Stupid Things That Gave Me Nightmares As A Child, #5
"What's This?" Edition
The newest installment of my series about things I was afraid of as a child, and if they’re still scary to me now.
“Boys and girls of every age, wouldn’t you like to see something strange?”
My answer was no.
I’ve always loved Halloween. As a kid who was scared of nearly everything, I loved that I got to be scary for once. Not that a three-foot-tall tiger or witch is very scary, but it was the spirit of the thing. It was also my dad’s favorite holiday (though probably my mother’s least favorite) and he always made it fun. We would watch The Twilight Zone with him, listen to his “Horror Sounds” tape until we wore it out, and go look at the decorated houses in our neighborhood. There’s always one street in a town that goes all out on Halloween, and for us, it was Florence Street. Ghosts and witches and monsters rode around in a train in a front yard, skeletons reached for us, a horrifying scarecrow with a hidden speaker yelled “I’M GOING TO GET YOU!” and we yelled “NO YOU AREN’T!” back at it.
I also really liked the Christmas season, even if I didn’t actually ever celebrate Christmas. I never cared about Santa, and Baby Jesus meant nothing more to me than any other cute Jewish baby, which my family already had a lot of. But I loved everything around Christmas. I loved Chanukah and New Year’s, getting presents, picking out presents, the smell of pine trees and cookies in the oven, singing Carol of The Bells and We Three Kings in choir, and getting to see the houses on Florence Street all decked out for Christmas. Every year I prayed for snow, and every year, I was disappointed. (I didn’t see snow falling until I was 12 in Canada, but most Winter Breaks from school my family and I would go up to a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills to play in the snow for a few days. I was so Southern Californian that I never told people we were going to the mountains, I said we were going “to the snow.”) My first Winter back in LA, I woke up in the middle of the night, suddenly flooded with memories of drinking hot chocolate and lighting candles and playing King’s Quest with my brothers. Why does it smell like Winter Break? I thought, and then I realized the heater had come on. Heaters are so rarely used in LA, my only associations with it were of holidays.
I should have been a natural fit for Nightmare Before Christmas. But I was young when it came out, too young, and I was instantly afraid of Jack Skellington. Who was he, and what did he want, this strange creature with strange hollow eyes? Real skeletons weren’t scary to me, they didn’t speak and sing, except in old cartoons which were far too old and silly to be scary. Jack Skellington felt a little too real, and from what I could tell, he wanted to corrupt all the goodness of Christmas and Halloween. He wanted to ruin the holidays, the way teenage boys who smashed pumpkins or told little kids that believed in Santa that he wasn’t real ruined them. I hated him for it. Every time a commercial came on, I ran right to my bedroom and slammed the door.
But I couldn’t hide forever. When you grow up in Tim Burton‘s hometown, work on practical effects-heavy Hollywood film sets, and have almost exclusively goth and drama nerd friends as a teenager, you are going to encounter Nightmare before Christmas whether you like it or not.
Revisiting the Fear
It’s worth noting that not only did I love every other Tim Burton or Henry Selick movie I saw (to this day I maintain the controversial opinion that Mars Attacks! is funnier than Ghostbusters), I had a six degrees connection with them. I went to a premiere for James and the Giant Peach, and when I worked on Matilda, some of the designers (and actors!) working on it had also worked on Nightmare.
Most fears start to dissipate once you look into them a little further, and I had a very deep look while filming Matilda. I didn’t think to watch Nightmare on my own, but I now knew all the work that had gone into it. It couldn’t be terrifying anymore, not when some of the nicest people I knew had helped make it. At one point Danny Devito told me he wanted me to design a doll for Matilda to have, something she could have made out of things lying around the house, and I made a design based on the strangest things I had seen when I went to the craft store with my mother. When we brought “Wanda” to life, stitches and all, one of the designers looked at her and exclaimed, “She looks just like Sally!”
My appreciation grew even deeper when my high school show choir decided to stage Nightmare as a musical for our Winter Concert. We had connections: Disney’s studios were just a couple blocks away from our school, and many choir parents worked there. We got our hands on a script, cut it down, made some spooky and festive props, and had our choirs sing all the big numbers. My high school choir was not always a warm and welcoming environment. It was often competitive and cruel, with demanding directors and choreographers, and tons of mean girls and gross boys. But our stage version of Nightmare Before Christmas was one of the most fun performances I’ve ever been in, before or since.
So I appreciated the art, and I loved the music, but I still don’t think I watched Nightmare Before Christmas in its entirety until I was an adult. It was Christmas Eve, and I was celebrating with my Filipino stepfamily, who always open presents at midnight. Trying to fight the East Coast jet lag, I rented a movie on my phone. (The beauty of Nightmare is that it is both a Halloween movie and a Christmas movie. Hello, double residuals checks!) And I really enjoyed it!
I’ve probably only seen it a few times since then, but for the record, I do think it is a great movie. Maybe there are some plot holes (How do they get from the holiday lands to the real world? Does only Jack go, or does all of Halloweentown? Why does the mad genius Finkelstein still trust Sally to make his soup after she’s poisoned him twice in one week?), and there may be one or two unnecessary songs, but the imagery and the designs are just fantastic. It really does manage to evoke the feeling of Halloween and the spirit of Christmastime. So last week, when I was over at a friend’s house, and my friend’s partner suggested we put it on, I agreed. But I also decided to take some notes.
This past week, I was on the film discussion podcast You Are Good talking about Hocus Pocus, and Sarah Marshall brought up a very important question: what is the difference between spooky, scary, and creepy? Spooky, to me, is atmospheric and mysterious, evocative but not provocative. Scary is provocative, anything that puts you into a state of fright. Creepy is something makes you feel uncomfortable, makes your skin crawl. The Others is spooky. Scream is scary, or at least has scary moments, as do most slasher movies. Blue Velvet is creepy. A great horror movie or thriller can manage to do all three, Parasite being a good example.
I personally think “scary” movies for children aren’t scary at all. They are actually just spooky. There are a few exceptions, such as the very scary Return to Oz and maybe the 1990 The Witches. (I’ve also heard Matilda is scary, and I don’t personally think so, though I’m obviously a bit biased there.) How much of Nightmare is actually scary? In my grown-up opinion, very little. Like most fears of my childhood, the version I imagined of it is much scarier than the actual thing. It’s exceedingly spooky, but not scary.
Think of how it opens: a parade with all the characters from Halloweentown introducing themselves. They say what kind of monsters they are, what they do, and even insist “that’s our job, but we’re not mean!” From the beginning, we are meant to be on the monsters’ side. That makes them so much less scary. So much fear is about loss of control, and the unknown. It’s why it’s scarier when you see just a hint of a monster in a movie, and not the full thing. It’s why the birthday party video in Signs is terrifying, but the ending scene, where you see the full alien, is laughable. It’s why movies are scarier in the theater, when they are a full experience somewhere away from home, and not interrupted by your cat meowing to be fed or someone asking you to do the dishes. Nothing is scary if you know what to expect. It’s scary when you don’t know what the creature under your bed is or what it looks like. If it tells you it has “teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red,” you know to shine a light in its eyes and hit it in the teeth with your little league bat if it ever comes after you.
The scariest monsters in the Halloween parade are the more mysterious ones. “I am the ‘Who’ when you call ‘who’s there?’” That’s pretty scary. Clowns are inherently scary, because they hide who they are, and a clown with a tear-away face, is even scarier. My own history has corrupted this a little, though, because in my high school production the clown with the tear-away face was played by a freshman bass who got in trouble for adding an impromptu pelvic thrust to his choreography.
When Jack is introduced, he is riding high, clearly beloved, the hunk of Halloweentown. A witch’s fondest dream! (I think that was one of my lines in our stage production.) He’s lithe and elegant, he can survive being set on fire, he has a lovely speaking voice and beautiful singing voice, and he’s sad and needs comfort. There’s also an awful lot of expressiveness in those empty eyes. The uncanny valley could strike here: a lot of people don’t like stop motion and puppetry for that reason. But I really don’t think it does. Henry Selick knows how to make things cute.
The only characters I can think that might actually be frightening are Oogie Boogie and possibly Lock, Shock, and Barrel. The trio don’t look scary, but they are chaotic, and chaos can be scary. But I think they are really just the right mix of cute, mischievous, and incompetent to appeal to kids. As for Oogie Boogie, would I have been scared of him if I had seen the actual movie as a child? I don’t think so. We didn’t talk a lot about the Boogeyman growing up (maybe Baba Yaga, but she actually seemed pretty cool). I also didn’t have the personal connection to Santa Claus most kids did, so seeing him threatened with torture wouldn’t have been as terrifying to me. His song has a clear New Orleans jazz influence, and my grandfather was a jazz drummer; this was the kind of music I grew up listening to. Oogie Boogie always just felt fun and entertaining to me. (Oogie Boogie, it’s worth mentioning, is also played by Ken Page, a gay black man. He gives an incredible, remarkable performance, but there was definitely some controversy about that when the movie first came out, and people are still talking about it today. It’s an uncomfortable topic, to be sure, and honestly, not one I feel fully qualified to discuss. I will say that I think probably until fairly recently, maybe even the past 10 years, many if not most villains in Western children’s stories and movies were queer-coded or based on ethnic stereotypes. Often this wasn’t a conscious choice: they were based on characters in fairytales or folktales, and a lot of these stories were xenophobic, homophobic, and racist. I’ve talked before about how I never really was afraid of most witch characters, because they looked like me and my family. Jewish-coding of witches goes back centuries, and it’s still around today.) I have to wonder if really any children were actually afraid of Oogie Boogie. Often the things that are meant to give the villain more depth just make them more interesting and more fun, and I think that’s true in this case.
The plot of this movie is deceptively simple, but I think that it is also very unusual. So many other American children’s movies are about following your dreams, trying new things, going the distance. Nightmare Before Christmas is a story of someone trying at something, essentially failing, and returning to what they’re good at with a renewed sense of purpose. That’s not a common narrative in American movies. I’ve heard before that Disney kind of disowned this movie when it came out, only really capitalizing on it later when it became the major cult hit it is today. It didn’t fit with the aesthetic Disney had at the time, and it really didn’t fit with the message of the rest of their movies, which were very much universally positive and about achieving your dreams.
“What is the moral of this movie?” I remember a friend asking as we watched it at a Halloween party at my friend Andrew Farmer’s house a few years back.
“The moral is ‘don’t go chasing waterfalls,’” Andrew replied, and I think he may be right. Quite honestly, it’s a mid-life crisis movie, but I would still take it over any of the other “acclaimed” mid-life crisis movies out there.
Is It Still Scary?
No. Of course not. How can it be? Jack Skellington is everywhere. I see his face on a car license plate frame near my house at least once a week. I see people wearing t-shirts with his face on them year-round. Nightmare Before Christmas fandom seems to have hit critical mass. In fact, when I first started writing this, I wondered, what can I say about Nightmare Before Christmas that hasn’t already been said?
But actually, I don’t know if that much has actually been said about it. A lot of fanart has been drawn. A lot of fanfics have been told. A dizzying amount of merchandise has been made and sold. Is there actually that much discussion of the movie itself, other than the usual concerns over some problematic elements, and “it’s amazing”/”it’s overrated”?
Does it deserve its fanbase? That is, of course, subjective. I really love stop motion and think the animation in this movie is wonderful. And I get why everyone loves Jack Skellington. They love him because he is a cute sad boy they want to cheer up, a guy who really just wants to make the best of things and make people feel good, because he is an outsider and everybody can relate to feeling like an outsider at some point. I often felt like an outsider because I didn’t celebrate Christmas, and I always felt guilty about my love for Christmas carols and trimming trees. There’s also an argument for the whole movie being a queer narrative.
…OK, maybe there has been a lot said about Nightmare Before Christmas.
At this point, it has the same problem as Radiohead, or Rush, or Rick and Morty: an obnoxious fandom has overshadowed the actual content. (And I know I am going to get some shit from at least one of those fandoms for grouping it in with an inferior show or band.) When something is as beloved as it is, as widespread as this is, you’re probably not going to like a lot of the fans in that fanbase. Either because they’re annoying and cringey, or something a little bit more sinister.
A few months ago I was on my way to an MRI appointment, and requested a Lyft last minute. I was already a little nervous about the procedure, small enclosed spaces aren’t exactly my comfort zone. When my driver came, I noticed that she was a pretty woman about my age with hair and clothes right out of the early 2000’s, and she was even listening to Evanescence on satellite radio. But what I noticed most was her makeup, because she wasn’t wearing a mask. I won’t ask someone to put one on around me outdoors, but when I am in a car with a stranger, I feel safer with both of us wearing one.
“Do you have a mask you could put on, please?” I asked.
“You want me to put on a mask?” She sounded incredulous, like I had just asked if she could tap dance for me. I nodded, and she reached for a mask in her glove compartment. The mask was covered with a giant pattern of the American flag. There was also an enormous American flag hanging from the dashboard.
That’s when I started to feel a little uncomfortable. When somebody wears the American flag on their clothing, and it’s not the Fourth of July and they are not Abbie Hoffman, I figure we probably don’t have the same politics. And that’s fine, I don’t need to have the same politics as everybody I know, and certainly not everybody that I accept a car ride from. But that combined with not wanting to wear a mask made me wonder if I was dealing with a conspiracy theorist. I only got more uncomfortable when I looked through the back window and I noticed that the window was completely covered up with the words to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Who feels that strongly about masks, flags, and the Pledge of Allegiance that they literally obscure their own view with it? A certain kind of person, and in my experience, some of those people also really don’t like Jews or anyone LGBTQ. It’s not just something I’ve encountered on the Internet, but in taxis and subway cars and classrooms. It didn’t feel fair to judge this woman, but I could feel my heart starting to pound. Maybe she’s a teacher or a military wife, maybe she just thinks the flag is pretty, maybe she is stuck in a time warp where it is still late 2001 and it is considered cool to have American flags everywhere and listen to Evanescence. Or maybe she thinks Jews run the world and sacrifice babies for blood libels and anybody with homosexual tendencies should be stoned to death. I had no way of knowing, and nothing is more scary than the unknown.
We didn’t say another word until we got to the office, where I thanked her as politely as I could, and got out of the car. As she drove away, I took one last look at her car, wondering if there was anything there, a bumper sticker that would confirm my suspicions. But all I saw was one other sticker, an image that stayed with me: Jack and Sally, on the curly mountain, against the moon.
Stuff I Did This Week: Oh man. So not only did I get to do an awesome episode of You Are Good, and talk about Bette Midler in a bathrobe and my multiple personal connections to Hocus Pocus, but I also got to record a podcast with one of my all-time favorite musicians and a truly incredible person, Rhett Miller, on Wheels Off! I’m in truly great company here!
Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Into the Bonfire With It