Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This month: “scary episodes.”
Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (originally aired October 30, 1985)
In which the one thing Garfield is is a scaredy cat…
(Available on Dailymotion.)
Erik Adams: The best ghost stories don’t let you know they’re ghost stories until it’s too late to turn back. The listener must be lulled into a false sense of security before lights start mysteriously flicking, floorboards start creaking, or a hook is found hanging from the door handle. It’s become a cliché, but “It was a night much like tonight” makes for such an effective intro around the campfire because it creates the mindset that the events of the story, no matter how outlandish, have happened before—and they can happen again.
For these reasons, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure is one of TV’s few Halloween offerings that effectively smuggles some razor blades in with its trick-or-treat haul. In the Internet age, the final act of the special has become something of a childhood-wrecking legend, its most grotesque images recollected on IMDB message boards and recounted in video reviews. Fans of the funny pages’ favorite fat cat who tuned in to hear some wisecracks about lasagna were instead treated to some intentionally disturbing imagery: the wrinkled, snarling mug of a 110-year-old man as well as the spookily realized pirate ghosts about whom he warns Garfield and Odie.
But until our heroes take that ill-fated boat trip to the haunted island, the program also known as Garfield In Disguise is as innocuous as the average Jim Davis strip. Its abrupt left turn into abject terror isn’t just what made Garfield’s Halloween Adventure infamous—it’s pretty much the only reason Garfield’s Halloween Adventure is worth talking about at all. Sure, there are some catchy tunes from Lou Rawls, and Lorenzo Music is on his languidly wry game—but that’s the case with the 11 other primetime Garfield specials produced between 1982 and 1991. If not for the way that the gnarled, naturalistic character design of C. Lindsay Workman’s storyteller is juxtaposed with the curved lines and exaggerated features of Garfield and Odie, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure would’ve ended up on the pile with the forgotten comics-to-TV Halloween offerings from the Smurfs and Far Side universes.
To keep this discussion from becoming a dissection of a few brief sequences, I’ll say that the whole of Garfield’s Halloween Adventure is great at capturing and maintaining the mood of the holiday—almost as good as its former timeslot partner, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Once Garfield and Odie head into the night, the special takes on an authentically autumnal vibe—or maybe that’s just those gorgeous, Bill Melendez-esque watercolor backgrounds talking. There’s some decent setup for the big finish in those trick-or-treating sequences, too: Garfield talking a big game via Rawls—who, in my opinion, did as much work as Music in terms of giving Garfield a voice—and the sidewalk gauntlet of costumed ghouls who turn out to be ghouls in costume. And then there’s the first appearance of the protagonist’s animated adversary and occasional ally, Binky The Clown, who, depending on the rendering, is quite the foreboding presence himself.
But I’m curious to hear everyone else’s reactions to the special—particularly if you’re coming to it for the first time. If so, what were you expecting from those final few minutes? Considering the current Roundtable theme, were you at all surprised by the old man and the pirate ghosts? Or the opposite: If Garfield’s Halloween Adventure has long been a perennial feature of your Octobers, can you recall the first time you saw the special? If so, how terrified of the old man’s face were you, on a scale of “Completely losing your shit” to “Completely losing your shit”?
Ryan McGee: I think you’re right, Erik, to key in on the differences in the way everything in this cartoon is drawn, and the way Workman’s character is depicted. Having never seen this special (although I remember seeing many other Garfield episodes growing up), I went from banal bemusement to thinking someone had spliced in a deleted sequence from The Wall. There’s a Gerald Scarfe quality to this former pirate, and the juxtaposition of art styles helps sell the intrusion of a new type of reality, one filled not with soft curves but jagged edges, one that’s not flat but three-dimensional. It was disturbing enough for me now. I can only imagine the horrors that jump cut would have inflicted upon me as a child.
But I think something else kept me going up until that point, and it was the idea of costumes providing the opportunity for role-playing. Analyzing Garfield’s character motivations is probably grounds for mockery, but there’s still something lingering throughout the episode as “Orangebeard The Pirate” takes over Garfield’s normally passive attitude toward life. Sure, this is a talking cat having fun on Halloween. But he’s also one of many who seek entry into another persona when society deems it allowable. Stepping out of one’s own skin is something everyone can relate to, even more so than the communal desire for candy, candy, candy. The ways in which the façade of Orangebeard fades away in the face of adversity only to abruptly return at the possibility of triumph will linger almost as long as the sight of those creepily lit ghouls.
What about everyone else? Is there something more to explore here beyond the final act, or is plumbing for character depth here pointless?
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’d never seen this show before. In fact, I’m not sure that I’d ever seen Garfield in animated form before, which explains why, the first time his thoughts filled the soundtrack, I thought to myself, “Holy crap, it’s Carlton, your doorman!” Somehow, I’d never even learned this special was a cultural touchstone for a lot of people, which makes me feel like I spent the 1990s reading the wrong fanzines. If I’d read the right ones, I might be able to fake it better, but the truth is, coming in on something like this late—and trying to discuss it with people who first encountered it at the right age and have now practically incorporated it into their DNA—can make you feel like you’re speaking a foreign language. I can study it frame by frame, but I’m never going to feel on intimate terms with it, the way I do with 1985’s other slapstick horror classic, Re-Animator.
Trying to remember what I would have wanted from a TV Halloween cartoon when I was 8 or 9, I have to say, it’s nice that some ghosts show up. I remember seeing It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown for the first time, and liking it, but also thinking, “Oh, it’s just kids in costumes, and it’s not as if one of them is going to turn out to be a real ghost. This is a grown-up’s idea of a Halloween special.” As a kid looking for cheap thrills during Halloween, I learned to stick to horror-movie marathons, because I had a better chance of seeing a real monster that way. It felt like a long, long wait until “Treehouse Of Horror” (or the Far Side Halloween special, which I did not make nearly enough VHS copies of when I had the chance).
There’s a powerful aesthetic disconnect in the appearance of the old storyteller. It’s not a case of the animators trying to take Garfield to a different level, but of bringing in something that doesn’t fit with the house style, and not seeming to care if it fits. (When they cut back and forth from the old man to Garfield and Odie in the same sequence, you might as well be flipping channels.) Ryan sees Gerald Scarfe in that style, but I flashed back on Richard Williams’ A Christmas Carol—which, not coincidentally, gave me screaming nightmares as a kid, maybe because I was unaccustomed to seeing animation applied to any style of illustration that couldn’t be described as “cute.” I wonder if maybe some of the people who worked on this had a long-cherished idea for a film in the style of the old-storyteller sequence, and they had slowly come to accept that they were never going to be able to get financing for it, so they said, “I’ll just fold part of that into this job I got on a pre-sold property.” No doubt some fanzine editor could tell me if I’m on the right track there.
Molly Eichel: Phil, it’s interesting that you note how unaccustomed you were to seeing animation that was decidedly un-cute. I don’t remember the first time I saw Garfield’s Halloween Adventure—and it wasn’t until my second viewing for this Roundtable that I even figured out I had seen it before—but to me, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure was in direct contrast to most of the cartoons I had seen up until that point. Garfield’s Halloween Adventure takes its opportunity to scare, rather using Halloween as a backdrop for a familiar formula (like the Scooby-Doo episode “The Headless Horseman Of Halloween”) or something sweeter (the aforementioned It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown). Structurally, the show starts off in the familiar vein, as Garfield wakes up to Binky the Clown, harasses Jon, eats, and gets himself into various shenanigans, just like any episode of Garfield And Friends. But then the special takes a left turn into something more sinister. As Phil points out, there’s a visual shift as well—but I see this as one of the first Halloween specials for kids that actually attempted chills, hence its continued Internet legend.
It’s the structure that made this special interesting to me as an adult: It reminded me of going trick-or-treating. There’s the elation of the promise of untold riches of candy, of finding the perfect costume, but then there was always that house—that one house that didn’t just let you get your treasure but wanted to freak your shit out in the process. On my block, that was my house. Halloween is my mom’s favorite holiday. She takes the day off from work to put together a top-secret elaborate scheme (one year, she laid in a cardboard coffin all night, and scared the crap out of kids that dared to open it). She would get so excited when kids ran from our house screaming. That’s what hit in this special for me, the visceral feeling of Halloween itself, the ups and downs of excitement and the thrill of true terror that, just like “Scaredy Cat” says, you need to remind yourself isn’t real.
Did this elicit memories of Halloweens of yore for anyone else, or was it just me?
EA: Considering the open (a general skittishness) and healed (a crippling fear of “spooky sounds” recordings) psychic wounds caused by my childhood Halloween encounter with a neighbor hiding in a bush, I gather that Molly’s home would’ve been the trick-or-treat spot that I skipped year-in and year-out.
This illuminates why I watched Garfield’s Halloween Adventure once or twice as a kid and only returned to it on a regular basis as an adult: It does a tremendous job of recalling the elements of the holiday I found upsetting as a kid. As I type this, Vince Guaraldi’s “Great Pumpkin Waltz” is playing on my headphones, bringing about a Proustian whiff of candy in freshly laundered pillowcases, candles burning away within Jack-o’-lanterns, and backyard bonfires. It’s The Great Pumpkin is and always will be my pleasant memories of the holiday. As good as Garfield’s Halloween Adventure is at capturing a mood, that mood puts me in mind of being a tiny person in a Batman costume, running out of my kindergarten classroom because Mrs. Williams put on a Hallmark Sounds Of Halloween cassette.
But being frightened is part-and-parcel with Halloween, and one of this special’s main strengths is its acknowledgement that fear is a perfectly normal, perfectly healthy emotional response. Some people, like a young Phil Dyess-Nugent or the trick-or-treaters that frequented Molly’s house, even willingly seek it out. (The weirdos.) That’s where I’m inclined to agree with Ryan’s plumbing for character depth: Orangebeard is the brave face our protagonist wants to show when things go bump in the night; a wide-eyed, screaming Garfield is closer to the character’s true self. But the truth of the matter is that we’re all both of these people/cats, and Garfield’s Halloween Adventure is better for representing that.
RM: We’re nearly 30 years removed from this special’s initial airing, and since we’re talking about our Halloween-related traumas here, let me ask this: Would Garfield’s Halloween Adventure have a chance of airing on a major network in 2013? I’m not talking specifically about the topicality of the tabby cat, but rather the unsettling images contained therein. There’s some fun in getting spooked, as exemplified in the marketing strategies for many current horror films that use night-vision lens to depict the tension-then-release in the audiences watching those films. But in an age in which overprotecting kids seems to be the normal parenting strategy, would a special like this cause the parents of frightened children to write letters of condemnation?
As you mention, Erik, fear is a normal emotional response. But it’s also the type of emotional response that isn’t really present in entertainment directed at children. Very few cartoons aimed at kids try to scare them. (I’ll confess that Caillou scares the living shit out of me, but that’s something else altogether.) But it’s certainly present in animated shows such as Adventure Time, and other such series that, on the surface seemed aimed at children—but are truly directed at an older audience. So we have continuity in terms of form, but that form has shifted its audience as the initial viewers of this special grew up. Suggesting this special has permeated into the consciousness of those animating, say, Gravity Falls would be stretching things immensely. But as we have discussed this special, a through-line of sorts has emerged in my mind. Maybe we didn’t enjoy being scared, but that doesn’t diminish its value.
Sure, eventually we might come across The X-Files or Doctor Who or the other programs we’ve covered during this leg of the Roundtable. But there’s something to be said for unexpected inoculation/indoctrination along the way, especially if there’s someone watching with us with whom we can process those fears and incorporate them into our everyday worldview. What does everyone else think? Are there examples of modern-day children’s programming that deals with childhood fears as well as aspirations on a semi-consistent basis? And if not, should there be?
ME: Ryan, I’m interested in both of your questions. Let’s start with whether Garfield’s Halloween Adventure could air today: With the proliferation of cable channels, there is certainly room for Garfield’s Halloween Adventure. Whether parents (or kids’-TV execs who fear the ire of parents) would allow kids to watch it would be another issue. Every time I revisit The Goonies, for instance, I know that movie would not exist in the current climate, and I don’t think Garfield’s Halloween Adventure would, either. The only case in its favor is the comforting familiarity of the character. It’s an aberration from the normal programming—but next week, Garfield goes back to eating lasagna and being annoyed by Odie.
I’d venture to say there shouldn’t be regular scary programming for children, if only for the sake of parents’ sanity. Constructive fear that you learn from as a child—namely the fear of new things that is straight-up Sesame Street territory—and the kind best showcased by movies and television are very different emotions. There’s something to be said about a piece of media that teaches children the “it’s only a movie/TV show/fictional work” refrain that goes through my head every time I experience something scary. But the age group that Garfield was aimed at may be too early to process that, so perhaps this form of entertainment is best shown sporadically. The examples Ryan gives certainly have an adult audience in mind, in addition to the kid demographic they’re aimed at. Most of the scary underage programming I can think is aimed at preteens at the youngest. (I’m thinking specifically of Are You Afraid Of The Dark? because that hit me at exactly the right age; the image of that flickering match still gives me the willies.) But Garfield is child-centric, with a “no adults allowed” aura. That’s why Garfield’s Halloween Adventure feels singular.
PDN: One thing that amazes me about Adventure Time—which has some real claim to being the single most consistently imaginative show on the air right now—is how it touches on real childhood emotions in this oblique way that I can see involving young kids on a subconscious level, but without scaring and upsetting them. But what do I know? There could be little boys all over this land of ours who are still trembling over Finn’s sex dream about Flame Princess. I agree with Ryan that there’s a culture today that’s overly protective regarding what kids see in the media, but what’s frustrating about it is that grown-ups often get their panties in a bunch over the wrong things. I can’t see how any kid could be ruined by seeing Katy Perry hanging out with Elmo—that’s just adults inflicting their own issues on their kids, deciding who is and isn’t such a vile strumpet that she has no place on Sesame Street. Then again, I’d be sort of grateful if someone had protected me from seeing Dumbo separated from his mom.
I regret having missed out on my chance to find out just how scary Garfield would have been if I’d seen it at the right time. I think I could have handled it at 8 or 9—but again, what the hell do I know? (I am sure it would have freaked me out a lot worse if there hadn’t been that shot of the old man stealing Garfield’s boat; for a minute, I thought he’d just disappeared. Oooo-eeee.) I once read that Jodie Foster snuck in to see Last Tango In Paris when she was about 10 and that she fell asleep, which makes sense—when you’re 10 years old, that must look like a movie about some old people who are acting silly and badly need to go find some people they could be better friends with. But you can get a little older and give a movie like that another shot. With Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, your window closes, and that’s it!
Next time: Sonia Saraiya leads her group into the next Roundtable theme—“celebrations”—as they learn the true meaning of thankfulness thanks to (see what we did there?) the Hey Arnold! Thanksgiving special. (“Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is available on YouTube.)