overthinking the idiot box

October 31, 2005

Animation on television, child-safe and otherwise.

Happy Halloween!

by Adam Lipkin

Happy Halloween! Today is, of course, Halloween. And it seems that every cartoon ever has had at least one Halloween-oriented episode, or a special Halloween movie, or just dealt with creepy themes in general. So what better topic for today than the ubiquitous Top Five List? In this case, the greatest Halloween-themed cartoons ever. Note that I'm playing a little bit fast and loose here, with entire series, sets of episodes, and specials on the same list. I'm also not including theatrical releases, so no Nightmare Before Christmas on this list:

  1. The Maxx. For a network that's moved away from its roots and focused purely on original programming, MTV sure hasn't produced many decent shows over the years. But their early cartoons were amongst their best. And I'm not sure TV has ever seen anything as strange as The Maxx. An adaptation of Sam Kieth and Bill Messner-Loebs's wonderful Image comic (the first great book to come from that publisher, in fact), The Maxx had some of the darkest themes ever covered in primetime animation, yet never seemed to wallow in gratuitousness like its sister show, Aeon Flux. On The Maxx, a social worker, Julie, created a fantasy world as a way to escape and repress her memories of being raped. The various evils in both our world and Julie's fantasy Outback slowly overlap, as a heroic creature named The Maxx and a killer called Mr. Gone influence Julie's real world and her fantasies. The show doesn't have the cathartic thrill of some traditional horror, but it does show that mature themes (as opposed to just "adult" content) really could work in animation.

  2. The South Park Halloween Specials. South Park definitely lands on the "adult content" side of things, but no 'toon does more with less than this one, and the three Halloween specials have been amongst the best this series has produced. In the initial Halloween special, in which zombie attack the town gets blamed on "Pink Eye, " references to everything from Romero movies to the Evil Dead flicks to Michael Jackson's Thriller video abound. The second Halloween episode, "Spooky Fish," combines evil animals (starting with Stan's evil fish) with the classic Star Trek mirror universe concept. And the final special, "Korn's Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery," is an extended riff on Scooby Doo cartoons, only much funnier (and, as a bonus, it's the first and only time I've ever not hated Korn). South Park may never aim for the high ground in terms of content, but as lowbrow humor goes, it doesn't get much better than these three episodes.

  3. The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. I've raved about this show before, and I've got no reason to stop. Billy and Mandy is one of those shows that slips some incredibly dark and twisted stuff by the kids because it's just so damned funny. Episodes involving everything from a giant spider (who, of course, is perfectly polite, and believes that the moronic and arachnophobic Billy is his dad) to brownie-eating zombies are painfully funny, and the constant presence of the Grim Reaper himself adds a nice dark twist to even the more lighthearted plotlines. Add in the fact that Mandy is probably the most twisted little girl this side of Wednesday Addams, and you've got one of the funniest all-ages toons ever to hit the air.

  4. The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror". With the sixteenth one airing last night, this series-within-a-series has run longer than many entire cartoons. Deviating completely from normal Simpsons continuity, these anthology episodes have poked fun at every horror concept imaginable. Even as The Simpsons itself has weakened over the last few seasons, these episodes have remained amongst the best stuff being put out by Groening and company.

  5. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Oh, like there was any doubt that this would top the list. No, it's not scary or dark. Who cares? Nothing has managed to capture the thrill of Halloween for kids better than this TV movie. From Linus's simple, utter faith in The Great Pumpkin (an idea no sillier than Santa Claus), to Charlie Brown looking into his goody bag and moaning, "I got a rock," almost every moment of this show has become indelibly etched in the minds of children over the last forty years. Nothing embodies the whim and spirit of Charles Schulz like this cartoon. There are plenty of shows that capture the darker side of the holiday, but this classic is still the best at capturing the sheer joy kids feel on October 31.

There were and are plenty of other cartoons that delve into the realm of the spooky with great results, from family fare like Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and the recent Scary Godmother movies, to more adult stuff like the horror movie parodies that regularly pop up on Robot Chicken. That said, believe me when I say that the omission of any and all iterations of Scooby Doo is most certainly intentional. Feel free to suggest your own favorites in the forums, and have a happy Halloween!

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