The Mysteries of Scooby Doo

by E. John Winner

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Part One

We will first consider the Scooby Doo phenomenon in terms of its original appearance in the series Scooby Doo! Where Are You? (1969). The artwork is crude, the animation sloppy, and the music and laugh-track are downright annoying. The show won its audience (loyal to this day) with its narrative formula and with its characters.

Who are Scooby Doo and his gang? They’re always referred to as “meddling kids,” so apparently, they are still adolescents. But that can’t be right, unless they are very rich and have no need for further education. Unlike adolescent amateur detectives of the past – like the Hardy Boys – they don’t remain rooted to any locality, nor have very strong ties to their families. They drive around the country – literally, stories take place practically everywhere in the US, and sometimes in South America and Africa as well – quite aimlessly. I mean, it would be understandable if indeed they were professional problem solvers, getting called in on some mysterious robbery or other crime, but that is not what happens. Instead, the gang is always going out to some vacation spot or tourist trap, or sometimes they are just, well – driving around. Then they just happen to be in the right location at the right time when the mystery begins….

An important function of the mystery is to distract us from confronting the empty lives these teenagers lead. All they have to do is drive around; if there were no mysteries, they would go skiing, surfing, hiking in the parks, attend street festivals, return to their van and drive away. Doesn’t sound like a bad life, until we begin asking whether any of these characters might enjoy such a life. Because, just as it happens, we know that at least two of them – Shaggy and Scooby – don’t. They don’t like any excitement, so activities like skiing and surfing are out. They don’t like anything that smacks of physical exertion, so there goes hiking. They might attend festivals, but only for one reason – to eat whatever food they can steal there (and one of the odd aspects to their characters is that, when it comes to food, they have no moral scruples about taking what they can when they can, without asking). Scooby and Shaggy love to eat. Well, actually, that’s imprecise. Scooby and Shaggy love to shovel foodstuffs down their gullet just as fast as they can. Although they often smack their lips after gorging themselves, they cannot possibly be tasting the foods they ingest. Their bodies are simply sacks into which food is poured. Their only enjoyment would be the kind of warm, dull, slow enervation that comes from eating beyond satiety. They are gluttons. Yet these are the characters supposedly identified with by the prepubescent audience that their adventures have targeted.

So, for them, the aimless wandering amounts to nothing more beyond clocking time between one binge and another. Pretty empty, I would say. What about the other “kids?”

Velma is of course the smart one of the group – something of a nerd and a bookworm. Originally, that was her definition. It’s very hard to see her enjoying anything like sports or exploring tourist attractions. Later – much later, say in the past ten or so years – they’ve tried to give Velma something of a personality. She likes hockey, admires certain television stars, and has a wry sense of humor. But in the beginning, Velma was a kind of placeholder (“insert exposition here”). Granted, it went against the grain of the times to have a female do all the revelatory explaining, solving the mystery. Nonetheless, it is disappointing to find that they can only do that with a female that is not only two-dimensional, but homely to boot.

This is emphasized by comparing Velma with Daphne, the other female of the gang. Daphne is well-shaped (according to cultural standards), fashion-conscious, rich – basically a “dumb blond” (albeit with red hair) – whose primary functions seem to be to ask directions from Fred and to get kidnapped by the villains. It is easy to see her skiing and surfing (and in fact she does perform quite well at such sports), but it’s also easy to see that what she gets from such pastimes is distraction from her narcissism.

Finally there’s Fred. He functions in the role of unofficial leader of the gang – a “big brother” type – so it’s easy to see why some kids would identify with him. Although he’s not clever enough to solve the mysteries alone, he is smart enough to set traps for the villains. He’s something of a jock – he discusses sports with enthusiasm – but beyond that, his interest in the world is lacking. He’s the sort who could look at a magnificent painting of Japan’s Mount Fuji, and remark, “Ok. Mountain. What’s next?”

Without their good fortune in stumbling onto mysteries everywhere they go, Scooby and the gang would be living very dull lives. As dull, perhaps, as many young people found their own lives in the interstitial times between school, sports and family responsibilities of which they were only vaguely aware. (Some kids know they must mow the lawn, how many of them can articulate why?) So young people might frequently find themselves with ill-defined leisure time, trying to decide if there were any distractions to amuse themselves with.

No wonder this audience found the adventures of Scooby Doo and his gang such vicarious fun. The Scooby gang is on permanent vacation from school, but they are old enough to drive and have enough funds that they can extend their vacation indefinitely, both temporally and spatially. But they also are fortunate in being “mystery prone.” That is, just when they are threatened with having nothing to do – a state their young audiences knew all too well – they stumble on a mystery to make vacation exciting again.

That the characters of the Scooby gang are dull and banal in their backgrounds, interests and character traits, rather than being an irritation, as it would be if we met them at a party, is actually what made them attractive to their target audience. The Scooby gang risks the same bouts of boredom and mild depression we all do, especially when young, but the mysteries keep coming, whisking them away from the threat of ever confronting their personal flaws and weaknesses. This means that the audience can identify with them (and vicariously escape their own boredom and mild depression) and yet simultaneously feel superior. The members of the audience lead real lives with real problems and usually find real solutions to these, in the process of growing up.

Indirectly, this answers questions concerning the sexuality of the members of Scooby’s gang. They haven’t any, they only have gender. We know this, because they are not growing up, and their producers and target audience know that they are not growing up. Sexuality is an issue one confronts only with the hormonal changes that begin at the onset of puberty. Despite the fact that they are old enough to drive and travel unchaperoned, Scooby’s “kids” remain permanently pre-pubescent.

But, what about Scooby himself? Unlike his gang, Scooby is a fully adult dog. Who is he, anyway?

Scooby is actually something of an enigma. To some extent, he’s a pawn in the narrative game, changing personality as the needs of the plot demand. Thus, his primary characteristic, beyond gluttony, is supposedly cowardice, a quality he shares with Shaggy. But in episode after episode, he will suddenly show courage in order to help one of his friends; he’s much more likely to do so than Shaggy, because after all, he’s the titular star of the show.

Throughout the show, Scooby exhibits behavior that is either vain, gluttonous or cowardly, but he seems aware of this and giggles guiltily every time he does so. He is highly opinionated (especially about his gang) and expresses these opinions sometimes quite impulsively. He is a dog, after all, and that would give him an excuse for such behavior, at least for his producers and his audience.

Scooby is something of a comic impersonator (of people, ghosts, and other animals). He also knows how to dance. Fortunately, given his speech impediment (almost every word starts with an ‘r’) and gravelly voice, he cannot sing. His other skills are undefined until they need to be exhibited, as pawn of the narrative. Like other cartoon dogs, he is able to use his body in ways not to be expected from a physical dog – for instance, he can use tail as a propeller – and like other cartoon animals, he can work a kind of comic magic, reaching off screen to bring forth objects that should not be present in the immediate location, such as dragging out a piano to play a melody in the middle of the woods.

Occasionally Scooby evinces savvy concerning the world beyond that of the show’s fictional world – that is, concerning the world of the audience, which he acknowledges by breaking television’s “fourth wall” with a glance or a wink. Later series would take advantage of this by way of “in-jokes” and even the occasional risqué double entendre.

We are beginning to get a sense of what Scooby represents to his audience. He is more mature than his gang and yet acts younger. He is magician, clown, showman, hero. He is not of this world yet appears to know it better than his audience does and certainly better than his cohorts. He can get away with all kinds of “naughtiness,” because he has convinced us of his irreproachable innocence. He is yet another incarnation of Coyote, the prankster god of Native American mythology. [1]

Obviously, the producers were not thinking along these lines when they invented the program. But they did have a pretty good understanding of what made their audiences tick. They understood the culture in which they were marketing their product.

Top Cat, Jonny Quest, Archie and his Gang, and other successful cartoons, suggested the possibility of merging their more appealing qualities, qualities we now find in Scooby Doo and his gang. Such trends in successful television cartoon programming had been converging towards generating such characters for the previous decade.

All that was needed was the “celebration of youth” one found in the counter-culture of the 1960’s to begin bringing these trends together. Scooby and his gang are much too straight-edged to be hippies, but they share with the hippies a tendency to self-indulgence, abhorrence of routine labor, and difficulty accepting the responsibilities that are part of the process of growing up. Naturally, they would appeal to a child who felt like an outsider or who wanted to be one.

Part Two

In The Demon-Haunted World, “Science advocate Carl Sagan favorably compared the predominantly skeptic oriented formula to that of most television dealing with paranormal themes, and considered that an adult analogue to Scooby-Doo would be a great public service.” [2] Well, there you go. We thought we were dealing with just a dumb kids’ cartoon. Already we’ve discovered the myth behind the hound, now we have a well-respected educator of science remarking how important Scooby Doo is in promoting critical thinking. The native Americans used the Coyote stories to both entertain and educate their young. Obviously such stories can still be used for entertainment, although their value as education in the world of today seems worth questioning…. Could Carl Sagan be onto something here? Can the Scooby Doo show help children how to read the world in a more critical manner?

The answer I think is “yes,” but with some reservations and qualifications. Until the 1980’s, the plots of the stories were virtually fill-in-the-blank duplicates. Scooby and the gang arrive at a mysterious someplace (haunted house, haunted vacation lodge, haunted airport), meet three or four people who don’t seem to be getting along, then a monster shows up and chases them. Cue laughter. But although Scooby and Shaggy believe in the supernatural and seem terrified by it, Velma expresses something of the attitude of a scientist; Fred is not quite as curious, but decidedly empirically minded; and Daphne is, as all young ladies should be (as understood in the culture), cautious and suspicious, especially around men and other women. Consequently, the gang – as a unit – does not react to the appearance of a monster as a phenomenon to treat with awe and unquestioning submission. After the initial chasing around, the gang looks for clues, find them, sets a trap, and, catching the monster, reveal it to be a human in disguise who almost always is one of the first three people they met upon arrival at the mysterious location.

It must be admitted that the villain’s construction of and operation of the monster disguise often makes odd, improbable use of available technology, or of technology not really available at the time: the robots, puppets, and optical illusions deployed would not be capable of the flexibility and maneuverability they often seem to have. But, after all, they are the products of technology, and not of magic or the supernatural. Their explanations are entirely naturalistic. Although there are plenty of comedic violations of basic physics and biology of the kind we’ve been seeing in animated cartoons since they first hit screens in the 1890’s, these are not integral to the stories. The stories themselves are detective mysteries, and as such are committed to rational explanation of empirical phenomena. Even the motives of the villains are usually down-to-earth in a blasé, common sense way – usually simple greed, envy, or revenge for some perceived slight. Although the villains’ intended victims are usually rightfully grateful to the “meddling kids” of Scooby’s gang, they ought also to feel embarrassed to be initially taken in by technological slight-of-hand masquerading as magical hocus-pocus.

As the series wore on (and occasionally wore out of ideas) over the years, supernatural elements were introduced into it, especially in the ’80s. But by then, the show had become pure farce. It brought in real ghosts to the stories exactly because the producers knew the audience didn’t believe in ghosts anymore, thought they were silly, and laughed at the very idea of them. There’s more than a trace of cynicism in this manipulation of the skeptical attitude of the audience, but at least there was no backtracking into any glorification of the supernatural. The supernatural is baloney, the show reminds its audience, and only worth consideration as an object of ridicule.

In a recent and perhaps the most innovative re-casting of the Scooby Doo phenomenon, Mystery Incorporated, most of the individual stories remain in the classic mode, but with twists concerning the character development of the gang. We won’t get into that, but we will note the twist that series as a whole takes. The series is actually constructed around what is now known as a “story arc,” a meta-narrative tying the individual stories together. And here’s where things get a little strange: The meta-narrative at last reveals what appears to be a supernatural phenomenon – the Evil Entity – motivating the series as a whole. Most reviewers seem to agree that this is borrowed from the Cthulhu mythos originating in the writings of fantasy/horror cult figure, H. P. Lovecraft. To be honest, I was never able to wade through Lovecraft’s dense and florid prose, so I don’t know this, but I do know that Lovecraft’s cult is fairly large for a writer unknown beyond the genre readership and has always included many aspiring young fantasy writers. It should be noted that although I think most readers at least initially read Lovecraft as a fantasy/horror writer, there does appear to be a kind of science fiction element to the Cthulhu mythos. Although the Old Ones appear to us as gods, or demonic forces, they are actually rather long-lived aliens, possibly from another dimension or a parallel universe. [3]

As it so happens, it is revealed in the final scenes concluding the Mystery Incorporated series that the explanation of what the Scooby gang has experienced and of its final, happy result is to be found in the “alternative timelines” made possible thanks to the contemporary “multiverse” theory! And who should reveal this, but a respected figure of “real-world” science fiction, Harlan Ellison, represented in cartoon form, with his own voice dubbed in. Fortunately, he is such a genius that he has been able to remember all the different timelines his alternative selves have lived through in their respective universes. (Apparently, this sort of self-parody is apparently entirely in keeping with his public personality. [4])

So, we seem to have salvaged the essential rationality of the Scooby Doo phenomenon. We began with a simple detective mystery, searching for clues and ended up in the realm of theoretical physics, searching for multiverses. But it’s the same rationality after all, is it not? Well, I’m not so sure. The world understood by the general culture of the first series, Scooby Doo, Where Are You? depended on a strictly empirical scientific methodology. But multiverse theories depend only on elegant mathematics, with some physicists – like Brian Greene and Leonard Susskind, or, in a different way, Max Tegmark – suggesting that this dependence is strong enough ground for incorporating such theories into our basic model of the universe. These suggestions are offered at an odd moment of history, when the popularity of the irrational has risen frighteningly – and in certain regions of the globe, with horrifying violence – and when one senses a general response of fatalistic indifference to the confusions of “information overload” provided by our various media. In other words, just as the attack on the so-called hard sciences grows stronger, the hard sciences may be going soft on us. If this is the case, those of us who depend on science to frame our worldview might find ourselves left to our own devices.

One can see the possible problems here in science fiction and fantasy entertainment everywhere: the superhero films; the Harry Potter series; the recent revisions to Doctor Who. Time and again, empirical explanation is replaced with timey-wimey, spacey-wacey, “it just sort of happens because …,” and the substance of the ‘because’ no longer seems to matter. Left to our own devices, we non-scientists and non-philosophers may end up confabulating all kinds of irrational, half-rational, or seemingly rational (but non) explanations: witness, for instance, the anti-vaccination campaigns. Or we will simply abandon explanation all together, and give ourselves over? But to what? What replaces the explanations that give us a world picture, and infuse it with meaning? Of course (and alas), religions have the answer, and have had such for some time: submission to the authority of a text and its authoritative interpreters.

Maybe, then, we need to start the Cult of Scooby Doo and submit ourselves to the empiricism and reasoning of the Scooby gang. That wouldn’t keep the monsters away, but at least we would be secure in the knowledge that they would always be revealed as fallible human machines and illusions.

Notes

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coyote_%28mythology%29

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scooby-Doo!_Mystery_Incorporated

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu_Mythos

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlan_Ellison

2 comments

  1. “[J]ust as the attack on the so-called hard sciences grows stronger, the hard sciences may be going soft on us. If this is the case, those of us who depend on science to frame our worldview might find ourselves left to our own devices.”

    I think you are overstating the problem with the sciences. There is some “going soft”, however. (Tegmark, for example.)

    “One can see the possible problems here in science fiction and fantasy entertainment everywhere: the superhero films; the Harry Potter series; the recent revisions to Doctor Who. Time and again, empirical explanation is replaced with timey-wimey, spacey-wacey, “it just sort of happens because …,” and the substance of the ‘because’ no longer seems to matter.”

    Agreed.

    “Of course (and alas), religions have the answer, and have had such for some time: submission to the authority of a text and its authoritative interpreters.”

    This phenomenon is evident in more areas than just religion.

    I am with you on the importance of empiricism and reasoning. One of the things a scientific, empirically-based view of the world is good for is saving us from scary (and other forms of) nonsense.

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  2. Although I watched multiple episodes of this program as a youngster, I became frustrated with the repetitive plots, and have not seen the reboot. I might briefly comment on Lovecraft, who had a particular aesthetic effect in mind – that of cosmic fear – see the intro and conclusion to
    http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/shil.aspx

    …for though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs most of the outer cosmos…For those who relish speculation regarding the future, the tale of supernatural horror provides an interesting field. Combated by a mounting wave of plodding realism, cynical flippancy, and sophisticated disillusionment, it is yet encouraged by a parallel tide of growing mysticism, as developed both through the fatigued reaction of “occultists” and religious fundamentalists against materialistic discovery and through the stimulation of wonder and fancy by such enlarged vistas and broken barriers as modern science has given us with its intra-atomic chemistry, advancing astrophysics, doctrines of relativity, and probings into biology and human thought…

    In his own work, he attempts among other things for a post-death-of-God post-Minkovskian terror of infinite space, with his witches slipping through non-Euclidean room corners to travel to other stellar systems, and humanity an accident of work by Old One scientists, remains of whose cities are in West Antarctica. There are a number of books by philosophers about his work now – it’s often said he reads better in the French 😉

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