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The new year brings a significant change for the first version of Mickey Mouse, known as “Steamboat Willie.” The earliest rendition of the character, from the 1928 short film by the same name, entered the public domain on January 1, 2024, along with the other original characters from the short film, including the first iteration of Minnie Mouse.

Hours after the copyright on “Steamboat Willie” expired, because US law allows copyrights to be held for a maximum of 95 years, several companies announced their intentions to create their derivative works using the newly public domain character — in horror video games and movies.

So, should parents be concerned about weird, off-brand versions of Mickey Mouse? The short answer is yes! Here’s what’s going on with various horror-themed versions of Mickey Mouse, including video games and movies galore.

Why did Disney let this happen to Steamboat Willie?

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Public domain copyright laws are weird. When certain things are super old, they become part of the “public domain,” meaning anybody can do anything they want with certain fictional characters. To an extent, this is why both Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. played Sherlock Holmes in different projects around the same time. (Though that’s a bit more complicated.) But, it’s also why nobody was sued when 10 Things I Hate About You re-made Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare has been in the public domain for ages.

So, essentially, Disney wasn’t legally able to extend the copyright of this version of Mickey Mouse, the one that appeared in “Steamboat Willie.” This nitty-gritty hair-splitting of certain versions of characters being in the public domain, while the rest of the media is still protected happens all the time. Again, the character of Sherlock Holmes has been in the public domain for a while, but not all the stories were, until somewhat recently. So, Disney didn’t create or authorize any of these new horror-focused Mickey Mouse products. It’s just that the Mickey from “Steamboat Willie” has now legally passed into the public domain.

The Mickey Mouse Horror Game, explained

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Nightmare Forge Games announced their intentions to create a horror/survival video game with Steamboat Willie as the center character for its game. This game had alleged Nazi coding, which led Nightmare Forge Games to release a statement on social media stating that any potentially coded or inferred references were unintentional. “Our game Infestation 88 is set in the 1980s, with the year 1988 chosen simply due to its symmetrical design in the game’s artwork/logo,” it said. They retitled the game to Infestation: Origins.

While horror/survival video games like Infestation are unlikely to be marketed towards children, the use of a typical children’s character like Steamboat Willie, is made more problematic because he looks so much like the Mickey Mouse character we know today. Parents can already see the problem: A child could think Infestation is a kids’ game because it has Mickey Mouse in it.

Two Mickey Mouse Horror Movies, explained

In the coming year or two, families should also be on the lookout for two Mickey Mouse-themed horror movies. The first already has a trailer, and it’s called Mickey’s Mouse Trap. This is an indie-slasher in which someone dressed as the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse is terrorizing people at an amusement park.

Additionally, another Mickey-centric horror movie is coming from the same director as The Mean One, Steven LaMorte. The Mean One was a Grinch horror remake, decidedly not aimed at kids. Mickey’s Mouse Trap is expected to release sometime in March, and will likely be aimed at a similar market as the Winnie-the-Pooh horror movie, and The Mean One.

What can parents do to avoid the horror Mickey Mouse?

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Parents have had to dodge off-brand imposters of various beloved characters for a while. On some level, this happened in 2017 with Elsagate — at a time when YouTube and YouTube Kids were rampant with videos categorized as “child-friendly,” starring off-brand, illegally used beloved Disney characters filled with very non-child-friendly themes. This problem only continued in 2023 with disgusting faux-Bluey content also popping up on YouTube.

While some aspects of YouTube are okay, YouTube is a place where kids can easily and accidentally stumble upon the worst versions of their favorite things. The trailer for Mickey’s Mouse Trap is already on YouTube, and there’s a good chance that searching “Steamboat Willie” on YouTube will bring all sorts of unsavory results in the months and years to come.

So, what’s the solution? If your kids need their Mickey Mouse fix, stick to Disney+ or the actual Disney Channel. If you must let your kids use YouTube unsupervised, then you have to stick to the actual Disney YouTube Channels, with Disney Junior being your safest best.

And to those parents who want to watch the Mickey Mouse horror movies: knock yourself out. We just have to recommend that the kids never, ever get this stuff confused for the real thing.