Updated July 17, 2022
There is one Halloween staple which seems globally revered yet utterly formulaic. Scooby-Doo is predictable, that is one of the reasons it’s so enjoyable. Every generation since the late 60’s has had a Scooby-Doo cartoon, as it has been consistently reinvented every few years. I grew up with the What’s New Scooby-Doo? (2002-2006) series, which like any other, had the gang discover something supernatural and then demystify it. Regardless of how often Scooby-Doo gets renewed, it always follows this very basic formula: the gang stumbles across a frightening monster, they get chased, someone (usually Daphne) gets kidnapped, while Velma finds a clue, Fred makes a trap, and Scooby and Shaggy start running away but get sidetracked in the kitchen, until the gang finally uncover some guy in a mask.
One interesting detail is that most of the ‘monsters’ in the show are either chasing people away from money or trying to distract them long enough so they can steal money. Money is the driving force of the series, even though the Scooby gang never handles money. I am not sure who is paying the bills for these mystery solving teens, but I don’t think they take commission. The show is in a lot of ways anti-capitalist, as there are countless episodes about greedy oil barons and landlords who are trying to scare people away from what they want to possess, like land or gold. The lack of long-term consequences and big issues are crucial to the show’s encapsulated format, but the villains are often indicative of real-world problems. It teaches viewers that with enough rationality, teamwork, and a clever trap, you can unmask corruption and make a difference in your community. The gang might get up to crazy hijinks along the way, but they are determined to help people, and solve weird crimes when no one else will, and for zero payment.
If you have seen one episode of Scooby-Doo, you can pretty much guess exactly how any episode will play out. You can even guess who the bad guy is based on the first five minutes of an episode, spoiler, it’s never the person the gang initially suspects. This incidentally implies that every corrupt monster is someone you already know, regardless of how scary that monster might appear. There are some sympathetic villains in the Scooby pantheon, if we want to call it that, but the majority are these greedy figures. So, given this predictable formula, why are we still watching Scooby-Doo, or better yet, why is Scooby-Doo a consistently entertaining genre?
The series became rather self-aware in the late 90’s, and characters began undergoing existential crises while solving mysteries. For instance, in Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998), Daphne becomes so tired of disproving supernatural things that she decides to leave the group to find real monsters and ghosts. Daphne and Velma are usually the ones to become self-aware in these later films, especially of their persona and catchphrases, but it’s typically Daphne. I think that is because we as a culture don’t really know where to put Daphne. Fred does traps, Velma finds clues, Shaggy and Scooby usually lead the monster to the trap, so what does Daphne do?
Daphne is bait, she either gets kidnapped or she is just sort of there, at least that is what it seems like in the early cartoons. Since then, every Scooby-Doo series has tried to justify Daphne’s presence in the group, to the extent where Daphne herself has started to justify it in fiction. Take the live action film (2002), where Daphne decides to take up kung fu so she can be more than just bait. She openly argues that her only role in the group is to be eye candy, and that she’s sick of it. It is no coincidence that this Daphne was played by Sarah Michelle Gellar of Buffy fame, as Buffy directly challenges the blonde victim trope in horror cinema, which is what this film tries to do for Daphne. Later projects like Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-2013) have been more successful with this approach, but for the purpose of this discussion, I am interested in the function of these labels, the character’s struggle and awareness of them, and why they reoccur in every Scooby-Doo project. I think our reliance on these tropes says something about our culture’s ongoing need for formulaic narrative.
“I Know We’ll Catch That Villain”
Although certain Scooby-Doo films depart from this formula, they still introduce these conventions so they can later challenge our expectations of them. For instance, in the 60’s, Scooby and Shaggy had a few spin-off adventures where they would encounter real monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein (not the Creature or Frankenstein’s Monster). In Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School (1988), Shaggy and Scooby inadvertently become PE teachers at a monster academy attended by the daughters of famous monsters. In these kinds of films, the Scooby gang assumes that monsters are not real, given their mystery solving background, but then they stumble into a real monster world and have no idea what to do. My favourite examples of this are Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998) and Scooby-Doo and the Witches Ghost (1999), which begin like any other Scooby film, but drastically change in the final act. In Witch’s Ghost, the gang tries to uncover who has been terrorizing the small town of Oakhaven as a witch. Along the way, they come across the Hex Girls, a rock group who also happen to be Wiccan, and they teach the Scooby gang about the persecution of witches and the Wiccan faith. But then, near the end of the movie, the gang uncover a true mystery, that Ben Ravencroft, played by Tim Curry, was trying to summon an evil witch from beyond the grave. Perhaps casting Tim Curry gave away this twist, but it forces the gang to grapple with the different kinds of witches, and what each type represents. There is the historic (those involved with the Salem witch hunt and the long history of torture and death), there is the harmless (those who practice contemporary Wiccan), and then there is the exaggerated supernatural witch.
In retrospect, having Wiccans fight against this caricatured witch is an interesting move, as it suggests that modern witches (however you want to define that) are in a constant struggle with a distorted image of female power which has long been used to suppress women. The stereotypical witch has plagued women for so long, as this image justified witch hunts and was essentially created so insecure men could control women. To have modern witches fight and defeat this caricature says a great deal, especially in the Scooby-Doo formula. The villain in Scooby-Doo is usually human, specifically, a self-obsessed individual who tries to disguise their villainy with a monster outfit. By putting on a mask, they distance themselves from the crime. They make it seem like something supernatural has happened to cover up mankind’s greed. The Scooby gang shows that monsters are a distraction, a clever cover up which disguises the person and what they are doing. Therefore, in films like this, the gang investigates the history of the witch label, and the way people have used this label for their own selfish needs. By calling someone a witch, the accusers distract everyone while also justifying their own need to do harm. So, although we get this supernatural witch, the film still suggests that the real monster was mankind, just like any other episode. It’s important to note that the Hex Girls have reappeared in other Scooby-Doo projects, which is quite unusual. They became huge fan favourites, both for this representation and their killer sound.
Something similar happens in Zombie Island, as the gang deals with a coven of cat women, and in Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase (2001), where they fight a corporeal computer virus. Although the gang deals with actual supernatural threats in these films, they continue to act the way we expect them too. There is no character development in any of these projects, at least, not long-term. We get the same catchphrases, like “Jinkies” and “Zoinks”, and eventually the mystery is solved with everything tidied up.
“You’re Ready and You’re Willin’”
Because there are no long-term consequences to anything which happens in an episode or film, the characters are always ready to move on to a new mystery, or to a new series or project. I would argue that this is why the characters travel from town to town, and why they rarely visit the same place or people twice. It means that we get the same formula but in new environments, so the characters are always the same, but the mysteries slightly vary. That begs the question, what would happen if you put these characters in the same town and created an overarching mystery rather than a series of unrelated crimes? You get the incredible Mystery Incorporated (2010-2013) series, one of the newest and most self-aware Scooby-Doo projects.
Mystery Incorporated is very aware of this formulaic order, and it refers to these labels repeatedly. It begins like any other Scooby show, as the gang solves mysteries which seem supernatural but are human. However, this formula quickly dissolves as the characters realize that they are just cogs in a ritualistic and predetermined set. They discover that they are not the first mystery hunters to live in the town, they are not even the first people to inhabit the roles we associate with the Scooby gang. There was a different group, still with two women and two men, and an animal sidekick, and they had the same attributes as the gang. There was a geeky girl, a stoner guy, a pretty girl, and a guy who built traps (totally normal). They also had catchphrases, but like everything else about the group, they were slightly different than what Scooby and his friends used. The group eventually self-destructed, and they are later revealed (spoilers) as the show’s main antagonists. The show argues that the Scooby gang are part of a cosmic order which they have little control over. What we recognize as the show’s formula is an ongoing ritual which maintains order in the universe. It is almost Lovecraft like, as the show has essentially suggested that the characters have a specific role to fill, and regardless of how often and hard they fight against these labels, they will ultimately be returned to these positions.
This dynamic introduces a certain importance onto the formula. By watching any Scooby-Doo, we are sort of participating with this ritual, feeding into its pre-set characters and order. This would explain why the gang is always running into mysteries by accident, as the mysteries are sort of drawn to the characters. It is a bit of a yin and yang relationship, as the mystery hunters exist in this specific way to balance mankind’s chaotic greed. I find this premise really intriguing as it additionally implies that our expectations of these characters play into this ongoing ritual. I wonder what that says about us as viewers and our responsibility. Could these labels and formula be something sinister? Mystery Incorporated is not the only show to play with the darker implications of this formula, I highly recommend the musical one-act by Tin Can Bros, The Solve It Squad Returns, which is a parody of Scooby-Doo, one which takes a bizarre and creepy turn after Cluebert, the group’s dog, is brutally murdered and everything falls apart.
“Scooby-Dooby Doo, Where Are You?”
Scooby-Doo has had a monumental impact on the mystery realm, even though it is so predictable. It is a genre unto itself, going on to influence shows like Supernatural and Buffy, and even real-world detective shows like BuzzFeed Unsolved. Buffy calls her group the Scoobies, Sam and Dean meet Scooby-Doo in a very bizarre episode, and the BuzzFeed Unsolved guys are regularly compared with Mystery Inc. by their fans. It is noteworthy that each of these series involves actual supernatural things, rather than just tearing off masks and uncovering humans. I would argue that this predictable nature and formula is the very reason Scooby-Doo is such a persistent and enjoyable work. It doesn’t matter which film or series you begin with; it doesn’t even matter if you are a regular consumer or have just seen one episode. It is available to everyone regardless of background. We watch the show not because we are interested in the mystery, but to affirm what we already know. The show has a sort of therapeutic function as it only deals with contained mysteries, something you can easily solve without becoming too invested. It is also a great unifier between generations, as we all have a Scooby series which aired during our childhood.
I think it is fair to say that these recognizable characters have remained so consistent because no plot really develops beyond an individual episode or series. Fred and Daphne never get together officially. Scooby and Shaggy are always hungry. These things don’t change, so at least we have one steady thing in this utterly unpredictable world. I am not saying that Scooby-Doo is single-handedly holding everything together (as funny as that would be), but much like the Mystery Incorporated series suggests, he and the gang are balancing things out. The world might be a mystery, but not when you are watching Scooby-Doo, and that is exactly the point.