The first time I watched the 1978 Peanuts special What A Nightmare, Charlie Brown, I was eight and a little scared. The cartoon made a significant impression on me. It was unnerving to see Snoopy whipped, starved, pelted with produce and drowned. Dream sequence or not, that's heavy stuff. There have been many Peanuts specials over the years, and their quality is wildly inconsistent. There are classics, of course, like A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966). There are hidden gems, like It's Magic, Charlie Brown (1981) and the recent Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (2011). There are flat out duds like It's The Girl In the Red Truck, Charlie Brown (1988), an animated/live action blend starring Snoopy's brother Spike and Jill Schulz, Charles Schulz's daughter. The New York Times correctly called it an "unseemly pratfall". Halfway through the special, the audience was treated to the following dance sequence on roller skates (jump to 33:20):
What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown is not that sort of unmitigated disaster. It is not good Peanuts, and it's not bad Peanuts. It's tonally dissonant from every other special in the Peanuts canon. There's no fuzzy wistfulness. There's no raw sincerity. Instead, it's a horror special with few jokes, and it's a cutting meta-commentary on Snoopy's character in 1978.
The running joke in Peanuts, especially in the early days, was that Charlie Brown was so downtrodden, so kicked upon, that even his dog had a more interesting life than he did. Rather than being a loyal "man's best friend", Snoopy treated Charlie Brown with a mix of contempt and indifference. He didn't remember his owner's name, instead referring to him as "that round-headed kid".
And lest you think he treated all humans that way, he certainly remembered Lila, his first owner.
The opening of Nightmare signified a new level of degradation in Charlie Brown and Snoopy's relationship. Charlie Brown wanted Snoopy to pull him on his sled, like a sled dog. Instead, the tables were turned, and we watched as Charlie Brown ran through town getting whipped by his beagle.
It's worth noting that at one point, this wouldn't have been physically possible. In his earlier days, like in this strip from 1955, Snoopy was a dog. Any attempts at appearing human were inherently comedic.
By 1978, when this special first aired, Snoopy has become a tiny human being in a dog suit, with opposable thumbs and all. He acts like a spoiled child. He sits at a big table, with a knife and fork in his hands and a napkin around his neck. He's eating five pizzas and a root beer float, all by himself, and he's not sharing any of it. He got all of this food by raiding the refrigerator. Normally, Charlie Brown brings Snoopy his food in a dog dish. But now, it seems as though Snoopy is taking his comfort for granted by cutting his owner out of the equation.
His humanlike appearance is no longer a joke. His humanity simply is. And Charlie Brown, fed up with Snoopy's uninhibited, easy comfort, finally says something about it, right before Snoopy goes to bed:
"You know, I've been thinking about you, and I've decided what's wrong with you. You know what's wrong with you? You're overly civilised, Snoopy. That's what's wrong with you. You're overly civilised. Good grief, what a dog."
That evening, Snoopy has a nightmare about being an Arctic sled dog. The next 15 minutes of the show - the middle bulk of it - barely resemble a Peanuts special. Instead, we watch a bizarre dream sequence. A strange man, visible only in silhouette, whips Snoopy and forces him to pull a sled.
The other sled dogs intimidate Snoopy. They eat his food. They prevent him from drinking water when they stop to rest. They rebuff all attempts at closeness. All the while, Snoopy shivers and cries.
Snoopy was suffering as a result of his humanity. Because he ran on his hind legs, he couldn't keep up with the other dogs. Because he didn't bite or bark, he couldn't assert himself. But finally, after enduring even more abuse, he begins to change, physically and mentally. He discards his civility and grows sharp fangs.
His hands revert to paws.
Snoopy is broken. He becomes more savage and feral than we've ever seen.
The other sled dogs finally treat Snoopy as an equal. They let him eat and drink, and they give him a wide berth. But that isn't enough for Snoopy. He wants to be the alpha dog. And so, he challenges the leader of the pack to a vicious fight (yes, this is a Peanuts special).
As alpha dog, Snoopy inflicts the same suffering on the other sled dogs that they inflicted on him. He terrorises them, he barks at them and he deprives them of food. The bullying victim has become the bully.
By this point, my eight-year-old self was freaked out.
And then, the final blow: The sled breaks through the ice. The shadowy man drowns. The sled dogs drown. Snoopy is a hair away from drowning himself when he finally wakes up.
Safe in his own backyard, Snoopy runs over to Charlie Brown's house and wakes his owner. So what do you think happened? Does he learn to share? Does he re-frame his relationship with Charlie Brown? Does he have a new appreciation for the creature comforts he enjoys?
No. Snoopy eats an ice cream sundae and crawls back to bed. The status quo is upheld, and not a damn thing is learned.
So what, exactly, is the point of all this? Only Schulz would know for sure. Maybe he just wanted to create something fanciful and scary, unburdened by some big lesson. But to me, this special was a meta-commentary that took stock of the dog Snoopy used to be and the dog-human he had become.
It no longer made sense to keep rehashing the same "Snoopy wants to be human" storyline that defined the character in the 1960s. For all intents and purposes, Snoopy was human. So this special was a fascinating reversal: If Snoopy had to be a dog again, could he adjust? On a more figurative level, it asked an important question of its audience. How well would we adjust if we were suddenly burdened with hardship? What would we be willing to do to survive? And what would we lose in the process of doing what it took?