Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween Movie, or a Christmas Movie?

This fun, well-thought-out article by Max Gladstone finally settles the debate that my household engages in every year…or does it? I’m firmly in the Halloween movie camp–I mean, really, it’s about Jack losing passion for his role as the Pumpkin King, trying to be something he’s not, and subsequently finding himself–and his love for Halloween–all over again. But my husband is firmly in the Christmas move camp for reasons of his own. Whichever camp you’re in, this is a brilliant article on the topic and well worth reading. Who would have thought a claymation movie would inspire such deep, philosophical debate? Well, it is a Tim Burton creation after all, and not exactly your typical kid’s film. If by some chance you have missed this movie in the last 25 years, go rent it. Right now! Then come back to this article and see what you think. Halloween movie or Christmas movie? Maybe it’s both…


Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie, or a Christmas movie? In terms of worldbuilding, it’s obviously both—it’s about a bunch of Halloween-town residents taking over Christmas from Santa Claus.

But worldbuilding elements don’t suffice as genre classifiers, or else black comedies wouldn’t exist. Creators deliberately apply worldbuilding elements from one genre to another for pure frission’s sake. Consider Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (speaking of Christmas movies), which takes a New York noir character, a down-on-his-luck con, and drops him into an LA noir scenario of movie glitz and private eyes; or Rian Johnson’s amazing Brick, a noir story engine driving high school characters. Fantasy literature is rife with this sort of behavior—consider Steven Brust’s use of crime drama story in the Vlad Taltos books, or for that matter the tug of war between detective fiction and fantasy that propels considerable swaths of urban fantasy. If we classify stories solely by the worldbuilding elements they contain, we’re engaging in the same fallacy as the Certain Kind of Book Review that blithely dismisses all science fiction as “those books with rockets.”

And what happens after the slippery slope? The No True Scotsman Argument?!

This is a frivolous question, sure, like some of the best. But even frivolous questions have a serious edge: holidays are ritual times, and stories are our oldest rituals. The stories we tell around a holiday name that holiday: I’ve failed at every Christmas on which I don’t watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. When December rolls around, even unchurched folk can get their teeth out for a Lessons & Carols service.

So let’s abandon trappings and turn to deep structures of story. Does The Nightmare Before Christmas work as Christmas movies do? Does it work as Halloween movies do? It can achieve both ends, clearly—much as a comedy can be romantic, or a thriller funny. But to resolve our dilemma we must first identify these deep structures.

Halloween Movies

Halloween movies are difficult to classify, because two types of movie demand inclusion: movies specifically featuring the holiday, like Hocus Pocus or even E.T., and horror movies, like Cabin in the WoodsThe Craft, or The Devil’s Advocate. Yet some horror movies feel definitely wrong for Halloween—Alien, for example. Where do we draw the line?

I suggest that movies centering on Halloween tend to be stories about the experimentation with, and confirmation of, identities. Consider, for example, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which might at first glance be mistaken for a simple slice of life featuring the Peanuts characters’ adventures on Halloween. In fact, the story hinges on the extent to which the various Peanuts’ identities shine through the roles they assume. Charlie Brown is the Charlie Browniest ghost in history; a dust cloud surrounds Pig Pen’s spirit. Snoopy operates, as always, in a liminal space between fantasy and reality—he becomes the most Snoopy-like of WWI fighter aces. Linus, whose idealism and hope are the salvation centerpiece of A Charlie Brown Christmas, isn’t equipped for the kind of identity play the other characters attempt. He’s too sincere for masks, and as a result becomes the engine of conflict in the story. For Linus, every holiday must be a grand statement of ideals and hope. In a way, Linus is rewarded—he meets the Avatar of Halloween in Snoopy’s form, but fails to appreciate the message sent, which is that Halloween is an opportunity for play, for self-abandonment. It’s Lucy who turns out to be the truest embodiment of the holiday—by explicitly donning her witch mask, she’s able to remove it, and bring her brother home.

Even movies that feature Halloween in passing use it to highlight or subvert their characters’ identities by exploiting the double nature of the Halloween costume: it conceals the wearer’s identity and reveals her character at once. In E.T.’s brief Halloween sequence, for example, while Elliott’s costume is bare-bones, Michael, Mary, and E.T. himself all shine through their costume selections, literally in the case of E.T. The Karate Kid’s Halloween sequence highlights Danny’s introversion (he’s literally surrounded by a shower curtain!) and the Cobra Kai’s inhumanity (skeletons with all their faces painted identically!). Even holiday movies like Hocus Pocus that aren’t principally concerned with costuming present Halloween as a special night for which identities grow flexible: the dead can be living, the living dead, and a cat can be a three-hundred-year-old man.

If we expand our focus to include books that focus or foreground Halloween, we find Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, Raskin’s The Westing Game, and Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, all of which focus on the experimentation with, or explicit concealment of, identities, and the power of revelation. Fan artists get in on the fun too—every time Halloween rolls around, I look forward to sequences like this, of characters from one medium dressed up as characters from another.

The centrality of identity play to the holiday explains why some horror movies feel “Halloween-y” while others don’t. Alien, for example, is a terrifying movie, one of my favorites, but with one notable exception it doesn’t care about masquerades. Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, feels very Halloween, though it’s less scary than Alien—due, I think, to its focus on central characters’ performance of, or deviation from, the identities they’ve been assigned.

Examined in this light, The Nightmare Before Christmas is absolutely a Halloween movie. The entire film’s concerned with the construction and interrogation of identity, from the opening number in which each citizen of Halloween Town assumes center stage and assumes an identity (“I am the shadow on the moon at night!”), to Jack’s final reclamation of himself—“I am the Pumpkin King!”

So, are we done?

Not hardly.

Continue reading this article: https://www.tor.com/2018/10/26/is-the-nightmare-before-christmas-a-halloween-movie-or-a-christmas-movie/

Christmas Movies

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Medieval Monday: Hallowmas–Saints and Sinners

All Hallows Eve is nearly here! As mentioned in last week’s post, if we were living in the medieval era today, it would be the start of Hallowmas—an important three-day event on the medieval calendar. We might be attempting to mock or scare evil spirits with costumes, lighting bonfires, or souling for the sake of those already departed. We would sincerely believe that by giving bread to the poor, we could redeem a lost soul from the fires of hell. On All Hallows Eve there is a sense that the veil between life and death is at its thinnest, and yet there is nothing to fear from the darkness, because Christ has already claimed victory over death. All Saints Day which follows is where the celebration of Hallowmas really gets serious. It is a time to honor the martyrs and saints of the Church, both known and unknown, many of whom died gruesome deaths for the sake of their faith.

St. Michael battling a demon

St. Michael battling a demon

All Saints Day was an occasion for feasting and sometimes great tournaments. It was both a holiday and a holy day, where special ceremonies and masses were held. Prayers to the saints were encouraged in order to help one’s journey through this life and into the next. On the night of All Saints Day, bells were rung. Their melodious tones were thought to bring joy to the poor souls suffering in purgatory—a concept first accepted as a doctrine of the Church in the 1200s that did much to shape medieval beliefs about the afterlife. In purgatory, the souls of “moderately bad sinners” would remain for a time of purification before they would continue heavenward. Purgatory would not permanently close until the very end of time, when “angels would rouse the dead from their graves to be judged by God,” and the souls within it would finally gain admittance to heaven, or be sent to hell, for all eternity.

death-and-burialFrom All Saints Day, the transition was made to All Souls Day on November 2nd. Again, there was feasting, but the focus shifted from the martyrs and saints to ALL of the faithful departed. Death was a very central theme of medieval life, which was always full of uncertainty. The child mortality rate is estimated to have been somewhere between 30-50%. Conditions were highly unsanitary as there was no understanding of germs, nor of their direct connection to disease. As such, medicines were largely ineffective, and most injuries and diseases could not be properly treated. Any minor ailment (by our standards) could end in death. The additional risks of famine and war were all too real, and public punishments were often physically brutal. It is no wonder that the medieval mind was so fixated on what would happen beyond death, and beliefs on the subject shaped the attitudes and culture of everyday life.

On All Souls Day, prayers were specifically directed toward helping those deceased who had not yet moved from purgatory to heaven. Medieval Christians were taught that the fate of a person’s soul was not only related to the manner in which they lived, but also the manner in which they died. Most hoped to die in bed, with a priest at hand to administer the Last Rites—the final forgiveness of their sins. A sudden, or “bad” death, was something to fear, since dying with unconfessed sin would likely lead to a long stay in purgatory, or worse.

Angels delivering souls from purgatory

Angels delivering souls from purgatory

All Souls Day provided reassurance for those too poor to pay indulgences, either for themselves, or on behalf of their deceased loved ones. It was common for people to visit the graves of their relatives and friends, and later on in the Middle Ages, candles or even bonfires might also be lit there. In Eastern Europe, it was not unusual for people to eat meals at the grave sites as well, though this was frowned upon by the Church. Men dressed in black would walk through the village or city streets, ringing hand bells, and reminding people to help those in purgatory with their prayers.

What’s New Wednesday

November is just a week away. Not sure how that happened! I’m starting to feel like those old ladies from the wedding scene in Muppets Take Manhattan. A little group of babies sings, “days go passing into years,” to which a group of old ladies responds, “years go passing day by day…” It can’t just be me, right?

Anyway, November means NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Authors are challenged to write 50,000 words over just 30 days. I’ll never make anything close to that in a month–I have too many other obligations between work and family, not to mention I’m more of a slow, deliberate writer by nature. The closest I’ve ever gotten is I think 35,000.

But that doesn’t mean the opportunity isn’t worthwhile. It’s a good motivator to set aside time alongside many thousands of my fellow authors to make my work-in-progress come alive, one word at a time!

Right now that work-in-progress is a novella I’m writing about Broguean the Bard, a character who appears in Ancient Voices, Visions of Light and Shadow, and in one of my short stories called “A Bard’s Tale.” I’ve got about a third of it done already, so I wouldn’t even need 50k to finish it off. My cover artist has nearly completed the artwork for it as well, which is very exciting. With any luck, I’ll be able to get this novella done in 2018 and have it ready to publish in early 2019. Read an excerpt from the first chapter below. Want to read the entire first chapter? It’s at the end of the Visions of Light and Shadow ebook.


The sun hadn’t quite gone down yet, but the tavern at Westfalle was nearly full and Broguean’s head was starting to spin. With some satisfaction, he noted that it was getting harder for him to tell if there was one mug or two on the table in front of him. So long as he aimed for the middle, his hand managed to find the handle easily enough. The truth was, he had learned to function quite normally in such a state. It was as comfortable and familiar to him as a good pair of walking shoes—not to mention it usually made everyone around him a fair bit more interesting. He took a long, deep draught from his mug, draining it until he could see the bottom.

He had traveled extensively over the years, sampling many different brews from throughout the realm, but the uniqueness of this tavern’s ale was by far his favorite. He savored the sweetness and the spices, encouraging them to linger on his tongue as the warmth coursed through him like liquid joy. He wasn’t the only one who appreciated this tavern’s signature flavor. The establishment was overflowing with both travelers and men coming in off the fields, which made it a good place for barding. He hadn’t paid for a drink yet, and his coin purse was actually heavier than it had been when he’d walked through the door. He sighed with contentment, then raised his hand to signal the tavern maid for another.

The poor woman was more harried than usual as she weaved through the crowded room wielding a heavy pitcher of ale. She made an art of refilling empty cups with one hand, while sliding coins off the table into a pouch with the other. Languid strands of her dark hair had slipped from their covering, causing her to frequently brush them back in annoyance. Her cheeks were flushed with heat, and perhaps a bit of indignation as well. The boisterous fellow several tables over couldn’t seem to keep his hands on his mug when she came by to refill it. But if the tavern maid didn’t decide to poison his drink, there were plenty of others in the room who just might. He’d been boasting all night of his adventures in the depths of the Crevasse. He had just made his way from that wretched place, he said, having bested many Beasts, and trolls, and demons in forms too grotesque to describe.

“And then suddenly a scaly creature rose up from the pit, with two heads and snakes for tongues that spit poison,” Broguean heard the man bellow to those around him. By now he was too inebriated to realize how loud he’d become. “I cut off one of its heads with a single stroke, but then two more grew back in its place. I knew I was in for a tough fight, but then the Crevasse is no place for the faint-hearted.” He took a long drink while keeping his eye on the tavern maid, who made a wide circle around him to serve another table. “If you ever encounter such a creature,” he advised, raising an unsteady finger to signal he wanted more ale, “aim for the snakes.” Broguean rolled his eyes. He doubted such a creature existed beyond the confines of the man’s imagination. Though he’d hoped the story was finally concluded, the man droned on. “Mind you, this was after I’d already bested two ogres and a lich—nasty things those are…”

Why not throw in a wyvern or two for good measure, Broguean thought with irritation. Or perhaps the Shadow himself. The ridiculousness of it aside, his person showed no signs of recent battle. There were no lingering stains of blood or sweat. No bruises, scratches, or flecks of mud from the road marred his perfectly groomed appearance. Not even a hint of fatigue haunted his expression. This man was no hero fresh from the depths of the Crevasse. Broguean had known real heroes, real warriors. He had seen what such men looked like after battle, and he knew the toll it took on them well afterward. This braggart’s lies belittled their very real sacrifices, made with pain, and with blood. The man was begging to be cut down a bit, and Broguean didn’t need a blade to do it.

Through his inebriated haze the words began to form. Some of his best work was done on such nights, when the ale had successfully removed all of his cares, leaving just he and his craft to wrestle with one another. As the words came, the tune did also, blending together in his mind as one perfect and inseparable being. His fingers strummed a few cautious notes on his lute, then grew stronger in confidence with the encouragement of the tavern’s patrons. It was a bold and powerful tune, one befitting the epic ballads of ancient heroes. He was quite familiar with the style, though he did not often use it. The people wanted entertainment—they would get it. More of it than they expected by the time he was through, he imagined. Broguean smiled wryly and moved close to the boastful man’s table, looking him square in the eye and nodding. The man steadily returned his gaze, sure that the bard’s attention had been sufficiently captured by his impressive tales of glory.

Broguean continued to strum, adding more complex harmonies to the tune as he cleared his voice and began to sing with all the seriousness he could muster.

“To the Crevasse our champion went,
With might and strength of heroes old;
Fierce through the Shadow Wood he rent,
To fight the ancient evils bold.

“Thanks to the Ancients for our fierce champion,
to whom belongs the victory.”

The man was now nodding and beaming, raising a glass, not to the song, but to himself, for of course, who else could such a song be about? Broguean could barely contain his amusement to maintain the somber and haunting lilt of the song. Had his head not been so full of ale, he might have thought better of what he was about to do. But all were expectant now, and some rolling their eyes at him, wondering how he could enshrine such a fool in song. Broguean gave them a quick wink that said, just wait, and kept singing.

“Forward he charged, with sword raised high,
The challenge raised so all could hear;
‘For Glory!’ was his battle cry,
His foes before him fled in fear.

“Thanks to the Ancients for our fierce champion,
to whom belongs the victory.”

The man was really getting into it now, his chest expanded well beyond its due. Broguean had to strum an extra refrain to maintain his composure as the next lines slipped into his mind, and laughter threatened to spill past his lips.

“Down he plunged, but something was wrong,
Or else he’d made an error steep;
T’was not the wicked place from song,
This mighty Crevasse was but knee deep!

“Thanks to the Ancients for our fierce champion,
to whom belongs the victory.”

Broguean could hear low chuckles and cautious snickering lifting up all around the room, while the man’s chest deflated somewhat and his face flushed with confusion. Something was definitely amiss, but too much drink was making him slow to grasp precisely what.

“No stench of death for him to meet,
Nor grotesque monsters he did find;
Fleeing the crack before his feet,
Were vermin of the rodent kind.

“Thanks to the Ancients for our fierce champion,
to whom belongs the victory.”

Light chuckles erupted into more pronounced laughter, and the man’s red face began to harden with anger. He stood to his feet, placing his fists on the table and glaring at Broguean threateningly. Broguean made sure he was well out of reach, but he had one more verse to unleash upon the arrogant fool.

“Across his path the Shadow rose,
A foe most worthy to dethrone;
Alas, despite his forceful throes,
The shadow was his very own…”

The arrogant warrior snarled with rage. He clambered over the table to get at Broguean, knocking over drinks and shoving patrons out of the way as he went. Broguean, now laughing heartily and barely in control of his own limbs, stumbled backwards and fell just as the man’s fist whistled through the air where his head had been. It found an unfortunate target instead—the face of another man seated on the bench behind him. He too was laughing, and so didn’t see the swing coming until it was too late. Knocked down and bleeding, his three drinking friends rose from their places at the table, none too pleased. From there chaos ensued as a lively brawl began. Broguean, still laughing, held tight to his lute and crouched below the fray, working his way across the room and out the door.

He stumbled into the shadows of a narrow alley beside the tavern. The only light left now was a deep crimson rim around the edge of the sky. The moon was still young overhead, and the stars had only just begun to peek out. Through the walls he could hear the uproar in the tavern. His only regret was that he’d left a full mug of ale sitting on the table, but he dared not go back for it. He shook with laughter as he recalled the range of expressions on the man’s face, from boastful, to baffled, and finally to boiling rage. He laughed so hard that tears rolled down from the corners of his eyes. He deserved it, that conceited cox-comb, Broguean thought. Crevasse indeed! If he holds his own in that tavern brawl it’ll be more than I expect of him…

 

Cats & Dogs & Television

It has been one of those aggravating days already. I’ve been on the phone fighting to get an auto-debit reversed that was twice the amount I agreed to. *sigh* After waiting 45 minutes for a supervisor, I was finally just told to call back at 2. So thanks to Lee Duigon for posting this video today, because it made me laugh, and I needed that! Maybe some of you need a good laugh too…

Incidentally, I don’t have a cat that watches TV, but one of them will chase anything that moves on my phone screen. She’s knocked it off my desk more than a few times in her frenzy to “catch” her pixelated prey.

Lee Duigon

How into TV are your pets? The dogs in this video take it very seriously.

Of all the cats I’ve had, only Buster took an interest in television. He always tried to catch the little elephants on Nature. And he sat in my lap and watched all of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I could tell he really liked it.

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Medieval Monday: Hallowmas (Halloween)

“Soul soul for a souling cake
I pray you, missis, for a souling cake
Apple or pear, plum or cherry
Anything to make us merry…”

halloween1Halloween is coming! Now a fun night for costumes and treats, many say its origins go back to the pagan festival of Samhain, meaning “summer’s end.” It marked the end of the harvest, and the beginning of winter. According to the Celts, this was the time when “the veils between this world and the Otherworld were believed to be at their thinnest: when the spirits of the dead could most readily mingle with the living once again.” They believed that Saman, the Lord of the Dead, would come that night to take up into the afterlife the souls of those who had died that year. Like many pagan traditions, the holiday was eventually Christianized, and remained a time to honor the dead, especially the saints. All-Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day together were referred to as Hallowmas–a three day event beginning the night of October 31st.

medieval-images-of-deathSome of our current Halloween traditions have their roots in the Middle Ages. People would dress in costumes intended to scare away any dark spirits that happened to be wandering about. Bells were rung, and there were processions and bonfires to scare away witches, ghosts, and evil spirits. Children and the poor went door to door, offering prayers for the household’s deceased relatives in exchange for small “soul” cakes.

soul-cakesThe video I included today is by Claire Ridgway, founder of TheAnneBoleynFiles and the Tudor Society. She demonstrates how to make “Soul Cakes” using a traditional Tudor recipe (which she reads from so you can hear the original version). If you’re feeling adventurous in the kitchen this week, or want to bring something interesting to that Halloween party you’ve been invited to, give it a shot!


Go to the Medieval Monday Index for more posts on daily life in the Middle Ages.