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Putting the Howl in "Howl-loween Specials"

There are three things I've learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin. But this is our blog, and that means we can discuss whatever we want. Being the spookity time of year, it's a good opportunity to do just that. While "horror" might be the word of the month for many, there's also something to be said for the more mundanely macabre - the things that, while not horrific, blend right into the spirit of the month. Here at Never Say Dice, one thing that brings us into that space are the old Halloween specials of our childhood. While some should probably  stay buried in the past, worms crawling in and out of their corpses, others seem to endure over the years. The favorites might vary from household to household, but shows like It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown or Garfield’s Halloween Adventure are still commonly well-liked. That begs the question, though: what makes a good Halloween special work, and what can we take from them to keep things fun when we’re incorporating spooky (which may or may not be actually scary) into our stories? -A

A: When we started writing this post, an unexpected thing happened: Jules Bass died. If the name is unfamiliar, you might know it in the context of his company Rankin/Bass Productions, the team that created such holiday classics as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970). You might be wondering how this relates to the topic we described above. Jules Bass's death prompted us to find the Rankin/Bass productions Mad Mad Mad Monsters (traditionally animated) and Mad Monster Party? (stop-motion.) If you remember works like Rudolph fondly, you should really appreciate Mad Monster Party?. While there are a myriad of period references and cheesy gags, something about it just works for Halloween, and I’m a bit disappointed it wasn’t part of my regular watching when I was growing up. It's certainly something to be experienced. At the very least, stop-motion animation has always seemed mildly creepy to me, and perhaps that's part of why this works. With that mildly creepy motion and aesthetic crossed with vaudeville-style jokes and gags, somehow the whole show is both bad and good at the same time. What about it can we take into our own spooky stories? For one, bringing in classic monsters is an easy win. Werewolves, mummies, the undead, and even your Invisible Mans are fairly easy to bring into your games. You can also bring in a bit of that stop-motion, too. If not in your physical performance as a GM, you can add an unnatural gait to your narration or dialogue to make your stories just a bit unsettling, even if your audience isn’t quite sure why. Bugsy, what did you get out of the Mad Monster Party?

B: Rankin/Bass definitely played a large role in my childhood development, even if I didn't know it at the time. They were responsible for three of the household favorites, all home-taped, naturally: The Hobbit (1977), The Last Unicorn (1982), and The Wind in the Willows (1987). I know we don't always include the release years with film titles here at NSD, but I feel it's important here to stress that, except for The Last Unicorn, these are adaptations that have other, better-known versions. And yet, their versions will always be the "real" ones to me, not only because they were the first time I was exposed to these stories, but their excellence and unique qualities. These were movies that made me feel excited, scared, happy, sad, relieved... all the things they were supposed to do, in a way that nothing else could manage. (To be fair, I largely missed out on the much-vaunted "Disney Renaissance" that started in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, but I still doubt they would have made as much of an impression as the Rankin/Bass films, had they been available.) It wasn't until (legal) adulthood that I learned these weren't even what the company was best known for - I don't think I even saw any of their famous Christmas specials as a kid. Regardless of form, though, I knew them to be talented creators who always used their medium to its fullest to convey tone and feeling. Which is why, when I heard the news about Jules Bass's death, I requested a change in the direction of this week's post. I hadn't seen Mad Monster Party? either, but I knew that it would feel like Halloween.

I was surprised, when looking up specifics after watching, that this was a theatrical release and not a TV special - it certainly felt like one, albiet on the long side. But a larger budget must have been required to pull off such a feat. Mad Monster Party? features some stellar stop-motion work, particularly when the monsters are showing off their various abilities. The character designs do a lot of heavy lifting as well, so it was no surprise to find out that they had largely been done by MAD magazine artist Jack Davis - they showcase his skill at unique, yet evocative faces, silly but never lazy in a way that remains remarkably watchable. The script, too, came from no less than the founder of MAD, Harvey Kurtzman, and showcases a similar relationship to its own material, going from genuinely clever and well-timed jokes to knowingly obvious and cheesy ones. Even when the humor doesn't land, the momentum and visuals carry things through.

And here, I think, lies the core and our takeaway from Mad Monster Party? - the combination of a light touch and dedication to its material. It's easy to imagine any of the monsters breaking character and talking directly to the audience (something of a standard for genre comedies ever since Loony Tunes first perfected the gag), but they never do. Dracula acts like Dracula through the whole thing. And the result is this remarkably cohesive, if goofy, little world for the story to take place in, which keeps it from wearing out its welcome, even when the material is weak or dated - that simultaneous good/bad effect Andy mentioned earlier. Finding that balance can be tough, treating something silly just seriously enough to keep the whole thing together. It takes effort and it takes practice, but it truly lands when it works. We're still talking about Mad Monster Party?, after all, fifty-five years after it was first unleashed on audiences.

A: While I may not have grown up with Mad Monster Party?, one special I have seen time and again every year is It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It's a bit disappointing that, today, you can only watch it on the Apple TV app (or through purchase/earlier recordings), but at least they’ve made it free. Still, something just used to feel right about catching it on broadcast. While it isn’t the creepiest of specials, there's a huge nostalgia factor, and an ease to relate to the Peanuts cast. It captures a lot of what Halloween is about for kids: trying to score as much candy as you can, and not rocks! (Or rock-like candy. I’m looking at you, stale circus peanuts!) It’s also about tricks and, apparently, unbridled faith. It can also, like Halloween itself, offer a chance to try and be someone else for a while, even if your disguise is seen through easily. While our stories and games are chances to for us to be someone else for a while, you can provide it in a sort of "meta" way as well: a chance for your character to be someone else than they. That might be why Rogues and Bards tend to be such popular choices for D&D players. Bugsy, what inspirations do you pull from the Great Pumpkin?

B: If Rankin/Bass movies were significant to my development, Peanuts was essential. They were the first fictional characters I ever empathized with, particularly Charlie Brown. I read the books obsessively, and, since there were so many available through thrift stores and yard sales, that meant a ton of material - I probably learned more from the Charlie Brown's 'Cyclopedia series than I ever did in elementary school. I remember bursting into tears at the end of one special (it was probably It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown) at the age of four or five because I didn't want it to be over. So, needless to say, the Great Pumpkin was a very regular part of my life. I really need to take a deep dive into the franchise to learn what made it all so endearing, so engrossing - I started to get the yearly collected editions when they first came out, but haven't gone past the first couple. (Note from Bugsy's oft-ignored rational brain: do NOT acquire more books at the present time, I beg you, and your spine will agree with me the next time you have to move.)

Structurally, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is similar to a lot of the earlier Peanuts specials - it takes storylines from the comic strips and interweaves them. Nonetheless, for all the different things going on, it's remarkably fluid, moving from one to the next so smoothly you aren't aware of how different they are until you stop to think about it. Much credit should be given to Vince Guaraldi's score in keeping the whole thing cohesive. And while none of it is scary, it's still very autumnal and evocative, particularly Snoopy's journey through the WWI France of his imagination and the pumpkin patch on Halloween night - I can feel the chill October air just remembering them. There's a sense of community, of togetherness, even for poor ol' Charlie Brown, despite some of the Halloween activities having been consigned to history long before my own childhood. (Bobbing for apples sounded like complete lunacy before COVID, Lucy's experience with poison dog lips was a portent of a more germaphobic era).

Through it all, there's a deep emotional core that resonated with me as a kid and resonates with me now: Charlie Brown's resignation at his bag of rocks, the simple clarity of Linus's belief in the Great Pumpkin, and, especially, Lucy dragging her brother home and putting him to bed - an incredibly human moment that I find more moving the older I get. It's these moments that make Peanuts work, and, while most of us will never have Charles M. Schultz's gift at expressing them, we do have his guidance in works like Great Pumpkin. If the characters feel real, if they experience the feelings we do, we'll stay out all night with them in the most sincere pumpkin patch, year after year, even when we know the inevitable heartbreak dawn is approaching.

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