In Praise of the Treehouse of Horror
The Simpsons has been a mainstay in my life for nearly as long as memory serves. I was an impressionable grade-school student when the series first appeared on the fledgling Fox network. My parents being wary of negative values in the media, the show was initially forbidden in our household. Media chatter detailed the rebellious characteristics of Bart and his offish, violent father. My mother would have none of that on our television. It likely didn’t help that George H.W. Bush himself came out against the program’s perceived negative family principles. Sure, my mother was a lifelong Democrat, but she could join in a values crusade with the best of them, much like the church lady down the street (who bore a shocking resemblance to Reverend Lovejoy’s wife).
A few seasons in, my father relented. The water-cooler discussions at work must have enticed him to look into the program. While the show remained rebellious and controversial, critics and viewers alike had begun to see the program’s sharp satire as one of primetime’s best comedies. The Simpsons has remained a mainstay in my life ever since, even if the current seasons are less pleasurable and effective than the ones I watched in my youth. I recorded a short-lived podcast with childhood chums detailing each episode of the series and our memories related to it, so I feel I have some authority (whatever that’s worth) on the shows ups and downs.
The Simpsons plays a noteworthy role during my favorite holiday: Halloween. Perhaps the most pagan of all American traditions, I always enjoyed the day’s connection to fall, harvest, death and darkness. Even if it has become a consumer opus, the remnants of our pre-Christian European traditions still creep through. The very concept that a single day of the year will find the streets haunted by our ancestors produces a cognitive discord that some Christians still recognize as blasphemous.
Every Halloween, The Simpsons release a non-canonical episode that spoofs popular horror stories and films. These episodes, placed under the moniker Treehouse of Horror, have acted as some of my favorites in the series. Since my mother was not keen on an animated comedy program, you can only imagine how she felt about horror movies present in the 1980s. Like many people my age, these Simpson Halloween specials served as an introduction to many great pieces of horror and film that I only came to appreciate later in life.
When I watched the segment “The Monkey’s Paw,” I had only heard the Twilight Zone’s opening score. The cautionary tale found Lisa wishing for world peace, only to have Kang and Kodos (the special’s recurring alien monsters) easily conquer Earth. Eventually Moe eventually finds a board with a nail in it is an effective tool to ward off the aliens. Kang comments that eventually the townspeople will “cause the human race to create a board with a nail in it so big to doom mankind.” That comedic wit was in short supply in other programs I watched; I wouldn’t see the Twilight Zone for another ten years but it would ultimately become a favorite of mine.
Two of my favorite segments appeared in Treehouse of Horror V (1994). My 12 year-old eyes had never seen a Stanley Kubrick film, but I still grasped the terrifying premise of The Shinning (not Shining, do you want to get sued?). With “no beer and no TV” causing Homer to go crazy and attempt to murder his family, it was only a small portable television that saved the clan from certain death.
I wasn’t familiar with Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, but watching Homer attempt to correct the historical record (after unwittingly creating a time machine from a toaster and unsuspectingly mucking with the past) seemed brilliant and absorbing to my young mind.
As I aged, I became well read; I watched classic films and eventually found myself recognizing the references present in these Halloween specials. With that increased awareness came a decrease in pleasure related to the series. I started to see the jokes coming, and recognized that only slight tweaks were being made to the source material to justify its inclusion in the program.
Only recently have I grasped that these episodes are no longer for me: they exist as an introduction to classic bits of cinema many young people are not exposed to. The Simpson’s use of the Shining did not leave the same impression on my father as it did me, as he was well versed in the original. He could laugh at it, but memory of the Kubrick’s work is what would remain in his brain. It was new and fascinating to me; it was just a comical satire to my father.
When I watch this year’s Treehouse of Horror, I will remind myself that these segments were my introduction to a slew of works I may have never explored had it not been for The Simpsons. I may not relish them like I used to, but I am content to see them endure for a new generation.
(Image: Kang and Kodos, Fox Media)