There is something impossibly alluring about the promise of a film that brings together Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks, Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, reimagines some of their faces as the Mystery Inc gang, and invites them to a private island that is also an island resort and also an island resort slash faux-Voodoo theme park hotel. The idea of the theme park might evoke the image of an amusement ride which is on a track and goes straight ahead, blowing past painted halls and automatons which shriek Look Out! through voice boxes, and ends in a satisfying crescendo through turbulence and water splashing. This is a fitting analogy for the conventional narrative act, as well as the experience of watching a film, but Scooby-Doo (2002) is too messy to be truly analogous to the efficiency of a theme park ride, and the gang do not indulge in the rides’ thrills, but instead work ‘behind the scenes’ to expose what is fake-real and what is real-real. The film is less about fun than it is about geographies and human behaviour in and around spaces dedicated to fun, the question of how to behave sincerely, and the search for truth within a simulated reality.
Outside of Scooby-Doo directly, it is unclear whether the average theme park visitor believes in what they are seeing, or whether they enjoy seeing what is blatantly artificial. Eco believes that theme parks offer a perfectly safe vision of the natural world which people find comforting, while Baudrillard argues that people find their very artificiality comforting as it makes the world outside of the theme park seem comparatively real. The fact that the gang are not on the island to partake in the thrills and luxuries it has to offer, and are in fact there to expose its mysteries, marks them as outsiders with the ability to view things from a critical distance. They will board the rides to begin the investigation, but only so that they can better see the mechanics of the illusion. We as viewers enjoy witnessing the process of the gang tearing down the curtains, because then we are able to see something that we believe is real. We the viewer, and the gang, fall into the Baudrillardian trap. The formula of Scooby-Doo the cartoon is the repetitive unmasking of illusions because the cartoon believes that we can uncover the truth behind simulation and performance. The film is more sceptical. Lillard is perfect as Shaggy, and it is also good to remember his turn in Scream where his character cannot tell if he’s been stabbed, or is pretending to have been stabbed, and whether or not he is dying, because that is precisely the vibe of this film.
Scooby-Doo revels in layers and layers of artificiality. The faux Voodoo designs of Spooky Island are a horrific extension of the mid-century retro-gazing Hawaiian shirts and tiki culture that made their way into popular culture in the mid to late 1990s. The film problematises the ironic-affectionate nods to last century’s appropriation. Tiki culture emerged in the post-war period with the rise of leisure travel, where a growing tourist class could bend the Orientalist project to exploit the Pacific. 19th century Orientalist artists used colours, fabrics, and sexuality to lure the viewer into a hallucination of the Other world’s slavery, hudud, and tyranny. The Oriental world became alluring and dangerous, and the viewer’s own very real world of slavery, capital punishment, and tyranny felt for a moment positively far away. The difference here is that while Orientalism was built on western imperialism’s fear and curiosity of eastern imperialism, tiki culture makes the Other submissive- this is your hut for the weekend, this is your cocktail. For all that the songs of Martin Denny might appeal for their kitsch value, debates in the 21st century still take place over whether or not cultural appropriation is harmful to the cultures being mocked and stolen from. The discomfort stirred by the film is just as pressing now as it was in 2002.
The most distressing thing about Scooby-Doo is that the indigenous people have all disappeared.
Where have they gone?
The fact that Spooky Island is a private island and not just a resort slash theme park is important, as it locates this unreality within a non-space. On the way to Spooky Island people forfeit their standard (i.e. ‘real’) modes of behaviour in order to adhere to non or alternative hegemonic modes of behaviour on arrival. The trivialities and pressures of the ‘everyday’ go away, and so to does the individual’s everyday self who is taught to overcome or endure said trivialities. The self and her behaviour are no longer regulated by a community or society that she sees herself as a part of, or responsible to. The private island is a zone outside of existing hegemonies, and outside of traditional modes of accountability. Whatever might seem utopian about this promise is undermined by the fact that the private island exists to benefit and sustain itself, and as such we must consider what we are leaving behind on arrival, and who this works for. We think of a private company. Who runs the company and for what, is for the gang to uncover. Without the shackles of responsibility, we expect to see pure humanity on this island, just the same as we see pure capitalism when companies escape regulation. Family, community, and friendship are all cast as the negatives of the old world, our old selves, and on Spooky Island we are reborn as Free Individuals. Spooky Island is a neoliberal utopia, and Scooby-Doo reminds us that pursuing ego over community (‘freedom’ over accountability) results in more insidious, usually internalised forms of oppression, as well as destructive behaviours abroad.
We see pre-revolution Cuba’s “bordello for Americans” reappearing in centres such as Barcelona and Venice. The Arran movement is notably protesting by cutting bus tyres and holding placards in front of beach views, while Barcelona and Venetian City Councils have introduced bans and restrictions on ‘sharing economy’ businesses such as Uber and Airbnb. As with Spooky Island, there was likely a pseudo utopian angle to this (is)land of ‘freedom’, but now the cultural, economic, and infrastructural cost has become too great. Commentators have been frighteningly quick to resort to abusive colonial pathologies such as You’re trying to get rid of us, but you need us! on seeing these places attempt to have more say in how things play out. The question before was who or what Spooky Island’s neoliberal paradise works for, and the answer when looking at Uber, Airbnb, and the travel industry, is capital itself. Of course the impact of the invisible is always devastatingly physical. Uber drivers exploit themselves and force others into a race to the bottom, Uber the company dodges tax, and Airbnb pushes renters out of their own cities. Barcelona and Venice want to ensure that unlike Spooky Island, their citizens do not disappear.
There is nothing intrinsically imaginative, exotic, or escapist about any geographical space- all of this all comes through human mythologisation and projection, and then physical performance according to these imaginary values. An early scene in Scooby-Doo has one group of tourists arriving at the island, and another group leaving it. The leavers arrange themselves in an orderly line having been conditioned to do so, and display mechanical and aggressive characteristics to best suit ‘the real world’ to which they are returning. At first it seems that the arrivers are behaving naturally and that these mechanical leavers have been brainwashed, but the film calls into question the naturalism of both groups. Later the gang find a room used for brainwashing demons into behaving like those of the arrivers’ camp. All behaviour is coded- nobody ever really arrives at or leaves the theme park. The resort is the beacon of compulsory fun and compulsory relaxation, and vacationers become tyrannical infants as they abuse resort workers, demand food that they cannot provide for themselves, and bask in the extravagances that come with forgoing agency for the promise of luxury. The vacationers dance to Sugar Ray and stuff their faces at buffets, and literally forfeit their souls to an invisible demonic power. The promise of indulgence and freedom becomes the bait to turn these people into slaves who in their own eyes are masters. We remember what dictates the rules of, and owns this island without regulation, and without culpability. People are not supposed to behave like baby tyrants, and people do not want to recklessly exploit whatever and whoever they come across either. We want to know each other empathetically, and we want to encounter things with the purest intentions, but something is always mediating these exchanges. The promise of freedom for the individual was always a trap; capitalism benefits from individualism as we become weaker, more suspicious, and crueller on our own.
Scooby-Doo dramatises attempts at searching for the truth, the real, and the sincere within the theme park of late capitalism. The film is built on layers of artificiality, because finding these things is a difficult, if not impossible task. The gang get onto a ghost ride which leads to three different fates, each real- and not fake-dangerous. The point here is that there is no difference between simulation and reality. One of the main villains is a luchador, the man in the mask who performs theatrics for a crowd that loves the spectacle although they know the match is fixed. Rowan Atkinson acts good but is bad and is a machine controlled by Scrappy Doo who is actually devouring souls to become a for-real monster. The demons cannot be unmasked, because they are actually real-real, except for when they act like humans through observing coded human behaviours. Daphne bumps into a man practicing Voodoo in one of the island’s faux Voodoo huts and calls him out for using a supermarket chicken instead of a live one. It is unclear whether any of his rituals work, because rather than sticking around to find out she misinterprets his straightforward advice (Don’t go there) as a complicated web of deceit. Velma is that Baudrillardian park-goer that peers behind the curtain to find the truth- she is convinced that solid detective work will expose the ‘real’ sitting behind the ‘fake’. Fred is a meathead who fits into the knight/damsel dichotomy with Daphne until Daphne decides that she does not need to be rescued any more, dissolving his use. Daphne’s rejection of what is expected of her makes her one of the film’s heroes. Shaggy and Scooby unlike their colleagues believe in the illusions of the theme park and have no fixed method for unpacking its surfaces. What this means is that they must perpetually act in the present, taking simulation and reality as one and the same thing. What allows them to endure is their inability to tell the difference, as well as their belief in friendship and family. The private island asks them to remove their masks, to remove the shackles of ‘the real world’, and to become Individuals, to which Shaggy responds “It’s just, materialism’s not really our bag, man.”
Films tend to be sceptical about the possibility of ever escaping the cultural theme park. Danny Boyle’s The Beach satirises the hubristic ‘authentic traveler’ who looks for non-tourist spectacle through familiar colonial frameworks, and the ‘cultural tourist’ appears in Peele’s Get Out, boasting in full sincerity that he likes to ‘collect culture’. The ending of Snatched points to a potential kind of empathy, but this feels like a way of apologising for the violence and destruction within film that came before it. The party tourist arrives on Spooky Island for a sick weekend of Sugar Ray and all-you-can-eat buffets. Change the wallpaper from Spooky Island to Thailand and they’d hardly notice; it’s just decoration on an amusement ride any way.
Scooby-Doo does not offer a straightforward path out of this because it thinks that we are too entangled in the late capitalist theme park to just get up and walk away. Everywhere you look inside the film, is artificial. It puts forth a potential utopia but reminds us that it has been built on one of history’s missing pages, and that we must eliminate the power structures that hide behind the promise of freedom. And that is the thing- it sounds cynical, but it believes very much that we can improve things for ourselves and others. It is a strange nightmare film that calls for the decolonisation of space, a rejection of cultural commodification and appropriation, and an emphasis on personal and economic accountability in the service of community.