Halloween is a time when regular folk allow themselves to see the world as us horror lovers do – weird and wonderful, sinister mischief with tongue in cheek under (and over) tones. They watch that scary movie they’ve been meaning to get to for the past year, string up skeletons, and parade around at office parties in the latest ironic costumes (expect tons of Trumps and Weiners this year). But for the fearful faithful, this is our workaday; we watch the films daily, display our rooms with terror trinkets, and dress up as our favourite icons at constant conventions around the globe. So what separates the actual day of Halloween from our normal routine? TV viewing, of course.
‘Tis the season when every station trots out horror programming, sometimes for weeks on end leading up to and including the big night. A lot of this is for Johnny and Jane Casual; not that we don’t enjoy tuning into Jason’s hijinks or watching Michael (nearly) perish in that hospital explosion, but sometimes we like to turn away from the usual fare – and take in content made exclusively for the tube.
So for fun I thought I’d throw together a little list of some favourites of mine, and to be fair it’s a mix of the familiar and hopefully a couple off the beaten path. I hope that not only Johnny and Jane find something here to enjoy, but especially my grizzled gore soaked comrades. And here’s a surprise: apparently a lot of my fave TV viewing skews towards animated, and geared for the young at heart. What can I say? Halloween gives me the warm spider fuzzies. Let’s do this!
THE HALLOWEEN TREE: Based on the 1972 fantasy novel by Ray Bradbury, this animated feature, produced by Hanna-Barbera, debuted on TBS in October 1993. Narrated by Bradbury himself, with Leonard Nimoy providing the voice of guide/antagonist Carapace Moundshroud, THE HALLOWEEN TREE is practically Bradbury’s take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL, with a group of kids being shown the origins of Halloween traditions throughout history, in order to save their friend who lies in mortal danger. Full of knowledge and peril, the Emmy winning telefilm passes on some good lessons of loyalty and friendship, and only loses marks for Hanna-Barbera’s inability to animate the material at the proper level it deserves.
IT’S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN: Okay, I’m sure everyone has seen this one, and probably several times – that certainly hasn’t lessened its charms. First shown on CBS October 27th, 1966 (50 years ago? Yikes!), PUMPKIN was aired annually on CBS until 2000, at which point ABC assumed the mantle until this very day. And as sure as Linus waits expectantly in the patch for the Great Pumpkin to arrive, future generations will (hopefully) continue to support the melancholy magic that is the PEANUTS gang. Charlie may have received rocks from trick or treating, but the audience’s bag is always filled with goodies.
THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, AKA ICHABOD CRANE: Ah, Disney. They really liked to stick it to kids in their old cartoons, didn’t they? If you were a youngster, you probably stumbled across this gem on the Disney Channel. Originally released theatrically in 1949 as a double cartoon along with another animated film based on the children’s book The Wind in the Willows, “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” was split into separate shorts in 1955, leaving Washington Irving’s classic tale of schoolmaster Ichabod’s encounter with the Headless Horseman as the flat out winner come TV viewing in October. Brilliantly animated, and paced like a proto-Evil Dead, THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW resonates with every child who’s ever had to walk home after dark. Disney creepy is still damn creepy.
ALICE COOPER: THE NIGHTMARE: Before KISS and way before Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper brought an over the top theatricality to their Stones infused shock and roll. When singer Vincent Furnier adopted the name of the band and went solo, he immediately made his mark with the massive success of 1975’s Welcome to my Nightmare, a concept album about a little boy named Steven, who has some troubling dreams. Cooper always envisioned it as a multimedia project, and the album’s good fortune afforded him the opportunity. So off he went to ABC and produced ALICE COOPER: THE NIGHTMARE, creating a separate music video for each song on the album with connective narration by one of Cooper’s idols, Vincent Price. Lasting 66 minutes, the special aired on April 25, 1975 and continued to be a Halloween special for some ensuing years. The concept of a ”video album” was new; and while the show certainly shows its age with interpretive dance, fog, and tappin’ skeletons, Cooper rolled the bones and came up with an entertaining, vaude-ghoullian special for the burgeoning video age. Killer tunes, too.
TREEHOUSE OF HORROR: Oh, how could I leave out the Simpsons’ Halloween episodes? Starting in Season 2 (1990), it was first called THE SIMPSONS HALLOWEEN SPECIAL, and then the show adopted the moniker TREEHOUSE OF HORROR with subsequent numerals the following year. Fans fell in love with these omnibus episodes, often lampooning sci-fi and horror standards while keeping them separate from the Simpsons’ established animated universe. In other words, anything could (and usually does) happen to the beloved citizens of Springfield, including axe attacks, immolation, bisections, trisections; hell, all the sections. The writers pay homage to classic tropes while putting a unique spin on each tale; the ingenuity seems to bother some fans who don’t like this world tampered with, but most are completely on board with the anything goes approach. I’m not sure why people fret – everyone is back in one piece by the following week’s episode. My favourite year? TREEHOUSE OF HORROR V. Because “The Shinning”, that’s why.
THE PAUL LYNDE HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: Pet rocks. Polyester. Disco. The Apocalypse? Nah, just the ‘70s! It was a weird time culturally, especially on TV; gaudy wasn’t a dirty word, it was the word. Anything went, and everything was tried – singing Mormon siblings (Donny & Marie), ex-spouses co-hosting variety shows (Sonny & Cher – twice! Once while married, once divorced), and anyone popular enough on a show got a chance to host their own variety special. Enter Paul Lynde, whose claim to fame at the time was being ‘center square’ on the immensely popular game show The Hollywood Squares. Lynde was a well-known Broadway performer (and was a huge hit as Uncle Arthur on the sitcom Bewitched) before joining THS in ’66; his sardonic, sniggering answers and quick wit quickly became the highlight of the show, and made him a solid choice to host his own special.
Nothing epitomized the pot luck programming of the ‘70s like this particular show did (one and only airdate: October 29th, 1976 – 40 years ago? Double yikes!); trapped in a cob webbed castle, Lynde has encounters with the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, Witchiepoo from warped kids’ show H.R. Pufnstuf, Carol Burnett regular Tim Conway, Billy Barty, and to complete the unholy synergy of the decade, Betty White and KISS, who perform three songs. (Not together of course; however, that wouldn’t have been out of step in a Love Boat world.)
Well, these are a few shows I still hold dear. I ended with the above curiosity because a) it’s a lot of goofy Halloween fun; and b) it just goes to show that programs like American Horror Story haven’t cornered the TV market on weird, nor did they create it. Halloween TV viewing exists to spotlight the odd; and while most of us perpetually celebrate the wonderfully macabre, I’m perfectly fine with it getting its very own day. Happy Halloween, everyone!Next: It Came From The Tube: MIDNIGHT OFFERINGS (1981)