Day 5 of Halloween Horrors 2020 brings us our first animated feature in this year’s line-up, with many more to come! It also brings us our second debuting contributor in this this year’s roster, Dylan Ramsey.
Besides being the son of fellow HH series contributor Michael Ramsey (for which we should offer him our deepest condolences), Dylan hosts a weekly Dungeon & Dragons game on Saturday’s at 3pm EST, which livestreams at http://twitch.tv/scotty_h00d. You can find his past episodes on his Youtube channel (link).
For his series premiere, Dylan will be taking a look at a particularly unsettling episode of 2000’s cartoon/animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The episode, entitled “The Puppetmaster“, presents an eerie little tale befitting of the season. It also pays tribute to those ghost stories and campfire tales that we shared as kids on many Halloweens past, when being scared was just as much of a treat as all those bags of candy.
ORIGINAL AIRDATE: October 25th, 2007 (UK)/November 7th, 2007 (US)
Anyone who has watched Avatar: The Last Airbender will probably agree that one of, if not the creepiest episode of the entire series, is episode 8 of season 3: “The Puppetmaster”. The episode opens on our main characters telling ghost stories around a campfire in a stereotypical spooky forest.
As Katara (Mae Whitman) begins telling a story, her brother, Sokka (Jack De Sena), tries to blow it off as “one of those ‘a friend of my cousin knew some guy that this happened to’ stories”, but Katara sets him straight,
“No, it happened to mom.“
She launches into a classic that every kid who has spent time at summer camp or gone on a ghost walking tour has heard some variation of. The story is about a little girl who disappeared alongside her family after a blizzard buried their village for weeks. While the rest of the Southern Water Tribe went out looking for the missing family after finding their house abandoned, Katara and Sokka’s mother stayed behind. That’s when she heard a voice and turned to see the little girl, her skin cold and icy blue, talking about how she couldn’t get warm. When their mother ran to get help and came back, the little girl had vanished.
If having that as the opening to the episode wasn’t enough to send chills down your spine, another member of the team, Toph (Jessie Fowler), follows this up by saying that she hears people screaming under the mountain that they’ve camped out on. Thanks a lot, Toph! That’ll definitely help everyone sleep better tonight.
An old woman named Hama (Tress MacNeille) comes creeping out of the forest at just that moment, and invites our heroes to stay at her inn nearby, as people have been disappearing in the woods on nights when the moon is full. As Hama puts it, “people walk in and they don’t come out.” Not wanting to fall victim to what they believe “reeks of Spirit World shenanigans”, the team take her up on the offer.
It’s a great way to set up a tone and a mystery, and a fun way to play with the classic episode formula of Avatar: The Last Airbender, where our heroes arrive at a town with problems. And as the episode unfolds, that creeping dread continues to grow and a lot of fingers start to point at something being up with Hama, who has marionettes strung up in a cabinet (which, as a child of the ’90s familiar with the Goosebumps series, has always filled me with a certain amount of discomfort) and a mysterious locked box in her attic.
As it turns out however, Hama’s a member of the same tribe as Katara and Sokka, taken as a prisoner of war decades ago by the Fire Nation before escaping! In a way, she becomes a substitute grandmother for these kids who are far away from home, giving them a warm place to sleep, cooking them a traditional Water Tribe dinner, and taking Katara under her wing to teach her the art of waterbending.
Unfortunately, just as you start to think that the mystery surrounding Hama was a red herring, we learn that she created her own unique style of waterbending in order to escape prison: bloodbending.
That’s right. As it turns out, with the power of the full moon to assist her, Hama can literally control people’s bodies and has been using this ability to kidnap and imprison villagers underneath the nearby mountain – the source of the screaming Toph heard at the beginning of the episode. When Katara rejects the opportunity to learn this twisted technique, she gets into a fight with Hama, who proves to be more bloodthirsty and cruel than her grandmotherly demeanor first lets on, even using Katara’s friends as weapons against her. In the end, Katara stops Hama from killing her friends by bloodbending the old woman, who simply cackles, as she has passed her technique on to a new generation. The episode ends with Katara sobbing, horrified at what she’s done.
Usually, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, episodic problems are related to the Fire Nation villainy, trouble stirring between humans and the Spirit World, or other nonsense that Team Avatar get themselves into. But here, the threat isn’t the Fire Nation, nor is it any angry spirit; heck, the titular Avatar, Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), barely does anything in this episode! No, the threat in “The Puppetmaster” is an old woman who is closely tied to our heroes, their home, and their past. The threat is one of someone or something else controlling your body and of you being completely unable to fight back against it.
Children’s toys, grandmothers, our own bodies–that’s always been a wellspring of horror content: things that we feel like we can implicitly trust betraying us. That kind of horror stabs at places that we as human beings feel the most vulnerable, drawing on fears ingrained since childhood. Fear that things aren’t the way that we think they are. From The Exorcist to Child’s Play to the story of “Hansel and Gretel”, it’s a drum that storytellers have been beating on for centuries, and it’s easy to see why.
But even more than that, like any truly great horror story, “The Puppetmaster” raises questions about us and asks the viewer to reflect on themselves as much as it does the characters. How far are you willing to go and what are you willing to do when you are truly desperate? When someone has done something horrible to you in the past, is revenge justifiable? How about kidnapping and imprisoning innocent people who have nothing to do with those who did horrible things to you in the past, besides sharing a country of origin? Is there ever a justifiable reason to take control of someone else’s body without their consent and to make them do things against their will? Under the right circumstances, would you become the proverbial puppetmaster?
I’ll leave you to answer those questions for yourself, readers. Happy Halloween.