Friday, November 18, 2022

Mickey Mouse: Horror Icon

He is not exactly Prof. Van Helsing or Agent Fox Mulder, partly because he is a total scaredy-cat. Nevertheless, Mickey Mouse has had repeatedly confrontations with the supernatural and lived to tell the animated tales. In fact, some of his ghostly shorts are his most beloved. In honor of the premiere of Disney+’s new documentary, Mickey: The Story of a Mouse, we look back at his scariest appearances.

Mickey started encountering ghosts as early as 1929 in Walt Disney’s
The Haunted House. Basically, Mickey is a weary traveler who takes shelter from a storm in an old dark house haunted by the bony monsters from The Skeleton Dance. It is a simple premise, but it was sufficient to make it a classic. Plus, the way the skeletons play a tune using their ribs like vibraphones still holds up as a clever piece of business.

The next year, Mickey reluctantly saved Minnie Mouse from a rabid-looking gorilla that escaped from the zoo in
The Gorilla Mystery. It is worth noting this 1930 film predated the big primate horror of Murder in the Rue Morgue with Bela Lugosi, The Ape starring Boris Karloff, Bride of the Gorilla with Lon Chaney Jr., and the godfather of all mad monkeys, King Kong. Technically, it was a spoof of the silent movie The Gorilla and its soundie remake, but both are now considered lost films.

Disney once again revisited horror themes in
The Mad Doctor, Mickey’s first encounter with a Frankenstein-like scientist (who dognaps Pluto), but it would not be his last. There is a lot of cool imagery for vintage horror fans, but we can’t help wondering why didn’t Mickey just bring Pluto into the house, on such a dark and stormy night.

If you have only seen one Mickey Mouse cartoon, there is a good chance it was “Lonesome Ghosts.” Way back in 1937, Mickey, Goofy, and Donald Duck were the Ajax Ghost Exterminators, predating the Ghostbusters by forty-some years. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good at ghost-busting. In fact, the bored ghosts called them, just to throw a scare into them.

Fast-forwarding six decades, poor Mickey literally falls into the hands of another mad scientist in
Runaway Brain, which might be the most horror of his horror shorts, starting with his late-night approach to Dr. Frankenoolie’s stately townhouse, deliberately echoing Father Merrin’s iconic scene outside the MacNeil home in The Exorcist.

It also represents another brush with monster-like primates when Mickey’s brain is switched with that of Frankenoolie’s giant ape-like monster Julius. That means has to save Minnie from Julius’s berserk brain, while inhabiting his giant monster body. It turns out
Runaway Brain was maybe a little too genre for Disney. Despite an Oscar nomination, the short has been largely out of circulation for years, which is a shame.

Technically, Mickey is the one doing the frightening in
Donald’s Halloween Scare. Wearing the vampire-costume he would later don in subsequent Halloween collections, the Mouse of the House first gave Huey, Dewey and Louie a scare while they were trick-or-treating, but later he helps them teach their Uncle Donald a lesson for stealing their Halloween candy. There are no monsters per se, but stealing from trick-or-treaters is pretty monstrous.

A number of these shorts were repackaged in various
House of Mouse Halloween specials. Mickey’s House of Mouse is sort of like his Branson dinner theater, where he introduces shorts instead country tribute bands. He inconveniently loses control of his house to a massive team-up of Disney rogues and monsters, including the “Lonesome Ghosts,” in the straight-to-DVD House of Villains feature. It takes place on Halloween and the title deliberately evokes classic Universal horror films like House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein, but most of the spooky elements come during the collected shorts.

Most recently, Mickey tried to spin a spooky yarn to suitably impress Huey, Dewey, and Louie, as well as his nephews, Morty and Ferdie in “The Scariest Story Ever,” the Halloween episode of Disney Channel’s
Mickey Mouse series, rendered in a stylized, throwback style of animation. Naturally, they all featured himself, Donald, and Goofy, in Frankenstein and Dracula spoofs. Of course, kids today are jaded. To finally shake the little brats, Mickey had to cast them as the potential victims of a pie-baking, child-eating witch, highly reminiscent of his own appearance with Minnie in the earlier “Hansel and Gretel” episode.

The obvious question remaining is what about “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in
Fantasia? The Goethe ballad that loosely inspired the classic sequence might more easily fit our contemporary classifications for dark fantasy, but it shares a kinship with the Golem myth. In some ways, it represents a Frankenstein story, in which man is nearly destroyed by his own creation, or this case, mouse by his own conjuring. The skull on the Sorcerer’s altar is also enormously atmospheric.

In any event,
Fantasia is often young viewers’ most intense early viewing experience. Even if it is fantasy, it regularly serves up their earliest taste of horror endorphins—and fittingly Mickey Mouse was there for it. He is our first Ghostbuster, our first haunted house survivor, and reluctant nemesis of blood-thirsty gorillas, and crazy mad scientists. Of course, most of this all happened back when Disney was cool, the brainchild of a visionary rebel, but even Runaway Brain from the mid-1990s was refreshingly un-focus-grouped. You can get the full Mickey story, when Mickey: The Story of a Mouse now streaming on Disney+.