My first real-life experience with death took place when I was about five years old. Apparently, while I was at kindergarten, one of my two hamsters decided he no longer liked his roommate, and proceeded to do his best Hannibal Lecter impression on him. My mother walked in and saw the surviving rodent elbows deep in his counterpart’s entrails. As my home had a strict “No Cannibalism” policy, she felt it was necessary to dispose of the offending creature before he busted out a nice Chianti. Her method of execution was to take the hamster, put it in a mason jar, and heave it as far as she could into the woods (sorry PETA, but this took place 30 years ago, so the statute of limitations is long past). As I walked off the bus, my sister, absolutely delighted with the thought of delivering me disastrous news, ran down to tell me the tale of the untimely deaths of both of my beloved pets. I walked the rest of the way home from the bus crying my eyes out when to my surprise, I saw my hamster was walking up the street towards my house. It was a Christmas miracle in October, that is until my mom assured me that it was not my dead hamster, scooped him up, put him in another mason jar, SEALED it this time with a lid, poked holes in the lid so it wouldn’t die relatively painlessly by asphyxiation and could instead starve to death, and then launched him once more into the woods.
For most children, the concept of death doesn’t become truly real until a pet or grandparent meets the end of their time here on Earth. Until that time, the concept of death is largely influenced by the media children encounter. The ’80s were filled with memorable character deaths, particularly in science fiction and fantasy films. In an age where the VCR and cable TV brought infinite entertainment to American homes, film and television played a much larger role in the development of children. Here are ten character deaths that molded and twisted the perceptions of death for the children of the Baby Boomers. Some were tragic, some twisted, some hysterical, but all were influential.
10. Adric – Doctor Who “Earthshock”
It’s well known that the Doctor, aside from his third incarnation’s inclination to bust Venusian Aikido, has a tendency to abhor violence. While the Doctor is a pacifist at heart, that doesn’t stop episodes of Doctor Who from having particularly large body counts. Fifth Doctor stories were particularly deadly for extras and guest stars, with stories like “Resurrection of the Daleks” responsible for more dead than the first Terminator film. Of course companions (aside from short running characters like Katarina and Sara Kingdom) are exempt from horrific on screen deaths. Or are they?
If two’s company, and three’s a crowd, then having four in the TARDIS is like a bad frathouse kegger. It was time for someone to go, and that someone was Adric. Seeing as how a major plot point of his character was that he could never return to his home in E-space, the possible resolutions for his character were slightly limited. Add to that the fact that Matthew Waterhouse wanted to go out with a bang, and we approach the end of four-part Cybermen serial “Earthshock” with the math genius trapped on the bridge of a plummeting cargo ship, behind a set of obliterated controls. The nails of the entire collective of British children were being chewed to nubs as they awaited the TARDIS to materialize on the deck of the freighter in time to save the young companion. But that never happened, and as the show closed with no music and the credits rolling over the broken star pin, it was immediately apparent that the dynamics of Doctor Who had changed. It was the first time a major companion met his bitter end on the long running program; the sting made worse by the fact that the character was essentially still a child.
9. Toht – Raiders of the Lost Ark
The body count of Raiders of the Lost Ark was surprisingly high for a Spielberg PG adventure film. By the time the Ark is opened, there have been deaths by gunshot, poison arrow, spikes, propeller, stabbings and much more. Once the Ark is opened, all of those deaths seem like child’s play.
Readers of Topless Robot are almost guaranteed to be familiar with what is referred to as the Toht Fail, but kids of the ’80s have the image of the Nazi agent’s face melting forever burned into their minds. Sure, Belloq’s head explodes. Sure, Holy Lasers burn through Nazis. Neither of those begin to compare to the images of Toht’s skin melting, the blood pouring off his face, all to the soundtrack of his high pitched shriek. Hell, the dude’s hat even sinks down on his skull from the lack of tissue.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was the film that made me terrified of snakes. That being said, if forced to select my death from either a snake bite or looking into the Ark, I’m all over the snake.
8. Mrs. Deagle – Gremlins
The creative team behind Gremlins did everything they could to make wealthy widow Mrs. Ruby Deagle one of the most detestable characters in the film. Between evicting a poor family on Christmas and threatening the Peltzer family dog with a slow and painful death, audiences, including children, likely felt no mercy for her. Apparently, neither do the gremlins.
With her chair lift sabotaged, as she tries to escape the singing green monsters she is flung out her window, seat and all. She lands dead in front of the police car outside, to the sounds of laughter from the malevolent creatures, as well as the sounds of laughter coming from the children in the audience. It’s one of the most hysterical death scenes of a villain, and for children of the ’80s, it was likely the first time any of them laughed as someone met their bitter end.
7. Jabba The Hutt – Return of the Jedi
Right from the start you knew that Jabba the Hutt was pure evil. The gigantic space slug sat upon his dais, gazing at the small kingdom he had before him: Dancing Twi’leks, bounty hunters, smugglers and pirates, all at his beck and call. A simple flick of the switch would send someone into the digestive tract of a Rancor, and even heroine Princess Leia was humiliated at his hands (much to the happiness of so many pubescent nerd males). It was his death, though, that was one of the most gruesome and personal of the entire Star Wars saga.
At this point we’ve seen Princess Leia go from an entitled yet passionate princess to a leader of men. Her strength is apparent, and while she seems vulnerable tethered to the side of the despicable Hutt, when opportunity presents itself for escape she acts ruthlessly, springing up and using her chains of captivity to strangle the universe’s most sinister gangster. Jabba chokes helplessly, clutching at the chain, tail twitching, gasping for air before finally succumbing, releasing a final, sickening gurgle, tongue hanging from his mouth. Thus far in the Star Wars trilogy we’ve seen death by blaster, amputations and decapitations by lightsaber, and more than one poor creature gobbled up by a variety of monstrous creature. The death of Jabba is up close and personal, and easily is the most brutal of the entire saga. The fact that his execution is carried out by the dainty princess makes it all the more shocking.
6. Count Rugan, the Six-Fingered Man – The Princess Bride
Throughout the tale of The Princess Bride, we’ve heard the stories of a mysterious Six-Fingered Man and Inigo Montoya’s quest to avenge his father. For all of the wonderfully quotable lines of the film, the one everyone seems to remember is “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great line. I crack up every time I see my kids dueling with Nerf sword in the backyard, repeating the quote over and over.
When Montoya finally meets up with Count Rugan, the man who murdered his father, things look grim. His tenacity is obvious when, even with a dagger chucked into his gut, he gets up, disarms the Count, and has him begging for mercy. As Rugan offers him money, power, anything he could dream of, our hope as the audience is for bloody vengeance on the man who stole Montoya’s youth. When we get said vengeance it’s incredibly gratifying. This man who has trained all his life for revenge gets exactly what he wished for, with no saccharine sweet “live and let live” message tacked on the end like so many G.I. Joe PSAs. It’s the cold-blooded murder of a very bad man, a son of a bitch who couldn’t give him his father back. Now if I can just get my kids to STOP saying that part.
5. Optimus Prime – Transformers: The Movie
In ’80s science fiction, we viewers got rather familiar with the concept of robots living among us. We believed that in the future robots would become our trusted friends, our companions, our servants who would eventually rise up against us. In some cases, we could even believe that they could be our trusted protectors. When the evil Decepticons attempted to strip the planet of it’s natural resources for the manufacture of energon, it was Optimus Prime and his Autobots who defended humanity, and ultimately paid the price for said protection.
Transformers: The Movie is a stark departure from the original animated series. While many of the characters are the same, the tone is much darker and the body count is exponentially higher. While Starscream and Megatron meet their ends (sort of), the Autobots suffer heavy losses including Ironhide, Wheeljack, and Rachet. If that weren’t enough, the staff at Hasbro, inspired at what was to be the forthcoming death of Duke in the G.I. Joe movie (quickly changed to a recoverable coma after the backlash at the death of Prime), decided it was time for Optimus Prime to pay a visit to the great junkyard in the sky.
Finally succumbing to the wounds earned while putting Megatron to death, Optimus’ scene is grim, with Prime handing over the Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus before his eyes go dark and his cold metal skin turns gray. To make the scene even more dramatic, the sound of Daniel’s weeping is silent, likely so that parents could clearly hear the weeping of the children sitting next to them. The fallout was loud and boisterous. Plans to kill off Duke were quickly retconned with the poisonous snake that was chucked dead center into his heart Thulsa Doom-style only putting him in a coma.
At the end of the film, the Joes, who had been recently teary eyed over their leader’s gaping chest wound, get to celebrate not only the defeat of COBRA, but also that Duke was going to be “A OK!” Even Prime himself was eventually resurrected, and killed again, and resurrected, and killed again, and resurrected…
4. E.T. – E.T. the Extraterrestrial
Media, for the most part, has taught us that aliens want to either eat us, kill us, or probe us. Those prejudices are cast aside once we meet Spielberg’s E.T., an alien who only wants to study Earth botany, go home and eat Reese’s Pieces. Instead of invasion, we are presented with a heartwarming story about a boy and his alien and their adventures together. Things start to go weird when Elliott and the alien begin to experience a strange symbiosis, including shared intoxication thanks to E.T.’s imbuing of mass quantities of beer. So when E.T. starts to get ill, he quickly takes Elliott with him.
E.T. seemingly breaks the connection with Elliott and promptly dies, leading up to the Kleenex consuming scene above where the boy pours his heart out to the space creature on the rocks. Elliott plunges into existential nihilism and almost doesn’t notice zombie E.T.’s return from the grave. His resurrection is a good thing; parents would have spent the entire car ride and subsequent hours after the film consoling their children, and think of what that would have done to the merchandising! Had E.T.’s death been permanent, however, we might have been spared that horrendous Atari game.
3. Darth Vader – Return of the Jedi
We’ve spent the better part of two movies fearing and despising the commander of the Galactic Empire’s military, the Dark Lord of the Sith Darth Vader. Then he throws a wicked curve ball at us: he’s the father of our hero Luke Skywalker. Children around the world all said the same thing in one collective breath: “No, that’s not true. THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!!!” While they didn’t fling themselves down an air shaft, the gravity of the situation weighed heavily upon them. The much-loved hero was spawned by the much-hated villain.
Return of the Jedi further skewed perceptions, as now Skywalker embarks on his quest to redeem his father. Why, for the love of the Force, would Luke try to save the most hated creature in the galaxy? This was the douchebag that kicked Luke’s ass and cut off his hand, for the Force’s sake! Luke even delivers himself into the hands of the enemy in a misguided attempt to save his father.
As a five year-old child, I remember specifically thinking that Luke was a complete idiot as Vader ignited his lightsaber to defend his master. I cheered as Luke, now a Jedi, put a red-ass beat down on his more machine than man father. It was over, the bad guys had lost, good triumphed, and then the Emperor started to deep fat fry Luke with purple lightning. I remember sitting in the theater, watching between the fingers that covered my face, tears streaming down as Luke lay dying. Then the unthinkable happened: Vader rushed to his son’s aide, throwing Palpatine down a shaft like a shriveled, cloak wearing Angry Bird. The collective gasp of surprise from all of the children in the audience was likely heard over the soundtrack, and my chin needed to be scraped off the floor.
Before we knew it, the deflector shield was down, the Falcon was inches away from planting a pair of concussion missiles into the reactor of the Death Star, and Luke is unmasking his father, pleading with Vader to allow him to save him. The most feared man in the galaxy, the foe for entire trilogy, is reduced to an old, scarred man, struggling to express his love for the son he never knew in his last breaths. For us children of the ’80s who have gone on to become parents, it’s one of the most powerful moments in the Star Wars saga; one that we barely understood as children, but understand all too well as adults.
2. Roy Fokker – Robotech
As a child, I wished for nothing more than to have an older brother. Someone to protect me from the bullies and harsh realities of the world. While I could not have one in any sort of biological way, even an older friend would have sufficed, like the one Rick Hunter had in Skull Leader: Roy Fokker.
Roy was larger than life. An ace pilot, a leader, a womanizer, and handsomely good looking, he would privilege anyone to act as a role model in their lives. He took the brash, incredibly immature Hunter and groomed him for a lifetime of duty and responsibility. When Fokker’s Veritech took a hit from a missile, damaging his mecha and sending shrapnel through his body, he ignored it, completing the mission at hand, even passing on medical care as not to disappoint his girlfriend Claudia’s planned date night. Then the unthinkable happens: sitting on Claudia’s couch awaiting dinner, he slumps over, succumbing to his injuries. The screams of grief from Claudia are disturbing enough, but it’s when the news is delivered to Rick any ambiguity is removed in a single sentence from him: “My big brother is gone.”
I remember watching this as a child, no more than 8 or 9 years old, and weeping uncontrollably. The entire evening I was consumed with Roy’s death, and I distinctly remember rushing off the school bus the next day to see if by some miracle he recovered. Up to this point, there was very little in the way of linear storytelling in cartoons. Most were essentially stand alone episodes, with some even explaining the basic plot in the intro to easily welcome new viewers in. Robotech was an exception to that rule. While its separate generations made it somewhat easy to pick up during a generation transition, most people could not understand it in the slightest if they just happened to catch an episode by chance. This also meant that character death was a real and permanent thing, particularly unique in the saccharine sweet world of ’80s cartoons. Remember, this was the same ’80s where COBRA was the only organization to have worse weapon accuracy than Imperial Stormtroopers.
Robotech pushed multiple boundaries in the realm of children’s media. Not only was there perma-death, but aspects like interracial marriage and the rendering of Earth into a radioactive wasteland made more than one set of parents wary of the ambitious series. Perhaps that’s why the series is still so popular, as its willingness to push the envelope makes it still relevant today.
1. Artax – The Neverending Story
For my father and the rest of the Baby Boomers, the most tragic event in cinema was likely the gunshot inflicted death of the rabies-infected Old Yeller at the hands of his young owner. As tear inducing as Yeller’s death is, it barely holds a candle to the death of young Atreyu’s stalwart companion, the horse Artax.
In their quest to find a name for the Childlike Empress, Atreyu and Artax must venture through the Swamps of Sadness, where those who succumb to their own sadness will also succumb to the murky black mud of the swamp. It isn’t long before Artax’s sadness gets to him and he begins to sink, despite the efforts of his young master.
What’s particularly disturbing about this scene is that the horse, now suffering from depression from his trip through the swamps, essentially wills himself to die. As Atreyu pleads with him to think positive, to keep trying, and expresses his love for his steed, Artax continues to sink. It’s a shocking parallel to depression, and how despite the best efforts of people who love them, people suffering with depression may not get relief from the efforts of others. The events even threaten the life of Atreyu, as the sadness of his loss threatens to pull him under the muck himself, if not for the timely intervention of Falcor. Regardless of whether you think the scene is an allegory for depression or just an scene for emotional exploitation, it’s doubtful any child could escape that scene with dry eyes.
Previously by Jason Helton: