The Anarchy and Absurdity of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’

Becky Sloan and Joe Pelling have made music videos for Tame Impala and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and while those creations aren’t exactly conventional, the series for which they are best known is far stranger. Back in 2011, they created a 3-minute short called Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. After it became an internet sensation and was re-released on Youtube (where it has now reached over 35 million views), Channel 4’s Random Acts commissioned a second episode. Eventually they took to Kickstarter, where they raised over £100 000 to complete four more episodes without having to compromise their bizarre vision. The sixth and final episode was released on 19th June this year, and has already reached 9 000 000 views in just over two weeks. I’d be impressed that any set of short films would acquire such a monumental viewership, but I am pleasantly surprised that the series in question is one so unusual and idiosyncratic.

If you haven’t seen the series before, it has the appearance of a children’s TV show, where talking puppets (and costumed actors) are taken on a musical journey to learn a basic life skill or moral lesson. Across the six episodes various anthropomorphic objects and animals teach the three main characters of Yellow Guy, Red Guy, and Duck; touching on the subjects of creativity, time, love, technology, healthy eating, and dreams. Sounds harmless, right?

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Not so much. These central songs start to break down in perplexing ways. Our main characters are often forced to participate, their personal spaces invaded, and their valid questions are ignored or aggressively dismissed. The rules of the lesson become contradictory and nonsensical, before they eventually take an absurdly dark turn into psychedelic and frightening places. What starts as a comedic parody of these programmes explodes into scenes of violence, gore, and warped realities. You have to see it to believe it. They are all on YouTube, and altogether only add up to around 30 minutes.

While the surface similarities may lead some to consider it a “shock humour” series, or at least one that prioritises fucking with its audience over narrative or thematic meaning, there is an elusive yet compelling philosophy behind it all. As the structure of children’s show format collapses and the “teacher” characters become more hostile, it’s important that the main arc is that these friendly lessons turn into dangerous acts of social conditioning. Often it takes brutal metaphor and horror to hammer the point home, and subtlety isn’t always key to allegorical storytelling. Melancholia brings depression to life on screen with the literal end of the world, Eraserhead externalises fear of parenthood with a mutant child, and They Live shows us the influence of mass media in an especially direct and visceral way.

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared mocks the simplification of complex ideas in the media and more general educational methods, and how the mental malleability of children can be exploited. The object of DHMIS‘ criticism is those that limit understanding and force dogmatic and oppressive rules on us as we grow up. The child, as an open-minded discoverer, follows these rules, follows authority – only to then find that these absolute views are contradictory and ultimately dangerous.

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The Simple Health Shape

In the first episode, our characters are told to be creative, to use their imaginations – to an extent. Creativity is something often censored and restricted in both childhood and adulthood, epitomised in the destruction of Yellow Guy’s painting. Co-creator Joe Pelling said the idea for this first episode came from the idea that ‘an abstract concept like creativity is a bit stupid when people try to teach it in a limited way’. Throughout the episode, the sketchbook restricts the character’s expression and punishes them if they deviate, telling one that “Green is not a creative colour”.

In the third episode, Yellow Guy is taught that love is an all-important feeling that unites us all and defeats loneliness… as long as it is done the right way. YG is confronted with suffering, death and loneliness, but is taught that the world is worth it for love. He begins to express himself again (“I love this tree and I love this stick and I love this-“) before being reprimanded – he should save it for his “special one”:

“He’s made for her / and she’s made for him / That’s the way it’s always been / And it’s perfect / And it’s pure/  And it’s protected by a ring / That’s the way all love goes

The heteronormative and increasingly outdated concept of love is then taken to an uncomfortable extreme. His loneliness makes him vulnerable to be taken down a path he can’t possibly understand. Connections have been made between this and marriage, as well as organised religion, but the show tends to keep things disconnected enough from one-to-one allusions that it speaks to the broader idea of obfuscating and limiting a developing mind.

Beyond specifics, DHMIS is infused with violence. While this brutality often sparks up in its final moments, it is full of violent acts that are non-physical. If we are to take the definition of violence as a removal of agency, then the attack on individual expression here is treated with the appropriate trepidation. Indoctrination of a child free of arbitrary limitations of thought is given the sense of dread it deserves.

Despite these serious implications and interpretations, and the rabbit hole of fan theories we can fall into, DHMIS is all about visceral impact – and it’s primarily a funny show. As always with comedy, your mileage will vary, and in this case that extends to where the humour stops and the discomfort begins. Some of this comes from absurd details (e.g. Duck seems to have an auto-tuned voice, but only for a few syllables at a time), but these are only decorative. One of the key elements of comedy is that it functions like a magic trick – an experience that is built around surprise and revelation. Even repetition works within this idea – repeat something enough and the expectation of the observer buys into the created world, at which point they are unsuspecting of the turn. “Switcheroo” comedy (something Woody Allen is well known for) is based around the unexpected reversal once this scene is constructed, and DHMIS is structured around it.

It’s important that the songs themselves are catchy, even ones with extremely simplistic melodies such as “Time”. You get the idea that if it suited them, Becky and Joe could have created an entertaining and successfully mainstream short for children’s television. Regardless of whether we know where it’s going, we are lulled into a false sense of security – we believe that the timing will continue uninterrupted and the laws of traditional songwriting and cinema will be followed. Then come the nonsensical breaks in the writing:

D: But when does it start
YG: And when does it stop?
C: Time is important and I am a clock

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We know that the teacher of these songs, as with popular children’s TV, will steer the direction of the lesson, but will allow questions and other interactions from its students (stand-ins for the real audience). Instead, they are outright ignored, met with an unsatisfactory response, or they become the victim of the violence previously discussed. The first and sharpest break in episode #2 comes from the aggressive half-screeching-half-alarm sound that the clock makes after Duck makes the intelligent and reasonable suggestion that “Maybe time is just a construct of human perception”. The teachers are there not to expand minds but to direct their development one way. This is where the threatening tone seeps in, and it’s initially confounding. The surprise brings forth laughter, but is extremely close to the shock we associate from horror.

The unsteady balance between horror and comedy is reminiscent of David Lynch’s work, something I wrote about in more detail here. There is a similar focus on juxtaposition – denial and revelation, fantasy and reality, laughter and fear, the simple and the abstract. Even the camera techniques follow suit, especially in the final three episodes. Episode #5 has its usual half-cheerful half-threatening song interrupted by a mysterious phone call, of which the meaning is only alluded to. At these points the scene falls to silence, we switch to the uncomfortable realism and intimacy of hand-held camerawork, before we are snatched back into the grips of the traditional song and structure. We are even treated to the obscure perturbation of Lynch’s wording (Twin Peaks‘ “It is happening again” or Mulholland Drive‘s “Someone is in trouble”) with the knowledge of Red Guy’s disappearance only expressed as “Something is missing […] something is wrong”.

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Following Red Guy’s escape of the routine of nightmarish false realities in episode #4, Duck escapes in a way far more ill-fated in the next episode. As his frustration and anxiety reaches its peak, he runs off the set, knocking the camera over. From this point the show becomes increasingly meta, for better or worse. The extreme self-reflexivity of episode #6 comes at the cost of its humour and visceral impact, donating more time to the strange narrative as we see Red Guy occupy a “real” space, only retreat back into something more inexplicable. It definitely feels like a conclusive ending, one that may muddy the waters of analysis even as it gives us a flood of clues to fuel Reddit fan theories for years.

I have read many explanations as to what this all means, to various degrees of success. A lot focus too much on a surface-level, linear approach (they’re all dead, and eventually ascend to heaven!), but a few have stood out for their connection to clear themes of emerging adulthood, individuality and creative control. For me its underlying message, and its function as an alternately unsettling and cathartic experience, is its own reward. Becky and Joe have publicly been open to different fan interpretations, not wishing to limit discussion by confirming or denying anything. In a similar fashion, the show itself is resistant to interpretation of an allegorical nature. Just as you think it might be coming to its own moral or intellectual lesson – it falls back into the absurd. Negating that build-up to realisation with gestures of irreverence taps into the anarchic glee at the centre of the best comedy. It’s expectation and surprise, set-up to reversal – a horrifying magic trick.

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P.S. I felt especially disturbed by the fact that the often mentioned ’19th June’ is my birthday, with the final episode released on it this year.

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