Saturday, November 6, 2010


The main reason I feel comfortable watching horror movies and thinking Halloweeny thoughts after the 31st of October is because of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and these days, Haunted Mansion Holiday even more so.

Not everyone is a big fan of HMH, and I can see their reasoning, but personally I love it. Blurring the line between Halloween and Christmas can create tremendous beauty somehow, and I think HMH epitomizes it. I see that the main difference between Nightmare and HMH is that the film expresses how the majority of the American population doesn't care for scariness during Christmas, preferring the warm-and-fuzzies usually associated with it... while the ride expresses how when the right audience is targeted, a macabre Christmas can be a blast.

This is something that I think the so-called "Perky Goths" get right. Rather than dwell on doom and gloom or indulge one's bloodlust, a macabre Christmas and its fans represent a holdover from the camp horror comedies of the 1960s, bringing to life the values of corpse-painted joy and togetherness embodied in characters like the Addams Family and the Munsters. I love macabre humor, and I get joy out of watching vintage horror movies, listening to old-school horror rock, wearing costumes, and donning a slightly more mischievous personality.

Things like Silent Night, Deadly Night gets it wrong.

Because Nightmare Before Christmas is both about Halloween and Christmas, we used to make a tradition of watching it in October and December. And really, why not? The hybridization of the two holidays really isn't so much of a stretch when you think about it, and Tim Burton's film isn't the first time it was done.

There are a lot of Christmas traditions that border on the scary side of things. The most obvious example is A Christmas Carol, which centers around ghostly spirits and strange visions, not to mention a grim warning of impending death and eternal punishment. Ghost stories used to be a holiday tradition- even in recent history, the lyrics of the cheery 1963 song "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" has the words "there'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago."
And if this book is any indication, 19th century Christmases were a lot weirder than today's. When we think of Christmas, we usually think of the saccharine holiday that the '40s, '50s, and '60s brought about.
And there's of course there's Black Peter, who is supposed to bring bundles of twigs to the parents of naughty children for the purpose of spanking them with it, or simply spirit away the children in a big bag. Krampus is a very similar character, and is a full-fledged demon.

Besides the scary side of Christmas, I think there's a good reason Halloween is the second most profitable holiday in America. First and foremost, Americans love any excuse to stuff themselves with junk food or comfort food: Halloween is all about hoarding a bunch of candy to eat, and Christmas has an extensive array of traditional sweets, as well as savory foods. The chilliness of autumn and winter also causes cravings for sweet spices and seasonal fruit for some reason, and things like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice often go into ciders, punches, coffees, hot cocoas, cakes, pies, and cookies during both holidays, while fruits like apples, pumpkins, and cranberries are in season.

The way the two are celebrated are also similar. Both holidays involve putting up decorations on your house, both simple and elaborate, both with bright lights to beckon visitors. You could compare Christmas caroling to trick-or-treating, because in both activities you go up to a person's door, vocalize to grab the inhabitant's attention, and possibly get something to eat (carolers are traditionally rewarded with things like eggnog or wassail, as can be seen in the lyrics to "Here We Come A-Caroling" and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"). You can celebrate both holidays with themed parties.

There is also the theme of rewarding good behavior inherent in both holidays- children get a treat for not playing a trick, and Santa brings presents to good girls and boys. Oh sure, trick-or-treating isn't really the veiled threat it used to be anymore- children don't really intend to become little junior Mafia members these days and demand protection payments- but then there are bad children get Christmas presents anyway. They're sort of like mirror images: on Halloween, you get candy so you won't be bad, and on Christmas, you're promised presents so you'll be good.

Which brings me to my next point: the crossover between the two isn't so new.
The earliest mixing of the macabre with modern Christmas I've been able to find was committed by none other than Charles Addams, the creator of the Addams Family. On December 21st, 1946, the New Yorker printed the now iconic image of the Addams up on the roof readying to pour boiling oil on some unsuspecting carolers below (recreated for the opening of the 1991 film).
Also included in the 1947 book Addams and Evil is a cartoon depicting Morticia decorating a dead, utterly bare Christmas tree with various bizarre ornaments, including a skeleton, an iron maiden, and a two-headed Santa Claus. There are several other cartoons showing the Family celebrating Christmas, all in a characteristically devious manner.

Interestingly enough, in the 1977 TV special Halloween with the New Addams Family, starring most of the original TV cast, shows them celebrating Halloween more like Christmas, instead of the other way around. They seem to have a family legend shared with no one else- the ghost of "Cousin Shy" is supposed to appear on Halloween night, carve a special jack-o'-lantern out of a pumpkin hidden somewhere in the house, and leave presents around a scarecrow in the attic. Sound familiar?

Decades before Tim Burton stretched the idea to its limits, Charles Schulz quite possibly blurred the line between the holidays before anyone else, and not just by having his characters celebrate Christmas in a macabre way- he was the first to overlap the themes and functions of the two holidays. He did this with his creation of the character the Great Pumpkin, who as we all know is probably a result of Linus thinking about how Halloween ought to have a mascot like all the other major holidays.
It goes without saying, really, that the Great Pumpkin has obvious and entirely intentional similarities to Santa Claus- he appears on a single night once every year, flies through the air, and rewards well-behaved children with toys. Many people have compared Santa to Christ, but I think the Great Pumpkin takes it a step further- the question of sincerity (of course) and faith come into it, and in Linus' mind you can spoil everything by doubting him. Linus perhaps would be more accurate in saying "sincerity with oneself", but that still doesn't explain how a pumpkin patch can have such qualities. Also, it seems that the Great Pumpkin can be touchy.

Admittedly, the concept of an iconic figure to represent Halloween is an appealing one, and it's a bit of a shame that the "character" is copyrighted. The fact that we've got characters to represent the other major American holidays (The Baby New Year, the groundhog, Cupid, leprechauns, the Easter Bunny, Uncle Sam or the bald eagle, the turkey), but not Halloween has been noted by many. I've seen other attempts at introducing a Halloween character that have failed completely (mostly because they're unimaginative), and none have quite the same appeal as the Great Pumpkin.
In fact, some of my Peanuts VHS tapes have clips of children saying that they believe in the Great Pumpkin (and don't believe in Santa)- despite all evidence that he doesn't exist and being an intentionally fictional character and a figment of Linus' imagination, which is really embarrassing. (Yes, Virginia, Linus is the only one who knows the secret! Please ignore the fact that a man named Charles Schulz made him up one day for the sake of a joke.)
Part of the problem is that there are few concepts and motifs that are exclusively Halloween-y and not unseen in year-round horror fiction- although for some reason some have suggested that the witch is the symbol for Halloween (including the Paul Revere and the Raiders song "A Heavy Christmas Message"), but I personally think the jack-o'-lantern is the most immediately recognized Halloween image.

Moving onto more familiar territory, the first full-fledged Halloween/Christmas crossover is perhaps Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster's Holiday" from 1962, by the man most famous for "Monster Mash". The song describes a Christmas party attended by all the famous monsters, and their plans to steal from Santa Claus, although not with good intentions. The monsters learn a lesson in forgiveness when Santa gives them the things they wanted.

Jumping ahead a decade, Ray Bradbury published his book The Halloween Tree in 1972 (although he had intended to make it into a feature with Chuck Jones back in '67). The titular tree has obvious similarities to a Christmas tree, having globular grinning jack-o'-lanterns hanging from it's branches. The book was made into a feature in 1993. Today, Disneyland pays tribute to the story by making a real Halloween Tree as part of their annual decorations in Frontierland.
Many people today, in fact, decorate their own Halloween trees- not so different from the way Morticia Addams did.

Soon afterwards, the 1974 album Monster Christmas Mash tells the story of the Society of Monsters (or something like that) wanting to hold their own Christmas party for a change of pace, resulting in many a Christmas song parody (werewolves singing "We Wish You a Hairy Christmas", anyone?) and generally making a racket.
In 1976, the album Christmas with Shirley and Squirrely and Melvin Too! was released, a fine example of an Alvin and the Chipmunks wannabe. One track was called "The Christmas Haunted House" which had squeaky sped-up impressions of Boris Karloff and Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West, no less, describing the macabre way they celebrate Christmas.

The most obscure example I've found is issue #54 of Marvel's The Tomb of Dracula from 1972, which includes the story "'Twas the Night Before Christmas", in which Dracula's son is born on Christmas eve. Besides the irony of this, there's not much comparison beyond the use of a terrifying old-school monster's antics during the normally un-gloomy holiday.
Perhaps just as obscure is Christmas Comes to Monster Mountain, a children's book from '81. We're told that "all the monsters that ever lived" reside on this single mountain called Monster Mountain- a concept hardly believable, but okay. Count Dracula of all people wants to kidnap Santa Claus so he can get re-elected as leader of the monsters, and it's up to Ted E. Bear to save Christmas! Okay, so maybe this is a poor example, but it's still about creepy creatures wanting to take something from Christmas.

This all proves that the warm-and-fuzzies of Christmas aren't so incompatible with the cheery chills of Halloween, I think. Heck, our family's had a jack-o-lantern ornament on our tree for as long as I can remember.

But in the midst of all this, I can't help but notice this year that Thanksgiving is pretty gleaned over during the holiday season. There isn't much anticipation for it, and Macy's Thanksgiving Parade makes it obvious that we treat it mostly as a herald for the Christmas season. Shouldn't Thanksgiving get a piece of the crossover pumpkin pie?

I can think of several reasons for this neglect. First of all, only the United States celebrates Thanksgiving- although Canada has a holiday with the same name in October, based on an entirely different English settlement. It's not the same thing.
The lack of an international Thanksgiving is because it's a commemoration of when the pilgrims officially made peace with the local natives, and things were looking up for the first European settlers. This doesn't exactly generate excitement in other countries (or, in fact, in America).

But I think the biggest reason for it is that there's no mythology. Thanksgiving is about a confirmed historical event, where a bunch of Calvinists thank the Native Americans they met for not letting them starve, instead of embodiments of abstract concepts like good and evil shaped by centuries of folklore and pop culture. There isn't much fiction about Thanksgiving, and the only one really worth mentioning (that I know about) is The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't.
The closest anyone's gotten to creating a Thanksgiving mythology is the episode "Mouse Mask" of the Canadian animated series Eckhart. In this, Thanksgiving is melded with Halloween, where the titular holiday Mouse Mask is celebrated by mice living in the Canadian Maritimes, and consists of harvest festivals and costumes to frighten away the very-folkloric monster Fogfang- very similar to early All Hallow's Eve customs. Of course, the show being from Canada, it almost doesn't count, but you certainly aren't going to find many other examples.

But there are still comparisons between the three that can be drawn, I think. The first one that comes to mind is the food- both Christmas and Thanksgiving involve big family dinners filled with rich dishes, although Thanksgiving has a slightly more limited menu. Nevertheless, turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie are all still acceptable dishes during Christmas festivities.
Also, Halloween and Thanksgiving are often joined together with Harvest Time festivities, so one can conceivably leave the pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn, scarecrows, hay bushels, and autumn leaves you put up as Halloween decorations where they are and keep them there until Thanksgiving.
Perhaps what is the most common among all three holidays is the pumpkin.

Another big problem is that you can't really make Thanksgiving scary without seeming ridiculous. There have been attempts to make the idea of turkeys seeking revenge from their predators into a scary scenario, such as Midway's 1984 arcade game Turkey Shoot (which is fun), in which a post-apocalyptic world is overrun with bloodthirsty turkeys with guns, and some slasher flick I heard about called ThanksKilling, which sounds really stupid and crude.

Ultimately I don't think a cross between Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas will ever really catch on despite the traits they share, because ultimately there's no room for Thanksgiving to expand, and even if you did emphasize the whole pumpkin and harvest thing, it'd still feel like Thanksgiving is merely a bridge that you briefly pass over to get from Halloween to Christmas. It still feels like a transition from one to the next, and I don't think you could marry them and expect them to have a baby, like Haunted Mansion Holiday. Jack Skellington could have chosen to go through the turkey-shaped door, but the Christmas tree door was so much more tantalizing. (Of course, the movie briefly plays with the Easter Bunny meeting the residents of Halloween Town, but I don't think even Tim Burton would want to go there.)

Tim Burton's Thankscreaming! Nope... not gonna happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment