Televised Treats no Tricks
The season of spooks and treats is still with us and I’m sure many of us have our own share of annual traditions as fall transition into winter. Personally I have often enjoyed the plethora of Halloween related media which springs up this time of year. While the occasional horror movie can be a thrilling experience, I have always preferred the more whimsical aspects of the holiday. So, today we’ll be looking at television specials which will get you in the mood for the season without racking your nerves, at least not too much.
Spongebob - “Legend of Boo-kini Bottom”
Spongebob has been the eternal pillar keeping Nickelodeon aloft for almost 20 years. Most would probably agree that it has long overstayed its welcome. The departure of Spongebob's creator Stephen Hillenburg after season 3 is often seen as the initial sign of decay for the series. So it may be surprising to hear this isn’t the first Halloween special from the series heyday, but the recent stop-motion Halloween Special from 2017. The story follows Spongebob as he goes around town hanging out with his friends as he learns to find the fun in the scare’s of the holiday until the Flying Dutchman decides to show Spongebob a real reason to fear Halloween.
I will admit some bias towards stop motion, but it's only because stop-motion really does add to the atmosphere of this episode. The uncanny and slight stiffness inherent to the technique gives everything a naturally unsettling mood, and I would like to emphasize slightly because the stop motion is polished to a tee here. All the characters are just as animated if not more so than their usual 2D incarnations. It all comes together to encompass a really energetic and inviting showcase of the holiday as all of Spongebob’s friends get enough screen time to make their friendship more believable than it has been for a long time. Only for all of it to have its feet pulled off the rug by the Dutchman’s frightening roller coaster ride, full of creative and intimidating imagery. We can likely attribute this new creative vigor with the return of Hillenburg last year, which will be sure to ensure the inevitable next decade of Spongebob with some good episodes to come.
Hey Arnold - “Arnold's Halloween”
Nostalgia is in vogue at the moment, and Hey Arnold was one of its targets when Nickelodeon released a movie in 2017 for a twenty year old franchise. If you are not aware, Hey Arnold follows the misadventures of a football-shaped headed, young boy named Arnold as he runs into the colorful inhabitants around his school and neighborhood. In this misadventure Arnold works out a plan to scare his family and neighbors after having his maturity called out, when he isn't allowed to help the adults create a spine-chilling Halloween. His plan seems to go on without a hitch as he scares the pants off of everyone with a fake news broadcast about an alien invasion, likely referencing Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which convinced thousands of people that the Earth was being invaded. Only for things to go off the rail as a local conspiracy program catches the wind and sparks the fire of mass hysteria across the town, which is only fanned by Arnold's meticulous planning. He even gets his friends caught up in the disaster as they came up with the brilliant idea of dressing as aliens for Halloween. This special is a bit of rube Goldberg-esque chain of events as paranoia grips the hearts of the town and leads to the development of an absurd resistance movement made to combat the imaginary threat.
Community - “Epidemiology”
Community is a sitcom about college students which routinely jumps between high concept storytelling and small-scale character drama, reminiscent of Dan Harmon's other work Rick and Morty. In this adventure, the cast attends a Halloween party which seems to be going well until sudden zombie outbreak occurs due to the dean’s ineptitude. An enclosed, high-stress environment amplifies a zombie outbreak shares some amazing synergy with the characters as their often self-absorbed or near delusional personality traits. The lengths the cast go through to ensure their own safety or attempt absurd plans make for some hilarious results. A particular standout moment being when a character puts everyone in danger of infection after being bitten, whose narcissism convinces themselves that were ‘special’ and immune. The climax also proves amusing when Donald Glover’s Troy attempts to save the day by donning some “power armor.” It’s not quite a parody as its played straight with all the characters acting completely in character, something it shares 2003’s Shaun of the Dead only with more emphasis on the humor over sentimentality.
Scary Godmother 1 and 2
The Scary Godmother specials are the devious pair of Halloween specials which premiered in early 2004 on Cartoon Network. The first special introduces us to an easily frightened girl named Hannah as she gets goaded into entering an abandoned home to prove her maturity to her cousin. After entering the home, she gets whisked away to the supernatural land of Frightside by the titular Scary Godmother. Despite initial hesitation, Hannah spends the night getting to know a cast of quirky monsters as she joins in their celebration of the holiday.
The first Scary Godmother can be best described as a very cozy special. The entire special is about getting to know the colorful cast of monsters who show off multiple facets of their lives as their supernatural natures are humorously contrasted with mundane issues like parenting and teenage rebellion. The special's roots as a children's book shine through with it's emphasis on good morals like not judging a book its cover and an ending where karmic justice is served to the other kids as they are terrorized by Hannah’s new friends.
The second special picks up next Halloween and focuses on Jimmy, Hannah's cousin who has slowly descended into a paranoid madness after his scare from last Halloween. Jimmy’s paranoia eventually leads him to the conclusion that he must destroy Halloween, which is coincidentally correct as the existence of the Frightside depends on the success of the holiday. The special is still laid-back but forgoes to comfortable party atmosphere for a ridiculous rant of a boy gone mad trying to ruin the holiday for his friends as they come up with inventive ways to celebrate the holiday without candy, store-bought costumes, or pumpkins. The true standout piece of entertainment stems from Jimmy's devolution into the Halloween Grinch.
Be warned these specials were made with CG in the early 2000s. Need I say more. The faux cell-shaded aesthetic used for the backgrounds are distracting, which is only worsened by its absence from the characters. The second film makes a decent effort at making things look less uncanny, but in the end neither special has aged well visually. Scary Godmother is still the perfect thing to put on after a long day if you want to relax while you imagine having real friends you can actually have a party with.
There have been way too many Halloween themed media to cover at once, so here's a list of films, tv specials, and mini-series which deserve way more time given here to keep an eye out for.
Nightmare Before Christmas
The Simpson “Treehouse of Horror” Specials
Over the Garden Wall
South Park “The Scoots”
Bob’s Burgers “The Hauntening”