The ‘80s and early ‘90s may have been the magic zone for Saturday morning cartoons (and those on TV every other day of the week). Maybe I’m just biased because that was when I grew up getting hyper off sugary cereal in front of the tube, but what kid wouldn’t be both horrified and mesmerized by a flying pumpkin or a one-horned, lightning-shooting villain on a flying horse?
Through the eyes of a kid running on a sugar overdose, the lead villains were not always the scariest. Shredder might have been the Turtles’ nemesis, but was a guy in admittedly badass bladed armor going to give you more nightmares than a tentacled brain that wanted to take over the universe? I thought so. Even the unexpected shows—the ones that were deceptively covered in candy sprinkles—were plagued by some of the most nefarious masterminds ever to cast a shadow over places that were supposed to be glittering with eternal sunlight.
Time-warp yourself into that Saturday morning in 1980-whatever and let these animated evildoers send lightning strikes of terror into your dreams all over again.
Tirek (My Little Pony)
Not everything in My Little Pony was unicorns and rainbows (or the Rainbow of Light). Tirek was the shadow over Dream Valley. The imposing centaur rode a Chariot of Darkness pulled by evil dragons and tried to release the Rainbow of Darkness so he could drown out all those sugary pastels and bring on the Night that Never Ends. That sinister laugh of his probably echoed through your plastic Dream Castle at night. How cruel do you have to be to lock a couple of innocent candy-colored little ponies in a dungeon? He even used some sort of corrupted magic to morph the gargoyle Scorpan into his beastly sidekick. Disturbing intentions aside, that’s actually pretty metal.
This is one mummy that won’t stay dead. It’s hard to decide which form is more terrifying: the desiccated thing in wrappings, or the zombie pharaoh he turns into after infusion of power from the Ancient Spirits, which comes with the bonus of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique. Corpses that emerge from the underworld after a thousand-year death are enough to shake even the most haunted house to its foundations, never mind reanimated bodies that can clash swords and call down electric pink lightning. At least he always gets sent back to his sarcophagus, and that psychedelic nightmare he had in one episode served him right after giving legions of kids so many.
Gozer (The Real Ghostbusters)
Gozer the Gozerian aka Volguus Zildrohar aka Lord of the Sebouilla is the archnemesis of the Ghostbusters which (even though we never actually see it in the animated series) is so malevolent that its influence doesn’t stop after being busted. The Gozerian’s psychokinetic energy oozes onto the uniforms of the unsuspecting Ghostbusters, which then manifest into the Spectral Ghostbusters. If seeing a disembodied spirit version of yourself isn’t scary, I don’t know what is. You’re also not safe from this thing in any universe or altverse. Gozer not only crushes entire civilizations with ancient supercharged magic, but can travel through time and space and do it in any dimension.
Skeletor (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe)
Just in case things with horns and fangs and dagger claws and unfathomably evil powers couldn’t scare ‘80s kids enough, a surefire way to do that was an animated manifestation of he Grim Reaper—on steroids. Don’t forget the magic staff that can do everything from turning a spell on its caster to conjuring visions of doom that reached far past Eternia to terrorize you from your TV screen. Even his throne is made of bones, and whether these are human bones is debatable. How could your nightmares not be invaded by a sword-slashing demon with a green skull face and glowing red eyes who was also ripped enough to take on He-Man?
Hordak (She-Ra, Princess of Power)
If you think no one can get more bone-chilling than Skeletor, this is the guy who mentored him. Hordak looks like an alien gargoyle and talks like you’d imagine one to. He’s already got Etheria swarming with the Evil Horde and is just dying to see Eternia suffer the same fate. If you think you can defeat him in battle, you probably can’t, because he’s some kind of cyborg who can use a twisted fusion of science and magic to insta-morph any of his limbs into anything from a blade to a rocket to a flamethrower. He designs his army of robots to be just as lethal. This schadenfreude junkie just loves basking in the misery of others—even his minions can’t escape being victims.
Venger (Dungeons & Dragons)
“Now I’m under attack by some guy in a dress riding a flying horse?” You’d probably rather see the Headless Horseman galloping in on his black steed before the Dungeon Master’s traitor son on his Nightmare. That corpselike complexion, vampire fangs and Darth Vader voice don’t help, either. Neither does the one horn on the side of his head or that his cloak which can turn into bat wings whenever he feels like it. He can materialize out of a massive explosion, send blasts of plasma radiation from his palms and throw green fireballs with the powers given to him by the Nameless One—who didn’t need to be named to make you shudder.
Samhain (The Real Ghostbusters)
Eternal night is something more than one villain threatened throughout the magic era of Saturday Morning cartoons, but no evil entity is more convincing about it than Samhain. Besides being a walking, talking pumpkinhead with sharp teeth and a voice that sounds like a broken radio with the volume cranked up, he can summon a midnight army of ghosts and has the power to make Halloween last forever (which for me would actually be pure unmitigated awesomeness). It’s just that nobody really wants an entire city swarming with actual ghosts and goblins while they run around in costume. This is why you do not bring questionable ancient clocks to a New York museum.
No Heart (Care Bears)
This evil wizard already has no face except for those enormous green brows and burning red eyes that peer out from the chasm of darkness under his hood, but if that didn’t keep you up at night, imagine someone who wants to obliterate feelings. Love and compassion nauseate him. Whether he wants the world to be an emotionless void because of that or just because he is that sadistic is debatable. Feelings suddenly don’t sound too smarmy when he shape-shifts into a bat, grabs you and flaps away, swearing to show you what fear (which, ironically, is also a feeling) really is. Remember the episode in which he threatened to eat Gentle Heart Lamb? You probably never had lamb chops again.
The Witch Haggar (Voltron)
Magic can be dangerous. So can science, as anyone who’s ever read Frankenstein would know. Throw them both in a test tube and what bubbles up is a sadistic sorceress whose abominable experiments spawn hybrid RoBeasts and unspeakable weapons. You really wouldn’t want to be caught in her lab, because you might wake up merged with something else’s DNA, finding your arm is now a cybernetic appendage (she even did that to herself) or pumped with enough quintessence to live way past your ten thousandth birthday (did that to herself too). Eternal life isn’t so desirable when it warps you into a completely unrecognizable maniac. She and Zarkon really deserve each other.
Krang (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
Shredder might have been the one with the armor that could rip you to a million pieces, but there is nothing more unsettling than a talking tentacled brain. It gets worse. He’s actually the headless brain of a deranged alien warlord from Dimension X, which is why it should come as no surprise that he wants to take over every other dimension. The Turtles are just a nuisance in the way of his ultimate scheme. Krang gets around in a giant android exo-suit, which is terrifying enough in itself before you ever realize where that creepy voice is coming from. This mastermind (being a brain and all) can also manipulate anyone, even Shredder.
Horde Prime (She-Ra)
It’s probably better that you never knew what Horde Prime really looked like while he was on the animated She-Ra, because that skeletal robotic arm that would reach out of the cloud of green smoke when his temper flared was more than enough to infiltrate your dreams. It was horrible enough that he infested the universe with his intergalactic horde and was the only entity who had the power to push Hordak around. That robo-claw certainly had no issues pointing its bony finger at him. He later appeared in the comics with a face that looked something like a mashup of a catfish and a praying mantis. Told you that you were better off not knowing back then.