It is in no way breaking new ground to point out that the things that scared us as children rarely scare us as adults. We grow up, we callous ourselves to horrors both real and imaginary, we watch The Descent, and suddenly the green face in the book of magic in The Care Bears Movie doesn't frighten us the way it once did. (Okay, bad example, because that one totally does.) The point is, it can be surprising to revisit the things that once scared us and find them to be totally innocuous.
Speaking personally, I don't remember being a particularly scared kid around Halloween time. These were the grade-school years, before horror movies were even an option, and Halloween programming was basically animated holiday specials and, eventually, Beetlejuice. None of that stuff ever bothered me … except for one thing. Garfield Halloween Adventure, about which I've had the strongest, almost tangible sense memories of being terrified ever since. And about which I continue to be uneasy, even though I am now a grown adult who knows full well that the perils of a lazy, lasagna-scarfing cartoon cat cannot harm me.
Here's what's additionally troublesome: I have no idea what it is about Garfield's Halloween Adventure that frightened me so much. Leading me to wonder whether it was something so traumatic that I suppressed it, my brain defending itself against whatever horrors befell Garfield and Odie that dark Halloween night.
So this year, I've decided to confront once and for all what it is about the Garfield Halloween special that has haunted me for all these years. Join me on this journey into memory and the macabre, won't you?
One thing to know about TV Halloween specials is that they are laughably outpaced by Christmas specials. There are approximately one billion Christmas specials that get brought back year after year, to our delight and nostalgia. Halloween, despite being a holiday specifically for children has hardly any recurring TV specials, and only one of them could be called a legitimate classic: It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. And while Linus' faithful staking out of that magnificent pumpkin absolutely deserves its place in the canon, no one would ever mistake it for being spooky. The one other animated tale that is both memorable and spooky — Disney's version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow — gets played a lot on TV but was originally part of a 1949 Disney feature film.
Otherwise, it's slim pickings. Did you know that there's a Halloween TV special called Halloween Is Grinch Night, starring the Grinch and all the Whos down in Whoville? There is! It's not even a 21st century cash-grab, either; it premiered in 1977. Animated Halloween specials were made, they just weren't super memorable, and with the exception of The Great Pumpkin, they haven't survived to become TV staples.
But for a few years at least, there was Garfield's Halloween Adventure. Originally a comic-strip character, Jim Davis's Garfield had, by the mid 1980s, become fodder for endless merchandising, from phones, to toys, to suction-cup figures for your car window. Garfield's appeal was his simplicity. He was a lazy orange cat with a deadpan delivery; he hated Mondays and loved lasagna (or any food, really, but mostly lasagna); he looked upon his fellow pets like Odie the dog and Nermal the kitten with disdain. In 1988 Garfield would get his own CBS Saturday morning cartoon series, Garfield and Friends. But three years before that, it was Garfield's Halloween Adventure, a one-off special where Garfield gets caught up in the Halloween spirit, he and Odie go trick-or-treating, and they come across some p-p-p-pirate ghosts.
I began my rewatch with fairly significant skepticism. Surely I would watch it again and see that there was nothing to be scared of, that I was merely being what is technically called a "fraidy cat." That notion was put on pause not 15 seconds into the special, with a push into Garfield's home to reveal that he's watching TV late enough at night that the test pattern is on.
What is it about test patterns that freak me out so much? Not that I run out of the room if I see one or anything, but they are low-key unsettling. Maybe it's because they're often used in horror as a shorthand for "It's incredibly late at night, so late that nobody is even awake to make television happen. If you're seeing this test pattern, there's every chance that you are the only living creature awake at this moment." Anyway, what follows the test pattern is what immediately reminded me why the Garfield Halloween special scared me so much as a kid. Folks, get ready to meet Binky the Clown:
Fear of clowns is obviously a cliché at this point, but it became a cliché for a reason. People are scared of clowns because clowns are inherently scary! Grown adults disguising themselves in ghostly white makeup topped with big blood-red features, acting exaggeratedly friendly? Sometimes they don't even talk and try to hand you stuff like balloons. For even the most cynically steel-plated among us, it's universally agreed that certain clowns are in fact super scary: Pennywise from It; the clown bed from The Simpsons, and Binky the Clown from the Garfield Halloween special. Look at him: He's terrifying! The angry brows, the skeleton's teeth, the narrowed yellow eyes?? And what weirdly makes him even scarier is that he's not the villain of this special. He's not evil, he's not violent, he's not out to get Garfield. He just utterly terrifying because that's just the way the world is. Half a minute into the special and already you're pitched into a cruel and horrific world.
Anyway, the next act is essentially harmless. Garfield learns it's Halloween and becomes obsessed with going out and getting free candy. His constant drumbeat of "candy-candy-candy-candy-candy" is the other thing I remembered about this special, and I'd put even odds on me having annoyed my parents by parroting that delivery on and on when I was a kid.
Garfield and Odie dress up as pirates and head out trick-or-treating, at which point the next deeply disturbing thing happens. At first, Garfield tries to allay Odie's fears by revealing that beneath the scary masks he's seeing are just kids out having harmless fun. Except after the first such example of this, every other costume Garfield tries to unmask is something scary (a ghost's sheet with a giant monster foot beneath; a goblin mask with a real goblin underneath; another ghost sheet with nothing underneath).
Again, what makes this all even scarier is that these, too, aren't the real antagonists of the show. There is apparently an outbreak in Garfield's town of real monsters wearing Halloween costumes, and yet they're of only momentary concern to Garfield. Once again: the world is a chaotic hell dimension at its baseline.
Finally, we get to the real plot, when Garfield and Odie decide to keep trick-or-treating across the river, traveling via raft. But when they end up adrift on a spooky island and find a spooky cabin, they come across this old man:
The animation on this is exquisite and also scary as hell, and between this and the clown I honestly can't believe I watched this more than once. What I can believe, now, is that I was legitimately scarred by it. Re-watching the scary old shanty-man tell Garfield and Odie the story of a band of pirates who buried their treasure beneath the cabin, it's clear that all of my lingering yet unattributable fears about this special were fully justified.
Eventually the pirate ghosts show up, and they manage to be relatively tame, at least compared to Binky and Old Man Lumpy-Skull up there. It's a close call, but Garfield and Odie escape and are reunited with their bags of candy.
Of course, before it's all over, we have to get one last scare, and in this case, it's Old Mister Pirate-Warning showing up on TV to host an all-night pirate-movie marathon. Garfield turns off the television.
So what did I learn on this return trip to a childhood fear incubator? I learned that fear of clowns, while basic, is embedded deep in our DNA. I learned that scary old men in cabins are more frightening than the pirate ghosts for which they are a harbinger. And most importantly, I learned that what remains scariest to me is when TV turns on you. When your friendly delivery system for adventure and wonderment suddenly delivers murder-eyed clowns and spectral old geezers instead. It is a terrifying betrayal. This is what Poltergeist was about too, if I'm not mistaken. Another horror classic. Just like Garfield's Halloween Adventure.
Garfield's Halloween Adventure is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.