Halloween? Bah humbug.
Oh, I don’t mind the wee ghosts and goblins on my doorstep with parents in their shadows: pint-sized monsters themselves mustering the nerve to shout "Trick or treat!" with outstretched pillowcases before retreating to safety. But the older kids with lurid costumes and bloody weapons I find sad and disturbing; and by the time the high-school hooligans start coming around with no more concession to holiday tradition than a football jersey and a serious determination to extort candy from me and my neighbors, I’ve got about as much Halloween spirit as a Jehovah’s Witness. And these days, with the commercialization of Halloween approaching that of Christmas itself, with outdoor lights, orange and black, and tacky front-yard displays, my cynicism has taken on Scrooge-like proportions.
Then, of course, there are those who claim that Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with Halloween at all. Popular Fundamentalist "histories" of Halloween and of jack-o’lanterns and trick-or-treating attribute it all to paganism (or to Catholicism, which in Fundamentalist eyes can amount to the same thing). And of course the neo-pagans are only too happy to try to claim Halloween as their own.
But I’m equally cynical about all of this. I’ve never been able to find any compelling historical evidence that Halloween has ever been anything other than All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints Day. The trick-or-treating and jack-o’lantern customs come from Catholic Ireland and also Protestant Scotland, and don’t exist outside the British Isles and English-speaking Christendom. (Anyway, even if there were something to the pagan-origins theory, few Christians would be moved by fears of "pagan origins" to avoid wearing a wedding ring, or using the proper names of the days of the week and planets.)
On the other hand, not even the neo-pagans like everything about Halloween. Lately in my area we’ve been seeing those "flying-broomstick wipeout" lawn props — a witch’s arms and legs wrapped around a tree trunk, pointy hat and broomstick sticking out from behind. Myself I actually kind of like them; and the fact that some Wiccans find them distasteful fills me with such holiday spirit that I almost want to get one for my own tree.
Like the gargoyles and grotesques on medieval cathedrals, these kitchy flattened hags evoke for me what I think of as the best sort of Halloween spirit: a kind of satiric defiance. "The devil," St. Thomas More tells us, "the prowde spirit… cannot endure to be mocked." Properly viewed, a jack-o’lantern or a child’s monster mask, like a Gothic grotesque, is not a concession to superstition, but a dismissal of it: It proclaims that we are not afraid. Far from glorifying evil, it caricatures it in such a way as to pay oblique tribute to the straight and true. Think of the upside-down values of the Addams Family, or Far Side cartoons that deal with the grotesque or uncanny. Real evil isn’t anything like that. Of course real good isn’t anything like that either; but it’s real good — not real evil — that provides the point of contrast that makes the skewed caricature interesting. No one looks at the Addams Family thinking about how the Addamses compare or contrast with the Manson family; the point is how they compare and contrast with an ordinary family.
The same is true of The Nightmare Before Christmas, an entertainingly warped holiday fable that pays tribute to the cheery charm of the Santa Claus myth as well as the spooky thrills of Halloween’s ghosts and ghouls. Based upon a short composition from the tangled mind of filmmaker Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas has been described by James Berardinelli as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas thrown into reverse"; since The Grinch is about a grouchy creature who tries to ruin Christmas and ends up making it better, whereas Nightmare is about a jolly spook who tries to improve Christmas and ends up nearly ruining it.
Like the children’s holiday TV-special staples — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town — to which Burton’s film pays twisted homage, Nightmare is a musical work of stop-motion animation. Unlike traditional hand-drawn animation or the computer animation of the Toy Story films, stop-motion involves real objects in real space under real lighting, resulting in a solider-looking, more richly textured world. (Claymation, the process used to create the worlds of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit, is a form of stop-motion animation.)
The resulting film, although not for everyone, is a wonder to behold. An otherworldly landscape out of Dr. Seuss or Krazy Kat has been populated with astonishingly inventive and bizarre creatures reminiscent of the art of Edward Gorey or Charles Addams. From a wheelchair-bound mad scientist who pops open his skullcap and scratches his brains as another man might scratch his head, to a literally two-faced mayor whose head swivels freely to present either of two visages, to the Pumpkin King himself, Jack Skellington, with his impossibly attenuated limbs, baseball skull with its stitch of a mouth, and Fred Astaire wardrobe and grace of movement, Nightmare is visually dazzling. The edgy Danny Elfman score, while not always hummable, is nicely evocative, and Elfman himself provides Jack Skellington’s beautifully modulated singing voice.
"You’ve probably wondered where holidays come from / If not, I’d say it’s time you’d begun!" With these opening lines, the film begins in a magical "wood between worlds" with a ring of doors in various holiday shapes — a Christmas tree, a Valentine’s Day heart, an Easter egg, a Thanksgiving turkey, and of course a Halloween jack-o’lantern — that open up onto fairylands devoted to their respective holidays. And, behind the jack-o’lantern door, we find "Halloweentown" in full swing on the spookiest night of the year.
Afterwards, Jack Skellington, creative leader of Halloweentown, is suffering post-holiday blues. "Year after year, it’s the same routine / And I grow so tired of the sound of screams," he laments. Then, aimlessly wandering for the first time out of Halloweentown, Jack comes out into the wood between holiday worlds, and stumbles into Christmastown, where he finds the brightly colored North-Pole workshop of Santa himself. He’s beside himself with excitement and wonder: "What’s this? What’s this? There’s color everywhere," he sings. "Everybody seems so happy / Have I possibly gone daffy?"
Regalvanized, Jack returns to Halloweentown, eager to share his vision. Yet Christmas cheer is lost upon the denizens of Halloweentown, who can’t quite see the point of nailing a stocking to the wall unless it’s still got a foot in it. Still, they willingly get behind Jack’s new vision. Only Sally, the shapely rag doll, has a dark foreboding that neither Christmas nor Halloween will be well served by a collision between the two.
Despite the macabre humor, there’s something touchingly innocent about Halloweentown. Its inhabitants live for fear and thrills, yet there’s no real malice in any of them — with the exception of a sort of Halloween outlaw named Mr. Oogie Boogie and his three young protégés. You’d think that in Halloweentown the Bogey-man himself would be an upstanding citizen, but no: He’s the only Halloweener who has no respect for Jack; and Jack has none for him.
What about Santa Claus and Christmastown? Without going into details, the first time I saw Nightmare I felt that Santa Claus had been a bit short-changed; but that perception has been mitigated on subsequent viewings. Christmastown is delightful, and Santa himself, though more passive than I might have liked, retains his dignity, and easily deals with the consequences of Jack’s actions in the "real world."
There’s even a touch of Christian imagery. At the moment Jack realizes he’s made a ghastly mistake (as opposed to a ghastly success), he finds himself falling out of the sky; and he lands, appropriately enough, in a graveyard. Yet he is caught by the outstretched arms of a stone angel holding an open book — a hint of grace and the promise of a second chance.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.