When you think of Jim Henson, your first inclination probably isn’t something that can eat you alive or drag you into the underworld, but strange and often deranged creatures lurk behind the rainbows of the Hensonverse.
Most Muppets are admittedly creepy. Wild eyes, weird voices, spastic tempers (rock on, Animal), and way too many extra appendages have made them the stuff of nightmares for generations of kids who tuned into Sesame Street or The Muppet Show or any of the Muppet movies and TV specials that have crawled out of the imaginations of the Jim Henson Company and magical collaborators such as Brian Froud (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth) and Neil Gaiman (Mirrormask). If you’ve ever woken up screaming after a dream in which you were stalked by a Muppet—or a horde of them—you’re probably not alone. Furry monsters that live in trash cans or raid all your cookies can do that.
Not all Henson characters that can haunt you take Muppet form, though in the era before advanced CGI, it would have been physically impossible to bring creatures that unscrew their heads to life any other way. Some of the most menacing figures are actually humans or humanoids who have the power to transform teen girls into brainwashed princesses or turn troublesome baby brothers into goblins.
Enter the labyrinth for a journey through 15 fantastical creatures, from the questionable to the downright nefarious, that the Jim Henson Company has dreamed up.
The Worm (Labyrinth)
No, I said ‘ello, and you would probably never imagine that eerily human voice belonged to a fuzzy striped worm-thing in a scarf that wants you to somehow crawl into its wormhole and meet the missus. However small he is, if you really think about it, you have to admit those bulging eyes and troll-like tufts of hair are freaky. You also shouldn’t trust this guy by default because he lives in the Labyrinth, and nothing that lives in the Labyrinth is what it seems (or says what it means). Otherwise Sarah would have gone straight toward that castle.
Madam Heap (Fraggle Rock)
Tell me you wouldn’t jump at a talking trash heap in your backyard and I’ll call you a special kind of brave. Madam Heap’s trash talk is so revered she actually has to be summoned for her to rise out of a pile of junk, open her gaping eye sockets, put her cat-eye frames (which never have lenses) to her face and dispense her questionable knowledge. Just the thought of what it must smell like to get Madam Heap’s wisdom is enough to give you nightmares and possibly anosmia. Just don’t listen to anything that wears dead roses and banana peels in its hair.
The Doorknockers (Labyrinth)
You would think these aren’t scarier than the gargoyles in your neighbors’ garden—until they start talking. Gargoyles, or in this case gargoyle heads, don’t talk unless they exist in the world of Jim Henson, in which case they don’t only talk but argue and in the process keep twisting their already grotesque faces into something even more grotesque. Tell me you wouldn’t drop that doorknocker and flee in sheer terror, even if getting through the right door meant rescuing your doomed little brother from Jareth’s talons before he morphed into a goblin forever.
Behemoth (Muppets Live)
Anyone that salts his own sidekick on live TV and then proceeds to swallow him in one gulp should be right up there on your “to run from” list. If that didn’t make you change the channel with that when your virgin eyes first saw him, he appropriately sings that he’s got his victim, who keeps trying to emerge from his behemoth maw at every opportunity, under his skin. Not that it should be any surprise that the enormous furry menace otherwise known as Behemoth got away with this on Muppets Live when who else but Vincent Price was the guest star.
The Junk Lady (Labyrinth)
After being abducted by the Goblin King (even if it was in a dream), the last thing you’d want to open your eyes to would be a toad-faced goblin who was hunched over under the weight of chairs, vases, abandoned teddy bears, and all other sorts of junk. As if those bulging eyes aren’t enough to convince you that you’ve fallen from the goblin ball into a whole other nightmare, she takes you to the altverse version of your room where she starts shoving random stuffed animals into your hands so you can get a head start on turning into her. Creepy.
He looks like a leather handbag, he hoards shiny things like a leather handbag, and like most handbags, he’s always hiding something. Forget the unlikely hero Hoggle turns out to be for just a moment and remember when you first saw him. This gruff-talking, fairy-swatting troll who often gets caught with his pants down literally and otherwise is not exactly the creature you’d want guiding you through a labyrinth full of dangers untold and hardships unknown—especially when he lands you in an oubliette or hands you a goblin-enchanted peach.
Aughra (The Dark Crystal)
Because it’s bad enough trying to find an astronomer who could help you save the world when you have no idea what she looks like only to encounter said astronomer’s eyeball. The raspy Frank Oz voice associated with the eyeball will also echo in the back of your skull for weeks. As if that isn’t scary enough, she looks like a talking shrunken head, if there was such a spell to bring shrunken heads back to their normal size and make them speak. Don’t tell me you still don’t cringe when she dislodges her living eyeball from its socket to get a closer look at things.
The Fieries (Labyrinth)
Something just threw its head at you. Wait, something else threw its head at you. Now everyone is throwing their heads around or playing soccer with them while singing about having no problems so long as you chilly down with the Fire Gang. Never mind that these things look terrifying enough with their heads on. Think bat ears, sharp teeth, fur that could pass for flames and huge eyeballs that can roll all the way back in their sockets. They also don’t care what species you are because they’ll try to take off your head whether or not it’s detachable.
David Bowie is a beautiful, majestic creature—until he materializes as the king of the goblins who wants your baby brother for his next minion because of some things you muttered when your parents forced you to babysit. Killer eyeshadow and contouring aside, Jareth shows a sadistic pleasure in his impatience for the clock to strike twelve so he can finally turn Toby into a goblin babe. No one without at least some sociopathic tendencies will dance the magic dance as the second hand ticks. He really shows no remorse for anything until his castle crumbles.
The Devils (The Storyteller)
Jim Henson has dreamed up many, many horned things, but none near as sinister as the red demons that crawl around in the episode The Soldier and Death. Just when you think you’ve gotten rid of them all, there’s another one that creeps out the moment you turn your back. They do everything that impish creatures in folklore are expected to do, such as steal babies and give innocent victims the plague—but all the devils in hell can’t do anything if you can trick them into jumping into a sack, especially when it’s the same sack that can contain Death itself.
The UrSkek (The Dark Crystal)
What are these things? Talking trees that glow? Alien ghosts from some forsaken planet? They definitely aren’t from Thra. If their spectral appearance doesn’t freak you out, what they spawned will. When a band of rebel UrSkeks were banished from their home planet, they ended up breaking the Dark Crystal in some kind of bizarre purification ritual. They broke with it. The species that emerged were living manifestations of the good and evil within: the Mystics, which are essentially harmless shriveled dinosaurs, and—you guessed it—the Skeksis.
The Skeksis (The Dark Crystal)
They look like reptilian vultures, they talk like they have chronic bronchitis, and they suck the vital essence out of their victims so they can live forever. Is there anything not downright horrible about the Skeksis? I’d call draining the life out of innocent Podlings pretty unforgivably evil, not to mention using the all-powerful Dark Crystal as your own personal energy IV that channels almost all the existing sunlight into the world into your wretched old veins. Who cares about the fate of an already broken world so long as you can achieve immortality?
Miss Ernst, Grand High Witch (The Witches)
Witches in folkore often hate children. Sometimes they eat them raw, sometimes they prefer to roast them, and sometimes they are just so repulsed by them they’d rather use a magic potion to turn them into mice which they can then squash with their square-toed boots. You might think Morticia (my ultimate fashion idol next to Elvira as a kid) when Angelica Huston appears as the grand dame of sorcery until she peels off her human mask to reveal the most revolting hag face ever. Bonus: she makes an even more hideous rodent when the spell reverses.
Dominar Rygel XVI (Farscape)
What the frell? This grotesque Hynerian life-form (who emerged, like all the aliens in the series, from the Jim Henson Creature Shop) that zooms around on a floating chair will fire alien mucus in your face if you offend him. His greed when it comes to anything either shiny or edible also knows no limits. Don’t trust him around your jewelry or your Halloween candy, because they will vanish and you will never find out where they went unless you trash his room. You will also never get over those bizarre earbrows that twitch endlessly depending on how much Crichton is provoking him.
The Queen of Shadows (Mirrormask)
Never mind that every scene in Mirrormask looks like the cover of a Dream Theater album. The doppelganger of Helena’s mother in this fantastical and often horrifying dreamscape is made of nightmares right down to her fathomless black eyes. She uses a steampunk eyeball spider to spy on her daughter, who she believes is a princess bound to rule the dark kingdom, and will then pull an Aughra and stick that eight-legged directly in her eye socket to see what it saw. Don’t make this queen angry, because she’ll do much worse things than take off your head.
happens when you expose a lab rat to an advanced experiment that grossly inflates its ego to the point it makes even Rygel look humble. It will steal human DNA from the lab that spawned it and then bio-augment itself with even more DNA from a whole menagerie of alien species until it turns itself into something vaguely humanoid that really looks more like a rodent-lizard hybrid with its brains bulging out. Just in case that doesn’t keep you up at night, the creature that now calls itself NamTar is a mad scientist who messes with DNA by both extracting and injecting.
Death (The Storyteller)
Yes, Jim Henson actually created a physical embodiment of Death, and it appears as an alien fetus that will attach itself to your dreams and feed off your fears. This Grim Reaper doesn’t come knocking at your door with a scythe, either, but materializes in a glass when you hold it it up to a person who is supposedly dying. See its face at their feet? They only have one foot in the grave. Face at their head? Not a chance. If the reflection of Death chills your blood, just wait until you see it flying through the shadows like a deranged Halloween decoration.