surrealist variety.
When Popeye, Olive Oyl and Wimpy decide to investigate a creepy ghost ship, the vessel springs to life and whisks them across dangerous seas. Ghosts begin crawling out of the woodwork and Popeye does his thing with the spinach. You know the drill.
This one sports all the hallmarks of the older Fleischer Studios Betty Boop cartoons; inanimate objects coming alive, in particular. Portholes wink like eyes, rope ladders vanish into thin air and deck planks play xylophone music. It’s more funny than scary, but the gags and the music are certainly weird. And hey, Popeye totally wrecks Olive’s shit when he mistakes her for a ghost (in fact, he beats the crap out of her in a lot of these old cartoons).
Being one of the earliest Popeye shorts, the title sailor is voiced by Bill Costello rather than Jack Mercer, so he’s rougher and gruffer, lacking Mercer’s more humorous qualities. Likewise, Olive has that tough Brooklyn accent she sported in her earliest appearance rather than the high pitched tones of Mae Questel.
The Mad Doctor (Walt Disney, 1933)
The fairly recent Wii video game, Epic Mickey, has brought this nearly forgotten black-and-white Mickey Mouse classic back into prominence, as it should be, since The Mad Doctor is one of the best installments in the original Mickey Mouse short film series.
Late one dark and stormy night, Pluto is kidnapped by a hooded figure. Mickey tracks the fiend back to his castle lair, but once inside, finds himself besieged by skeletons. Meanwhile, the Mad Doctor prepares to perform some unnecessary surgery on poor Pluto.
People often chide Mickey for being boring and not a particularly enthralling leading man for a cartoon series, but I find The Mad Doctor to be one of Mickey’s most adventurous shorts. While many of the later black-and-white (and especially the color) films were content to have Mickey put on musical performances or unceremoniously pass the baton on to Donald or Goofy while he drifts off and does nothing, this short sees Mickey closer to being the action-adventurer he was in the newspaper comics, trying to rescue his beloved dog from the crypts of an ancient castle, avoiding monsters all the while.
Of course, it all turns out to be a dream in the end, but that doesn’t make the cartoon any less exciting.
In the four years since The Skeleton Dance, Walt Disney’s animators were already showing their rapid improvement, as the skeletons in this short are a bit more detailed and the gags more elaborate (take the scene where the skeleton falls to pieces and reassembles itself). Sadly, it loses some points for recycling animation from the aforementioned The Skeleton Dance and, perhaps most obviously, from an impressive moving background sequence showcased in the Silly Symphony Egyptian Melodies.
The use of the skeletons in this short is great, though, as they hide in pillars, grandfather clocks, beneath staircases and pretty much everywhere, harassing Mickey at every turn. There’s some Fleischer-esque surreal vibes going on, as doorknobs come to life and swallow Mickey whole or even a sadistic moment where the Mad Doctor torments Pluto by cutting his shadow in two with a pair of scissors.
The Tell-Tale Heart (UPA, 1953)
UPA’s cartoons were weird, but in a geometric, pop-art kind of way, not so much a genuinely eerie or frightening sort of way.
Except that one time.
You all know Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart by now, I’m sure. A man is driven to insanity by the milky white eye of the old man he cares for. But after dispatching the old timer, he is haunted by the beating of an unseen heart beneath the floorboards.
I’ve gone on about this one at length in another review, but to encapsulate my thoughts, this is just one of the creepiest, weirdest and most effective horror cartoons ever animated. The art design is fantastic, as the environments and atmosphere become ever more unsettling and abnormal as the narrative progresses and the madman grows more unhinged. The house he lives in comes to life and takes on Dali or Escher-like shapes, defying logic and reality. The narration (by James Mason) grows from soothing to erratic and it sincerely horrifies the audience.
An unparalleled masterpiece of horror animation.
The Case of the Stuttering Pig (Warner Bros, 1937)
Hard to believe there was a time when perpetual straight-man and stuttering, obese dullard Porky Pig was considered the star character among the Looney Tunes cast, but it’s true! Granted, that was before more exciting personalities like Bugs Bunny had come into being, and once they showed up, Porky was forever relegated to a milquetoast foil for Daffy Duck’s “woo-hooing” nonsense.
But among Porky’s otherwise pretty boring black-and-white starring shorts, was a pretty hilarious one directed by Frank Tashlin called The Case of the Stuttering Pig.
Porky and his five siblings have arrived at the rickety estate of their recently deceased uncle Solomon for the reading of his will. Kindly, Lawyer Goodwill relates to them that, should anything happen to them, he would inherit all their newly acquired property. Of course, Lawyer Goodwill has a bottle of Jekyll-Hyde Juice and, after a quick transformation, proceeds to hunt the pigs down one by one. But savior may come from an unlikely source…
Most of the horror-themed Looney Tunes were never particularly “creepy” in execution; they were far too busy being funny to spend time on any sort of eerie atmosphere. The Case of the Stuttering Pig, though, actually pulls off a rather freaky tone amidst its nonstop gags, thanks mostly to the big empty house and the gruesome appearance of Lawyer Goodwill (voiced by Billy Bletcher, better known as Pete from the classic Mickey Mouse shorts).
Still, the best part of the short doesn’t come from anything creepy, but from the totally brilliant, fourth wall-shattering twist ending. I grew up on Ted Turner’s colorized abomination of the short, but I find the original black-and-white version to be far more appealing. It’s available on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 4 if’n yer a big spender.
Prest-O Change-O (Warner Bros, 1939)
Sometimes it can suck being a public domain cartoon. While you’re widely available to anybody and everybody for free, nobody with the time or money cares about restoring you because they can’t own you. So all you poor little public domain cartoons wind up doomed to color wash-out until you’re entirely pink and hitting $1 DVD buckets with VHS picture quality. Bad VHS picture quality.
Such is the case for Prest-O Change-O, a Merrie Melody by Chuck Jones that even features the second appearance of the Bugs Bunny prototype, “Happy Rabbit”. Despite such a historical note, nobody at Warner Bros could give a shit about it since they won’t be making any money off of it. Bummer.
The two curious dogs, on the run from a dog catcher, wind up in the abandoned home of the magician Sham-Fu. Exploring the bizarre home full of disappearing doors and living magic tricks, one pup contends with the effects of a magic wand while another has to put up with an obnoxious rabbit.
It’s funny; the antics in Prest-O Change-O are pretty run-of-the-mill for old timey cartoons and hardly anything to write home about, and if the setting were any place else, I don’t think this would be a particularly well-remembered cartoon. However, the weird, dilapidated house of the magician imbues the film with a quality that’s kind of unsettling, at least when you’re a little kid.
I had this short on a tape with a dozen other public domain cartoons and I recall it giving me the absolute creeps when I was little. It had to do with the reality of the house changing, I think; doors vanishing, wall tiles turning into drawers and other weird phenomena like that. And that insane bird in the cuckoo clock (“Its 12 o’clock… Mwahahahahahaaa!”). Again, in any other cartoon such antics would be mundane, but as a kid, it put me on edge.
“The two curious dogs” were actually in a number of Merrie Melodies, though for the life of me I don’t think they ever got proper names and I don’t think they were ever very popular (their series dried up fairly quickly). But while most of their shorts are forgettable, this one isn’t. And it even ends with that obnoxious proto-Bugs getting socked in the face. Thank you.
Who Killed Who? (MGM, 1943)
I know I must be misremembering things, but I swear I had this cartoon on the same tape as Prest-O Change-O and The Tell-Tale Heart. Not likely, considering all three were from different studios, but man, if it were true, that would have to be the most messed up tape of cartoons ever.
Tex Avery was pretty much The Man, but he rarely tried his hand at “spooky” themed animation, much to the disappointment of everyone. Still, his one attempt, Who Killed Who?, is a glorious send-up of radio mystery dramas and a close contender for my favorite of his shorts (I think Magical Maestro wins that battle, though).
After a mysterious murder is committed at the “Gruesome Gables” estate, a detective arrives to solve the case. He chases a hooded fiend around the sprawling and seemingly haunted mansion, overcoming all manner of insane pratfalls along the way.
Like all Tex Avery cartoons, those one blows by at a mile a minute, with basically one gag after another in rapid-fire succession. You can sit down and watch the thing three or four times in a row and laugh at every viewing. Tex Avery cartoons are just that good.
Who Killed Who? is packed with all sorts of dark humor (the actual murder, from the killing to the corpse photography, is a riot), but I think the real strength of the short is the sound design. The opening, with the driving rain, screaming woman and overthetop evil laughter as the camera pans through the cobwebbed mansion is great to listen to (and sets up the gag pictured above), while the organ music is downright creepy, being more than just a score but sound effects to accentuate certain gags.
Also, Who Killed Who? has the angriest, most-violent Santa Claus (voiced by Avery-himself) this side of “Silent Night, Deadly Night”.
The Haunted House (Walt Disney, 1929)
Though not my favorite classic Mickey Mouse short (that honor goes to the aforementioned The Mad Doctor), my favorite of the original Ub Iwerks-animated shorts is, naturally, The Haunted House. Though it rather blatantly recycles some animation from The Skeleton Dance, it’s nevertheless a great example of Iwerks’ skill as an animator, drawing the whole thing by himself (he was often clocked-in as animating full cartoons in as little as two weeks!).
It’s a dark and stormy night and poor Mickey is forced to seek refuge in a dilapidated old mansion. Unfortunately for the corporate mascot, the house is populated by a cruel, hooded figure and his army of skeletons. All they want to do is get down with their dead selves and aren’t above forcing Mickey to play the organ for all eternity.
Sadly, like much of Iwerks’ vintage accomplishments, The Haunted House has been deemed “unsuitable for modern audiences” by the contemporary Walt Disney Corporation and relegated to “Vault” status. Even its one DVD release that I know of (on Walt Disney Treasure’s Mickey Mouse in black-and-white Vol. 2) comes with a mandatory, unskippable disclaimer by Leonard Maltin, apologizing profusely for the short and all others of its ilk as ignorant products of their time.
It’s grand offense? A brief sequence where the lights go out and Mickey screams “Mammy!” (a gag made famous in the 20s by Al Jolson, who performed a song called “Mammy” while wearing black face).
Still, even though Disney is content to sweep much of Iwerks’ contributions under the rug, that doesn’t change the quality of his work in the least. There’s a great moment in the short where the hooded figure slowly encroaches upon the cornered Mickey and (with the audience sharing Mickey’s POV), slowly pulls back his cowl to reveal a chattering skull. It’s very effective use of perspective at a time where animation was pretty content to simply move from the left to the right as though any other dimensions did not exist.
Cobweb Hotel (Max Fleischer, 1936)
Getting back onto the subject of awesome public domain cartoons that have sadly turned completely pink with age, there’s this Fleischer Bros masterpiece: The Cobweb Hotel.
A ravenous spider has a foolproof plan: open up a hotel for naïve flies! The Cobweb Hotel is open for business and very quickly flies begin checking in… but not checking out. A newlywed fly couple soon arrive on the scene and do their best to avoid getting eaten while rescuing the rest of the menu.
While I can no longer appreciate the “color” part of this installment in the Color Classics series, I can still appreciate everything else. Though not as elaborate as, say, the Popeye two-reelers, Cobweb Hotel still employs some of the Fleischer’s notable innovations in animation, particularly the mixture of live action sets with overlaid animated characters (the opening and ending sequences of the cartoon).
The premise is rather grim and disturbing in its seemingly harmless cartoony sort of way, though some rather freaky imagery slips through, particularly during the opening song by the spider as he shows off all the flies caught in death traps. The spider’s voice is especially well-done, being this gravelly, menacing hiss.
The plot, when you take away the memorably horrific trappings, follows pretty much the same template as most cutesy animal shorts of the day, as a predator attempts to eat one of the meeker animal’s sweethearts, all the animals rally together and the predator is driven away. However, the aforementioned strengths allow it to stand out above the more typical cartoons of its breed.
Hell’s Bells (Walt Disney, 1929)
This is the third Ub Iwerks cartoon to make my list; the guy sure loved his dead and spooky things.
Down in the pits of Hell, Satan is having a regular ole jamboree! But when he starts feeding his demonic servants to Cerberus for fun, one of his underlings decides to make a break for it. In the end, somebody gets a spanking.
To think this came out the same year as The Skeleton Dance and The Haunted House. Man, what a statement Walt Disney must have been making back in the 20s to produce three pretty much Satanic and occult cartoons in one year for mass public consumption. And they were all a hit, too!
Hell’s Bells is basically the same as any other early, black-and-white Silly Symphony, where it features nothing but little critters dancing goofy dances to xylophone music, but the key difference is that this one takes place in freakin’ Hell. So we get far more imaginative fare than bugs dancing on flower petals or birds fluttering around cherry trees: we get dragon-cows that milk fire and fanged serpents that swallow bats, sprout wings and fly away. So in that regard, I actually find it to be more creative than The Skeleton Dance in terms of visuals.
Though Hell’s Bells never got a follow-up, the Iwerks-styled grinning demons would return for the more well-known and respected Silly Symphony, The Goddess of Spring, where they cavort and caper once again in the realm of Hades.
Bimbo’s Initiation (Max Fleischer, 1931)
Highly regarded as the best of Fleischer’s pre-Code Betty Boop cartoons, Bimbo’s Initiation is pretty much one of the finest examples of surrealist animation ever produced. Hey, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry for “cultural significance” so it must have done something right.
While walking down the street, poor Bimbo is thrown into a deadly maze of tunnels and traps, all at the behest of a cabal of weirdos who insist he must join their secret organization. Bimbo refuses, but perhaps he should reconsider on account of two things: they’ll kill him if he doesn’t join and, hey, this club’s kinda hot…
Bimbo’s Initiation is pretty nightmarish and its relevance to horror has already been immortalized in Twilight Zone: The Movie (and badly parodied in an ill-conceived green screen segment), but if you haven’t seen the full short then you need to stop whatever you’re doing and hit YouTube this instant.
Bimbo’s Initiation is a totally bizarre stream-of-consciousness cartoon as the title character goes from one threatening room in a twisted house of horrors to another, egged on by the organization members the whole while. Fleischer takes great joy in playing with reality (exit doors rolling up like wallpaper to reveal brick walls) and animating the inanimate and making them pretty bloodthirsty… literally (a knife licks its lips at the thought of stabbing Bimbo).
But it’s also a very impressive piece of animation on a technical level, too. Look no further than the scene where Bimbo is “running the gauntlet”, so the speak, all done with moving backgrounds (very hard and time-consuming to animate). The jazzy musical accompaniment makes it especially exciting.
Of course, being a Betty Boop cartoon, she shows up at the end, though still in her early “dog” design that few people remember (she wasn’t always human).
Magic Mummy (Van Beuren, 1933)
Hey, remember Tom & Jerry? No, not the cat and mouse, but the two humans who starred in a series of shorts between 1931 and 1933?
Yeah, didn’t think so.
While they’ve fallen into the abyss of cartoon obscurity over the years, their shorts are actually rather interesting if derivative of the Fleischer Studios work (apparently, the Van Beuren and Fleischer studios were right across the street from one another and shared all their talent). They starred in a couple “spooky” cartoons, one of which being Magic Mummy.
Officers Tom and Jerry respond to a missing mummy report and trail a cloaked, horse-skull-faced creep into the catacombs of a nearby graveyard. The mummy turns out to be a 5,000 year-old flapper girl who proceeds to put on a show for a theater full of skeletons. Then Tom and Jerry show up and ruin everything.
It’s a very music-heavy short, focusing mostly on a pair of songs with the morbid trappings being somewhat nonthreatening. Still, the black-clad skull-faced villain boasts a pretty sweet design and there’s just something about this era of retro, rubber hose-style character animation I can’t take my eyes off of.
Wot a Night (Van Beuren, 1931)
One more Van Beuren Studios Tom & Jerry short for you; and the better of the two listed, if you ask me. This was actually the first film in the series and perhaps wears its Fleischer-esque nature on its sleeve, reveling in its own morbid bizarreness the way the Betty Boop cartoons often tended to.
Taxi drivers Tom and Jerry take a pair of weirdos home to their castle on a dark and stormy night, only to find themselves trapped in the dungeons below. Tom is terrified of the myriad horrors surrounding them, while Jerry remains unimpressed.
Man, people in the 20s and 30s sure loved their dancing skeleton cartoons. There must be at least five or six of them in this article alone. And yet, I never get tired of dancing skeletons… even when they’re horrible racist stereotypes (you’ll know it when you see it).
Perhaps the best part of this entire short is the ending, where Tom and Jerry find out that they’re also skeletons and go running off waving their noodle arms in the air, looking positively ridiculous as their shirts bob up and down, revealing their exposed ribcages. Ah, the good ole days.