Why Mickey Mouse horror adaptation was inevitable first step as copyright expires

We have already seen a terrifying Winnie the Pooh – and Steamboat Willie character is next

Video game Infestation 88, inspired by Mickey Mouse's first appearance in Steamboat Willie. Photo: Nightmare Forge Games
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One of the most talked about subjects over the New Year’s weekend was the Disney property Steamboat Willie, starring its mascot Mickey Mouse, entering the public domain.

According to the parameters of fair use, only the character portrayed in the black-and-white short film has been made available and not Mickey himself.

This hasn't stopped the online community from fully embracing the change over the first two days of the year by lampooning and parodying the character, and larger projects are also being made public.

Two of the three major announcements that are set to use the Steamboat Willie character have come in the form of horror projects. One is a film titled Mickey’s Mouse Trap, and the other is a video game called Infestation 88, with the latter releasing its first trailer on Monday.

Both projects have seemingly been in the works for months, in anticipation of entering the public domain. But one might ask, why is horror the first genre for some of these beloved children’s characters?

Subversion of expectation

Winnie the Pooh and prototype Mickey Mouse a la Steamboat Willie represent the start of what will be more and more children’s characters becoming available for fair use, as a number of copyrights are set to expire in the coming years.

For many, these characters represent the innocence of childhood. Their companies held them closely and carefully for many years, and they are well known for being soft-spoken and happy-go-lucky – the perfect combination to appeal to young children.

Turning that reputation on its head is the exact thing that Disney in particular worked decades to ensure would never happen, which is why this subversion is the first temptation once the restrictions are no longer in place.

These aren’t just any children’s characters either. The image of Mickey Mouse, even in his distinct Steamboat Willie appearance, is ubiquitous around the world. Being an instantly recognisable figure in such an unexpected way is immediately eye-catching for many who are so used to the character's traditional tone.

Cheap to make with high returns

The horror genre is a go-to for the film industry with good reason, as both low and micro-budgeted movies can be competitive at the box office, drawing from the genre's built-in audience.

This has made the space a breeding ground of talent. Some of the biggest directors in history started their careers making films with small budgets that allowed them to showcase their talent and craft, including luminaries such as James Cameron (Piranha 2), Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) and Peter Jackson (Bad Taste).

Of course, financiers of films are in it to make a profit, and what better way to guarantee public curiosity than to use a well-known character to sell the film with zero licensing costs?

Micro-budgets in particular have been a tried-and-true formula for the genre for decades. Found-footage film The Blair Witch Project was made for around $500,000 and made $249 million globally. Paranormal Activity (2007) had a budget of $215,000 and grossed $193 million at the global box office.

Fear is heightened in the familiar

While there is fun in twisting expectations and striking big at the box office, there is one major creative reason as well. One of the primary aims of the horror genre is to scare its audience, and the most effective scare tactic is to take something that makes us feel safe and turn it on its head.

Think of the scariest scenes from the history of film. In Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 movie Psycho, a woman takes a shower after a long day, only to be attacked by a mystery intruder. In Ridley Scott's 1980 film Alien, a routine and friendly dinner is interrupted by a surprise birth. In each, things that are innately comforting in human experience are inverted and harnessed to scare the viewer.

This is exactly why Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh make such ideal candidates for terror, and the 2023 hit Five Nights at Freddy's soared to $295.1 million worldwide, itself inspired by children's restaurants such as Chuck E Cheese.

Nothing is more effective at ruining our childhood than horror, nor better at profiting from that destruction.

Updated: January 03, 2024, 8:35 AM