Alma, by Rodrigo Blaas
Happy Halloween! Or, rather, Happy Morning-After-Halloween! There’s nothing better to cure a candy hangover than cartoons. In honor of this indulgent holiday, here’s something of an indulgent (if brisk) extravaganza of horror cartoon history.
Animation brings a unique skill set to horror and suspense. On the one hand, the difference in the representation of physical space dramatically changes the ability to produce jump scares. It’s not that it’s impossible to put instant shrieks into cartoons, but the impact is different. The fear in animation is often less visceral, more slow-burning. Animators can create self-contained stylistic universes with very specific moods, and terrifying ones at that. A great scary cartoon can sink into your soul, keeping you up at night with memories of something that will never quite fit into the waking world. They’re masterpieces of suggestion and imagination, showing that an image need not be possible in the live action world to scare us to the core.
Here are the ten creepiest animated shorts of all time (that you can watch online right now).
Alma, by Rodrigo Blaas (2009)
Dolls can be freaky objects, frozen little children trapped forever in a single immobile facial expression. Former Pixar animator Rodrigo Blaas turns this observation into a slow, initially quite charming nightmare. A feature adaptation is currently in development, with Guillermo del Toro as executive producer. Whether it can sustain the unsettlement for 90 minutes remains to be seen, but the short may very well become a classic of the form in its own right.
Bingo, by Chris Landreth (1998)
It’s one thing to be terrified of clowns. It is another thing entirely to be terrified that one is actually a clown oneself, deep inside. Canadian animator Chris Landreth assaults his protagonist with an entire cackling circus, demolishing his sense of self with persistent color and noise. It’s brilliant, surreal and unforgettable.
The Cat with Hands, by Robert Morgan (2001)
Sometimes it’s just a single, brief idea that can set off an entire world of internal confusion and fright. The uncanniness of a “cat with hands,” luring in humans with its killer cuteness and confusing melange of body parts. It’s a nightmare with the dulled color palate of a 19th century photography, a murky memory of an unlikely monster.
The Fall of the House of Usher, by Jan Švankmajer (1982)
Most of Jan Švankmajer’s films are at least a little bit creepy, due mostly to his unique approach to stop-motion animation. Broken dolls, odd pieces of furniture, and many more unexpected objects fill his weird tableaux. When he is actually setting out to spook you, therefore, the results are all the more memorable. This adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is an architectural nightmare, after which the very floors you walk on will seem mysteriously unstable.
(Unfortunately the narration is not subtitled in this clip – Poe’s story, from which the narration is taken, can be read here.)
Harpya, by Raoul Servais (1979)
Among the best films to ever win the Palme d’Or for Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival, Belgian animator Raoul Servais’s Harpya is a surrealist masterpiece. It feels ripped right form the canvasses of René Magritte, its unique monster emerging from the brutalist juxtaposition of architecture and humanity in the dead of night. Its grips your subconscious with its talons and will not let go.
Kakurenbo, by Shuhei Morita (2004)
A bunch of kids arrive in a mysterious, dark and almost entirely empty city to play a ritualized game of hide and seek. They all wear fox masks, a clever way for animator Shuhei Morita to muddle the emotional arc of the story. We don’t see their fear but we hear it as they gradually begin to panic. The demons that pursue them are as beautiful as they are disturbing, while the urban background remains gloomy and ominous.
The Sandman, by Paul Berry (1991)
The Sandman, a bird-like creature with long legs and great hair, is coming for you. His face is like a crescent moon, a particularly inspired design choice from animator Paul Berry. He is silent, nimble and vicious and he will descend into the blue light of your bedroom to frighten you. He’s also one of the most effectively rendered animated monsters in the history of British animation.
The Skeleton Dance, by Walt Disney (1929)
Okay, so this one isn’t exactly creepy. It’s a Silly Symphony, and as such is more of a musical comedy than anything else. Yet it’s also one of the first animated films to use its soundtrack as a crucial component in the creation of a mood, in this case an atmosphere of light-hearted but still macabre revelry.
Street of Crocodiles, by The Brothers Quay (1986)
This is admittedly not the most terrifying of the bizarre stop-motion animations made by The Brothers Quay over the years. Their experiments in the various medical oddity museums of the world are unfortunately not quite as available, however. We’ll settle for an early masterpiece of the unusual. It is a film set in the darkened corners of the mind, built from images that seem to exist in the shadows of our otherwise well-lit lives. Its very movements appear haunted, animated by a presence far from human.
The Tell-Tale Heart, by Ted Parmelee (1953)
And, last but not least, a classic. The first cartoon to be given an X rating in the United Kingdom, Ted Parmelee’s Oscar-nominated Poe adaptation has become an essential companion to the original story. It is about fear and madness as their own independent and powerful forces, unleashed into this angular cartoon like psychological hurricanes. James Mason’s narration is lingering and forbidding, while the images slowly move in and out of the light like ghosts.