SSR #16: “Treehouse of Horror”

Introduction:
There is one holiday that the Simpson family never seems to miss a beat with and that holiday is none other than Halloween. Every season, starting with this season, has had a Halloween special and it has become a bit of a tradition with the all the writers and producers. It’s a time where they can all come together, pitch some scary story ideas, come up with some interesting parodies, bring the aliens Kang and Kodos out of retirement, and just in general have fun with creating some non-serious and non-canon storylines. It’s not just for the writers’ benefit though, as the Halloween specials are quite popular with the Simpson viewing audience too. In a countdown I watched many years ago of the most favorite Simpson episodes of all time, there were many Treehouse of Horror episodes featured in the Top 10 list alone, which shows how recognized and how loved these spooky stories are. So today, in the spirit of Halloween, we are taking a look at the very first Treehouse of Horror.

Treehouse of Horror was first broadcast on October 25th, 1990 and was the third episode of Season 2. It was also the fourth episode of Season 2 to be written, but since Halloween would have been over if it aired in that order, the writers made sure it was shown before one of the other previously written episodes. As far as chalkboard and couch gags, because this was a special episode, it did not feature those. However, the Simpson writers did put in their own humorous gags in the form of freeze-frame tombstone names, which are pretty fun look at on subsequent watches.

“Die…die…everybody die!”
~Bad Dream House

Plot:
The episode starts with Marge appearing on a stage, explaining to the audience that the following episode is a Halloween episode and that if parents don’t want their kids having nightmares, they probably shouldn’t watch the following half-hour. After this warning, the actual episode begins. Homer comes home from trick-or-treating (or in his case, candy collecting) and he notices Bart and Lisa are in their treehouse telling scary stories. He decides to listen in on them as they tell three stories to each other, two by Bart and one by Lisa, with each story representing one act of the episode.

Bad Dream House
For Bart’s first story, the Simpson family has moved out of their house into a much larger, but cheaper mansion. However, not everything is as it seems in this new place. Objects are moving on their own, blood can sometimes be seen dripping from the walls, and a weird vortex to another dimension is located in the corner of the kitchen. The family starts hearing voices telling them to leave the house, but Homer decides that the family will sleep on it before they make any decision to leave.

Overnight, the house starts speaking to Homer, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, telling them that they must kill the other members of the family. Brandishing weapons, the family is about to kill each other in the living room before Marge comes out of the kitchen and stops them. They discover that the house was built on an Indian burial ground and is a reason why the place was so cheap to begin with; it’s cursed. The house tells the family once again to get out which prompts Marge into getting into an argument with the supernatural being. After Marge tries to explain to the house that they will need to learn how to live with each other, the house asks for a moment alone. When the family walks outside, the house destroys itself; realizing that it doesn’t want to spend a life with the Simpson family.

Hungry are the Damned
For Bart’s second story, while the family is having a nice hamburger cookout, an alien spaceship appears above the Simpson home and proceeds to use a tractor beam to bring them all aboard their spaceship. The aliens, named Kang and Kodos, explain to the family that they are just wanting to make contact with other lifeforms and proceed to invite them to dinner. It turns out the aliens are on their way to a great feast on their home planet and the members of the Simpson family are the “guests of honor.”

Lisa is skeptical and does some snooping around, finding a cookbook that might be used for cooking humans. After Lisa presents the book to the family, the aliens return and try to clear their names, claiming that the book is about cooking “for” humans. However, because they were questioned, the aliens become angry and decide to travel back to the Simpson household to let the family off and take back the family’s invitation to the great feast. The aliens vocalize their disappointment of the family as they leave and the rest of the family is angry at Lisa for potentially ruining their chances of attending a great, intergalactic celebration.

The Raven
The final story, being told by Lisa, is a parody of “The Raven,” a poem written by Edgar Allen Poe. In this story, a narrator (Homer) tells the story of how the memory of his lost love, Lenore (Marge) is haunting his life. During the night and after several knocks on the door and windows, the poor soul unintentionally lets a raven (Bart) into the room and it starts to taunt the man by continuously saying “Nevermore,” in reference to Lenore. After several exchanges of this, the raven drives the man crazy and he decides to attack the bird in a display of rage. However, the raven outsmarts him by avoiding all the thrown objects and even starts to drop books on the man in retaliation. The story ends with Homer laying down in the center of the room, surrounded by madness, as the raven starts laughing.

After the story, the kids are called into bed, not feeling scared or intimidated by the scary stories, not in the slightest bit. Homer, meanwhile, is terrified by the events of the past half-hour and when he goes into bed, he’s too scared to fall asleep with the lights off. Marge remarks that they were only children stories and they are nothing to be scared of, but as Homer lays in darkness, he sees a raven outside his window and remarks that he hates Halloween, ending the episode.

“Oh, you will be at the feast! I have a feeling you will be the guests of honor.”
~Kang (Hungry are the Damned)

Personal History:
Although this episode wasn’t on my Simpsons VHS tape (don’t worry, we’ll start getting into those episodes soon), I did have a secondary Simpsons VHS tape which had the first four Halloween specials on them, so because of that, I was very familiar with this Halloween special in addition to the following three as well. Of the episodes on that tape, this was probably my least favorite one growing up, but over time I did grow to appreciate it on a much different level. After all, this episode did start a very special tradition for the show and it’s interesting to see where the Halloween episodes got their true beginnings from.

“Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!”
~Homer (The Raven)

Favorite/Memorable Moments:
For this episode, due to the nature of how it’s laid out, I’ll try to spend one paragraph on each episode. For Bad Dream House, I really appreciate and respect what the writers did with this story because they took a pretty standard story and tried to combine it with a variety of different elements and parodies from other scary stories and movies, like “The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist,” and “House of Usher.” As far as favorite moments, I always like the part when the family discovers the vortex to another dimension and Homer chucks in an orange, just to have a note being thrown back telling them to “stop throwing junk into our dimension.” I also just really like the phone call between Homer and the guy who sold him the house, because after Homer spends the entire phone call yelling at the guy, he tells the family after it’s over, “He mentioned the house was haunted five or six times,” which just goes to show that it’s all Homer’s fault and he kind of had this whole thing coming for not listening in the first place.

For “Hungry are the Damned,” I’d argue that this story is probably the least scary of the three plots showcased in this episode. The threat and danger of the aliens is clear as day, but the story itself is just not serious in how it goes about using that danger. However, I am definitely not saying that as a negative, because of the three stories, this is probably my favorite one. I just really enjoyed the introduction of Kang and Kodos and I love how it’s never blatantly stated or known if they were actually planning on cooking and eating the Simpson family or not. It’s very likely that they were going to, but just the fact they were smart enough to turn the situation around and blame the family for assuming the worst was actually kind of a brilliant way to wrap up the plot. Also, the cookbook joke is probably one of the greatest Halloween special gags in the history of the show; where Lisa and the aliens continually try to prove who is correct about the alien’s true intentions. The book’s title shifts from “How to Cook Humans,” to “How to Cook for Humans,” to “How to Cook Forty Humans,” to “How to Cook for Forty Humans,” and is just an extremely hilarious joke and bit that really shows how clever the writers were back in the day. There’s just a lot of funny bits in this episode, and honestly, I’ve only scratched the surface. From Homer creating a giant mushroom-cloud in his backyard from using too much lighter fluid on the grill, to the fact that one of the other aliens on board the ship is named “Serak the Preparer,” there’s just a lot of aspects of this story that kept me laughing and entertained throughout the duration.

I don’t really have a lot to say about “The Raven,” just because it’s a straight-up parody of a poem written by Edgar Allen Poe with the characters being played by members of the Simpson family. One thing I do want to highlight though is Dan Castlellaneta’s performance through Homer in this particular story. When you consider how eloquently “The Raven” is written, just try to imagine reading all of those words and sentences, not only perfectly, but also while doing the voice of a cartoon character. I can’t imagine that is easy and it speaks volumes for how talented Dan is in doing, not only the voice for Homer, but also in terms of just being an excellent performer as well, because he nailed it in this episode. Aside from that though, it’s again, just the story of “The Raven,” but shortened and simplified to compensate for the episode run time. Bart’s interruptions through the story are also quite endearing, considering this is not a story he would really appreciate or understand on the same level as Lisa, so it’s quite fun watching that dynamic in action. I also appreciated the nod to other works by Edgar Allen Poe as the raven starts dropping Poe’s other works of literature on Homer’s head during the closing scenes of the story.

“Nevermore…nevermore…nevermore!”
~The Raven

My Review:
Treehouse of Horror is a nice start to a long-standing tradition of Halloween specials that the Simpsons are now known for. As I am writing this retrospective, there have been twenty-nine Halloweens specials with a 30th on the way whenever Season 31 debuts. When that episode releases, that will be 100 Halloween short-stories released in the history of the show’s entire runtime. That is quite an impressive statistic, regardless of how you feel about the show’s overall quality these days compared to the days of old. I think the reason why these episodes are so popular is just because they give the writers not only a chance to embrace their inner-creativity, but also in a sense, break the boundaries of what is considered “acceptable” for a normal episode of the show and experiment with more mature themes and plotlines, usually under the sole stipulation that “it’s a Halloween story, it’s played to be scary, so therefore we can get away with it.” And because of that, I think it allows the viewers to have a bit more fun with it as well. They get to relax and unwind and watch their favorite characters in unexpected scenarios and not have to worry about the repercussions of a consistent continuity. None of what happens in these episodes is canon to what’s going on in the Simpson world. The Simpson family is not homeless after the bad dream house destroys itself and the aliens will never make an appearance in a regular episode of the show. So why not have a little fun by bending the rules a little?

I’m not going to lie, of all the Halloween specials, I’m probably only familiar with half of them, at least to a recognizable degree. I’m sure I’ve probably seen about 95% of them in actuality, but I would be lying if I said I remembered what all the stories were in the more recent years of the show. As a result, I can really only compare this episode to the first fifteen Treehouse of Horror episodes, but even then, I don’t want to say too much about future episodes, because I’ll probably cover them when I get to them. In the most basic terms, I will say that Treehouse of Horror (1) is probably one of the weaker installments of the Halloween specials, but not necessarily because the stories were weak. I think over time, the episodes just got better and this was really just the show’s first crack at it, so I can’t really say it did anything wrong or missed the mark on anything.

Bad Dream House was really the only “scary” episode of the bunch. It had some pretty spooky imagery and animation effects, which were no doubt cool at the time, and featured a plot that you would normally expect from a Halloween special or “spooky” movie in general. Hungry are the Damned is an alien abduction short-story with some pretty funny jokes and gags, but did not really feel like a horror plot. However, it was still a funny story and kept me entertained throughout. And finally, The Raven was less of a story and more of tribute to Edgar Allen Poe’s works, which, don’t get me wrong, The Raven is kind of creepy in its own way, but not necessarily the same type of “creepy” people would associate with a Halloween special. Heck, I remember as a kid I normally fast-forwarded through The Raven just because I didn’t really understand it, nor I was able to really appreciate it yet. Over time, it definitely grew on me and as I said in the previous section, Dan Castellaneta is absolutely amazing in his performance.

The Simpsons writers will often follow this trend when it comes to these episodes; they have one horror story, one “funny” story, and one parody or tribute of sorts, or at least a story that really heavily follows one. And honestly, I don’t necessarily think that is a bad route to go on. This way it has a little bit of something for everyone and I can understand why fans often praise the Halloween episodes, for incorporating that mindset (among the other reasons I listed earlier). I think the first Treehouse of Horror is a great start to this tradition. The stories aren’t the best, but they set-up enough of a base to get the writers to start stretching and flexing their creative muscles when it came to writing these episodes and I look forward to ultimately going through all of them again in the future.

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I hope you guys enjoyed and I hope you had a Happy Halloween. Unfortunately, I am delivering this episode one day later than I initially planned to as too many of my plans and commitments caught up with me, but at least I delivered this somewhat close to the Halloween date and not like three weeks later. Next week, I will be taking a look at “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish,” an episode I am actually looking forward to reviewing as it is the first episode that appears on that Simpsons VHS tape I keep talking about in these reviews. In other words, it’s an episode I have seen a lot, so it’s an episode I might have a lot to say about. See you guys then!

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