One of the most hotly debated issues among the Scooby-Doo fandom is the use of fake monsters versus real monsters. Many people feel fake monsters should be exclusively used, to abide by the classic "person in a mask" formula that Scooby started out with. Others don't mind if real monsters are used in the franchise, and some even prefer the use of real monsters because of the dark tone it creates. In my 14 years in the online fandom, I definitely see and respect both sides of the argument, but in this article, I would like to provide another perspective of the fake vs. real monster debate.
I want to start out by providing a brief history of the use of real monsters in the franchise, as compared to the more traditional fake ones. The first real monster appeared in The New Scooby-Doo Movies episode "Mystery in Persia." The episode involved Scooby and the gang teaming up with two genies, Jeannie and Babu, who were trying to get rid of an evil djinn named Jadall. Besides random little cameos that may or may not have been real monsters (i.e. the creatures in the Addams Family house, random talking skeletons that showed up for a moment like in "Hang in There, Scooby-Doo, etc.), the monsters in the franchise remained exclusively fake for the first 10 years of the franchise, besides the one exception with Jadall. Beginning in 1980, when Fred, Velma and Daphne left the show, so did the fake monsters. When they weren't running away from angry doctors and irked carnival owners, the monsters Shaggy, Scooby and Scrappy faced were always real. This lasted until 1983 when Daphne returned to the series. The mystery-solving format returned to the show, although occasional episodes did have plots where the gang was dealing with real spooks. Examples of this include "Scoobygeist," in which Daphne and the guys stay the night in a haunted house, and "A Halloween Hassle at Dracula's Castle," where the gang attends a Halloween Party, which unbeknownst to them, was hosted by real monsters from Dracula's realm. Starting in 1985 with The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, the plot shifted completely to including only real monsters, as the gang had to help Vincent Van Ghoul recapture 13 of the most terrifying ghosts on Earth. The three Superstars 10 films succeeding the show also included real monsters, although Boo Brothers leaves it open to interpretation if some of the ghosts were real or not.
When the franchise went back to its roots in 1988 by getting rid of Scrappy and reintroducing the whole gang as regulars, the real monsters also went out the window as well. No real monsters were included in A Pup Named Scooby-Doo or What's New, Scooby-Doo? (with the exception of the Coral Creature in the latter, who only briefly appears). In between those two series, we did see real monsters in three of the first four DTV films which revived the franchise, which is an interesting phenomenon I will return to later. Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated presented a fascinating balance of real versus fake monsters, as the monster-of-the-week was always a person in a mask, but the overarching plot included supernatural entities. Be Cool and Guess Who included only fake monsters. The DTVs have been inconsistent when it comes to including real monsters, but the vast majority of them were fake.
If someone were to ask me to choose between real or fake monsters, I would honestly choose a third option: good writing. While this perhaps seems like a cop-out answer, I don't think real or fake monsters has to be a binary concept like many fans have made it. There are a number of factors that play into this.
At its core, Scooby-Doo is about mystery-solving. I think we are all in agreement that if they permanently removed the mystery aspect from the show, it would not feel as much like Scooby-Doo. Even as someone who moderately likes Get A Clue, that's a main reason why the show didn't work for so many people: they changed too much. Going off and fighting criminal masterminds and spies doesn't have that core element of the franchise that people loved. Even the two episodes that did have monsters fell a bit flat, because there was no mystery solving aspect. That being said, I think there are a number of examples of real monsters working because of that mystery-solving element still being present.
In Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, although all the monsters are real, the majority of the movie's plot is still focused on the gang trying to figure out if Simone and Lena's house is haunted. When Morgan Moonscar's ghost carves "get out" into the wall, the gang realizes through looking at the footage that the ghost only shows up on camera. This leads to further investigation throughout the movie, until the eventual realization at the end that the monsters are real when Simone and Lena reveal their true intentions. The same goes for Witch's Ghost: most of the film is dedicated to the gang investigating Oakhaven with Ben Ravencroft, until the huge twist happens at the end when we find out Sarah is a witch. Mystery-solving is still a core aspect throughout those entire films, even though there is a reveal at the end that the monsters were real.
Another interesting exhibit for this argument is Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. Each episode featured a monster that was a person in a mask, but the overarching plot featured a real supernatural entity from ancient times. What made this work so well is that besides the individual mysteries in each episode, the entire plot of the series was a mystery in itself, as the gang put together the pieces of the planispheric disc and discovered the truth behind the old Mystery Incorporated.
In contrast, let's look at some examples where it wasn't done well. It's common knowledge that The Richie Rich / Scooby-Doo Show and The Scooby & Scrappy-Doo Puppy Hour aren't exactly the most well-liked shows in the franchise. My opinion used to be that the seven-minute runtime was too short to develop the plot, but my thoughts on that have shifted over the years. Honestly, I don't think I'd want those episodes to be any longer than they were, as most of them would be drudgery to get through for many fans. The plots to all of those episodes consists of Shaggy, Scooby and Scrappy bumping into a real monster, running around, and somehow escaping at the end. There simply wasn't much of a cohesive plot there, and the mystery-solving aspect completely disappeared. Extending the episodes so there could have been 22 minutes of running around aimlessly would not have improved anything, because the plot simply wasn't there. In The Scooby & Scrappy-Doo Puppy Hour, there were some episodes that had Shaggy and the dogs solving cases assigned to them by Shaggy's Uncle Fearless, although the mysteries were poorly developed, and consisted mostly of antics rather than actual investigation. The majority of the cases also had the gang fighting super criminals and gangsters, which did not stay consistent with the format of the franchise.
Interestingly, the episodes of The New Scooby and Scrappy-Doo Show and The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries that had real monsters were excellent. The biggest difference for me was that both of these episodes had an actual mystery to them. "Scoobygeist" had the mystery of the gang trying to figure out if the house was haunted or not. Moreover, while some of the "A Halloween Hassle at Dracula's Castle" plot revolved around the real monsters, the episode was still mainly centered around the mystery of Van Helsing's ghost before the shocking reveal at the end.
Those of you who know me are aware how much I love Scooby-Doo and the Goblin King. It's a top 10 Scooby film for me, which makes it difficult to say this, but I don't think that film was a good example of how to work real monsters into the plot. The mystery element that makes Scooby what it is wasn't there, which is what makes it feel so different as a film. The whole film has a very fantastical, magical vibe to it, which is what makes it work for me as it puts me in the Halloween mood. If you asked me if I wanted a whole series or more films like it, I honestly think it would be challenging to make that work. Most of what makes it work for me is the Halloween vibe of it, but I don't think I would want to see the franchise go in that direction. It's sort of the same thing as Get a Clue to me; I like the premise fine enough by itself, but it doesn't fit with the format of the rest of the franchise. The same goes for 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo: it works fine as a standalone, but the series feels like it's missing the mystery-solving aspect. The fact that the mystery was never wrapped up in the original series hurt it a bit as well. I think these types of series and films can work fine every now and then, but personally, I think the mystery element is more important than whether the monsters or real or fake.
Of course, I can't write an article about this without a mention of Curse of the 13th Ghost and Return to Zombie Island, as these two films sparked a lot of discussion of the use of real and fake monsters in the franchise. Ultimately, my issue with these two is that the tone of the original is just not there at all. If they would have made a compelling mystery that expanded upon the original plot, I think I would have enjoyed the films more than I did. However, in Return to Zombie Island, the corny-looking zombies and most of the plot revolving around making a zombie movie on the island is what really made this not enjoyable for me. Between the tone and the lack of expansion on the original, a sequel felt very unnecessary. While some people may have been bothered by the lack of real monsters, I would have been totally open to the monsters being fake if the tone was consistent with the original film. The same goes for Curse of the 13th Ghost. I think both of these films would have been fine as normal DTVs, but the franchise has grown and changed a lot since 13 Ghosts and Zombie Island were made. Making the two sequels in the tone of the current DTVs simply didn't work, and made both films feel completely different from the original material in a jarring way. With Curse of the 13th Ghost, I will say that I really like Tim Sheridan's intentions behind making the film open-ended, where it's possible that the 13th ghost was real, and also possible that it was fake. I like films that really make you think about what might have happened without directly telling you. It's one of the things I love about Boo Brothers. Even after you're done watching the film, you still don't know whether the ghosts were fake or not, even though there was an unmasking. I would love to see another Scooby film do something like that again. The problem with Curse of the 13th Ghost is that Velma's perspective that the ghosts are fake is shoved in the viewer's face so much that we don't really get to hear a compelling argument for what the rest of the gang believes. It was a great way to get around the studio mandate at the time of "no real monsters" for either of those two films (which is a bit silly), but ultimately, Velma's in-your-face perspective is what made Tim Sheridan's otherwise good idea not work in my opinion.
All of this said, I respect anyone who may have different beliefs on the matter. Maybe you are someone who feels the monsters need to always be fake to stick with the classic "person in a mask" format, or prefer a more adventure-focused format for the series. That's a perfectly valid opinion to have, and it's understandable why people might feel that way. However, for me, having a compelling mystery that we as viewers can follow along with has always been a plot device I find more important in the franchise than whether or not the monster is real. As I've outlined, there are a number of examples of plots with real monsters being executed poorly. In my opinion, there are just as many plots with fake monsters that have been executed poorly. Many people found some episodes of Guess Who to be flat due to an over-focus on the guest star and not enough mystery, and I agree with that opinion. The best episodes of Guess Who were always the ones that had a compelling mystery and a good balance with the guest star's presence, at least in my opinion. It all just goes to show the question of inclusion of the supernatural doesn't have to be as simple as picking between whether you prefer real or fake monsters. A throughly developed mystery and well-written plot can be just as important, if not more, than abidance to the "person in a mask" tradition within the franchise.