Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is the fantastic surreal puppet show by Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling. It was released for free on YouTube starting in 2011 and ultimately taking until 2016 to finish a six episode series. It’s so overwhelmingly surreal we haven’t even attempted to attempt to describe it with a single writer, but as a team – Jenny Mugridge and Luke Greensmith – we will take turns attempting to describe the indescribable below!
Jenny’s Take: What makes DHMIS so rewatchable isn’t the catchy songs, the bizarre phrases or the surprisingly emotive puppets: it’s the subtle hidden messages in the backgrounds and edges of each show, which escalate throughout. You won’t catch them all on the first run, as some are nearly imperceptible – think severed heads in microwaves, puppets lurking in shadowy characters, and glimpses of characters working quite literally behind the scenes.
With each new episode comes a new theme, each with a dark underlying twist. For example, the second episode about Time seems like a fun adventure before it descends into decay and death as we watch the puppets age and rot before our eyes. When Yellow Guy learns about love from a butterfly, it soon takes on cultish undertones as he’s encouraged to wear a ring to protect his purity for his “special one”. For every wholesome child-friendly message there is a dark undercurrent seeping through.
As each of the “teachers” leaves, elements of them remain in the background of future episodes. Is it possible that they’ve been judged by Roy and found wanting? Yellow Guy’s friends are slowly picked off, but only once they’ve realised the reality that they’re living in and question or seek to change it.
19 06 55. This sequence of numbers repeats throughout the background; in calendars, number charts, dates, gravestones and newspaper clippings, but most commonly expressed as a perpetual June 19th. Background hints (and extra videos) suggest the trio were kidnapped, last seen on June 19th – is the show a fantasy that Roy is enacting? Has he kidnapped his own son? It’s also the date that the last episode aired in 2016. What else was June 19th 2016? Father’s Day.
Adding to the mystery of the show were the viral marketing segments released after the second episode in order to raise money for the ongoing series. The short “HELP” segments showed the characters being held hostage by a mysterious Money Man (who appears nowhere else in the series) and told the viewer that if they didn’t pay the ransom, the characters would be killed. Luckily for the puppets, the funding target was reached – funnily enough, on June 19th.
Other elements of the show bled into real life, such as the phone number shown on a telephone box during the credits of episode four. If you were to call the number around the time of the release, a member of the cast might pick up and talk to you in character, although evidence of this shows them mostly screeching into the phone.
These elements take the moments of fourth wall breaking from the show – a traditional trope in shows for children – and turn them into something much more sinister than a casual aside. They’re proof that the characters are unwitting actors in a hellish juvenile fiction that they can’t control or escape. At least, not until they die.
This might seem like a lot, but in reality it’s barely skimming the surface of fan theories about this bizarre show. Once you see Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared it has a tendency to crawl under your skin, to leave pieces of itself in your psyche. You’ll remember the gore, of course. But you won’t be able to forget the horror lurking underneath it all.
Luke’s Take: I absolutely love this show! It masquerades as an inoffensive children’s show aimed at learning before proceeding to drop absolute brain bombs on viewers. Household objects, what would be guest characters created for educational spots on an actual children’s show, appear to torment and harass the main cast in strange ways as the “story” leads up to a chaotic cacophony of a finale. The series is outright called a psychological horror on the Wikipedia entry for an aggressive weirdness, with a lot of critical praise leaning into how disturbing it may be viewed. It definitely digs down into some very uncomfortable imagery, making good use of whimsical trappings to set up some downright horrific stuff.
I put “story” in quotation marks as there is one there to work out, but Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared also works on the very simple level of inducing internal screaming with no context needed. Not to mention, there’s a variety of valid readings possible with such a strange and eclectic show, but I’ll try to sum up the “simple” one; “simple” here also requiring quotation marks, this show really being an unbelievably wild ride.
Context, plus a small part of story content that only featured in a magazine article, is the cypher for the main reading of what’s going on beneath the colourful carnage. There’s a definite through line railing against selling out across the series. If you look at the series as trying to be an actual kids show, and the intrusive elements being advertisements enforced upon it (the food and computer episodes are very obvious examples), then the episodic descent into madness are pretty strong satirical push back on the idea of allowing financial backers any creative control. This is where Roy comes in, and explaining this can give the final episode a lot of context. Roy is the father of the Yellow Guy child puppet in the show, and a lot of the product placement seems to relate to directly to Roy as well as him having a strange background presence throughout the series.
The in-character interview article ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – an exclusive interview with Duck, Red Guy and Yellow Guy – includes the only dialogue Roy actually has outside of heavy breathing: “My silly boy has allowed his eyes to grow arrogant and rude, for this I will take him on a trip to punish land.” Following that Roy actually is the Money Guy, and there’s plenty of hints to support this, he uses his control to not only subvert creativity to sell his products but also deploy this power to abuse his son. The events that befall poor Yellow Guy definitely qualify as punishing! In episode 6, Roy gets an incredibly creepy moment of stretching his arms out to Red Guy, this looking like an appeal to preserve the show through this reading (while also remaining creepy). A solid undisputed reading of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is pretty difficult, but if you haven’t watched it, definitely give it another go to see what you think.
Now, here’s the bonus fun bit. As of 2020, the creators have confirmed that a Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared TV series is coming to Channel 4 in the UK. While the two leads of the project have already avoided going commercial in the initial run, because they didn’t want to compromise on how odd they could go, Channel 4 supported the second episode in the first place and will likely allow Becky and Joseph free reign to go all out. Episode 2 certainly wasn’t restrained! Wait and see now as to how fast a new series gets to us, and what exactly it may be doing next.