Courage the Cowardly Dog didn’t scare me. Sure, I liked it as much as every other cartoon-addicted 90s kid, but it didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies and night terrors that plagued so much of our generation. Rather, I enjoyed it for its unique direction and style. There goes Courage, braving another horror for love! I’d never seen something like Courage before, and the array of awful visitors he fought off every week made their debuts in all sorts of ways. Would the wimpy dog be subjected to a disorienting series of doors ending in a Claymation nightmare? Would his nights be haunted by subconscious fears rendered in CGI? Would he get the bejeezus scared out of him by a floating head? In a way, Courage was a little like the Twilight Zone of Cartoon Network. Things are always strange there, and in the end your wariness is justified. I, for one, appreciate the interruption of our usual program for this strange little show about a pink pup in the middle of nowhere.
But it didn’t scare me. Not really. Not except for two of the most terrifying figures to ever hit 90s TV. I never understood why King Ramses was considered the scariest Courage villain when Courage also had…Freaky Fred and the Great Fusilli.
I’ll start with Fred. He’s the one burned into my psyche. Freaky Fred is a tall, thin man with a penchant for rhyming in a drawling voice. He’s pleasant in a way, untroubled by everything as he visits his aunt Muriel out in Nowhere. His disposition is almost serene, but it’s impossible not to notice the long, lazy smile that stretches across his face. You rarely see him without it, and when it’s turned to Courage it widens like taffy, practically swallowing his cheeks as he reveals two rows of uneven teeth. Of course, Courage is the only one who really sees this. Muriel thinks every villain is a new friend who could use a spot of tea, and Eustace doesn’t care. So it’s poor pink Courage who gets locked in the bathroom with Fred for what seems to be an eternity of an episode.
Freaky Fred is a perfect example of the inexplicable discomfort people feel around certain strangers. Even as a kid you know there’s something wrong with him. The eerie calmness, the drawling voice, the all-encompassing obsession with being naughty…maybe there’s a reason he was locked up in that big ol’ hospital. It turns out Fred has a need to shave things bald, and that need is presented in the creepiest way possible. The shots of him towering over Courage as he shears the dog like a lamb terrified my tiny self more than Ramses or the Weremole ever did. Something about the angles and lack of dialogue in this short scene tells you that Fred is a kind of horror that doesn’t leave you with scars. Oh, you might find all your hair piled on the floor after he’s done, but he doesn’t hurt you by robbing you or trying to turn you into dinner. This is a man with a need, and he’ll get that need fixed whenever it arises. It requires a simple isolated room with a victim for whom help will not arrive…and perhaps it will be you.
And the worst part? When the cops find him and the game’s all done, Fred doesn’t seem one bit concerned by having to go back to the psych ward. He accepts his capture, calm and lazy as ever before, and leaves the episode with his skinny form trussed in a straitjacket. And he still has that creepy smile on. Never had I felt such dreadful intimacy in a cartoon before Freaky Fred took a razor to Courage’s head.
The other freaky guy? The Great Fusilli, an alligator magician who shows up in Nowhere to perform his traveling show. It’s already a little weird that Courage and his owners are the only ones there. Things turn up to 11 when Courage finds out Fusilli turns all his audiences into puppets, mesmerizing them with his magic until they become wooden mannequins connected to string. So terrible was he that in the end, he was turned into a puppet himself. I don’t recall most of this episode, but it was the first season finale for Courage. If the show hadn’t been renewed, it would have ended with Courage playing puppets in his house, saying all the things Eustace and Muriel would say before pattering down the stairs to sleep on what remains of his former owner. Yes, two of the major characters were turned into puppets. Almost forever, supposedly. Fusilli’s not just a puppetmaster—he was a puppetmaster who was going to win!
But honestly? He still wasn’t as scary as Fred. Boy, you should feel lucky that you didn’t have any lovely alligator fur for Fred to sink his scissors into.