The Scooby-Doo franchise is built on one key formula. A group of teens and their talking dog (speech impediment aside) travel around their hometown or around the world and find ghosts, aliens, and monsters scaring the crud out of usually innocent people. As they investigate they learn it’s really just bad guys in costumes using devices that aren’t quite real but just believable enough for a kids show.The formula has lasted for a very long time now and has made the talking dog and his friends some of most beloved characters in animation.
However, sometimes the monsters are real. As far back as the original (not the first one mind you) Saturday morning period, various incarnations of the franchise has shown that every now and then a real ghost or alien, usually among those being terrorized but not always, pops up to thrown a little shade into the gang’s life. When just traveling with Scooby and Scrappy, Shaggy was running from bullies, minotaurs, aliens, and other weird stuff, when he wasn’t teaching at a girl’s school for monsters or hiring ghosts who watched way too much Three Stooges to bust other ghosts. Sometimes, even among these actual paranormal situations they’d still find baddies in masks. Scooby once saw the spirit of an ancestor finally rest peacefully after solving a years-old mystery AND dealing with a current attempt at theft from someone in costume. The question is, doesn’t this confuse just whether or not a mystery is real or fake?
In a video from NerdSync, Scott Niswander goes over the history of the franchise, the times the monsters were real and the times they weren’t, and while the presence of the fantastic, the marvelous, and the uncanny benefits the franchise for the audience. Not so much for Shaggy and Scooby’s nerves, mind you. And while watching this I had a minor unrelated revelation of my own.
Catch more NerdSync on Scott’s YouTube channel.
Personally I think it’s a good thing that sometimes the paranormal is shown to be real in the Scooby universe. In that section of the the Hanna-Barbera library where all the comedic crimefighters are (as opposed to the serious crimefighters or the comedy sans firefighting as the main theme–so you can count Secret Squirrel on the third team) ghosts are not unheard of, like the Funky Phantom or Goober the invisible dog. Not knowing if the monster is real or not makes it easier to believe Shaggy and Scooby are erring on the side of caution every time, though it makes Velma’s skepticism a bit closer to “living in denial”. It helps keep the franchise fresh and having stories that are all fake, all real, or a mix of both keeps the audience guessing along with the gang. There’s also the time where it’s kept vague so we aren’t certain, like the ending to the KISS crossover Scott mentioned. (Believe it or not it isn’t the first time Hanna-Barbera had a story with KISS in a theme park with superpowers. I’ll tell you about that someday. It is weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeird.)
What this analysis brought to the forefront of my mind, and it’s a thought I’ve had before, is that this franchise only truly works if there is a mysterious investigation involved. When it goes off the rails is when it doesn’t work so well. The first incarnation of Scooby & Scrappy-Doo was still a typical Scooby mystery show. While Scrappy was setting up his “Scrappy-Traps” and dragging his Uncle Scooby back to fight the monster, the mystery was still going one. One of my favorite mysteries, involving the Blue Scarab (a comic book hero who allegedly came to life and committed crimes), came from this version. The later version where Shaggy and the dogs occasionally worked for his Uncle Fearless’ detective agency while having other adventures, fell apart and I think is part of the reason poor Scrappy is treated like dirt. The 13 Ghosts Of Scooby-Doo doesn’t really have a lot of investigating compare to the rest of the franchise, while Mystery, Incorporated featured both the usual fake monster mystery while the gang investigate the fate of the original Mystery Inc and the paranormal events surrounding their departure. And the less said about Shaggy And Scooby-Doo Get A Clue the better. Even the first live-action Scooby-Doo movie got this right. It just got everything else wrong.
Compare it to Be Cool, Scooby-Doo, a show I didn’t think I’d like since it take a Seth McFarlane approach to the characters (right down to those creepy bottom lids his characters all seem to have). However, they honestly explore the characterizations of previous versions and the mysteries are usually pretty solid. It’s actually a darn good show. I don’t think it’s whether the monsters are real or not that is the important detail of the franchise, though clearly they should be fake more often than not to retain continuity and the heart of the series. It’s the mystery, and the part where Shaggy and Scooby find costumes and props out of nowhere to escape the monster, that’s more important to getting Scooby-Doo right.