Cartoon characters, whether they’re appearing inside the funny pages, comic books, a TV show, or any other medium, often have a rather whimsical nature. Even those who understand that cartoons aren’t exclusively made for children assume they’re lighthearted.
And they very often are! From superheroes and fairy tales to simple gags in the newspaper, just about everyone has at least one cartoon character that brings them joy. Unfortunately, the history of many of these charming cartoons is not always as upbeat as the characters themselves. Here are 15 of the darkest backstories of your favorite cartoon characters…
1. Snow White: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is undoubtedly a classic; it was the first full-length animated feature, after all. Unfortunately, its backstory reveals the darkest sides of Walt Disney himself. Not only did he only pay actress Adriana Caselotti just $970 (roughly $16,000 today) to voice the title character, but he made her sign a contract prohibiting her from using her voice in any other projects. Her career was destroyed, and much of her work in that film was uncredited.
2. Winnie the Pooh: It’s widely known that Winnie the Pooh creator A. A. Milne came to resent his famous bear, as he felt it ruined his career as a “serious” writer. What’s not as well-known is that Pooh was inspired by a real bear named Winnie who was purchased by Canadian soldier Harry Colbourn as a cub for $20. Though she spent many nights sleeping under Colbourn’s bed, the soldier donated her to an English zoo, where many children—including Milne’s son, Christopher Robin—fell in love with her.
Then, Milne bought his son a stuffed bear, whom he named Winnie the Pooh, launching a beloved children’s franchise. Yet, the fact that the real bear was forced into captivity after her mother was killed remained largely undiscussed.
3. Betty Boop: Dating back to 1930, this sexy icon was originally a caricature of singer Helen Kane. Unfortunately, Kane had lifted much of her act—including the iconic “boop-boop-a-doop” for which Betty Boop came to be known—from singer Esther Jones, who went by the stage name Baby Esther.
Not only that, but Kane herself then tried to sue Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer for not giving her proper credit for the cartoon; the fact that Kane’s contributions were not themselves original was held against her in court. Worse yet, Baby Esther never received any money or credit, dying before the case even went to court.
4. Jim Crow: As if it wasn’t bad enough that the crows in Dumboall were terribly racist caricatures, the lead crow was literally named “Jim Crow” in the original script, named after the infamous laws that continued to enforce de-facto slavery decades after the 13th amendment abolished the institution.
5. Anastasia: Russia’s Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna was executed, alongside her family, by the Bolshevik secret police in 1918, although rumors of her survival persisted for years. The 1997 animated film envisions a magical world in which this fairy tale scenario really occurred, but DNA evidence proves that the real duchess did, in fact, perish.
6. Shrek: French wrestler Maurice Tillet was known as “The French Angel,” and “the freak ogre of the ring” was believed to be the inspiration behind Shrek’s design in the animated films. His condition, which he developed around age 20 and caused swelling in his hands and feet, is called acromegaly.
Discouraged from becoming a lawyer as he had once dreamed, Tillet became a wrestler instead, eventually dying of cardiovascular disease at just 50 years old.
7. Angelica: Rugrats co-creator Paul Germain once had a childhood bully named Angelica, so he used her as inspiration for Angelica Pickles, a toddler who torments the other babies on the show.
8. Jasper and Jinx: Tom and Jerry were known as Jasper (the cat) and Jinx (the mouse), respectively, in their original appearances, which was created in an effort to boost morale among civilians prior to America’s involvement in World War II. However, since British soldiers at the time were known as “Tommies” and Americans referred to German soldiers as “Jerries,” the names were changed.
Some may find it strange that, since Jerry would later be portrayed as the more sympathetic character in these cartoons, the names weren’t switched around.
9. Peter Pan: When creator James Matthew “J.M.” Barrie was just six years old, his brother, David. It was two days before David’s fourteenth birthday. After this, their mother was comforted by the fact that David would never have to grow up, and J.M. started to believe that growing up was one of life’s great tragedies.
10. Carl from Up: This Pixar film was loosely inspired by the life of Edith Macefield, who was a spy for the Allied forces during World War II. Later, she worked with orphans of the war before settling in an old farmhouse in Seattle, where she cared for her ailing mother. Much like the character Carl, she refused to move out of her house at all costs, and a five-story building was eventually constructed around her house. She passed away at the age of 86 in 2008..
11. Dumbo: The crows weren’t the only controversial characters in this Disney movie, as the inspiration for the beloved flying elephant himself was Jumbo, a real circus elephant in the 1860s. Even Queen Victoria was reportedly a fan after she saw him at the London Zoo in 1865. Unfortunately, Jumbo lived quite a miserable life, as he was subjected to frequent physical abuse.
12. The Smurfs: Pierre Culliford, the cartoonist who created these iconic blue creatures under his pseudonym Peyo, grew up in Nazi-occupied Belgium. This contributed to rumors that the characters represent some sort of Aryan race. For example, some people think the villainous Gargamel is an anti-Semitic caricature, especially as his cat, Azrael, bears the same name as the Jewish Angel of Death.
13. Dennis the Menace: The story behind this troublesome boy may seem charming enough initially, as cartoonist Hank Ketchum created the character after his wife complained that their son, Dennis, was a “menace.” The real Dennis’ mother died when he was just 12 of a barbiturate overdose. Then, Ketchum shipped poor Dennis off to boarding school after moving to Switzerland with his new wife. Dennis joined the Marines and fought in Vietnam, and by the time Ketchum died, it was clear their relationship was extremely strained.
14. Mr. Toad: This charming frog was based on the son of The Wind in the Willows author, Kenneth Grahame. The son, Alistair—who was a troublemaker and possible sociopath—hated his father and reportedly enjoyed lying in the middle of the road so that cars would be forced to swerve around him. He died at the age of 19 when he laid on railroad tracks and was struck by a train.
15. Roald Dahl: While the British author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda was not a cartoonist, he created enough beloved children’s characters, some of which were adapted to animation, that he deserves a spot on this list. Sadly, his life was full of tragic stories, beginning with the death of his sister when he was three years old until the skull fracture he suffered during World War II.
It sure is surprising that the stories behind these fun characters were often anything but lighthearted. Just remember: you can still enjoy your favorite cartoons if you don’t think too hard about their creation!