The Horror Honeys: Watership Down: The World Will Be Your Enemy

Watership Down: The World Will Be Your Enemy

A Head Honey Spooky Kid's Saturday Review by Kat

Watership Down (1978)

Long ago, the great Frith made the world. He made all the stars and the world lived among the stars. Frith made all the animals and birds and, at first, made them all the same. Now, among the animals was El-Ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits. He had many friends and they all ate grass together. But after a time, the rabbits wandered everywhere, multiplying and eating as they went. Then Frith said to El-Ahrairah, “Prince Rabbit, if you cannot control your people, I shall find ways to control them.” But El-Ahrairah would not listen and said to Frith, “My people are the strongest in the world.” This angered Frith, so he determined to get the better of El-Ahrairah. He gave a present to every animal and bird, making each one different from the rest. When the fox came, and the others, like the dog and cat, hawk and weasel, to each of them Frith gave a fierce desire to hunt and slay the children of El-Ahrairah. 

One of my earliest memories is a peculiar one. It’s not one of those typical memories of a particularly happy birthday, or a favourite toy, or a family memory, or something from an old photo.

It’s this image: 

Seriously. Earliest memory. Right here. 
In the early 80s, my parents were all about skiing, and on one ski trip, my brother and I were left with a playgroup while our parents went night skiing. As a part of the playgroup, we were shown cartoons and movies. One of those cartoons, was the most violent PG-rated film ever made. Watership Down. Plagued by nightmares and an innate distrust of rabbits that I couldn’t quite place, it’s been 30 years since I’ve dared to re-watch Watership Down. Hands down, this is THE most stressed out I have EVER been while watching a film. Even after 30 years, I remembered each moment of the film as clearly as if I had watched it yesterday. 
Putting aside the fact that I hid my face and flapped my hands and said “No no no no! Fuck! FUCK!” more times during the course of Watership Down than I have with ANY horror movie I’ve ever watched, it is a beautiful piece of cinema. The animation, though reminiscent of other animated features of the time like Lord of the Rings and The Black Cauldron, ages well and is perfectly balanced by delicate water-colour backgrounds depicting the lush English countryside. The world building of Watership Down creates a unique mythology, which paired alongside the world *we* know, is a wonderful thing. Don’t all children wonder what language the animals speak? If they live their lives similarly to ours with order and religion and stories? I know I did, and I’m sure Watership Down is partially to blame for that. It’s clear that Watership Down was meant as a fairy tale of sorts, but it’s a fairy tale full of childhood nightmares.

The story: Ignored and dismissed by the leaders of the warren, Fiver has visions. Terrible visions of death and doom descending upon their happy home. The lone believer of Fiver's predictions, a young rabbit named Hazel, leads Fiver and a small group of rabbits away from their home in search of a safe haven that Fiver has seen in his visions. On their journey, the rabbits are faced with countless perils, and the loss of friends. When they finally think that they have reached safety, they realize that they are faced with exactly the opposite, and that they must fight a great battle for their own survival and the prosperity and peace of their new home.
The fields... They're full of blood.
The idyllic life of the rabbits is tainted by societal control in the form of the governing bodies (Owsla’s) and by the fearfully quick jaws of death that snap up friend and foe alike. Death from external sources comes extremely quickly in Watership Down - and graphically. As a child, these were the scenes that stayed with me longest, and were likely the source of several awkwardly shouted questions like: “Why does the bunny have a red mouth?!” The swiftness of the deaths suffered by the rabbits of the warren are shocking and graphic. In nature, death is swift and brutal, and so in Watership Down. As an adult, this is not a shocking thing by any means, but as a child… pick up your one-way ticket to Trauma Town.   
Death from internal forces, however, is a completely different story. General Woundwort, the leader of the warren discovered by Hazel and his group of exiles is the baddest of Big Bad’s. Half-blind, ruthless and controlling, Woundwort controls his group with an iron paw using scare tactics and violence to keep order, which provides some of the more traumatizing scenes of the film, even so many years later. At the heart of Watership Down is an early subversion of societal control. Escaping with Fiver and Hazel means that the rabbits can live the way they want - free from the rules of the Owsla, free from the persecution of their natural enemies (other animals) and unnatural ones (man and his machines). Written in the early 70s, it's no surprise that the source material echoes with these themes, and they are reflected well in the social dynamics of the rabbits and their journey to their own version of the Promised Land.

There are few things to find wrong with Watership Down - the mythology is spectacularly crafted, the dialogue heartfelt and innocent, and the action is terrifying. The one problem I had with the film, is one that I’ve learned over years as a film lover, and that’s the presence of an utterly annoying regional stereotype “comic relief” character that serves only one purpose in the film, and while essential to the plot… the character itself and his presence makes my skin crawl with awkwardness.
While I would never recommend seeing this film with your children, it is definitely not one to be missed. Watership Down isn’t listed as a horror film, but there are elements of the story that are more disturbing than any recent horror film. Also worth searching out is the animated TV adaptation of Watership Down which aired in 1999. If you’re in the mood for something else from this director, check out the equally traumatizing animated feature Plague Dogs.

*sobbing quietly*

Head Honey’s verdict: 4 childhood night terrors out of 5