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Any holiday season, religious or otherwise, is a special time — especially for TV networks. From the ringing of holiday bells to a 17-hour marathon of a killer in a goalie mask hacking people to death, it evokes a rush of nostalgia in viewers, and brings corresponding high ratings to networks.
It’s a reciprocal tradition that pop culture shares with us, like a giddy child tugging on our shirt sleeve: It’s holiday season, motherfuckers.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this — the holidays give networks a chance to get outside the normal borders of their programming. They open up opportunities for TV creators to address the state of the union, or to add new characters. Many of our favorite shows don’t give much more than a tip of their hat to the holidays (or to the passage of time in general). However, in 1999, the writers of Cartoon Network’s Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, got pretty fucking creative. The show released a full-fledged parody of The Blair Witch Project featuring the whole Scooby-Doo gang. It was called The Scooby-Doo Project.
Some backstory: The Blair Witch Project itself set new standards in the horror genre, bringing shaky, firsthand-camera work to the big screen and inventing the genre of found-footage horror. And it killed in theaters, taking in $249 million at the box office, and placing it in the company of popular films like The Matrix and the (first round of) Star Wars franchise reboots. It left many viewers disoriented, stumbling into the new century with a new uncertainty about the supernatural — and a new desire for weekend outings to Maryland cemeteries.
The film came out in June, and by October, the world was ready to laugh again. Some shows tried similar gimmicks for their Halloween episodes that year, but few nailed it quite like The Scooby-Doo Project. Its success came mostly because it shifted boundaries for children’s shows; under the right (lack of) lighting, it was actually kind of scary.
Formatted as a series of segments aired during commercial breaks, the special aired during Cartoon Network’s Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! Halloween marathon on October 31, 1999. Each segment connected like cryptic snippets, in which Scooby and the gang were filmed by a shaky camcorder. From the opening press briefing, to the title card introducing the four sleuths and their dog as “missing,” the show reenacted the plot of Blair Witch Project beat-for-beat.
While the end result didn’t turn out so well for our favorite gang of mystery solvers, who (spoiler alert) meet a grim ending under mysterious circumstances, the well-crafted production was a hit.
The segments featured live-action backgrounds, with the Scooby characters overlaid on top in their ultra-flat Hanna-Barbera style of animation. As they float across the footage, the effects mesh better than you might expect. Even as a recently-grown adult, I found myself surprisingly unnerved by Shaggy standing in a corner waiting to be murdered, and Fred having a mental breakdown when he realizes they’re all going to die. Many of the details tied in comedic twists, but certainly not enough to consider this the usual hilarious Halloween special.
The segments were later combined and aired as a single special, which ran just under 10 minutes, like a legitimate short film. It received plenty of praise for its creative camera work, from children and adults alike. And while the arrival of 2001’s Night Of The Living Doo Halloween special, which featured appearances by Gary Coleman and David Cross, may have seemed to outshine the Scooby-Doo Project, no amount of witty Coleman-Cross dialogue can compete for the time that Cartoon Network almost made Scooby-Doo scary.