So, I’m going to use the quasi-existence of “Aprilween” (i.e., a made-up horror-themed holiday halfway between each Halloween) as an excuse to continue my proposed series of Simpsons analyses. Every time I watch one of the show’s many, many great episodes, I just have an urge to talk about it – to figure out what the writers and animators did to make it so fucking brilliant. There’s so much going on in each 22-minute selection, such a talented collaborative balancing of social satire, emotional realism, and absurd animation. Single minutes of the show at its prime can unload so much comedy and pathos and subtle creative tricks you’re not entirely aware of that it makes your head spin.
And even while still fitting in all of this, the show occasionally took total departures from reality. Every October (or, more likely, early November) they would, and still do, put forward a Treehouse of Horror episode. They were continuity-free triptychs full of gore & violence, but still with the show’s usual abundance of verbal and visual jokes. But they went places (like hell and outer space) that normal episodes generally couldn’t. They allowed the show to disregard all pretenses of realism and dive into apocalyptic nightmares and carefree killing sprees, often within in a parody of a Twilight Zone episode or a classic horror movie. Anyone could die. Any institution could be dismantled. Basically, it was The Simpsons‘ horror-themed equivalent of DC’s non-canon Elseworlds series, or Marvel’s What If.
Plenty of full episodes or individual segments would’ve been worthy of closer inspection. (Although, as with the rest of the series, quality tends to drop off when you move past season 9-10.) “The Devil and Homer Simpson” from Treehouse of Horror IV, for example, has Homer trapped in his own ironic hell courtesy of an ironically satanic Ned Flanders. The legendary “Homer³” from VI uses then-revolutionary computer-generated imagery to produce an eerie, self-destructing dimension in which Homer gets trapped. (Homer being trapped in bad places was clearly a persistent theme in these episodes.) But beyond any doubt, the greatest of all 20 Halloween specials is Treehouse of Horror V.
Just as the Halloween episodes take place outside the series’ normal continuity, they also dispense with its conventions. V begins not with the familiar clouds over Springfield, but with Marge announcing that Congress has forbidden them from showing it – this cuts to an Outer Limits-style TV hijacking by Bart and Homer, which introduces the episode – and this segues into a morbid parody of the expected opening, which moves through a graveyard and toward the Simpsons’ house. Pattie and Selma are burnt as witches, Moe hangs himself, and Bart guillotines school employees (including a disturbingly happy Principal Skinner), all of which confirm this as a Springfield in which power structures have been overturned in favor of anarchic violence.
Every dark impulse boiling beneath the show’s day-to-day conflicts is let loose in shockingly literal form. The Treehouse of Horror episodes were not just a little ghoulish fun, but also a blood-spurting catharsis for the show’s whole cast. Secret fears or desires could be voiced without needing to worry about them affecting future episodes. This is especially visible in the episode’s first (and best) segment, a pitch-perfect parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining entitled “The Shinning.” (As Groundskeeper Willie says, “You want to get sued?”) Mr. Burns hires the Simpsons as winter caretakers for his lodge, but not before erasing their access to TV and beer, causing Homer to… “something something.” (“Go crazy?”)
In its imitation of Kubrick’s masterpiece, “The Shinning” brings to mind the infamous mirror routine in the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup. Just as Harpo darts back and forth in a dead-on mockery of Groucho’s mannerisms, so does “The Shinning” invoke all of The Shining‘s most memorable set-pieces, only to deflate their terrifying grandeur and mystery. The gush of blood from the elevator, formerly an enigmatic omen of impending violence, is reduced to a quick joke, as Burns notes, “Usually the blood gets off at the second floor.” And the hedge maze is no longer a site of confusion and danger, as Bart merely chainsaws through it. All these nightmare images look ridiculous when viewed through the Simpsons’ all-American ignorance, just like the “Bad Dream House” from Treehouse of Horror I, which prefers suicide to a life with the insufferably self-absorbed family.
As Ashley and I were discussing earlier, “The Shinning” isn’t just parody for its own sake. It doesn’t even bother with many of The Shining‘s most iconic moments – the occupants of the rooms, Danny on his tricycle, the twin girls – and instead focuses on the analogy of Homer and Jack Torrance as frustrated men within the strictures of the nuclear family. Both become violent under the building’s malevolent influence, but whereas Jack is triggered by drinking, Homer goes crazy when he can’t drink. He’s so dependent on these creature comforts – TV and beer – as escapes from what he would later describe as “the drudgery of work and family” that we can plausibly imagine the Homer we know and love going ax crazy without them. It’s just thrilling how, even in the midst of a hilarious parody, the Simpsons writers are still furthering their vast thesis of Homer as the quintessential American father.
And even while developing Homer’s relationship with TV through parallels to Jack (culminating in the sublime line “Teacher, mother, secret lover…”), this 7-minute segment still finds time for Mr. Burns’ disregard for others’ lives, Marge’s maternal anxiety, Wiggum’s incompetence, the family’s apathy toward Grampa, and Moe’s interminable despair. (Plus a great gag involving assorted movie monsters.) It’s all full of subtle Kubrickian musical and visual cues and intimations of real horror, too. At the very least, it’s very, very high up in the pantheon of Treehouse of Horror segments. At most, it could be 7 of the most effective minutes in American animation. In any case, there’s a lot going on here, and the segment is both a great tribute to the original film, and a great addition to the show’s legacy.
So where to go from there? The next segment, “Time and Punishment,” may not surpass the early peak set by “The Shinning,” but it’s still imaginative and frightening in its own right. It starts out with the Simpson family around the kitchen table on a breathtakingly idyllic morning – when suddenly Lisa screams, “Dad! Your hand is jammed in the toaster!” After some quick effort, he gets it off. Bart screams, “Dad! It’s in there again!” It’s a jarring non sequitur, and a brief exemplar of what horror is all about: the perfect, conflict-free setting, with Homer overstating how happy he is, can turn on a dime into inexplicable, unstoppable chaos. Homer goes downstairs to fix the toaster, only to inadvertently build a time machine. In short, Halloween has let the show throw aside all rules of logic and physics for no good reason. It’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s beautiful.
Granted, I’m a sucker for a good altered timeline story, and “Time and Punishment” is up there with the best of them. Rather than dwell on any linear connection between time periods by having Homer do or undo a specific action, we instead see him fuck up the past through a variety of means – swatting a mosquito, sneezing, sitting on a fish, killing everything in sight – and have each one yield a seemingly random but progressively weirder outcome. One future, for example, has Flanders as Big Brother, giving us a creepy insight into what the friendliest neighborino would do with unquestioned power. Another appears utopian, until Homer fears the loss of another creature comfort (donut) and tragically flees in horror moments before donuts rain from the sky – an ironic Twilight Zone ending tucked inside a wider story.
And the future where Maggie axes Willie in the back before saying, in James Earl Jones’ voice, “This is indeed a disturbing universe”? Funny, yes, but uncanny and off-putting. It also elucidates on the segment’s earlier hints of madness erupting out of normality. Maggie may have been referring to her own alternative universe, or to the Treehouse universe in general, where these flagrant violations of the show’s basic tenets can run wild. After losing all self-control and smashing all the prehistoric flora and fauna he can, Homer is deposited in one last future. It looks and feels like the one he started in, but in the gruesome reveal, his family eats with forked tongues. He shrugs and sighs, “Eh, close enough.”
The tone of compromise in Homer’s voice feels so strange in this otherwise surreal situation. It’s a sign of exhaustion, a willingness to live with a flawed family, a resignation to the absurd that falls halfway between Charles Schulz and Albert Camus. This isn’t just flat-out comedy with the occasional bloody murder – the writers cross through an astonishing amount of emotional territory. While these first two segments are devoted largely to Homer’s alienation as a working father (OK, at least that’s my reading), the last is one for the kids. It’s probably the weakest of the three, but “Nightmare Cafeteria” has some images of unremitting ghoulishness that can still inspire terror in me.
Its storyline couldn’t be simpler: Springfield Elementary’s detentions are overcrowded. Therefore, Skinner schemes to grind students up and serve them for lunch. Eventually he goes so overboard that the vast majority of the student body are herded like cattle, with the last few students (naturally, Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse) strongly aware of what’s in store. It may have a far more traditional narrative and narrower focus than the others, but it also strikes harder at its lone target. From the first moments, the horror of public school begins, as students are crammed into detention rooms so tight that their faces are pressed against the doors.
And this is default from which the episode takes off. Lunch lady Doris’s gripe about “Grade F” meat could easily be a jab at food services in a normal episode, but here it leads into systematic mass murder and cannibalism. Much of the set-up strongly resembles The Simpsons as we know it; this time, it just goes much farther and gets much darker. Skinner and Krabappel’s usual disdain for the students leads them to whole-heartedly embrace this new solution, and we have to wonder: When it’s not Halloween, do they still bear this much hatred? As it is, we immediately believe this over-the-top faculty revenge fantasy. Skinner’s poor excuses, comical in any other setting, become unsettling when applied to Üter’s disappearance (and subsequent transformation into “Üterbraten”).
Marge, meanwhile, offers her children a lesson in self-reliance, simply telling them to “march right back to that school, look them straight in the eye, and say ‘Don’t eat me’!” With Milhouse, they attempt an escape, only for the drooling teachers and staff to corner them with their backs to a giant “Hamilton Beech Student Chopper.” Bart insists, with desperate self-awareness, that something will save them, but no deus ex machina comes. They all fall to their deaths. It’s a child’s bleakest nightmare, when every authority figure has become either useless or predatory, when the place they spend 7 hours each weekday has turned into a death trap. Across the three segments, three major pillars of modern life – family, home, and school – are shown to be insecure from inside or outside threats.
The ending even tops “Nightmare Cafeteria,” by having Bart wake up from his nightmare and be comforted by his family… all of whom are then assailed by fog that turns them inside-out. They dance to “One” from A Chorus Line (a song included earlier in a joke about the Tonys), are joined by an inside-out Groundskeeper Willie (whose repeated axings unify the segments), and sing “Happy Halloween!” as Santa’s Little Helper tears at Bart’s vulnerable organs. The Simpsons, in its lightest episodes, ridiculed the corruption and foolishness of America’s social and moral authorities. Here, at its darkest, it said that the real world was the nightmare – at least on Halloween – and that, as in Kubrick’s films, there is no real fail-safe button for life’s problems.
Whether those problems are addiction-based insanity, an unstable space-time continuum, or hungry school administrators, we may not be able to save ourselves. If possible, as in “Time and Punishment,” we should just cope with them as best we can. The false dream of a solution, as when Marge advises the kids on how not to be eaten, or realizing the lack of one, as when Homer shrugs and goes back to his breakfast, are what provide the episode’s delicious black comedy. Because no part of it really ends satisfactorily. Each segment leaves many unanswered questions, a “…?” hanging uneasily in the air even after the characters have moved on. For me, this gets at what the series, in its most surreal and absurd moments, sees at the bottom of modern existence. It’s “the horror,” as Colonel Kurtz would say.
Normally this vision of horror is sublimated into pure comedy, or into familial melodrama. The desperation each family member feels in their roles is pushed aside, and they continue doing the best they can, (dys)functioning as a single, loving unit within American society. But on Halloween, all these anxieties burst out like xenomorphs, pregnant with fantasies of mutilation and mass murder. These possibilities exist in the unconscious of the show’s normal episodes. Little signs of them are everywhere (and I might write about that sometime). But only in the Treehouse of Horror episodes can they receive their fullest expression, in parodies and nightmares and hypothetical scenarios that are, in the truest sense, horror.