Every year, as Halloween approaches, I look forward to watching The Nightmare Before Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. For a person who doesn’t like Halloween, that seems rather odd – or is it?
For clarification, what I don’t like about Halloween is what I perceive is the main emphasis: fear. I don’t like being scared. In fact, it makes me angry if someone intentionally scares me, somehow thinking it is “fun”. I realize that being scared is fun for others, and I am genuinely interested in learning about why that is. But I don’t like it. At all.
And yet, I find something truly compelling about Nightmare, and adore Great Pumpkin. It is interesting that both these films have in common themes not just from Halloween and death, but from Christmas and new life as well. It makes me wonder what else they may have in common.
According to the opening song of Nightmare, it’s their job to make you scream, but they’re not “mean”. It’s an important distinction in Halloween Town. It’s all meant to be “fun”. Jack, the skeleton Pumpkin King, has become dissatisfied with just being scary. He wants something more. In his own song he sings, “I grow so weary of the sound of screams.” He’s “empty”. It could be that anything always done in the same way, year after year, can become dull and meaningless. But maybe there’s something more to it.
As Jack wanders away from Halloween Town, mulling over his emptiness, he stumbles into Christmas Town. The song “What’s This?” captures all the wonder and amazement so frequently associated with Christmas lights and smells. It’s brighter and more vivid. There’s something new here that fills him, “in my bones I feel the warmth that’s coming from inside.” By the end of the song he decides, “I want it for my own.”
When Jack returns to Halloween Town, he calls a town meeting to tell everyone about his experience. But they don’t really get it. They haven’t experienced the life of Christmas Town for themselves they way that Jack has. They don’t understand presents that don’t involve “tricks”. They are, however, dazzled. In his exasperation, Jack plays into their ignorance and turns Santa Claus into a scary “Sandy Claws” to get them on board.
Next, Jack needs to figure how just how to “make Christmas.” “There’s got to be a logical way to explain this Christmas thing.” His approach is scientific. He conducts a series of experiments on traditional Christmas decorations and gifts – holly berries, paper snowflakes, teddy bears, tree ornaments – putting them under a microscope, cutting into them, trying to figure out what exactly Christmas is all about. Even after trying to use formulas and equations he’s left wondering “But what does it mean?” Finally, he comes to the place familiar to many believers – “just because I cannot see it, doesn’t mean I can’t believe it.”
The inhabitants of Halloween Town set about making Christmas their own. By the time Christmas Eve rolls around Jack is ready to play the part of Santa, bringing presents and toys to the children of the world – made in Halloween Town. As Jack flies through the air, the screams that Jack found so tiresome at Halloween ring out. People call the police to report being attacked by Christmas toys. Everything has been distorted, twisted, and perverted. News reporters announce that an imposter is “mocking and mangling” Christmas. Military personnel are called in, unbeknownst to Jack, to shoot him down. He falls in flames, landing in the arms of an angelic statue in a graveyard, his red costume charred and shredded. The Sandy Claus persona is dead.
It is only after the disaster of Christmas that Jack is able to come to terms with who he is. This gives him fresh inspiration and excitement for Halloween. He is, after all, not Santa Claus, but the Pumpkin King.
The mockery that Halloween Town makes of Christmas makes me wonder what Halloween Town is all about in the first place – in a sense, what they and Jack do best. It strikes me that this may in fact be the best approach to Halloween, and to death, that I can imagine for someone like me. As a Christian, I can’t help but think that Halloween might just be the time and occasion most appropriate and well-suited for mocking death. “Where, O Death, is now Thy sting?”
For Jack, the thrill of scaring people is gone. In order to feel something again, he either needs to escalate into “meanness” (which Halloween Town does not espouse), or find a new way to feel. I wonder what would happen if, instead of turning on each other and using each other to feel something — even as so much of the media and entertainment industries threaten to desensitize us — what would happen if we turned on Death itself, and made it the butt of the joke?
to be continued…