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

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.

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.

Medieval Monday: Hallowmas–Saints and Sinners

Happy All Hallows Eve! As mentioned in last week’s post, if we were living in the medieval era today, tonight would be the start of Hallowmas—an important three-day event on the medieval calendar. Tonight 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 this night, 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. Tomorrow, All Saints Day, 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.

Fantasy Art Friday

Get inspired with this week’s Fantasy Art Friday, where fun fantasy artwork is combined with a writing prompt to get your creative juices flowing.


It is All Hallows Eve. Under the rising moon, shadows stir, taking physical form as they can only do on this one night every year. The pumpkin patch is the perfect place to gather. The perfect pumpkins have already been selected and carted away. What remains are the scarred, malformed, broken, and rotting pumpkins; perfect vessels for an unholy ceremony–the selection of the coming year’s shadow king. Surrounding him are those pledged to follow his reign as he spreads fear and chaos among the humans. They circle him, taking part in an ancient dance, disguised as Jack-o-Lanterns, scarecrows, cornstalks, and dead trees. The Shadow King rules them all.

But the farmer sees the glow, and hears the commotion coming from his field. He slowly approaches to stare down the king. He has something in his hand–what is it? Has he come to stop the shadows, or will he fall prey to them? Perhaps he has been part of the shadow world all along, and he is only his true self on Halloween night. What happens in this spooky tale is entirely up to you…

Happy Halloween!

(Title and Artist unknown)


Want to see more Fantasy Art posts? Find them here.

 

Discussing the Role of Monsters – Author Toolbox Blog Hop

An interesting post by Adam at Write Thoughts on the role of monsters in fiction. A fun topic to think about as we approach Halloween.


Recently I finished watching season one of the FX series Legion, and while there are a few weak points, overall I thought it was pretty good. I was particularly struck by how they handled what I’m going to call the demon. They do eventually reveal the origins and nature of this demon, but I’d rather not spoil that for those who have not yet seen it.

In fact, that’s what I’d like to discuss. Legion has an eight episode season, and for most of it the demon remains a complete mystery. He’s a sound getting closer, a fleeting glimpse of a hand around the corner, an eye peering through the crowd. Look again and he’s gone, and you’re left to wonder “Was it ever really there?” The demon becomes the central mystery of the season, and that’s why it works so well.

Monsters represent the dark side of adventure and exploration. In a world humans have built by understanding and controlling nature, monsters represent something beyond our control. They make us feel weak and powerless, uncertain what’s possible, or what we can do. Often it’s the uncertainty that truly troubles us; whether it’s uncertain where the monster is, or uncertain whether it even exists. In many ways, monsters often represent a question, and sometimes an answer, but above all, monsters represent something we don’t wish to see, don’t wish to know. But how do they represent that?

Continue reading… Discussing the Role of Monsters – Author Toolbox Blog Hop

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!

 

(Did you miss last week’s post on medieval money? It’s not too late–just click to read.)