Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Subversive Skepticism of Scooby Doo

When I was a teenager, Saturday morning was one of the few times I was allowed to watch television. One of my favorite shows was Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, the cartoon featuring teenage detectives and their lovable half-articulate dog. Of course, it was formulaic. Velma's glasses always got knocked off at a critical moment, Fred and Daphne always wore the same clothes, Scooby could always be induced to participate in some ridiculous plan by being offered a Scooby snack, Daphne could be depended upon to get nabbed by the bad guys, the kids' plan to trap the criminals was always ridiculously complicated and failure-prone, but succeeded anyway, and the villains always complained at the end that they "would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for those kids and their mangy dog". But one thing I didn't realize that the time, and have grown to appreciate, is the subversive skepticism of the first two seasons.

Skepticism, because no matter how supernatural the mystery appeared at first glace (and they were usually populated with ghosts and vampires), the end result was always the same: there was a perfectly reasonable natural explanation, usually involving a plot to scare people away from a location where some nefarious activity was going on. (But never too nefarious; they didn't want to scare away the kids.) Ghosts weren't really ghosts; they were people dressed up as ghosts. Vampires were't really vampires; they were people with fangs on, together with bats bought at the local exotic pet store. And while Scooby and Shaggy were usually credulous, Velma and Fred used reason to solve the mystery. They didn't say to themselves, "Oh, it's a ghost, that explains it." They said, "Hmm, I wonder if there is some reasonable explanation." This was the best skepticism on television until MythBusters.

Subversive, because the underlying message was contrary to many, perhaps most, Americans' perception of the world. A recent survey shows that 32% of Americans believe in ghosts and 37% believe houses can be haunted. And of course, 90% to 95% of Americans believe in the ultimate supernatural folly, god. In always providing a natural explanation, the subtext was clear: the supernatural doesn't exist, and scientific reasoning is the best tool to ascertain truth. That's a message directly in opposition to an America populated by Pat Robertsons and George Bushes.

But like all good things, this subversive skepticism had to come to an end. A few years ago, when one of my kids was sick, and he didn't want to hear another story read to him by Dad, I rented a Scooby Doo movie to try to keep him entertained: Scooby Doo on Zombie Island. I was really horrified to see that the basic premise of Scooby Doo had been violated: this time, the zombies were real. My kid was so scared we had to turn the video off. While Zombie Island had some good points (making fun of the show's repetitive themes), I was saddened by the sell-out to the paranormal.

The first two seasons are still watchable, and can be found on DVD. If you know any young skeptics (or even young believers), buy them a copy.


Rachel said...

How can 37% of people believe that houses can be haunted if only 35% believe in ghosts?

Rachel said...

32%, not 35%

Anonymous said...

I too am a skeptic lover of Scooby Doo. It was not until I read your post, however, that I realized the delightful message it advances.

Anonymous said...

Also, there are the two big, recent Scooby Doo movies, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, among others. The biggest disappointment for me, beyond the generally poor quality of the script, was a metaphysical one: the monsters were real! I kept expecting them to unmask the creatures, or cut away to show that it was all a dream sequence, or something like that. I mean, Scooby Doo with real monsters? Scooby Doo with magic? What's the point?

David McCabe said...

Ah. No wonders my mom wouldn't let me watch Scooby Doo.

Anonymous said...

In its newest incarnation "Scooby Doo Mystery Incorporated" gets back to its skeptical roots.