A scene from my childhood:
A frightened rabbit gazes across a field. Blood flows toward him from the horizon, corrupting everything in its wake, a prescient vision of coming death.
“The field! The field!” he cries. “It’s covered with blood!”
This happened early in the animated film adaptation of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. It still haunts me.
I was five or six when I saw this movie. My parents brought home the VHS rental, unaware of the horrors inside. They thought it was a simple cartoon about rabbits.
A few other images stick in my mind: rabbits tearing the flesh from each other’s bodies, going to war, losing bloody battles with dogs.
Those other scenes are fuzzy at best. Perhaps I’ve blocked them out as a defense mechanism.
Here’s how much that film terrified me: In doing research for this post, I tried to watch a clip of the film online. Couldn’t make it past the first few seconds.
This coming from a guy who enjoys Cronenberg movies.
I’ve never read Watership Down (the book)—not surprising, given the nightmare connotations from the film. Even the title makes me shudder.
I often think of that experience, usually while watching tides of blood flow toward me across empty fields. So when I read that a new generation of UK children had suffered the same experience, my heart went out to them.
Channel 5 (presumably a station often running in English homes) played Watership Down at 2:25 pm last Easter Sunday.
Children cried. Outraged parents tweeted and phoned and emailed, calling for the programming director’s head. The head was later piked and displayed on public grounds.
This incident (debacle? amusing kerfuffle?) inspired counter-arguments, too. Some parents and internet think pieces contended that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark arts.
This post isn’t about that debate. I’m not a parent, so I wouldn’t wade in anyway. If I’m lucky enough to have children one day—biological, cybernetic, or otherwise—I’ll keep them away from this film. Nothing but Dora the Explorer and Scooby Doo for that theoretical pup.
I don’t want to overstate things. It’s not like Watership Down ruined me as a person. Sure, it still causes some awkward situations in adulthood. Anytime a rabbit appears, I go fetal, rocking myself and crying loudly until someone removes the offending creature. But this happens at most—at most—eleven or twelve times a year.
Fortunately, the topic of scary rabbits isn’t all doom and gloom. If we travel into the distant past, there is fun to be had!
“History geek” is one of the many titles etched into nameplates on my front door (they all end in “geek”). Middle Ages Europe is a favorite playground of mine, and I LOVE the bizarre humor that medieval monks left in the margins of their manuscripts.
These cheeky fellows were at times filthy, strange, abstract, and quite funny. Some of their motifs—like snails jousting against knights—are still poorly understood. Others make perfect sense (when a scholar interprets them for us).
Recently the internet delivered a new one to me—bloodthirsty rabbits! They often appear in marginalia, attacking and torturing humans and dogs, their primary enemies.
Now THIS is the kind of bad rabbit I enjoy. No disturbing modern social allegory, no spurting blood, no unsettling string-based soundtrack.
Just good ol’ animal-on-human ultraviolence.
Plus, these rabbits are all stuck back in the dark ages, so they can’t get to me.
As detailed by writer Jon Kaneko-James, the monks were having a bit of fun with role-reversal. As constant sources of food and sport, rabbits symbolized helplessness in the Middle Ages (still do, I suppose). They could also represent cowardice. Monks insulted specific people by depicting them in battle with the furry beasts.
The sight of rabbits killing humans is just plain fun. I love seeing ancient writers punctuate Dark Ages doom and gloom with meta-humor that wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern graphic novel.
These medieval illustrations serve as therapy for me, a salve to rub over my Watership Down flashbacks. A rabbit wielding an ancient ax will always be preferable to one shredded by barbed wire.
Preferable for now, I should say. We have already created human-animal hybrids. How long before scientists bio-engineer giant bipedal rabbits that rise up against us?
As a noted weird person, I can never be sure if others will react to strange things the way I do. What do you make of these old manuscript illustrations? Funny or fascinating or creepy, or all of the above? Do any terrifying childhood entertainments stick in your mind to this day?