Appreciating Halloween specials

Illustration by Miceal Munroe-Allsup

By Sandy Grossman

The Halloween special is a noble television tradition, one that long went overshadowed by the barrage of Christmas programming that inevitably follows a few months after. Classics like “Alvin and the Chipmunks meet the Wolfman,” which may not be quite as good as I remember, or the “Goosebumps” two-parter “The Haunted Mask,” which is certainly as good as I remember, were skipped over while audiences immediately and inexplicably fell in love with the dreary mediocrity of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Seeing as I never celebrated Christmas, I was starved for holiday content and a kid can only watch the “Rugrats” Chanukah episode so many times. So I turned to the one thing that could fill the dreidel-shaped hole in my heart: the Halloween special.

It was not until the premiere of “The Simpsons’” first “Treehouse of Horror” episode in 1990 that the Halloween special began to garner the respect that it had long been denied. Though they weren’t uncommon throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes set a new standard for the Halloween special. The anthology format, inspired by shows like “The Twilight Zone” and the pulp comic books of the 1950s, allowed writers to explore the strange, stupid or absurd with greater ease as each story was not burdened by the structure of a traditional 22-minute episode.

Recent years have brought us a few more great specials as well. Watching Jake’s Halloween bet with Captain Holt devolve into chaos each year on “Brooklyn 99” is a consistent good time. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Community” both brought us great episodes about Halloween parties gone wrong. But by far the best contemporary example is Cartoon Network’s “Over the Garden Wall,” the alternately serene, funny, and unsettling journey of two stepbrothers who find themselves stuck in a strange autumnal landscape. While not part of any larger series and not technically released until after Halloween in 2014, the ten episode run tells an appropriately seasonal and eerie tale, so it seems fitting to speak of it in the same breath as “Treehouse of Horror.” The beautifully atmospheric animation and music serve to perfectly sell the tone of the piece, painting an impossibly idyllic vision of fall. The world is compelling, the characters charming, and the emotional beats incredibly mature for what is ostensibly a children’s show. “Over the Garden Wall” is exactly the kind of thing I would have loved growing up, but something I can appreciate just as much today.

Then there’s “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” or any number of direct-to-video Scooby Doo outings, all of which I keep by the VCR throughout October. Each fits somewhere in the long, mixed and probably inconsequential history of the Halloween special. Even if most forget them by the end of November, they will all live on in my memory and parents’ garage.

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