- First broadcast: Thursday 31 October 1991, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 31 October 1997, BBC2
- Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
- First draft: Al Jean & Mike Reiss, Jeff Martin, George Meyer, Sam Simon, John Swartzwelder
- Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
- Storyboard: Jim Reardon, Steve Moore
- Animation director: Jim Reardon
And so a Simpsons tradition is born. The show’s producers had steered clear of churning out annual Christmas specials, perhaps wisely. It was a different matter with Halloween. 1990’s Treehouse of Horror had plugged a gap in the schedule, provided some topical material for Fox and indulged the fondness of both the writers and animators for TV horror and science fiction. Everyone was happy. This being such a rarity in Hollywood, it was no surprise that, when Halloween rolled around once more, so did another special episode. They continue rolling around to this day, albeit with the withered appeal of a pumpkin left outside for one day too many.
As with last year, we have three short stories, each spoofing a particular genre of literature or television, linked together with a very basic plot and prefaced with a warning about scary content delivered straight to camera by Marge. It worked before, so why mess with a hit? This time the stories are presented as nightmares experienced by three family members: Lisa, who dreams about a monkey’s paw that grants its owner four wishes; Bart, who imagines he has the power to turn anyone and anything into whatever he likes; and Homer, who dreams of having his brain transplanted into a robot built by Mr Burns. Given that each protagonist is shown to benefit – at least sporadically – from the things of which they are dreaming, these aren’t really out-and-out “nightmares”. They’re more fantasies, in which the things “doing” the scaring suffer just as much as their subjects. The first story is the longest and most ambitious, encompassing a trip to Morocco, world peace and an alien invasion. The second doesn’t really go anywhere while the third feels like an outtake from Young Frankenstein. But the whole thing rattles along at a such a lick that there’s no time to feel bored or for reality to make any unwelcome intrusions. 8
Kang and Kudos are back to make their first attempt to conquer the Earth – until Flanders, having inherited the monkey’s paw from Homer, has the aliens chased from the planet (“Aaah! He’s got a board with a nail in it!”), leaving the creatures to cackle at length back on their ship (“Soon they will build a board with a nail so big it will destroy them all!”). These two aside, no other new or irregular characters turn up in the episode, making it a “special” that concerns itself very much with unusual things happening to the usual suspects. And despite those things being very unusual – Bart turning Homer into a jack-in-the-box, Homer’s brain being rehoused – they’re always in keeping with a character’s personality, be it Bart’s mischievousness, Lisa’s naivety (wishing for world peace, she triggers the alien invasion) and Homer’s laziness (his transplanted brain turns the robot into an idle doughtnut-guzzling buffoon). 8
Locations and design
The transmogrified Snowball is this episode’s design triumph, managing to look both hideous yet fascinating:
Less successful is the addition of the head of Mr Burns to the body of Homer. It should work but somehow it doesn’t:
The locations aren’t as diverse as last year; no forays into history or outer space this time. The furthest journey into the far-fetched is to the laboratory beneath the power plant, full of tantalising shadows and bubbling apparatus. 7
Pardon My Zinger
During the monkey’s paw story, Bart wishes for their family to become rich and famous. This is the cue for lots of in-jokes at how well-known and therefore irritating the Simpsons/The Simpsons have become. It’s the sort of thing that would become overdone and predictable in later years, but here it works because it’s still fresh and a bit daring. “Before I was just bored with their antics and merchandise,” moans a passer-by; “now I wish they were dead.” “At first they were cute and funny,” drawls a diner in The Gilded Truffle restaurant, ‘but now they’re just annoying.” We see Simpsons T-shirts, tie-in albums (The Simpsons Go Calypso!) and even billboards:
“Is there anything they won’t do?’ wails Helen Lovejoy. The middle story has a few funny moments – Bart insisting the United States be renamed ‘Bonerland’, for example:
But it’s the third story that has the best gag-to-dialogue ratio, thanks to Mr Burns. “Look at me, I’m Davy Crockett!” he hoots, having plonked Homer’s brain on his head. The delight with which he sets about bashing Homer’s semi-lifeless body is a thing to behold:
Later, regretting his experiments, he sighs: “Life is precious, not a thing to be toyed with!” – before deploying the old switcheroo: “Now take out that brain and flush it down the toilet.” 8
There aren’t any, so a neutral 5.
Alf Clausen’s dazzling score for the first Halloween special set the bar exceptionally high for all future instalments. He doesn’t quite reach it here, but that’s because he’s been dealt a slightly less imaginative hand. Only one of these three stories really lends itself to an extended burst of musical virtuosity: the second one. Clausen milks the Twilight Zone antecedents for all they’re worth, filling the soundtrack with that programme’s distinctive penchant for eerie electronic sounds and exotic percussion (listen to the sequence when Homer is turned into an American football). There’s also a lovely little scene where the jack-in-a-box Homer spends “quality time” with Bart, which Clausen sets to some twinkly lounge music in (the exceptionally unusual) 5/4 time. 7
Harry Shearer and Dan Castellaneta are spot on as Kang and Kodos (“Your superior intellect is no match for our puny weapons!”). Shearer is also in his element as an especially maniacal Mr Burns, equally appalled at the laziness of his employees (“Goldbrickers! Layabouts! Slugabeds!”) and the timidity of Smithers (‘This isn’t rocket science, it’s brain surgery!”) 8
Homer reimagined as a jack-in-the-box is stunning, especially when he’s on the rollercoaster:
There’s beautiful animation when Burns and Smithers are walking through their laboratory, their images distorted and refracted as they pass behind various apparatus:
This segment has the most vivid direction, and not just in terms of the visuals: the sound of Homer’s head being sliced open and the top of his skull falling on the floor are two things that stay with you long after the credits have rolled. The direction is less persuasive in the opening story; just what is Homer supposed to be eating here?
There’s even a mistake that has been left uncorrected, when the paw-seller is heard speaking while is mouth isn’t moving. 6
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
As would become the norm for every Halloween episode, the spoofs are many if not particularly varied. The Twilight Zone is the main source, supplying elements of the first story and pretty much all of the second, down to Harry Shearer’s voiceover parodying that of the Zone’s creator Rod Serling. The Monkey’s Paw, a short story by WW Jacobs published in 1902, is the main source for the first story; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the obvious influence for the third. The look and feel of this final story also bears traces of the 1931 film adaptation Frankenstein, specifically the mismatching of a mechanical body with a brain. The final scene, where Homer wakes up to find Mr Burns’ head grafted on to his body, is a nod (strictly speaking two nods) to the 1972 sci-fi film The Thing with Two Heads. There’s no coyness to any of these homages, and that’s just as well. When you’re stealing this liberally and enthusiastically, it’s a case of the bolder the better – and funnier. 8
Emotion and tone
It’s almost redundant to talk about emotion in this kind of episode. Given the whole thing is a send-up, any attempt to search for traces of pathos would be self-defeating. Even the “scary” moments are so undercut by lunacy as to rob them of any potential for terror. Tonally the episode is more coherent than the first Halloween special, being entirely set in the present and riffing on the idea of the everyday being compromised by the out-of-the-ordinary. This reaches a peak in the very final scene, possibly the best bit of the entire episode:
[The family are sitting around the kitchen table; everything is normal except for Homer, who has Mr Burns’ head grafted on to his neck]
Voiceover: Next week on The Simpsons!
Lisa: Don’t forget, Dad: tonight my class is having an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner!
Homer: Mmmm – spaghetti!
Burns: But Homer: tonight is our reception for Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands!
Homer: Ooh, I hate having two heads!
Fewer treats than the first Halloween episode, but a decent stab at repeating the trick.