Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost (1999) – The 2nd Direct-to-Video Animated Scooby-Doo Movie – Directed by Jim Stenstrum – Starring Frank Welker, Scott Innes, Mary Kay Bergman, B.J. Ward, Tim Curry, Jennifer Hale, Neil Ross, Jane Wiedlin, Kimberly Brooks, Tress MacNeille, and Peter Renaday.
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Eventually, of course, we were going to get a steady stream of Scooby-Doo movies in which the bad guys were actually ghosts and monsters and not just people in costumes complaining about “you meddling kids.”
I was unsure what to think of this turn, to be honest. Like a good number of people, the various Scooby-Doo cartoons were a staple of my early childhood, and beyond the dynamic and the songs and the mysteries, I had a small appreciation for the fact that Scooby-Doo stories were grounded. As I got older, the shows didn’t lose their luster like some other childhood favorites, because I began to see them as ancestors of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” where there’s a perfectly rational explanation if you just stop and look for it.
Let me put on my academic hat for a moment – what Scooby-Doo mysteries represent is the importance of not overreacting, of not falling into line with the collective groupthink of a situation, of keeping a calm head, of thinking, and of being problem solvers, not problem exacerbaters. Yes, Shaggy and Scooby are often afraid, but that’s a good thing; they’re constantly unsettled yet do their part to solve the mysteries fate endlessly confronts them with, while at the same time reaffirming to kids that there is a solution to the creaks on the stairs and the scratches behind their closet door and the breathing coming from under their bed.
To change that dynamic by making the existence of actual supernatural monsters not only real but commonplace had me concerned that something would be fundamentally altered about the Scoobyverse – and not for the better.
SCOOBY-DOO AND THE WITCH’S GHOST is the second of the direct-to-video animated movies. The first outing, SCOOBY-DOO ON ZOMBIE ISLAND, was specifically sold with the “This time, the monsters are real!” tagline, and WITCH’S GHOST doubles down on the approach right there in the title, promising us a WITCH and her GHOST. When long-running properties alter their approach, the results tend to alienate more fans than they gain.
Or maybe that’s just how we remember it because it’s easier to recall things ruined rather than improved.
I certainly don’t want to make any big pronouncements about whether moving to the supernatural is a good thing or a bad thing based on one movie, but what WITCH’S GHOST does prove is that the possibility of the supernatural being real actually adds to the mysteries rather than detracts from them so long as the writing is good, and the writing in WITCH’S GHOST is pretty good.
WITCH’S GHOST manages to capture the feel of the Scooby-Doo stories while offering something new; it’s clever enough to nod to long-time fans by having Velma, Fred, and Daphne all comment on Fred’s frequent decision to split him and Daphne into their own group during the investigative portion of the process, and confident enough to have Velma offer an in-text reason, in that it’s a smart way to split the group. The producers also have Fred start to tell Daphne something he’s been meaning to tell her for a long time, only to have the case get in the way and keep it from being revealed.
It’s these moments that really make WTICH’S GHOST work for me, but I don’t think a new fan is going to be missing anything by not understanding the context. (There are certainly plenty of Scooby-Doo episodes and movies that I haven’t watched, after all.) I like that Fred hates it when someone refers to them as “kids,” but doesn’t seem to mind the “meddling.” I like that Velma, the smart one, gets blinded by a fangirl crush on her favorite horror writer, Ben Ravencroft. I like that Daphne clearly knows Fred has a thing for her, yet still wants to hear him say it, and gets a little jealous at the presence of Thorn, the lead singer/guitarist of the Hex Girls, a small-town, pop goth-rock group of three females who are ready to strike out on their own and record their new CD.
The film opens with the gang solving a mystery in a museum, pulling off the hoods of two ancient “monsters” to reveal them as regular humans. Their typical end of episode scene plays out, but then they are interrupted by Ben Ravencroft, a famous horror writer that Velma thinks is the greatest ever. Ben invites them to come back to his old home in Oakhaven, Massachusetts, and when they arrive they find the small town overrun with tourists.
Oakhaven has a ghost problem. The town has recently constructed a Puritan village and in the process of digging it up, they’ve disturbed an old cemetery and now the ghost of Ben’s ancestor, Sarah, a suspected witch, is back to haunt the town. Fred is particularly snarky about all of this, and it’s in character in that the gang has seen set-ups like this hundreds of times over the years. (“We’re not kids,” Fred tells everyone who will listen.) There is an investigation – with Ben joining them – and they quickly solve it, pulling off the mask of the witch and revealing that much of the town has been involved in pulling off this stunt, which was done solely to attract tourists.
There’s a few nice things going on through all of this – I like that there’s a dark tone to the story. Even as the story is quickly moving through the standard paces, there’s also a subplot about Thorn’s potential status as an actual witch. Fred and Daphne spy on her and see her mixing a special concoction, and the goth look of the Hex Girls suggests they are both vampire (they have fangs) and witches and totally hot enough to cause Daphne to put the clamps on Fred.
Ben is obsessed with the existence of a journal of Sarah’s, which he says will clear her name and prove she wasn’t a witch. When the journal is found, however, the swerve is on – it’s not a journal but a spell book, and Sarah isn’t a Wiccan healer but an actual witch. Sarah comes back, doesn’t think much of Ben, and now the Scoobies have to stop an actual witch, which pretty much happens just as it usually does – someone thinks up a clever plan and then they execute it while being chased around by the person they’re trying to stop.
I really like WITCH’S GHOST. It does what I want a Scooby-Doo cartoon to do, as the gang solves an interesting mystery. That there’s actually a standard mystery and then a supernatural addition on top of it means there’s no padding going on, and the ending is particularly dark, as it’s not just Sarah who gets imprisoned back in her spell book, but Ben, too. This is a movie that’s still aimed at kids, but it didn’t insult my intelligence. More importantly, it demonstrates that the possibility of having the supernatural become commonplace (as much as it relates to Mystery, Inc.) can add to the mythos instead of detracting from it.