10 Character Deaths that Warped the Minds of '80s Children

Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 6:00 am


My first real-life experience with death took place when I was about five years old. Apparently, while I was at kindergarten, one of my two hamsters decided he no longer liked his roommate, and proceeded to do his best Hannibal Lecter impression on him. My mother walked in and saw the surviving rodent elbows deep in his counterpart's entrails. As my home had a strict "No Cannibalism" policy, she felt it was necessary to dispose of the offending creature before he busted out a nice Chianti. Her method of execution was to take the hamster, put it in a mason jar, and heave it as far as she could into the woods (sorry PETA, but this took place 30 years ago, so the statute of limitations is long past). As I walked off the bus, my sister, absolutely delighted with the thought of delivering me disastrous news, ran down to tell me the tale of the untimely deaths of both of my beloved pets. I walked the rest of the way home from the bus crying my eyes out when to my surprise, I saw my hamster was walking up the street towards my house. It was a Christmas miracle in October, that is until my mom assured me that it was not my dead hamster, scooped him up, put him in another mason jar, SEALED it this time with a lid, poked holes in the lid so it wouldn't die relatively painlessly by asphyxiation and could instead starve to death, and then launched him once more into the woods.

For most children, the concept of death doesn't become truly real until a pet or grandparent meets the end of their time here on Earth. Until that time, the concept of death is largely influenced by the media children encounter. The '80s were filled with memorable character deaths, particularly in science fiction and fantasy films. In an age where the VCR and cable TV brought infinite entertainment to American homes, film and television played a much larger role in the development of children. Here are ten character deaths that molded and twisted the perceptions of death for the children of the Baby Boomers. Some were tragic, some twisted, some hysterical, but all were influential.

10. Adric - Doctor Who "Earthshock"

It's well known that the Doctor, aside from his third incarnation's inclination to bust Venusian Aikido, has a tendency to abhor violence. While the Doctor is a pacifist at heart, that doesn't stop episodes of Doctor Who from having particularly large body counts. Fifth Doctor stories were particularly deadly for extras and guest stars, with stories like "Resurrection of the Daleks" responsible for more dead than the first Terminator film. Of course companions (aside from short running characters like Katarina and Sara Kingdom) are exempt from horrific on screen deaths. Or are they?

If two's company, and three's a crowd, then having four in the TARDIS is like a bad frathouse kegger. It was time for someone to go, and that someone was Adric. Seeing as how a major plot point of his character was that he could never return to his home in E-space, the possible resolutions for his character were slightly limited. Add to that the fact that Matthew Waterhouse wanted to go out with a bang, and we approach the end of four-part Cybermen serial "Earthshock" with the math genius trapped on the bridge of a plummeting cargo ship, behind a set of obliterated controls. The nails of the entire collective of British children were being chewed to nubs as they awaited the TARDIS to materialize on the deck of the freighter in time to save the young companion. But that never happened, and as the show closed with no music and the credits rolling over the broken star pin, it was immediately apparent that the dynamics of Doctor Who had changed. It was the first time a major companion met his bitter end on the long running program; the sting made worse by the fact that the character was essentially still a child.

9. Toht - Raiders of the Lost Ark

The body count of Raiders of the Lost Ark was surprisingly high for a Spielberg PG adventure film. By the time the Ark is opened, there have been deaths by gunshot, poison arrow, spikes, propeller, stabbings and much more. Once the Ark is opened, all of those deaths seem like child's play.

Readers of Topless Robot are almost guaranteed to be familiar with what is referred to as the Toht Fail, but kids of the '80s have the image of the Nazi agent's face melting forever burned into their minds. Sure, Belloq's head explodes. Sure, Holy Lasers burn through Nazis. Neither of those begin to compare to the images of Toht's skin melting, the blood pouring off his face, all to the soundtrack of his high pitched shriek. Hell, the dude's hat even sinks down on his skull from the lack of tissue.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was the film that made me terrified of snakes. That being said, if forced to select my death from either a snake bite or looking into the Ark, I'm all over the snake.

8. Mrs. Deagle - Gremlins

The creative team behind Gremlins did everything they could to make wealthy widow Mrs. Ruby Deagle one of the most detestable characters in the film. Between evicting a poor family on Christmas and threatening the Peltzer family dog with a slow and painful death, audiences, including children, likely felt no mercy for her. Apparently, neither do the gremlins.

With her chair lift sabotaged, as she tries to escape the singing green monsters she is flung out her window, seat and all. She lands dead in front of the police car outside, to the sounds of laughter from the malevolent creatures, as well as the sounds of laughter coming from the children in the audience. It's one of the most hysterical death scenes of a villain, and for children of the '80s, it was likely the first time any of them laughed as someone met their bitter end.

7. Jabba The Hutt - Return of the Jedi

Right from the start you knew that Jabba the Hutt was pure evil. The gigantic space slug sat upon his dais, gazing at the small kingdom he had before him: Dancing Twi'leks, bounty hunters, smugglers and pirates, all at his beck and call. A simple flick of the switch would send someone into the digestive tract of a Rancor, and even heroine Princess Leia was humiliated at his hands (much to the happiness of so many pubescent nerd males). It was his death, though, that was one of the most gruesome and personal of the entire Star Wars saga.

At this point we've seen Princess Leia go from an entitled yet passionate princess to a leader of men. Her strength is apparent, and while she seems vulnerable tethered to the side of the despicable Hutt, when opportunity presents itself for escape she acts ruthlessly, springing up and using her chains of captivity to strangle the universe's most sinister gangster. Jabba chokes helplessly, clutching at the chain, tail twitching, gasping for air before finally succumbing, releasing a final, sickening gurgle, tongue hanging from his mouth. Thus far in the Star Wars trilogy we've seen death by blaster, amputations and decapitations by lightsaber, and more than one poor creature gobbled up by a variety of monstrous creature. The death of Jabba is up close and personal, and easily is the most brutal of the entire saga. The fact that his execution is carried out by the dainty princess makes it all the more shocking.

6. Count Rugan, the Six-Fingered Man - The Princess Bride

Throughout the tale of The Princess Bride, we've heard the stories of a mysterious Six-Fingered Man and Inigo Montoya's quest to avenge his father. For all of the wonderfully quotable lines of the film, the one everyone seems to remember is "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Don't get me wrong, it's a great line. I crack up every time I see my kids dueling with Nerf sword in the backyard, repeating the quote over and over.

When Montoya finally meets up with Count Rugan, the man who murdered his father, things look grim. His tenacity is obvious when, even with a dagger chucked into his gut, he gets up, disarms the Count, and has him begging for mercy. As Rugan offers him money, power, anything he could dream of, our hope as the audience is for bloody vengeance on the man who stole Montoya's youth. When we get said vengeance it's incredibly gratifying. This man who has trained all his life for revenge gets exactly what he wished for, with no saccharine sweet "live and let live" message tacked on the end like so many G.I. Joe PSAs. It's the cold-blooded murder of a very bad man, a son of a bitch who couldn't give him his father back. Now if I can just get my kids to STOP saying that part.

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