Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated Is a Perfect Horror Introduction for Kids

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated is an ideal entry point for kids who are taking their first steps into the horror genre.

Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated
Photo: Warner Bros. Animation

Four meddling teenagers and a dog. From that simplest of premises, Joe Ruby and Ken Spears created an idea that has carried television series, live-action big-budget films, numerous animated movies, and countless parodies. So successful was Scooby-Doo that Hannah-Barbera launched several spin-offs, including Jabberjaw (teens and a talking whale) and Speed-Buggy (teens and a talking dune buggy). But there was something special about the alchemy Ruby and Spears derived for Scooby-Doo that made it stand the test of time. With its monster plots, Scooby-Doo became the ultimate introduction to horror for even the most timid kid.

Scooby-Doo and the Gang We Know 

No series better understands the unique nature of the Scooby gang like Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. The 52-episode show ran for two seasons on Cartoon Network from 2010 to 2013, and its first few episodes play like a modern update of the cartoon series. The gang is still in high school, and it’s implied that all of their old adventures happened, but the dynamics are slightly different.

Voiced by veteran performer Frank Welker, Fred is even more obsessed with traps than before, a passion that drives him to lead his friends in ghost-hunting adventures. Grey DeLisle plays Daphne as a privileged rich kid who tries to be kind despite her enormous wealth. Matthew Lillard reprises his role from the two live-action films as Shaggy, while former Facts of Life star Mindy Cohn plays Velma. At the beginning of the series, Shaggy and Velma are dating, although the former tries to keep that a secret, for fear of upsetting his best pal Scoob (voiced, as always, by Welker). 

From that basic setup, Mystery Incorporated spins an epic story about not just the supernatural happenings in the gang’s hometown of Crystal Cove, but the nature of horror stories. What begins as a series of standalone adventures slowly reveals itself to be orchestrated by a shadowy figure called Mr. E (Lewis Black), who himself is being manipulated by the menacing parrot Professor Pericles (Udo Kier). Pericles drives the gang to recover pieces of a Planispheric Disk, which becomes a map to what they believe is a hidden treasure in Crystal Cove. But instead of treasure, the map leads to a sarcophagus that holds the Evil Entity, a Lovecraftian monster who has the power to bring about a doomsday event called Nibiru.

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Mystery Incorporated and the Mythology of Horror

Mystery Incorporated functions like a kid’s version of Cabin of the Woods, reframing Mystery Inc. as players in an ur-myth, the latest in a variation of four humans and an animal who solve mysteries. Throughout the series, we learn about The Hunters of Secrets, a Mesoamerican quartet of teens and their pet jaguar, the four friars and pet donkey who made up the Fraternitas Mysterium, and the four members of the Darrow family, who searched for clues with their pet cat under the name, the Mystery Fellowship. Each group came together because of the influence of the Evil Entity, who drove them to search for clues until they could finally uncover the sarcophagus and set the Entity free. 

The show crafts a grand narrative from basic Scooby-Doo tropes. The mysteries and monsters who flock to Crystal Cove aren’t happenstance, but rather a result of the influence of the Evil Entity. The Scooby spin-offs aren’t the result of a company trying to milk a concept for all it’s worth, but variations of the mystery-solver gang failing to take shape. And Scooby isn’t just a random talking dog, but a reaction to a malevolent force making its way into the universe. For adults, this approach allows them to include all previous Scooby stories in a long continuity, accepting and reframing their memories of the characters. But for kids, the grand narrative has the opposite effect, giving cosmic importance to what seem like simple one-note characters.

The mythology opens up kids to the vast world of horror storytelling. Scooby-Doo has long been a gateway to horror, as many fans of the genre (myself included) first fell in love with ghouls and ghosts from watching them battle the Scooby gang. Mystery Incorporated embraces that tradition by bringing in a host of references to other spooky media. In addition to the aforementioned genre icon Udo Kier, Re-Animator star Jeffery Combs plays Professor H.P. Hatecraft, a loving (and less problematic) parody of the verbose author, alongside a cantankerous animated Harlan Ellison, voiced by himself. 

Lovecraft also inspires the look of the tentacled interdimensional Evil Entity, while other monsters draw from various sources, such as the Phantom of the Opera-inspired Phantom and Dreamweaver, who draws his look from the Goblin King from Labyrinth and Morpheus from The Sandman. The show even featured a Twin Peaks riff, complete with Michael J. Anderson reprising his role as the Man From Another Place. 

In many cases, these monsters follow the model set by previous Scooby stories, in which the creature is revealed to be a human in disguise, scaring people for money. But with its larger mythology, Mystery Incorporated reveals many of these humans to be manipulated in some way by the Evil Entity. In fact, it’s often hard to draw the line between humans acting out of their own greed and those being influenced by a cosmic force. 

Nowhere is that more clear than with Professor Pericles, the series’ primary villain. Pericles has a believable motive for threatening the Scooby gang, as he was once the pet mascot for Mystery Inc.’s predecessors, grown bitter by the group’s dissolution. However, the show also suggests that the Evil Entity has long driven Pericles’s obsessions, transforming him to the horrifying genius he’s become. In other words, Mystery Incorporated involves one of the oldest and most powerful horror tropes: the suggestion that the bad things people do may stem from a primordial evil, like the dark forces in Stephen King’s works, the parents’ guilt in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and more recently, the collective anger in Halloween Ends. The show does not allow kids to dismiss bad guys as random weirdos.

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Scooby-Doo’s Lessons in Life and Horror

Mystery Incorporated brilliantly ties existential dread to a fear more immediate to children: losing friends. Over the course of two seasons, the dynamic of the central gang changes dramatically, as Shaggy and Velma break-up, Daphne and Fred get engaged and drift apart, Fred vacillates between his adopted father and his biological parents, and Velma develops a romantic interest in Marcie aka Hot Dog Water (at least, as much as Cartoon Network would allow ten years ago), voiced by Linda Cardellini. At any point, the Scooby gang seems destined to fall apart, something completely horrifying to children.

But it uses that fear to do what horror does best: showcase bravery and empathy for its characters. While it’s always a lot of fun to watch Jason Voorhees knock the head off a teenager and we’re all getting tired of horror movies more interested in sociology lectures than scares. But even by showing that people can be hurt and suffer, by letting us be scared and face oblivion from the comfort of our couches, horror stories remind us of the safety we currently have. As Neil Gaiman writes in the introduction to Coraline (another great kid’s horror story), “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Most often, that safety comes in the form of our friends and communities, driving us to care for them even more.

Mystery Incorporated sets out to build empathy and bravery in children with its treatment of its two primary scares. When the monsters can’t just be explained away as greedy jerks in a mask, and when the distinction between one bad person and a community’s guilt becomes blurred, children can see that what they do with one another matters. The kindness or cruelty they choose to share has cosmic import. Furthermore, the series’ overarching narrative about the tensions in the Scooby gang show that the best friendships allow for change and growth. Mystery Incorporated’s plot insists that the group stick together even as they change. 

Yes, Mystery Incorporated is scary, and deals with deeper darkness than any other entry in the Scooby-Doo franchise. But even as it goes into uncomfortable areas, referencing horror stories that kids probably won’t fully encounter for another decade, it shows them that safety and comfort comes through care for the community, even when members of that community aren’t what you expected. What more could you ask of a story about four teens and a dog?