In 2005, Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon. The show was a massive success critically and commercially, earning one of the most loyal fanbases for almost any series outside big names like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Star Wars. Unlike the movie that shares its name, Avatar has stood well against the test of time. Its success is due (in no small part) to its great world-building, fleshed out and complex characters, its compelling pace, and its highly original story. The Avatar Universe is well-constructed and believable with a sense of culture and history that’s rare to find in most entertainment these days, let alone a kid’s show.
Avatar: The Last Airbender was a masterpiece and its fans have only grown since the television series concluded. It’s upheld as a masterwork of animation and storytelling. In the world of Avatar, actions have consequences and affect the outcome of history for the world. Character motives were complex, and the look and history of the different nations drew from real-life sources like ancient Chinese civilization, Buddhist philosophy, Inuit and Native American cultures, and the Empire of Japan. Chinese architecture and martial arts were also blended into the show’s world.
However, while it’s easy to be taken in by the beauty and wonder of the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, there are things about the Avatar Universe that we can all be grateful don’t actually exist. Here are the top 20 disturbing facts that make the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender too scary.
20. The Ends Justify The Means
In the first episode of Book Two: Earth, the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the main characters meet an Earth Kingdom general named Fong who wants to harness the power of the Avatar State for use in warfare against the forces of the Fire Nation. Fong believes Aang could end the war by triggering the Avatar State and directly attacking the Fire Lord. There’s just one problem: the Avatar State is a defense mechanism only triggered by mortal danger or extreme emotional distress.
In response to the failure of all other attempts, General Fong decides to force the Avatar State by attacking Aang and his friends. This escalates from him trying to crush him with giant stone discs, to actually threatening to bury Katara alive in front of him (yes, that happens). Perhaps more disturbing, after the State destroys his entire compound, the general seems to have no regrets. Fong is an important character to Avatar, because he allowed us to see that just like not all firebenders are monstrous and cruel, not all earthbenders are paragons of virtue.
19. This Doesn’t Seem Kid-Friendly
While they never outright say the word “genocide” in the dialogue, that’s exactly what happened to the Air Nomads at the hands of the Fire Nation. In fact, the calendar of the world of Avatar is divided into years before the Air Nomad Genocide (BG) and the years after the genocide (AG). In what would become the year 0 AG, Fire Lord Sozin used the power bestowed upon firebenders by a Sozin’s Comet to wipe out the Air Nomads, who were prophesied to bring the next Avatar. This act would begin the Hundred Year War.
Ironically, the sole survivor of the attack was the twelve-year-old Avatar, Aang, who had run away and become trapped in an iceberg shortly before the war began. Avatar establishes early that it isn’t afraid to tackle adult topics in a show for kids, and the annihilation of an entire race and culture to achieve world domination is about as “adult” as it gets. Fire Lord Ozai would nearly do the same thing one hundred years later when he plotted to use the powers from the comet to burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground.
18. Talk About Saving Face
Koh is a collector that, you guessed it, collects faces. He is one of the most powerful and knowledgeable spirits living in the Spirit World, but that doesn’t change the fact that he appears as a gigantic shadow centipede with an ever-changing face. He can make use of the countless faces he has stolen at will by “blinking” his face to change it. When conversing with Koh you have to be very careful to show no emotion at all, or he will steal your face.
You might think having your face stolen by a horrible giant centipede is bad enough, but as seen with a monkey who was outside Koh’s liar, the victim still survives after Koh steals their face, but they enter a state “somewhere between life and death” that can persist for years. He is thought to have millions of victims. Koh is definitely one of the most unsettling creatures ever created for Avatar: The Last Airbender, and though he has few appearances, he made a big impression.
17. Are You Afraid Of Owls? How About Snakes?
Wan Shi Tong, better known to fans as “the freaky giant shape-shifting owl thing that gave me nightmares,” is a great knowledge spirit who built a magnificent library, filling it with books from all four nations. The idea was that humans were supposed to better themselves through learning, but instead began to abuse the knowledge in the library for warfare and destruction. This caused Wan Shi Tong to bury his library in the desert and distrust all humans.
When Team Avatar finds the library, they barely manage to bargain their way in past the spirit by convincing him that they mean no harm. As you might imagine, he isn’t too happy upon discovering Sokka and the other’s plan to use the information they obtained in the library to invade the Fire Nation. He then stretches out his neck until he looks like an unholy owl-snake chimera, then actually tries to eat the cast by hunting them down like wild mice. Nightmare fuel.
16. Betrayal Of A Fire Lord
One of the darkest chapters in the Avatar Universe is the beginning of the Hundred Year War. The Fire Nation once lived in peace with its neighbors, but everything changed with the reign of Fire Lord Sozin, the childhood friend of Roku. Though Sozin characterized his launching of the war as wanting to share the prosperity and civilization of the Fire Nation with the rest of the world, what he really wanted wasn’t an equal sharing of culture and knowledge, but complete domination of the other three nations.
Roku, who became the Avatar, opposed Sozin’s plan for world conquest, leading to a confrontation where Roku spared his old friend’s life. Despite this, when they met again many years later Sozin left his old friend to die in a volcanic eruption. Without the Avatar to stop him, Sozin was able to fulfill his plans, plunging the world into an age of darkness and warfare that would last a century. Sozin’s betrayal and decline from cheerful, good-hearted guy to sneering, power-hungry imperialist is one of the most emotional moments of the series.
15. Yes, Even Bending Itself
The bending arts, or the ability to bend elements to the user’s will, are the center of the Avatar Universe. The elements in Avatar are based on the ancient Greek concept of earth, water, fire, and air, being the four elements that make up all matter. Each element corresponds to a method of bending and a particular nation: the Water Tribe is associated with waterbending, while the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads are all associated with the bending of their chosen element.
Being able to manipulate and conjure fire or your element of choice sounds like a childhood fantasy come true. But it also has its darker side. It gives great power and great ability to cause murder and havoc. Notably, most of the rulers of the world are benders. Each of the four arts also has a “dark” form such as lightning, metalbending, and bloodbending. It’s kind of terrifying how much destruction real-life benders could cause.
14. Life Is Feudal
There are some fantasy worlds that make us wish they were real, perhaps that we could even live in them ourselves. Then there’s the Avatar Universe. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’d love to be a bender as much as the next guy and there are far worse fantasy worlds (Westeros comes to mind), but let’s look at the larger picture here. Existing in the world of Avatar would be pretty difficult for your average twenty-first-century person, seeing as how the entire world is semi-feudal.
Aside from the relatively industrialized Fire Nation, the Southern and Northern Water Tribes are…well, tribal, the Air Nomads were communal but are now extinct, and the Earth Kingdom is also under the rule of a monarch. Even in the cosmopolitan city of Ba Sing Se, living in the world of Avatar would mean that the wonder of bending would exist, but it would also mean living as a peasant under the rule of kings and landlords for anyone who wasn’t the Avatar and his friends. Are we willing to take up bending at the expense of modern medicine, transportation, and the wonders of technology? Good question.
13. Swamped With Fear
In “The Swamp,” Aang and his friends find themselves lost and separated in a mysterious swamp. As our heroes struggle to find each other, they begin to see illusions in the swamp. All the members of Team Avatar are haunted by visions of people they’ve lost. Sokka sees Princess Yue, Katara sees her dead mother, and Aang sees a mysterious giggling girl. Though the Foggy Swamp itself is said to possess deep spiritual qualities and has lessons to teach our main characters, it also seems self-aware and malevolent. In fact, the swamp is described as one vast living superorganism.
While Huu the waterbender was able to reach enlightenment beneath the roots of the ancient banyan-grove tree at the center of the swamp, chances are most of us would never want to go near Foggy Swamp. Not only are visions of the past, present, and future common in the swamp, it even affects weather patterns, causing an enigmatic climate around it. As such, it is considered a Spirit Wild.
12. Uncontrollable Feelings
The Avatar State is the ultimate power of the Avatar, allowing them access to the knowledge and strength of all their collective past lives. It allows the Avatar to channel cosmic energies and perform extraordinary feats of bending in combat that they haven’t learned in their own lifetime. Of course, the Avatar State is an involuntary defense mechanism, and the Avatar has no conscious control over the resulting actions. It is possible to learn to control the State, but it requires years of great spiritual training and patient meditation to master it.
Throughout the series, the Avatar State is a dangerous and unpredictable weapon. When it’s used it acts as a force of nature, destroying everything in its path. What’s especially disturbing about the Avatar State is the fact that they seem fueled by frenzied rage, and even peace-loving personalities like Aang are transformed into a monstrous, unstoppable force with glowing eyes and a demonic voice.
11. Big Brother Is Watching You
Ba Sing Se, the legendary capital city of Earth Kingdom, was built up as the last great stronghold untouched by the Fire Nation. When Team Avatar finally arrives in Book Two: Earth, they quickly suspect something isn’t right. Eventually, they discover the horrifying truth. The Dai Li (the secret police), use torture, disappearances, brainwashing, and other techniques to enforce a repressive peace.
The Dai Li are the real rulers of Ba Sing Se and the Earth Kingdom, secretly collaborating with the Fire Nation and Azula to keep the population ignorant of the Hundred Year War. The Dai Li are not just creepy but also highly corruptible, first swearing loyalty to Grand Secretariat Long Feng, then Azula. They were able to capture, interrogate, and imprison political prisoners, without due process or anything close to a trial, and were able to brainwash people completely or use them as sleeper agents triggered into obedience by certain phrases. Creepy stuff.
10. A Steep Price To Pay
Chronologically, Aang is the second oldest known Avatar at 166 years old, only surpassed by Kyoshi, who lived to an impressive 230 years old. But anyone who’s seen the first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender knows that Aang’s age is more complicated than that, since he was encased in a submerged iceberg for 100 years. It’s clearly stated that Aang died from natural causes, but at 66 he didn’t grow to be very old like some of his predecessors or his friends (some of whom are still alive by the time of The Legend of Korra.
The reason why is rather sad. The physical trauma of being frozen in ice for a century while he was in the Avatar State simply drained his life force and shortened the rest of his lifespan. Biologically he was only 66 when he died, and only 12 years old when he met Katara and Sokka for the first time. In terms of the date of his birth, however, he was 112 years old at the beginning of the series.
9. Ramblings Of A Mad Woman
Azula was raised in just about the most dysfunctional family situation imaginable. As a firebending child prodigy, Ozai favored her over her screw-up older brother. Azula was twisted right from the beginning, inheriting her father’s cold perfectionism and obsession with power. Azula is a disturbing character due to her cruelty, including watching in glee as her father was punished by her sadistic grandfather Azulon, taunting Zuko by saying their father was going to kill him, and playing a fiery version of “William Tell” with her friends.
Azula watched with satisfaction on her face as Ozai horribly burned Zuko’s face in a duel, leaving him with his trademark scar. Towards the end of Season 3, she becomes increasingly paranoid and psychotic, and starts seeing hallucinations of her mother. By the time she confronts Katara and Zuko, she has a complete mental breakdown. What’s disturbing about this is that Azula is 14, barely a teenager and already showing megalomania, cruelty, and severe mental illness, which is pretty heavy stuff.
8. Life Moves On
There’s a famous episode in Season 2 called, “Tales of Ba Sing Se.” On the surface it’s a series of mini-stories surrounding several of our main characters, but the most famous part goes to Iroh. In one of the most powerful stories on Avatar. Iroh interacts with the locals in Ba Sing Se, then goes up on a hill to hold a picnic under a tree with a picture of his dead son. We can feel Iroh’s deep sorrow as he celebrates his son’s birthday without him there, and tearfully sings a song about returning soldiers. To make the episode even more tearjerking, it’s dedicated to Mako Iwamatsu, Iroh’s late voice actor, whose name appears at the end.
It’s a simple, yet heartbreaking scene, and it’s effective because it makes us realize that the world of Avatar is torn apart by war, and there are probably thousands, if not millions, of stories like Iroh’s. Just how many people have suffered and died during the Hundred Year War? It’s likely that we’ll never know, but with so much bloodshed in their history, it’s likely that all four nations are now haunted by the past.
7. Evil In The Flesh
What really needs to be said about the “big bad” of the series, who is voiced to chilling perfection by none other than Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame? Never has the phrase “cackling embodiment of evil” been so apt to describe a character. Ozai is driven by ambition and cared little for family, friends, or human life in general. He sought to bring about his father’s and grandfather’s plan to conquer the world to fruition.
Avatar‘s creators knew how to build up the mystique around Ozai. Throughout the first two seasons, we were only given brief glimpses of him, always in shadow and usually surrounded by bright flames. But when we finally did to get see him, instead of a monster, we saw a normal human being. The revelation that the dreaded Fire Lord is only a man, after all, doesn’t make him any less intimidating. In fact, it makes him more terrifying.
6. Terror At Boiling Rock
Everyone knows the Fire Nation has more than its share of dark secrets, and among them is the terrifying concept of Boiling Rock. The impenetrable maximum-security prison was where Ozai housed prisoners of war, dangerous criminals, and traitors. Boiling Rock stands on a volcanic island in the middle of an actually boiling lake. Unsurprisingly, the prison is infamous for its unsuccessful escape attempts. The two-parter episode “The Boiling Rock” is partially inspired by Alcatraz Island and the film The Great Escape, about British POWs escaping a Nazi camp during World War II (which is pretty intense for a kid’s show).
If that wasn’t adult, enough, Boiling Rock has a cruel warden who verbally and physically abuses the prisoners and locks firebenders in solitary confinement cells called “coolers,” where they are kept at freezing temperatures as punishment. The coolers are so traumatic they take away their firebending for a week afterward.
5. Iroh The Creeper
Uncle Iroh is hands down one of the best characters in Avatar. He’s wise, he’s inspiring, he’s sage-like in his storytelling, and overall he’s a genuinely likable guy (especially thanks to the calming vocal talents of his late voice actor, Mako Iwamatsu). He’s also funny. Iroh is an amazing character that never gives up on his lost, angry, and hurting nephew Zuko, and becomes more of a father figure to him than his real father ever was.
That being said, it’s time to admit that like any human being (or well-developed character), Iroh does have his flaws. One of them is that there are hints he’s a bit of a creep. This is seen when Iroh and Zuko meet up with June, a beautiful bounty hunter. Iroh is shown to be a bit of a flirt with her, even pretending to be paralyzed by her pet’s venom along with her so he can lay down close to the much younger woman. Iroh, that’s a bit creepy man, come on.
4. We’ve Only Got One Shot
The world of Avatar: The Last Airbender involves a chosen person called the Avatar who is the only being with the ability to bend all four elements. The mission of the Avatar is to be the embodiment of light and peace and basically all that’s good in the world, but also to maintain balance among the four nations of the world as well as between mankind and the spirit world. But there are serious problems with one blessed individual having this kind of power.
If the Avatar is ever lost it seems like the world would be subject to the oppressors of their era. When Aang was trapped in the iceberg for a century, it allowed the Fire Nation to invade and conquer many other lands and led to the genocide of one people and near-genocide of two others. It doesn’t feel reassuring that the whole world is essentially dependent on this one individual to maintain peace.
3. Forced Child Soldiers
Because he’s the Avatar in the middle of a terrible war, Aang has some pretty heavy burdens on his shoulders. Towards the end of the series, he faces a serious moral dilemma. Everyone in the world is depending on him to kill Fire Lord Ozai in order to bring peace to the world. While it seems the right thing to do in the face of all the suffering and death Ozai has caused, Aang isn’t a killer and admits to disliking violence. He’s even a vegetarian.
Moral quandaries with killing your opponent aren’t new, but here’s the thing: Aang is 12 years old. Yes, he’s the Avatar and has the wisdom of his ancestors, but physically, emotionally, and mentally, Aang is still a kid, and the entire world is depending on him to fight and kill someone. It becomes more disturbing when you realize that in spite of everything they went through, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Zuko, Azula, and many other characters are just teenagers.
2. Don’t Go Into The Fog
The desolate place, the Fog of Lost Souls, is basically a prison within the Spirit World of Avatar. Though it only appears once, the Fog leaves a big impression on the viewer and on Aang. There’s a sentient otherworldly fog in it that can read the minds of individuals trapped in it, and like the wizard prison Azkaban in Harry Potter, drives them mad by imprisoning them in their own darkest memories.
It’s clear the Spirit World of Avatar does not mess around when it comes to punishment. Following the battle in the North in 100 AG, Admiral Zhao of the Fire Nation was imprisoned by Lathe Ocean Spirit in the Fog of Lost Souls for killing the Tui, Moon Spirit. What’s disturbing is that Zhao is shown to have gone mad due to his endless pursuit of Avatar Aang in the fog, even mistaking Tenzin for an older version of Aang in his desperation to capture him.
1. A Forbidden Practice
Waterbending is primarily shown as a defensive and healing art in Avatar. It’s an adaptable and diverse power that gives the bender power over water in all its forms, including vapor, liquid, and ice. Of course, all living things are made of water, and this was a fact that didn’t escape the show’s creators. In the episode “The Puppetmaster,” widely considered one of the darker episodes of Avatar famous for having elements of a horror film (It was released as a 2007 Halloween special), they introduced the most disturbing part of the Avatar Universe: bloodbending.
Bloodbending is when waterbenders actually control the fluids inside another living being and turn them into their puppet. The sudden, jerky movements when someone is a victim of bloodbending are unnatural and horrifying to see. You can almost feel the victim’s fear and pain as their bodies are taken over, and the movements themselves look painful. Things get scarier when Hama, the seriously creepy old lady who poses as a friend, bloodbends Aang and Sokka, and Katara has to bloodbend Hama to stop her. The famous ending to the episode has Hama saying her work is done, congratulating Katara on being a bloodbender.
The implications of Katara learning the dark art are seriously messed up and she knows it, and that’s what truly makes bloodbending the most disturbing aspect of the Avatar world.
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