Fright Zone: Trap-filled stronghold of terror (1985)

I only saw the Fright Zone once as a kid, in the late 80’s. I was immediately filled with regret for never having owned such a creepy-looking playset, a situation that was not rectified until a quarter of a century later.

Of the three major playsets depicted in the Filmation He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, the Fright Zone toy was the least like its animated counterpart. What I believe happened is that Filmation came up with its design on its own (an HR Giger-esque monstrosity), and then Mattel decided to use an older concept to represent the hideout of the Evil Horde in toy form. The animated Fright Zone would have been immense and complicated to produce, to say the least, although I suppose they could have replicated a portion of it.

The playset version of the Fright Zone begins with a December 5, 1983 piece of concept art called “Masters Villain Playset.” The concept, illustrated by Ed Watts, was no doubt intended for the Evil Warriors. It has the tree (this version has hands) down next to the jail cell, and it has some kind of man-eating plant on the right side, but otherwise it’s very close to the look of the final toy.

It’s not clear if the rock monster trap was included in this early concept, but there was a somewhat similar concept floating around Mattel:

A couple of separate patents were filed connected with the development of the Fright Zone playset. One (filed October 4, 1985) is connected with the tree and rock monster traps, and the other (filed April 5, 1985) is connected with the mold process for the rubber dragon puppet. Mattel applied for a trademark claim on the Fright Zone on January 27, 1984.

The playset has four main play features. There is the rubber dragon puppet that can be manipulated through the hole to its den on the right side of the playset. There is the haunted tree that can be made to grab hold of figures. There is the prison, which can be unlached with the flick of a switch, and there is the rock monster trap near the entrance to the dragon’s den, that can grab on to a figure’s foot:

The packaging artwork was painted by William George. In the fearsome Fright Zone, Battle Armor He-Man fights the dreadful dragon, while Hordak snares Battle Armor Skeletor with his tree trap. Buzz-Off is held captive in Hordak’s prison. Dead trees and craggy mountains surround the lair of the Evil Horde, and twin moons hang in the sky.

Image source: Hakes Auctions

The Fright Zone also appears on the box art for Hordak/Grizzlor:

Image source: LGC Auctions

The 1987 Style Guide (illustrated by Errol McCarthy) described the Fright Zone this way:

Power: Ability to capture and consume enemies of The Horde.

Character profile: Located in Etheria, the Fright Zone is the dreaded domain of The Evil Horde. Exploreres are loath to enter the region, for few who travel into the Fright Zone ever return – and those who do are haunted forever after. It is the Fright Zone through which Hordak and his horde pass to enter the realm of Eternia.

As you might expect, the Fright Zone appears most frequently in the minicomics in 1985, the year it was released. It’s showcased most effectively in The Power of the Evil Horde, illustrated by Bruce Timm:

A Filmation version of the Fright Zone appeared in issue four of the US Masters of the Universe Magazine:

However, the same issue has this activity page depicting a playset-influenced version of Hordak‘s lair:

This version of the Fright Zone, in poster form appears in the same issue. It’s a much more realistic depiction, but still based on the playset:

Several other posters featured the Fright Zone as a backdrop. It was rendered at times just like the toy, and sometimes like the Filmation She-Ra cartoon version:

In the Masters Mail for the UK Masters of the Universe Magazine, issue 13, we get some clarification on why the different looks for the Filmation and toy/comic Fright Zones (you can read a bit more about this at James Eatock’s He-Man and She-Ra Blog). As retcons go, it’s pretty elegant and it works well enough for me:

Apart from miniature playsets like the Slime Pit and Point Dread, the Fright Zone was by far the smallest, but it was also the creepiest, and in my opinion, one of the most fun to actually play with.

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13 thoughts on “Fright Zone: Trap-filled stronghold of terror (1985)

  1. Battle Ram: Yet another awesome post about a great playset. Liked your coverage about it (the history, the patent filing, the cover artwork…). Always wonder how you get that great research done… 🙂

    About the playset: Like you I never came across an actuall playset until later (when I had paused playing with the toys). I had always seen it on promotional material like the catalogues etc. I don’t remember that my friends owned the playset. I remember that even the Horde figures were a bit more expensive than the “regular” figures, so I guess no one had any money left and would even be able to consider buying the playset… *LOL*

    Today, I love the playset as it is so dark and gloomy. Only thing I reget: it is way too small. It should have been larger and more expanding.

    Well today it is one fine piece of display. Love it. See e.g.:

    Thanks for the post and keep up the awesome work!

    1. Ah, but If it was bigger, it wouldn’t be so dark and gloomy.

      Also.. I think I commented before, i’m not sure.. but I don’t see anything like Giger’s work in any design for the Fright Zone.. Giger was an Erotic horror artist. You couldn’t have one side of that without the other really.. some of his work is not as erotic really but it’s still the stuff there.. that was one of the main things about his designs used for ‘Alien’.. they were VERY Erotic and totally un-kid safe designs. sadly, a lot of people just don’t understand and his work is very undervalued even by people claiming he is great…

      Anyway.. Good work as normal so no problem ^_^

      1. “Erotic” is not a word I would use to describe Giger’s works. “Sexual,” yes, but definitely not “erotic.”

  2. My Fright Zone, like many of my childhood toys, came from a garage sale, so it was missing the dragon puppet. I had a wide variety of plastic dinosaurs, so I designated one of them as the Horde’s resident monster, and popped the top half of it through the opening. One thing that always struck me as kinda goofy was that the playset had no interior, so Hordak & pals had to just hang around outside all the time. Even in some of FZ’s appearances in the minicomics, they’re just chillin’ outside like they’re on a camping trip. It did have some really fun play features though, as you said!

    1. My major problem with the Fright Zone and with the Snake Mountain that keeped me from trying to persuade my parents to bought them was the absence of interiors. An hideout, a stronghold or an head quarter is a place where you should be able to get inside and since Castle Grayskull already proved great in that sense, the Snake Mountain and the Fright Zone simply never worked for me altough I regarded both of them as visually very cool.
      Also, the Fright Zone always give me the strange feeling of watching just a part (an add-on of sort, like Point Dread) of a bigger playset instead of a complete one.

  3. As a kid I had zero interest in the Fright Zone, which is weird considering how much I loved toys with the puppet-as-monster gimmick, such as the Sectaurs. It just struck me as kind of cheap not having an interior play area. Even Point Dread had that!

    Now that I’m older, I appreciate it more for its aesthetics and kind of wish that I had gotten one as a kid.

  4. I recall seeing one in our local WoolWorths in a clearance sale. Only 5 pounds!! bargain!! saddly i didnt have the funds and no amount of begging mum would crowbar open her purse.

  5. Did the dragon ever have an official name? I’ve seen a name assigned to it by someone who has created a 3D print file but I’m not sure if that’s something canon or something the creator wants to wish into existence.

    1. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent name for it. I see it called Dragon, Horde Beast, and Beast Monster Puppet in Mattel’s marketing materials.

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