Maybe it’s because the world’s censors have sharpened their tools since I was a child, or maybe the obsession with political correctness just means nothing even slightly strange slips under the radar. Whatever it is, there were some odd characters floating around in books and on screens in times past. Some are not the obvious villains – we all know Darth Vadar was a baddie but there were other, more obscure oddities too. Here are 7 of them.
7. Rolf from “The Sound of Music”
I had to think long and hard about whether to include Rolf on my list but in the end, he made the cut. Rolf’s role in the Sound of Music was a dastardly one, and considering the Nazis were crawling all over the place, that’s some achievement.
Rolf’s a rotter. His second name is probably Grinch but instead of stealing presents, he steals the trust of little girls. (Or little sixteen year olds at least). One minute he’s out in the garden with poor, innocent-as-a-rose Liesl, having the kind of romantic dance in a rain-drenched pagoda that could only happen in, well, in a wishful musical I suppose. A MINUTE LATER, HE’S SHOPPING HER ENTIRE FAMILY TO THE NAZIS!!!!!!!!!
When I was a kid, I just couldn’t understand this. Wasn’t he just singing about showing her what to do and helping her jump from one bench to another in the summer house? What the heck happened? Did he go on eighteen and suddenly realise that there was a whole world of nazi sympathisers for him to meet? These were the NAZIS, for crying out loud. You couldn’t have a worse break-up story if you tried. It’s all just so horrible and even though you know that the actress who played Liesl is much older than sixteen, your heart still goes out to her when he tells her he won’t be delivering any more telegraphs because he’s far too busy with important things. Like helping to root out the Resistance probably. Oh Rolf, you brute. When Maria said her favourite things were brown-papered packages tied up with string, she was probably hoping Liesl might find an engagement ring in one, not a food parcel dropped by the Red Cross into the concentration camp where the family have ended up.
6. The Candyman from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
I realise this is an odd choice, but hear me out. I know the candyman does a superlative job in telling you all about Willy Wonka’s brilliance, but isn’t he just a bit – strange? There’s just something about him that makes me feel like the candyman stuff is just a front for another business. Sure, it’s fine to have the kids running in and buying the latest wonka bars and all the rest of it out front. The more noise they make, the less likely it is that anyone’s going to hear the machines printing all the fake money out back. Yes? No? Am I just being paranoid? I mean, it’s not like I care what a man does to earn a crust, but he just seems a bit two-faced to me. And why do all the kids get to eat free at the start, but he’s pushing Charlie to pay up pronto later on? What’s the deal – does he think all of those kids were born to be “wonkerers” but the hero of the piece was born to be Cheer-up-Charlie forever instead? Bit discriminatory if you ask me.
And then there’s this:
Ouch! I’m not saying he meant to do it, but it turns out that on occasion the candyman likes to serve up a little whiplash to his customers alongside their banana splits. Sweet.
5. Public information ads
(I never said these freak-attacks had to be people, did I?)
These ads were strange because they operated on a very simple premise: frighten children into safety. Which is fine I suppose, so long as the fear factor doesn’t mean that they’re afraid to leave the house, or the room for that matter. Take this one from 1973, the delightfully titled “The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water”:
If you were a child watching this, you’d get the feeling that there are shadowy nazgul-type creatures hanging around rivers hoping that you’re going to drown. Showing off? He loves it. He’s betting you’re going to fall in. He’s PRAYING you’re going to fall in. Chilling out on your own? He’s laughing at how relaxed you are. He knows he has you. But what does this guy get out of it exactly? He just walks off when the showoff kid falls and his friends do precisely NOTHING to help him climb out of the four inches of water he’s presumably thrashing about in. Maybe there’s some kind of reward for spirits who are there just at the moment that branches break and kids fall into dark and lonely water, I don’t know. The real yuck factor in this ad of course comes from the voiceover from the actor Donald Pleasance who injects real spite at the end when sensible children do the right thing and stay safe. The nerve of them.
RTE ran similar ads some years later. The message tends to be the same: Life is dangerous if you’re a child. One infamous ad taught us something new though – transistor radios are to grandads what deeper-than-they-look puddles are to showoff children.
There was another of these ads that I can’t find anywhere. It was trying to teach manners instead of safety. A boy jumped off his bike and threw it down onto the ground outside a shop as he ran in. A baker carrying a big tray of bread tries to go into the shop but he falls over the bike. Boy comes out, sees baker sprawled on the ground and is suitably chastened as he helps him collect up all of his bread. Tut tut. It was such a staged ad, talk about banging kids over the heads with a message! We used to re-enact it until we could all do perfect stunt-falls thanks to playing the role of the baker. Of course, today’s version would probably show the kid coming back out and swiping the baker’s wallet and keys before he drives off in the van, maybe kicking him in the head for good measure. Where’s the spirit of dark and lonely water when you need him?
4. The computer from “Superman III”
First came HAL, and then came Skynet, but in between there was the super computer in Superman III. And that gave an opportunity to a few twisted minds to come up with this scene, where Robert Vaughan’s sister, “Sis” is dragged back into a computer so she can be turned into a robot with bad hair and a worse attitude.
Why was this scene so unsettling to a child? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it was something about the idea that you could be just there, going about your day and trying to control the world one minute, and the next you’re up to your newly metallic eyeballs as a slave of a flipping machine. I don’t care who you are, that’s not what you want your day to turn out. And it happens so slowly. In close-up. Yikes. Worst of all, the Sis-robot turns on her brother, who she previously idolised, which is proof positive that she really isn’t in there anymore. And to make matters even worse, Superman has had it with this particular family and he shleps off at the start of the scene after giving them the kind of dirty look I imagine he normally reserves for people who bring up the demise of Krypton at dinner parties.
The only saving grace of this scene is that Sis eventually reappears in her normal, human self after the computer is eventually destroyed. But it’s pretty fast and she’s lying under rubble so it’s a bit of a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. (Yes,of course I re-wound the video to make sure the robotic effect wasn’t permanent. Didn’t everyone?)
3. The Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz
When you think about it, there was a lot of dodgy stuff in this film considering its intended audience – natural disasters, animal cruelty, even arson attacks on straw men who never did nothing to no-one. It had the lot and the Wicked Witch was meanest of the mean. It’s a mark of the sheer nastiness of this villain that even when placed beside the sickly-sweet Good Witch of the North, Gilda, you still can’t have any sympathy for her.
To be fair, the Wicked Witch pulled no punches. She wanted the ruby slippers, and she pretty much didn’t care what she had to do to get them. There was a kind of honesty in that at least. To a child, that directness was pretty freaky. Where else did you see villains tell the heroine that she had the length of an eggtimer left to live? A big eggtimer it’s true, but still. I’ve had problems boiling eggs ever since and it’s not because I’m a bad chef. And the WW does the nastiest thing you can do to a child – she mocks Dorothy when she’s afraid. Then, for good measure, she looks out from her weird globe-thing and laughs at every child watching. Be sure of this: she’s laughing at you, not with you. And then there’s the freakiest words known to Oz, or anywhere else for that matter: flying monkeys. Enough said.
The WW was such a dastardly article that even when she was scuppered by water, she still found time to scream at the world for being such a place that her “beautiful wickedness” could be destroyed by a good little girl. She went down fighting, and we all shook in our seats forever after. Even attempts to psychoanalyse her in the hit musical “Wicked” only added to the mystique. When someone has a horde of flying monkeys at their beck and call and that piece of music to accompany their screech, you don’t want your feet to end up as owners of any pair of shoes she might set her sights on.
2. The Ugli-wuglies from “The Enchanted Castle”
Okay, we’re getting near the top now and that means your inner child should be well-weathered by the horrors on this list so far. Even so, I feel the need for caution because of this next entry. The ugli-wuglies have only missed the top slot on this list due to the fact that it was impossible to portray them with the right amount of menace in the 1970s BBC TV version. (Having written that last sentence, I just realised that I dread the inevitable re-make with the latest CGI…)
Featuring in E. Nesbit’s fantasy book, The Enchanted Castle, the ugli-wuglies launched a thousand nightmares when the children used a magic ring to wish that that the audience they had made from hats, scarves, jumpers and broom handles would come alive so they could get a proper round of applause at the end of their play. The result is something not even Sauron could have handled.
Of course there’s nothing scary about a pile of old clothes, and that’s even acknowledged in the book. But when you’re five or six, reading this book late at night in a room FULL OF YOUR OWN CLOTHES and you happen upon a picture like this:
And then with just the quickest wish on a ring that Gollum would have swopped for a coney, it gets worse as the uglis start to clap with their horrible broom arms and trying to cheer from faces made of paper plates with drawn-on mouths. It was horrific; it was genius.
Well it doesn’t take much, does it? Fanciful lampshades lovingly put in place by parents cast the worst shadows known to childkind after a certain hour. One girl I knew refused to go into her room at all one night because she was convinced a jumper strewn over the edge of a chair was “a witch’s pointy knee” and nothing could convince her otherwise.
Anyway, back to the uglis. They weren’t the worst you know, and that’s probably also part of why they didn’t get the top slot. They didn’t realise the fear they engendered. They were even polite and all they wanted was a bed for the night.
But that’s what made it EVEN WORSE.
Because just when you’ve gotten over the fact that the ugli-wuglies are creatures that made your skin crawl, and you’ve realised that they’re not so bad, what did the children in the book do? That’s right, they locked them in a stone passageway until the spell wore off and there was nothing left in the morning but a big pile of clothes.
I mean. Could it get worse? Skin-crawling horror following by moral ambiguity. And the endless cycle of knowing that because it’s such a beautiful book, you’re going to have to relive it over and over again. E. Nesbit has a lot to answer for. So do the BBC, who tortured us expertly in their 1979 version. “Hey kids, didn’t have a good enough scare inside your own imagination? Why not see what we’ve dreamed up to scar your little brain for the rest of your life?”
I despair. (But it’s my favourite book so of course I’ll read it again).
1. The Childcatcher from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”.
There was only ever going to be one person deserving of the number slot on this list. This guy was every child’s nightmare – but parents probably loved him because he made it easier to convince their kids not to take sweets from strangers. When it came to the childcatcher, the makers of this film just ladled it on. When we first see him, he’s carrying a net. A net! For catching children! I always thought it was made of barbed wire and I’m still not sure I was wrong. And that nose – is he even human? Who smells out children from across a village square? And what kind of training did this guy do to qualify for that position where he has a whole army at his beck and call?
But it gets worse. The childcatcher was so ingrained into your memory if you watched this during your formative years that even now, the mere sight of his creepy little dance will send a shiver down your spine:
Lads, we’re screwed.
There’s sinister music. And a wagon like the Wanderley, only not. Not at all. And worst of all – there’s sweets to bait the poor, misfortunate children. Cherry pies! Cream puffs! Ice-cream! Treacle tarts! And all free today! Of course the kids couldn’t resist. How could they? Poor Jeremy and Jemima didn’t notice the dodgy nose and horrific pallor of old squinty eyes with the greasy hair. To them he’s just Mr. Man with the freebies.
I think the worst part for me was when the sides fell off the wagon and it’s revealed in all it’s bare glory. Never mind treacle tarts, there isn’t even an ould carpet to sit on. The childcatcher thinks of everything because that’s his disgusting, horrific and utterly weird job. Paid for by the tax payer in this case. Naturally.
While we’re giving first place to the childcatcher, we must mention his unwitting accomplice, Truly Scrumptious. This is a woman who lands in a country where children are forbidden by law, sees the childcatcher in an earlier scene and then LEAVES THE KIDS ALONE. I mean to say…never was there a person given a more inappropriate name in the history of the world. If Chitty had eyes, he’d roll them in astonishment.
So there you have it, the top 7 creepiest characters designed to wreck many a young life. Next time you see someone posting on Facebook about how “we all did such irresponsible things back then sure it’s amazing we survived at all”, just ask yourself – who thought this face would be a good one to send into children’s nightmares forever?