Television and the Haunted Holiday

October 28, 2010
By | 13 Comments

Each year, the weeks before Halloween are inundated with television episodes featuring costume parties, haunted houses, and trick-or-treating. It’s the perfect television holiday: costumes bring spectacle, haunted houses bring suspense, and trick-or-treating brings a sense of ritual to the proceedings. It’s simultaneously eventful and reaffirming, disrupting the everyday but doing so through a yearly tradition that unites family/friends/co-workers/etc.

This time of year is always particularly interesting for me since I have no real interest in the holiday: I don’t particularly like candy, I’ve never been a fan of suspense- or fear-driven activities, and since it doubles as my older brother’s birthday it was always “his” holiday. And yet I find Halloween episodes of television fascinating because of the unique opportunities available to writers and producers.

Take, for example, this week’s Halloween-themed Modern Family: in “Halloween,” the curmudgeonly patriarch ends up dressed as a gargoyle, while the rebellious teenage girl starts off with a “naughty cat” costume – both costumes are aggressively on the nose, but that’s part of the appeal. It’s meant to be a moment of recognition, where we realize that Jay really is a like a gargoyle and Haley would dress up as a naughty cat. The show isn’t interested in the transgressive nature of Halloween costumes, as evidenced by the lack of connection between the episode’s costumes and the conflict between Jay and Gloria in regards to her accent; instead, the show is interested in the idea that it’s fun to see the characters the audience loves dressed up in extremely elaborate Halloween costumes, a simple pleasure and little more.

Although many Halloween episodes boil down to this sort of narrative, what makes the holiday so interesting is its versatility. It operates more or less independent of class: Modern Family’s characters are considerably wealthy (just look at the quality of their costumes), but the blue collar family on Raising Hope is also able to take part in Halloween festivities in their own way. It also works across all demographics: the cast of Friends or How I Met Your Mother aren’t going to go trick-or-treating, but between being a kid and having kids there is a stage where Halloween is an excuse to party. The holiday is similarly versatile in terms of situation, as it is just as relevant to a workplace environment or educational setting (like tonight’s episodes of The Office and Community) as it is within a more domestic space.

However, the quality I think creators find most appealing about Halloween is that it blurs the line between fantasy and reality. It gives The Simpsons the license to abandon its normal structure for the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, which are sort of the cornucopia of Halloween television tropes: casting the show’s characters within famous works like The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street, or The Fly is similar to putting characters into costume (which also happens on occasion), and within the series’ twenty-one specials (the latest of which airs next Sunday) the show has tackled the holiday from almost every imaginable angle. Halloween is associated with so many gruesome and compelling ideas that it seems as if this trend will never run out of ways to represent the holiday.

To my surprise, though, there is some room for innovation in how these these elements of fantasy are used to a show’s advantage. Last week, Parenthood built its Halloween episode around Max, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Having been sheltered from the holiday by his concerned parents, Max’s determination to take part results in a dissection of the Halloween experience: his mother has him practice trick-or-treating with his sister, they ask neighbors to replace candles with glow sticks (since Max is afraid of fire), and they plan out a route to avoid the elaborate haunted house in their area. And yet, after discovering that his younger cousins are willing to face their fears, Max insists on going to the haunted house’s door.

It’s a great scene because it uses the same tools as one would expect from a horror film: time seems to slow down, Max’s senses become highly active, the camera takes on his point of view, and his family waits anxiously as if they have just sent Max into an actual haunted house. And yet, the horror dissipates: Max screams, but of joy rather than terror. While the episode has the costumes we expect (including a bit of meta-humor in Mae Whitman, late of Arrested Development, wearing a Banana costume), it is less interested in humor of recognition and more interested in showing us a perspective on the holiday that we have likely never seen before, but through the use of a set of fantastical tropes we come to expect from the holiday.

This is a particularly populated year for Halloween episodes: since last year’s success stories mostly avoided the holiday (outside of Community, which is doing it twice), this is the first year for full-on Halloween episodes for Modern Family, Cougar Town, The Middle and Parenthood, and news shows like Raising Hope, Better with You, and Outsourced are jumping right in. It’s an ideal test case for the effect on ratings and critical success of such episodes (ABC’s Wednesday comedy block was up sharply, for example), so I am curious whether anyone else has felt tricked or treated by this year’s crop of ghoulish takes on your favorite (or potentially least favorite) shows.


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13 Responses to “ Television and the Haunted Holiday ”

  1. Brooke Edge on October 28, 2010 at 1:24 PM

    I haven’t seen most of this year’s Halloween specials yet, but thanks for pointing out Parenthood’s take. I love the license for fun and childishness thar a Halloween episode gives a show, which I suppose is why I most often think of sitcoms around this time, but I was really impressed by how Parenthood used the holiday to show me another side of raising a special-needs child.

    It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite Halloween episodes – Freaks & Geeks’ take on that sad year when we realize we’re too old to trick or treat (lest we risk the big kids pelting us with eggs).

    • Myles McNutt on October 29, 2010 at 11:00 PM

      I really need to buy those Freaks and Geeks DVDs so that moments like this where I have an urge to return to the show can actually come to fruition.

      As it is, I shall look back fondly.

      • Eleanor Seitz on October 30, 2010 at 9:49 PM

        Definitely one of the more heart wrenching episodes of Freaks & Geeks!

        • Peter on November 15, 2010 at 1:36 PM

          And the best thing about that episode is that the characters wore costumes that actual real people would actually make and wear (as opposed to TV characters who have the entire Warner Brothers props department at their disposal)

  2. Matt on October 28, 2010 at 4:09 PM

    Kudos on the thought-provoking post. It raises interesting points. I personally harbor a predilection for Halloween episodes. I particularly relish the versatile pastiche vignettes of THE SIMPSONS. The segments which draw on Halloween tropes to reference socio-cultural and political topics are specifically effective (consider, for instance, the upsend of the 2008 election). I equally enjoy the ‘party’ episodes of FRIENDS and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. In my view, sitcoms generally subordinate the storied mythology of Halloween to the expressiveness of costume design and, as you rightfully point out, a varied space construction. Acknowledging Halloween enriches a television show’s cultural canon and raises its level of authenticity and tangibility.

    As a German, I am only peripherally acquainted with Halloween. In this respect, holiday-themed television episodes have always enabled me to live vicariously and implicitly partake in a foreign tradition. Therefore, I am always looking forward to these episodes.

    • Myles McNutt on October 29, 2010 at 11:02 PM

      I’m curious, Matt, about whether there are holidays which operate in a similar fashion in German television (if you are acquainted with it). While Halloween itself (as you indicate) is not particularly common, are holiday episodes as a whole something you’d see in a season?

      • Matt on October 30, 2010 at 5:01 AM

        Myles, I need to preface my response with a brief disclaimer. While at times certainly enjoyable, German television is not particularly original or innovative. The bulk of TV series is composed of comedy shows. And the quality is mercurial, not remotely comparable to US standards. Sitcoms, for instance, are generally conceived as a compilation of short skits. The more sophisticated American template, a tightly structured, self-contained narrative, be it serialized or episodic, is rarely employed. Notable exceptions, in my opinion, include TÜRKISCH FÜR ANFÄNGER, a show about the dynamics of an intercultural patchwork family (unfortunately it was cancelled), STROMBERG (the German take on THE OFFICE) and BERLIN, BERLIN (EMMY winner!).

        To my knowledge, however, German TV series do not incorporate holidays into the structure of their narrative, except for ‘Weihnachten’ (christmas), ‘Neujahr’ (New Year’s Eve) and ‘Fasching’ (probably the equivalent to Mardi Gras). The latter is comparable to Halloween in the sense that it provides a forum for the utilization of costumes and party venues. Soap operas, the dominant television format due to its longevity and financial viability, frequently deploy these situational tropes. Yet, the cultural context is undoubtedly neglected. Holidays only serve as a backdrop.

        Halloween offers an interesting case, however. Although it is a distinctly American tradition, it is quite pervasive in Germany, particularly on television. The networks usually offer theme-based TV episodes. Sitcoms, soap operas, late-night talk shows, prime-time programming (inclusion of several horror films) and specifically programs for children (educational documentaries, animated series, game shows) feature Halloween. The essence of the holiday itself, its cultural mythology, is however only peripherally referenced (except for the children’s shows which elaborate upon the tradition of the holiday). In TV shows, it usually serves as a backdrop for horror-inflected parody or lavish costume and set design. I have yet to see a German show which draws on the concept of a holiday as a seminal narrative or aesthetic element.

  3. Shawn on October 28, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    I used to enjoy the bi-annual Hallowe’en episodes on Buffy. The Treehouse of Terror episodes were fun too.

    • Myles McNutt on October 29, 2010 at 11:03 PM

      Watching Buffy for the first time, there’s some fun novelty in the idea that demons dislike the holiday so as not to fit into the stereotype – looking forward to whatever seasons 6 and 7 might bring on that front.

  4. Zach on October 29, 2010 at 6:48 PM

    I absolutely love this piece. I thought that the Parenthood Halloween episode was by far the best I’ve seen, and I think that is mostly because it wasn’t used in the way you discussed, as a means to shake up the status quo. It was this family experiencing a real situation with the problems they have; the consequences ensued, whether or not they were the expected ones or not.
    Modern Family was hilarious, and it was what I expected from the show. Definitely a well-done episode.
    Cougar Town felt like an episode of Scrubs. Probably because of Ken Jenkins’ guest spot, but, come on, Bill Lawrence IS behind the damn thing. The comedic beats and just the overall tone of the episode had a very JD-older brother dynamic to it.
    Otherwise… Glee was mindless as ever. Enjoyable filler for an evening. I don’t actually watch The Middle.
    And The Office was more enjoyable than I thought, I just felt like the main storyline between Darryl and Michael was out of place, otherwise it was a strong, entertaining episode. And Community? Pure brilliance. I am incredibly happy that the show has fully adopted the absurdist and, at times, surrealist nature that fits it so well. Definitely my favorite comedy at the moment (sorry, Modern Family and 30 Rock, this season you have been great but not the first show I check out on Hulu).
    Wow, I meant to write this just to praise this article, but I ended up feeding my ego a few donuts and had to voice my opinion.

    Great article! Informed, informative, and even a bit deep. It’s a winner.

    • Myles McNutt on October 29, 2010 at 11:05 PM

      I think your inability to contain yourself (which is never a problem) stems from the sheer volume of examples this year: with so many shows doing Halloween episodes, it’s inevitable that we start comparing them. Community told a very broad zombie story, Parenthood was incredibly grounded, and The Office, Cougar Town and Modern Family sort of fit in between.

      Thanks for the kind words, and for sharing your own thoughts!

  5. Tausif Khan on October 29, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    Is it just me or are their just less halloween episodes or just holiday episodes on the air then their used to be? I think I remember in the past that shows with no reason to incorporate holiday themes into their shows would do so anyway as a network promotion. Does anyone else seem to remember this or am I just emphasizing the family friendly shows I watched as a youngster?

    It does get ridiculous sometimes when I see a sitcom in syndication which shows their Halloween episode in the middle of July.

    I can’t resist: “How many times have I told you there is money in the banana stand!”

    • Myles McNutt on October 29, 2010 at 11:06 PM

      I don’t know about past years, as I haven’t exactly been paying attention, but this year showed a larger number of Halloween episodes than in year’s past, and they were met with great success – as a result, I expect we’ll see more new shows and returning shows try it out next year.

      And yes, syndication does mess with the holiday situation, but I think that the initial timeliness is worth the syndication confusion.