I set out to write this post about either Hocus Pocus or Arsenic and Old Lace – both Halloween classics that I will get to soon. But over the weekend I took a last-minute trip to a friend’s birthday party up in Brooklyn, where one of her favorite bands sang “This Is Halloween” to her. The look of joy on her face reminded me how much Henry Selick’s film The Nightmare Before Christmas means to so many of my friends, especially the ones who (like me) felt like misfits when they were younger.
So today, I’m going to take a look at The Nightmare Before Christmas – an unexpected classic that has become so popular that Disneyland themes its Halloween festivities around the film – and why it resonates so much with so many people.
For those who haven’t seen it: our story begins in the holiday town dedicated to Halloween, just after the end of the holiday. But in spite of pulling off another successful Halloween, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon/Danny Elfman), the Pumpkin King, is unhappy. He’s grown weary of doing the same thing year in and year out and yearns for more. After wandering off alone into the woods outside Halloween Town, he stumbles through a magical doorway into Christmas Town, and is overjoyed to discover the new holiday.
When he returns home, Jack tries to get the other residents of Halloween Town as hyped up about Christmas as he is, but while trying to get them to understand it he accidentally makes it sound scary. Afterwards, he struggles to wrap his own mind around the concept of the holiday, and decides that this year he and the rest of Halloween Town will do Christmas themselves. The other residents readily get on board, except for Jack’s friend and secret admirer Sally (Catherine O’Hara), who has a bad feeling that the whole plan will go terribly wrong.
But Jack forges on ahead, enlisting the help of mischief-makers Lock (Paul Reubens), Shock (Catherine O’Hara), and Barrel (Danny Elfman) to kidnap Santa Claus (Edward Ivory) until Christmas is over. After a mishap or two, they successfully bag Santa; but against Jack’s wishes, they hand Santa over to their murderous superior, Oogie Boogie (Ken Page). Granted, if Jack didn’t want Oogie Boogie involved, he probably shouldn’t have enlisted Oogie’s henchmen to do the job.
Meanwhile, the Halloween Town residents’ Christmas plans are shaping up exactly how you’d expect them to: everything’s coming up spooky. When Christmas Eve finally rolls around Sally tries to sabotage Jack’s departure, but Jack manages to depart on time anyway. Jack goes to work but inadvertently spreads terror instead of Christmas cheer. Sally goes to find Santa Claus so he can save the day, but is captured by Oogie Boogie instead.
Jack is shot down by the military and lands in a graveyard, where he bemoans the fact that everything went wrong. But he suddenly rallies and embraces his role as the Pumpkin King, and returns to Halloween Town to free Santa. He discovers that Santa and Sally are in Oogie Boogie’s clutches and confronts Oogie, who attacks him. Jack defeats Oogie and frees both Sally and Santa, who leaves to replace Jack’s Christmas gifts.
To wrap up the night, Santa brings Christmas to Halloween Town, whose residents finally feel the same wonder and joy that Jack felt when he discovered the holiday. Jack reveals to Sally that he has romantic feelings for her as well, and they embrace.
So it’s a good film, but why does it appeal to so many people? Well, I think there are a few different reasons. One is its simplicity; it isn’t bogged down with a million subplots/characters/themes, so it’s very easy to understand and follow (especially for younger viewers). I’m not saying complexity is a bad thing, it’s just that in some cases simpler is better – especially if it leaves enough open that it fires the audience’s imagination. (For instance: what on earth is the 4th of July holiday town like? Is it just constantly 1776 up in there?)
Another reason is that its characters are so relatable, especially Jack. Everyone’s probably had similar experiences of yearning for more in their lives, or feeling the excitement of discovering something new, or being completely out of their element, or trying to cope with failing in spite of doing their best.
We all know that feel.
And as I said at the beginning of this post, the film especially seems to resonate with people who’ve felt like misfits at some point in their lives. I’m not certain why this is, but maybe the answer lies in Halloween Town itself. In this world, being dark or spooky or weird isn’t just accepted, it’s embraced. The residents of Halloween Town recognize that everyone there has something unique to contribute to their holiday. And even when Jack does something unexpected by becoming fascinated with Christmas, nobody tries to pressure him to be more Halloween-ish; they completely support him and do their best to help him succeed. (Even Sally helps despite her misgivings about the whole plan.) Who wouldn’t want to live in a world like that?
There’s more I could say about this film, but it’s probably best to wrap up here – at least for today. Next time we’ll take a look at either a film about a virgin lighting a cursed candle or a comedy about two sweet old ladies who murder people.