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Hitching a Ride on the Ghoul Bus: Treehouses of Horror and the Freedom of Halloween Episodes

The Halloween Episode is a rarity among rarities, a riddle wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in wax paper. In episodic shows, the passage of time is generally ignored - it draws too much attention to the artificiality of the premise and questions how the world of the setting syncs chronologically with the world of the audience. On top of that, when holiday episodes do come along, they generally have certain expectations of tone and theme - particularly when it comes to Christmas. Halloween episodes, though, are something different: the only real expectation is that they’re going to break from the normal “reality” of the show. They don’t necessarily have to be scary (or even have the trappings of scary things), but they do have to be weird. In some cases, particularly with more serialized shows, this shift allows for a new perspective in the ongoing story, a different way of seeing the narrative that will put past and future events in a new context. My favorite example of this would be Millennium’s “Curse of Frank Black,” and I swear I’ll write a post about it someday, But, on the other hand, for series that offer goofier takes on reality and continuity in the regular episodes, Halloween is an opportunity to go even further, to include things so far from the norm that they exist in entirely separate realities from the main series, whether it be alternate origin stories to killing the cast entirely. And who would exemplify this better than The Simpsons, whose annual “Treehouse of Horror” episodes have been breaking rules and weirding out viewers since almost the very beginning of the series. So, in the countdown to the Big Day at the close of the month, let’s talk about the strange, strange nature of the Treehouse of Horror (or ToH for short). - B

B
: To start with, we should clarify that we’re primarily familiar with the first decade or so of The SImpsons. Changes in the show and in our own lives led to less and less engagement with the series beyond that point. But when it comes to the episodes we do know… hoo boy do we know them! We were there when the old magic was written they were first broadcast, even the first few where there was still some kind of framing device to separate the ToH stories from the main reality of the Simpsons (not to mention the warnings about how scary the episodes would be before they’d even started). By the fifth installment these had been phased out - the creators must have assumed we’d be able to distinguish the tiny alternate universes of the mini-episodes that comprised a ToH from the main series… not that we ever expected Homer to keep having Mr. Burns’s head grafted onto his body, for instance, or for Bart to keep all his “gnarly powers” when the show shifted back to regular episodes the following week.

Even within the confines of the earlier ToH episodes, things could get buck wild. While the first was relatively tame (and Homer finding a straightforward reading of Edgar Allan Poe’’s “The Raven” the creepiest of the three was downright sweet in a way a lot of ealy Simpsons was), but the second directly breaks the “nightmare” framing device with the aforementioned Burns head mocking Homer for wanting the situation to be a dream and even showing a fake preview for the following episode (“I hate having two heads!”). And with that, the blood flood gates were open. “Treehouse of Horror III” incorporates the rapidly-growing Simpsons cast into the segments to a new degree, resulting in less self-contained stories lacking the detached quality of the first two ToH episodes. (Not to mention quite a few jokes that somehow flew over the heads of both Network Standards and Practices and younger viewers like ourselves.While I thought the “women and seamen don’t mix” line was funny simply for the dirty wordplay, I was a number of years away from understanding the humor of it coming from Smithers, and of Mr. Burns’ “we know what you think!” response.) In the DVD episode commentary, the writers commented that, by this point, the ToH episodes were something of a plum assignment, since they could go so much further than the regular episodes. They were acutely aware of the differences in acceptable material - one anecdote tells of a writer's attempt to bring Kang and Kodos into a non-Halloween episode, and the universally negative response from the rest of the team. There was a dividing line, with plenty of goofiness and experimentation on both sides, but one on a much higher level than the others.

"Treehouse of Horror IV" takes things to the next level with near-reckless abandon There are genuine scary moments, like Devil-Flanders shifting into true Demonic form or, in the "Terror at 5+1⁄2 Feet" segment, the gremlin holding up Flanders severed head... which is still talking! There's no doubt that moment made its mark on my impressionable mind. The Burns-as-Dracula sequence is pretty frightening as well, with a real air of menace one might not expect the show to be capable of. But that really sums up why these episodes are so magical, doesn't it? In the show that blows up expectations every week, it does so with its own audience's expectations by suddenly making the Halloween episode actually scary... and still uproariously funny. Andy, how do you feel that the wild freedom of the Treehouse of Horror episodes has influenced your views on storytelling and the times when it’s okay to break an audience’s expectations?


A
: "Expectations" is a very interesting place to take this discussion. On the one hand, Simpsons was built on a tradition of satirizing and parodying culture and subverting expectations in some way. Take, for instance, one of my favorite episodes, "Itchy and Scratchy Land." They are, of course, satirizing/parodying theme parks in general (and Disney parks in particular) as well as all the media about family trips to them. Like in “normal” TV episodes, there are ensuing hijinks but everything works out okay in the end. In the world of the Simpsons, though, this is subverted by how it ends up happening: with the family taking on killer robots (who are not driving instructors). They get plenty of fresh air and exercise, lots of pictures, and everyone is happy... even Marge. The same could be said for a lot of the earlier Treehouse of Horror episodes. They satirize or parody, say, a classic Twilight Zone episode, but subvert even that expectation through their own additional twist: the murderous doll set to evil mode forced into the horror of scrubbing Homer’s back or the boy with gnarly powers learning to bond with his newly-deformed dad. Over the long haul, though, and on the other hand, that itself is something that has become expected of the Simpsons. This is likely one of the reasons that later episodes of the long-running series simply aren’t as good. We know they’ll say "I didn’t do it." Just say the line, Bart! Say the line! Yay! Eventually that just gets old.

That doesn't quite answer Bugsy’s question, though. Dealing with audience expectation in something like a tabletop RPG is different from many other storytelling opportunities. You get immediate feedback as to whether something is working for that audience or if it isn’t. At times, the audience is just going to want the "I didn’t do it" trope, and at others they’ll be craving that unexpected subversion. Figuring this out for each of our tabletop audiences is probably a big key to the best gaming sessions. Aside from that, though, it's important to remember that the players can do this as well. When their subversions happen, it can be planned or spontaneous, and sometimes require on-the-fly adjustment of your sessions. To make things a bit smoother, one thing you might consider is instituting a regular “Treehouse of Horror” of your own at your own tables. It doesn’t need to be spooky or even fit the Halloween season at all. (Even Simpsons does this with episodes like "Simpsons Tall Tales.") A regular break to try new things without consequences for the existing characters and story could be just the thing your group needs. Remember not to over do it, and be clear and explicit about what this night is all about.

B: Making sure to have audience buy-in is an important point - one of the underlying aspects of storytelling is a series of unspoken agreements as to what's going to be covered, which includes not only genre specifics, but the type of emotional involvement one can expect to experience. This is one reason I think kids can get especially freaked out by certain things in ostensibly non-scary media - they haven't learned to be flexible with their expectations, so any violation of them (from a particular character design or special effect to the "beedley-beedley-beeeow VIACOM" announcement at the start of a videotape) is especially jarring. Even as (legal) adults, we still go into media with a certain range of expectations, so it can feel like a betrayal if they're too far strayed from... especially if the work veers into frightening or uncomfortable subject matter.

To answer my own question from earlier, for me, the Treehouse of Horror episodes are condensed, accelerated versions of all the lessons the Simpsons taught me - about comedic timing, about layering jokes and references so that there's always something for people to laugh at even if they aren't familiar with the thing you're referencing, and just how fun things can be when they start to get weird. Unlike the regular episodes, ToH also taught me that you don't need to always go back to the status quo at the end of a story, that sometimes leaving things hanging could, ironically, be satisfying in its own way - a lesson that would open up my appreciation of a lot of narrative art down the line. And so, in the spirit of the show that's taught us so much... HAPPY HALLOWEEN, EVERYBODY!
 

Send questions, comments, or photos of "Parents' Brains" on a 3x5 card to neversaydice20@gmail.com or "X"-ternalize them @neversaydice2.


 

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