To say media of cutesy things that appear targeted to a younger audience being subverted into something terrifying, violent, and coarse is a trope that’s been beaten to the ground that it no longer has any impact is an understatement. It used to be a novel concept; just take something that appears childish and cute and put them into a horrific setting, or to have a deceptively innocent character and put them in an adult world of sex, drugs, and violence. But it works; so many trendy games share this same concept of something child-like being molded into something horrifying. But one of these stand out among the rest of such an oversaturated genre, and one that took the internet by storm and arguably began the culture of theory videos and community brainstorms.
Which now brings us to Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. Together, Luke and Victiny will give their own perspectives on the series and give some context on why DHMIS is so ruinously effective as a piece of web series horror, and the cultural impact it’s made. Beginning with…
Created in 2011, acclaimed horror web-series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared was the brainchild of Becky Sloan and Joe Pelling, who met while studying Fine Arts and Animation at Kingston University. They joined together and found their studio THIS IS IT Collective to create the first episode of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared with approximately the budget of the spit on my shoe. The crew created a cast of puppet characters akin to those from Sesame Street. They planned on doing a whole series as they were planning out the first episode, but due to the struggle and hardships of making the first episode, the idea was originally scrapped. But when the first episode exploded in popularity, they revisited the idea.
To those that have just woken from a deep (approximately) 11 year-long sleep, DHMIS satirizes children’s educational programming, putting a spin on it through dark humor, psychological horror, psychedelic imagery, and social commentary. The series touches on subjects like existentialism, depression, and the internet, all while disguised as lessons on nutrition, time, transportation, and friendships, among other things. It follows three characters who follow ordinary everyday lives; a little yellow puppet with overalls who’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, a green bird, and a tall lobster-like fellow who’s played by an actual performer unlike his puppet companions. They have no known canonical names throughout the series, but are commonly referred to as Yellow, Duck, and Red by viewers respectively. They live together in a little house where they are occasionally visited by a puppet who sings about a lesson centered around their day. As you should know by now, things eventually go horribly and violently wrong as the lesson becomes much more serious and dire. The first episode, in-particular, follows a notebook educating the three and singing about expressing yourself through creativity and imagination, only for the moral to begin contradicting itself and becoming increasingly nonsensical as it begins telling the characters how to think and create; an obvious commentary on the education system and children’s programming making you believe there can only be one way of thinking.
As we know now, the first episode was an instant hit, accumulating over 71 million views as of this time. It’s more than just a horror short with shocking images meant for funny YouTubers to react and scream to for clicks; the series created a whole community of people trying to dissect the meaning of each episode. Filled with easter eggs and strange continuity, DHMIS had a whole community of people creating theory videos in order to uncover the secrets laid through the series. It was a viral sensation, which inspired Sloan and Pelling to continue the series. After the conclusive sixth episode, people began speculating when we would see the return of the quirky characters and the horrible situations they find themselves in.
Things were pretty quiet for a while. In 2017, a year after the series seemingly concluded, Sloan teased that DHMIS could make a return. In 2018, a teaser trailer titled “Wakey Wakey…” was released, teasing a new television season starring the hapless puppets. The pilot aired at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival alongside other short films. But ultimately this new direction was scrapped and the teaser was deleted from their YouTube channel and the pilot never officially aired. Thankfully, a second season was made possible due to British television network Channel 4 picking up the series, giving DHMIS all-new life and personality.
Season Two follows a similar formula to the original series. The only notable difference is the obvious big increase in production value; the bigger variety of puppets in each episode, more diverse sets, and even a change in animation in almost every episode. On top of the usual puppetry, the show dabbles in different animation styles like 3D animation, stop-motion, claymation, and even AI art. Because of all this, the show is given more life than ever.
Whereas the first season tended to focus on horror and existential dread, season two is far more surreal and comedic, the dynamic of the three puppets more fleshed out and witty than ever. Yellow’s mindlessness but kindheartedness, Duck’s loquacious personality, and Red’s cynical behavior are all explored and tested as they explore themes of death, family, and existentialism. The two seasons actually feel like they stand on their own, one offering a more nightmarish aesthetic while the other is far more hilarious and entertaining. While season two will often still dabble in horror and disturbing imagery, its focus on comedy is served far better.
Nothing encapsulates the shift in tone like my absolute favorite episode, titled ‘Friendship’, where Red and Green berate Yellow to the point where an awkward, apprehensive worm named Warren the Eagle enters their home to teach them about friendship. Warren is a former member of the anti-bullying campaign ‘OK Stop’ before he was fired for harassment; despite being fired, he still continues his job for seemingly no benefit or gain. The three are uninterested in Warren’s lesson and are instead more interested in their computer time and throwing jabs at Warren’s physical appearance. Before we move on, though, I must gush about Warren.
Warren is the most unique “teacher” to exist in the show by far and is an absolute favorite of mine. Voiced by Baker Terry (who additionally lends his voice to Yellow) in an absolute riot of a performance, Warren’s shy and nervous demeanor brings hilarity to every scene he’s in. Unlike most of the other teachers in the show, Warren seems genuinely interested in teaching the three an important lesson and seems to have the purest of motivations, as he seems legitimately eager to make Yellow feel better. But as the episode goes on, his true motivations become apparent.
Tired of being ridiculed by his two friends, Yellow literally escapes into his head and happily spends time with imaginary friends. However, Yellow can’t escape for long as Warren arrives to pull Yellow from his subconscious. Things go awry, however, as every one of Yellow’s friends take interest in Warren and he decides to stay in Yellow’s head, relishing in some newfound attention. Warren, despite all his self-righteous lectures on friendship and accountability, is a hypocrite and a narcissist; making his friends do all the things he wants to do without question and making everything about himself. Because of his clingy personality, he drives the other imaginary friends away. Warren represents all that’s wrong about the worst friends possible and how he is a sublime metaphor for depression; has truly become a worm in Yellow’s head.
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared Season 2 has plenty more to offer than the season that preceded it. What started off as an overnight sensation of a web series has exploded into a mainstream phenomenon. As the season goes on and goes into familiar territory that only fans of DHMIS will understand by the fantastic and existential finale, Sloan and Pelling should be more than proud of their work. The series is in safe hands over at Channel 4 and I’m eager to see what happens next.
The advent of shock humor and viral videos on youtube has existed since the platform first began. From the initial post to the explosive word-of-mouth phase and then onto the video’s eventual deletion (and existence as internet urban legend or deep web sites such as Dailymotion.com), it seems like nowadays weird or creepy videos are treated as a commodity, to be consumed and moved onto the next one like a binge of Halloween candy. The Original Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared though, as explained by Luke, had a powerful approach that allowed it to exist in the public eye for as long as it has. The release for each installment of the web series was relegated to Father’s Day (June 19th) each successive year, which was a valuable strategy in building on the creative limits of Becky and Joseph’s master puppetry and taste for macabre (though never too blatant) storytelling.
An artist that draws from a similar plan of attack for their work would be David Firth. Salad Fingers, which began as Firth’s first foray into the medium of animation, dives headfirst into horror and unsettling or bizarre imagery, spread out over an occasional release cycle on Newgrounds between the years of 2004 to as recent as March of this year. There’s something to be said about the flexibility of horror as a medium whereas newcomers can mold their palate with ease and leave an impression on the viewer. Regardless, Salad Fingers hit at such a specific period of internet fame infancy that it caught on like a hellish wildfire, the topic of many middle school sleepovers in a “dude, check this out!” sort of way. As DHMIS would impress itself onto the great internet subconscious we’re all plugged into years later, Firth’s series would go onto become a valuable wedge in web history, becoming timeless shorts that we can look back on in a fond, horrified way.
The advantage that Salad Fingers had though was time. The time it struck the internet essentially made it a core memory for us elderly folk who had unrestricted access at that age. All the more impressive that DHMIS managed to occupy a similar headspace in such a short period. To me this is proof of its staying power and tangibility beyond just a grab-n-go spooky short film and one hit wonder status.
From the lowliest web creators to the highest peaks of animation infamy, I would like to jump to Hideki Anno’s Me! Me! Me!. Debuting as a flex of technical prowness, Anno’s studio Khara released this sexually graphic, unsettling six minute short on the official website for Japan’s 2014 Animator Expo. Accompanied by a rocking Jpop track sung by the singer Teddyloid, the short garnered attention from the moment it somehow bypassed Youtube’s (admitted weak and exploitable) upload system. With bare topped women dancing in a purposefully provocative way and a mild sense of body horror, it became an overnight sensation and was immediately sent to all your friends, completely contextless.
Unfortunately though, this is where I feel Me! Me! Me! Gained a hearty serving of misinterpretation and being lost in translation. Whereas DHMIS was immediately understood to be a parody of children’s television and media, the culture shock of the latter going viral proved to be a rocky and knee-jerk transition. Instead of valuable direct language context clues (and, to address the elephant in the room, the distracting pair of giant knockers not helping either), the short was written off from a large part of the western community who would’ve come to regard it as an instant classic otherwise. Here’s the ironic part though; Hideki Anno specifically wrote and directed the film around the exact fanbase who would end up writing it off. With themes of obsessive otaku culture and porn addiction ruining one’s faculties to spark a real connection with another human being, it hit its mark just a bit too well. In being so easily identifiable with the Western fans, it somehow circled back to being “just another shock video” and victimized under the previously stated capitalistic nature of video consumption.
What I find at the end of the day is that Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared fits like a creative green puzzle piece between these two examples, though closer to Salad Fingers as far as a direct comparison goes. Being a huge fan of all of the listed examples (especially Me! Me! Me!, where I find the initial barrier that it sometimes gets written off for obscures a fantastic metaphor for depression and poor self control) I’m excited for what is to come from these creators in the future. Anno is already well established with Evangelion and his director work on the upcoming Shin Ultraman, and David Firth still occasionally bangs out a deeply disturbing and delightful dive into that brain of his, in an easily digestible youtube video format. The future of Becky and Joseph’s project seems incredibly bright, and I’m personally looking forward to seeing what ventures await the puppets and how their narrative flourishes in a full 22 minute format.