In Praise of the Treehouse of Horror

The Simpsons has been a mainstay in my life for nearly as long as memory serves. I was an impressionable grade-school student when the series first appeared on the fledgling Fox network. My parents being wary of negative values in the media, the show was initially forbidden in our household. Media chatter detailed the rebellious characteristics of Bart and his offish, violent father. My mother would have none of that on our television. It likely didn’t help that George H.W. Bush himself came out against the program’s perceived negative family principles. Sure, my mother was a lifelong Democrat, but she could join in a values crusade with the best of them, much like the church lady down the street (who bore a shocking resemblance to Reverend Lovejoy’s wife).

A few seasons in, my father relented. The water-cooler discussions at work must have enticed him to look into the program. While the show remained rebellious and controversial, critics and viewers alike had begun to see the program’s sharp satire as one of primetime’s best comedies. The Simpsons has remained a mainstay in my life ever since, even if the current seasons are less pleasurable and effective than the ones I watched in my youth. I recorded a short-lived podcast with childhood chums detailing each episode of the series and our memories related to it, so I feel I have some authority (whatever that’s worth) on the shows ups and downs.

The Simpsons plays a noteworthy role during my favorite holiday: Halloween. Perhaps the most pagan of all American traditions, I always enjoyed the day’s connection to fall, harvest, death and darkness. Even if it has become a consumer opus, the remnants of our pre-Christian European traditions still creep through. The very concept that a single day of the year will find the streets haunted by our ancestors produces a cognitive discord that some Christians still recognize as blasphemous.

Every Halloween, The Simpsons release a non-canonical episode that spoofs popular horror stories and films. These episodes, placed under the moniker Treehouse of Horror, have acted as some of my favorites in the series. Since my mother was not keen on an animated comedy program, you can only imagine how she felt about horror movies present in the 1980s. Like many people my age, these Simpson Halloween specials served as an introduction to many great pieces of horror and film that I only came to appreciate later in life.

When I watched the segment “The Monkey’s Paw,” I had only heard the Twilight Zone’s opening score. The cautionary tale found Lisa wishing for world peace, only to have Kang and Kodos (the special’s recurring alien monsters) easily conquer Earth. Eventually Moe eventually finds a board with a nail in it is an effective tool to ward off the aliens. Kang comments that eventually the townspeople will “cause the human race to create a board with a nail in it so big to doom mankind.” That comedic wit was in short supply in other programs I watched; I wouldn’t see the Twilight Zone for another ten years but it would ultimately become a favorite of mine.

Two of my favorite segments appeared in Treehouse of Horror V (1994). My 12 year-old eyes had never seen a Stanley Kubrick film, but I still grasped the terrifying premise of The Shinning (not Shining, do you want to get sued?). With “no beer and no TV” causing Homer to go crazy and attempt to murder his family, it was only a small portable television that saved the clan from certain death.

I wasn’t familiar with Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, but watching Homer attempt to correct the historical record (after unwittingly creating a time machine from a toaster and unsuspectingly mucking with the past) seemed brilliant and absorbing to my young mind.

As I aged, I became well read; I watched classic films and eventually found myself recognizing the references present in these Halloween specials. With that increased awareness came a decrease in pleasure related to the series. I started to see the jokes coming, and recognized that only slight tweaks were being made to the source material to justify its inclusion in the program.

Only recently have I grasped that these episodes are no longer for me: they exist as an introduction to classic bits of cinema many young people are not exposed to. The Simpson’s use of the Shining did not leave the same impression on my father as it did me, as he was well versed in the original. He could laugh at it, but memory of the Kubrick’s work is what would remain in his brain. It was new and fascinating to me; it was just a comical satire to my father.

When I watch this year’s Treehouse of Horror, I will remind myself that these segments were my introduction to a slew of works I may have never explored had it not been for The Simpsons. I may not relish them like I used to, but I am content to see them endure for a new generation.

(Image: Kang and Kodos, Fox Media)


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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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15 thoughts on “In Praise of the Treehouse of Horror

  1. My brother used to LOVE the Simpsons. I remember he would record the episodes on VHS tapes when he was at UT Austin. He was eight years older than me and passed down an old Simpsons tee shirt that didn’t fit him any more when he was a growing teenager. I’m so glad I still have it! I haven’t been able to watch the Simpsons since he passed away, but I think of him any time I see or hear about it. The Simpsons and Butterfingers. :)

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  2. The Shinning has to have been one of my favorites. So many good lines! “Funny, the blood usually gets off on the second floor.”
    “Hey Homer, me and the ghouls have been talking, and we feel the project of you killing your family isn’t moving forward. ”

    Also they portrayed The Raven, how cool was that?

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  3. I love the Simpsons, even if it’s past its prime. But I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Treehouse of Horror. It’s good….but it’s a little to gory, at least sometimes. There also seems to be a little, “we’re doing this to be shocking” instead of the “we’re doing satire because we’re a satirical comedy.”

    Please don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen many (not all) of the Treehouse of Horror and have enjoyed most of the ones I’ve seen. I just don’t like them as a “project.” Still, I’m not against them either.

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  4. The Simpsons is so good you can almost measure it objectively. In its heyday, the amount of effort and skill that they put into every part of the show was astonishing.

    A favorite of mine was the episode where Lisa fears that she is genetically doomed to be unintelligent, like Bart and Homer. There’s a two-second scene with Bart and Homer inviting Lisa to join them in watching an idiotic TV show, and their eyes and lips are drawn with strange, heavy outlines. It’s a reference to a discredited study of “Kallikaks,” an extended family of supposedly feeble-minded villagers in New Jersey in the 1900s. In Stephen Jay Gould’s denunciation of the science of IQ, The Mismeasure of Man, he claimed that the researcher who studied the Kallikak family crudely altered their faces in photos to give them an aspect of menacing stupidity. The creators of The Simpsons went to a lot of trouble to make a complicated reference to this, knowing full well that a fairly tiny fraction of viewers would recognize (and be delighted by) it. That is some seriously wonderful artistry.

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    • Agreed. It is these little tidbits of research that turn to jokes (that probably took hours to come up with) that really give the show the depth that allows kids and adults alike to enjoy.

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  5. The Halloween episodes were always some of my favorite simpsons. I don’t think i’ve watched the show in a few years, but the old ones are classic.

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    • “We must move upwards, not downwards; forwards, not backwards and twirling always twirling towards Freedom!”

      “Abortions for all!” *Crowd boos*
      “Alright, no Abortions for anyone!” *Crowd boos*
      “Fine, Abortions for some and tiny American flags for the rest!* *Crowd cheers!*

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