Before we start, I know what you’re thinking: a Halloween article in November? One may think I’m getting to this late, but I prefer to say I’m getting a head start on next year’s celebrations.
Like death, taxes and tax evasion, the Simpsons’ Halloween special is an inevitability. Every year since the show’s second season, the cartoon has presented short stories themed around the holiday. While the collection is known as “Treehouse of Horror,” this was not the official name of the special until the 20th entry. Every title card before the special was simply referred to as “The Simpsons Halloween Special.”
I watched all of them.
Let’s break down the structure of these specials. Typically, there is an introduction to the episode, sometimes setting up a framing device that shows the sketches as stories told by characters. This framing structure was abandoned early on in the history of the specials. Then, we get to the stories which are often parodies of horror movies. The Simpsons’ 34-seasons run is famous for its commentary on a variety of films, television shows, real-life events and classic horror literature such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Plus, the Halloween specials are famous for their alien running gag. They were in the first, and now we’re stuck with them, whether they contribute to the plot or not. It’s mostly the latter.
There is a lot of gore in the earlier specials that seems shocking by modern standards. Through the years, it’s become much less intense. While watching the specials, I ran into one themed around Thanksgiving. Somehow, this Thanksgiving special was the most gruesome and terrifying in years, with lots of blood and gore featured in the episode. Ironic, considering it wasn’t even an official Halloween special.
This year’s special was preceded by another spooky parody: “Not IT,” a spoof on Stephen King’s “IT,” featuring Springfield’s resident clown Krusty as Pennywise. “Treehouse of Horror XXXIII” itself is a traditional special, parodying Death Note, Westworld and the Babadook. But I didn’t just watch the most recent Halloween special, I watched all of them and have some thoughts on the collection.
My favorite parody is “The Shinning” in “Treehouse of Horror V,” based on Stephen King’s “The Shining” and Kubrick’s movie adaptation. The parody is successful in ways that others fail: While some of the homages retell the story in a funny way without regard to how the Simpsons characters would act, this particular parody felt accurate to both its inspiration and The Simpsons characters.
My favorite non-parody was “Life’s a Glitch, Then You Die,” from “Treehouse of Horrors X” focusing on the Y2K crisis. While it certainly dates the sketch, it can serve as a time capsule of sorts, reminding older viewers of what the late 90s were like and making younger audiences curious about the time period.
My favorite alien story was “Hungry Are The Damned,” from the first Halloween special. Sadly, I feel this was the peak for alien characters Kang and Kodos. It’s the only episode where the aliens feel like real characters rather than shoe-horned in spoofs or simple stand-ins for generic non-human creatures.
Was it easy to watch all of these specials? Yes, obviously. It’s watching TV. Would I recommend it, though? Not necessarily. The episodes become predictable at some point. Certain sketches stand out, but overall they’re rooted in the time they were made. My advice is to watch them as they air, and if you rewatch the old ones, just have Google ready for some of the jokes.
You can bet I’ll tune in next year and every year after that.