The first thing I remember being scared of was the Poison Cackler from Fraggle Rock.
Early in life, we all learn what death is. The raccoon laying on the road shoulder. The crushed ant doesn’t move anymore. The grandfather laying in the casket and he looks so strange, unnaturally still, kinda plasticky. And as a child, you know of only a few things that cause death–being old, an unfortunate disease, extreme bodily trauma, and poison.
Poison is the scariest of these because it’s the least predictable. It works fast, and it could come from anywhere–an apple, a sword, a battle of wits with a Sicilian. But most of all, all the animals with poison–spiders, scorpions, tree frogs, and snakes. God forbid you get bit by a snake. According to all those books with “fun facts” meant to appeal to boys, a bite from a rattlesnake will kill you in fifteen minutes. And it turns your leg huge and purple. And there you are, lying in the sun, dying, with fifteen minutes to live.
That’s the poison part of the Poison Cackler. The “cackler” part is just the misophonic icing on the cake. I didn’t know what a “cackler” was, but it sounded bad, with its sharp K’s, like the word “crack”. And the -er suffix being an implication that it was an agent of this “cackle”. Even today I don’t associate a “cackler” with laughter. I associate it with immediate and painful death.
But the scariest part is you never see the monster. Even though it only showed up in only one episode, I have memories of it being mentioned continuously, which added to its prophetic threat. Recurring allies like Uncle Travelling Matt, Sidebottom, and Convincing John. These were powerful oracles. So powerful they couldn’t stay next to our hero’s sides (that would make things too easy). Therefore, if there was an evil recurring character, it must be really bad.
Now that the build-up is out of the way, look at this thing. It looks like someone asked H.P. Lovecraft to design a Muppet. It’s like a crab fucked a scorpion sideways. After being hinted at, it only appears visually in the second season episode “The Wizards of Waverly Place of Fraggle Rock”. That’s where Wembley switches places with a doppelganger wizard to get a taste of fame. (Like lots of children’s shows, you can tell them apart easily by the eyes and voice, but everyone else in the world is oblivious of these easily observed features) But the wizard does it to escape a Poison Cackler who’s been pursuing him. Oh great, not only are they deadly monsters, but they have vendettas.
The first time you see it is from this view. It’s crawling through the caverns, holding up the flyer making some kind of noise that sounds like shub-niggurath is really enjoying a donut. It sounds like he’s gonna orgasm if he gets his hands on the wizard. What did this guy do to him? It doesn’t help that the Poison Cackler’s theme is this ethereal heavy metal guitar riff straight from Ozzy Osbourne’s nightmare band.
Wembley gets a fake beard glued to him that he can’t get off, so when he realizes the wizard flim-flammed him in the interest of self-preservation, the crux of the episode becomes being trapped in an identity that’s not your own and no one will believe you. Oh, and also escaping the relentless unkillable thing-that-should-not-be (a la Friday the 13th).
The cackler corners the two of them. Oh great, add being trapped to that list of childhood fears. But it turns out the cackler is attracted to the wizard’s smoke pellets. They bait the monster and lead it to fall down a pit. Oh double great, falling and being trapped in a pit and never being able to get out. Let’s just keep adding on the trauma.
Here’s a thing that doesn’t help–when your Mom signs you up for a Fraggle Rock “book of the month” club and one of them is “Gobo Fraggle and the Poison Cackler” with one of the scariest pictures young me remembers seeing.
I can’t find the image, but it was essentially a gigantic mouth. Like it seems to go on further than it possibly should, like a pocket dimension. Forget the fact it’s Red Fraggle holding something up, and you can see her fingers. Forget that it looks nothing like it looked in the show.
Update: I found an image!
The plot doesn’t help either, even though it’s all a farce. To get Gobo out of the rock so they can plan for his birthday party, they send him on a quest to kill the Poison Cackler looking for him (it’s like imprinting, but for death). I think it even includes the line “you know what they say about Poison Cacklers–they never forgive and they never forget”. It’s like the pre-pubescent version of “It Follows”.
When I die, it’s going to be the Poison Cackler standing there, not the grim reaper. It’s the most base personification of death that roots down to my soul.