The Scooby-Doo Project is an award-winning Halloween special that spoofs 1999’s biggest horror hit – we investigate Mystery Inc’s weirdest case.
“Shaggy? What are you doing in the corner?”
From 1969’s original CBS cartoon series to the new CG-animated Hanna Barbera feature, Scoob!, the format of Scooby-Doo has always been straightforward enough. Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, Fred, and Daphne travel around in the Mystery Machine, meddling in spooky crimes that mean old men otherwise would have got away with.
There have been many iterations of that format over the years, but for our money, the strangest of all of them is The Scooby-Doo Project, a Halloween special that spoofs The Blair Witch Project. Written and directed by Chris Kelly, Larry Morris, and Steve Patrick, the short sees the animated Scooby and friends getting lost in live-action woods, shot on mini-DV in the same style as Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez had used for their smash-hit found-footage horror.
Originally produced for a seasonal marathon of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! on Cartoon Network, the 17-minute short has earned a cult reputation with viewers who caught it the first time around, when it was divided into short sketches shown during commercial breaks throughout the night. At the end of the marathon, it was broadcast in full, with an extra-scary extended ending.
In this form, it was submitted to the Annie Awards the following year and went on to win the award for Outstanding Animated Special Project. However, by its nature as a special from the CN On-Air Promotions team, it was never repeated on the network and never found its way onto any of the myriad Scooby-Doo home video releases.
Looking back, it’s fascinating to see how the short was one of several Scooby-Doo projects at the time (including Raja Gosnell’s live-action film) that was intended for a slightly older demographic than usual, and how its creators took the opportunity to send up both a pop-cultural moment and the Scooby Gang themselves…
In the late 1990s, following the Time Warner and Turner Entertainment merger that brought a lot of animated properties under one roof for the first time, reruns of Scooby-Doo cartoons were doing well enough on Cartoon Network and sister network Boomerang that Warners started producing a new direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movie every year.
As it was discovered that the repeats were mostly appealing to older demographics, which is partly why these DTV movies focus on slightly older versions of the Mystery Inc gang, breaking format by pitting them against legit supernatural threats rather than criminals pretending to be ghosts and monsters. Similarly, the 2002 movie that was borne out of this renewed popularity was originally conceived as a knowing but affectionate parody in the vein of The Brady Bunch Movie and its sequel, rather than a family-friendly reboot.
Perhaps in that spirit, animators Kelly, Morris, and Patrick pitched a spoof of The Blair Witch Project to Cartoon Network’s higher-ups. The micro-budgeted indie horror had been a huge sleeper hit in the summer of 1999, buoyed to box-office glory by one of the most successful early online marketing campaigns effectively building hype for the “real events” it depicted.
Based at Turner Studios in Atlanta, the animators pitched the special with a proof-of-concept clip that showed an animated Daphne running away from an animated monster, inserted into live-action camcorder footage of a wooded area. In addition to saving money, this simple approach lent a creepy contrast that felt more in keeping with the film than with the animated series.
The network approved the pitch, on the condition that any original animation produced for the promos would be reusable elsewhere. Sure enough, the Scooby and Fred footage created for this would get a lot of airplay in later promos. Furthermore, voice actors Scott Innes, Frank Welker, Mary Kay Bergman, and B.J. Ward recorded their dialogue over the phone from Los Angeles, in between sessions on that year’s DTV movie Scooby-Doo On Zombie Island.
Meanwhile, the live-action footage saw Kelly, Morris, and Patrick travel to their parents’ houses and the wooded areas nearby to record mini-DV footage of backgrounds and mockumentary interviews themselves. While Myrick and Sánchez hardly had a Hollywood budget at their disposal, this short was produced on a network promo budget, which makes the effectively spooky aesthetic of the end result all the more impressive.
Aside from the production value, all credit must go to Kelly, Morris, and Patrick for their writing. First and foremost, the whole thing had to work as short sketches, but their script cleverly strings these episodes together alongside the plot of The Blair Witch Project, making a short that takes as many affectionate shots at the characters as it does at the nightmare in which they find themselves.
While many Blair Witch parodies came to air on US TV in the fall 1999 season, this one is anything but superficial. The scene in which Heather Donahue tearfully records an apology to camera is as iconic from the endless parodies as it is from its appearance on the poster, but here, the writers roll their sleeves up and properly get stuck into the movie’s structure.
Most enjoyably, the special re-jigs the scenes where the young documentarians argue with one another to lampoon Scooby-Doo’s most enduring tropes and have Mystery Inc snark at each other about them, whether it’s Scooby’s gluttony or Velma always losing her glasses at inconvenient moments. The gang’s version of arguing after losing their map is especially funny.
Though many of the Blair Witch-centric gags would have gone over younger viewers’ heads anyway, this sends up Scooby-Doo quite spectacularly as the gang get very lost in a very unlucky situation. There are in-jokes galore, but the way these build up over the full special’s running time keeps the absurdity going at all times.
The special’s sense of humour neatly prefigures Adult Swim, the late-night adult-oriented programming block introduced to Cartoon Network in 2001, but goes for knowing parody rather than surrealism or shock humour. That is, until the ending, which plays much closer to the end of the movie than the end of a Scooby-Doo adventure…
You know, for kids!
Part of the intrigue surrounding The Scooby-Doo Project involves the likely apocryphal story that it was deemed too scary for kids and buried by the network after its first broadcast. The more banal truth is that this is the kind of specially produced thing that doesn’t tend to get any special treatment, even if it seems to have “DVD Easter egg” written all over it.
By the time 2002’s Scooby-Doo hit cinemas, the property had enjoyed a resurgence of popularity with younger viewers, which led to a change in approach behind the scenes on that film too. It’s already known that this new comedic take was intended for a PG-13 audience, but as writer James Gunn revealed in 2017, the first cut would have scored an R rating from the MPAA.
While it’s unlikely that The Scooby-Doo Project is considered “too scary” for an official release, the shift back towards a younger demographic makes further curios like this less likely to get made, outside of sketches on Robot Chicken and other Adult Swim shows. We’ve yet to see Scoob! in the UK, but following its premium VOD release in the US this month, reviews have indicated that Warners’ latest animated feature is keeping the in-jokes family friendly.
If your interest is piqued, the full version of The Scooby-Doo Project is very findable on YouTube. Given its origins, it’s fascinating to see how much creativity went into this labour of love. Where The Blair Witch Project went on to be the most profitable horror film ever made at the time and generated one of the last big pop-culture moments of the 1990s, the largely overlooked Scooby-Doo version stands out amongst the countless parodies that followed.
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