“Treehouse Of Horror V” (season six, episode six, originally aired 10/30/1994)
It’s weird these days to think of The Simpsons as an aggressive show, but that’s exactly what “Treehouse Of Horror V” was—an act of aggression by showrunner David Mirkin. It’s spectacularly funny, arguably the best “Treehouse” ever (certainly right up there in the pantheon), and it’s also surprisingly gross and just a little bit disturbing. The recurring joke knitting every episode together is that Willie keeps getting an axe planted in his back. The fantastic closing number, where the family is turned inside-out by a mysterious fog and Santa’s Little Helper tries to eat Bart, genuinely freaked me out as a child.
Much like “Itchy & Scratchy Land,” “Treehouse Of Horror V” is an example of Mirkin pushing back against Congressional outcry and the FCC clucking over violence on television. To underline his point, it opens with a nervous Marge saying that Congress has banned the episode from the airwaves and is replacing it with “the 1947 Glenn Ford movie, 200 Miles To Oregon” (which as far as I’m aware doesn’t exist, but that stock footage sure looks nice). Then Bart and Homer take over with an Outer Limits homage voice-over and the fun begins.
It doesn’t really matter whether Mirkin was trying to make a point or not. What makes this episode work is that he understood that “Treehouse Of Horrors” should have a surreal, truly scary quality to them. Even in “Time And Punishment,” the least gory of the three stories, there are some nicely weird visual moments, like the kitchen floor rising to form a TV screen bearing Ned’s face. This is also the episode that spoofs The Shining, which happens to be one of the most unsettling movies ever made, so there’s that in its column.
“The Shinning” manages to hit so many of the movie’s key moments in just a few minutes, and it still has time for one of the all-time greatest throwaway Mr. Burns lines, as he and Smithers debate whether or not cutting off beer and TV is what drives the caretakers of his hotel crazy. “Tell you what, we come back and everyone’s slaughtered, I owe you a coke.”
The first time I saw this episode, I was eight years old and not only had I not seen The Shining, but the movie wasn’t even on my radar, so the references sailed over my head. My memory is dim, but I can only imagine this made the episode all the more freaky. Now, I understand that when Homer is cartoonishly freaking out at Marge on the steps, it’s spoofing Jack Nicholson, but taken alone it manages to be mostly funny and at the same time juuuust a liiiiittle bit frightening.
Everything begins and ends with the missing beer and TV; Homer’s homicidal tendencies are technically spurred by a barely-invested Moe ghost, who insists the family will be better off dead, citing himself as an example. “Oh, I’m happy. I’m very happy. La la la la la, see? Now waste your family and I’ll give you a beer!” But really it’s the loss of television, “teacher, lover, secret mother,” that drives Homer to murder. It’s too bad the episode couldn’t squeeze in a take on the Diane Arbus girls or Room 237 (maybe the left-behind Grandpa could have been involved there), but hey, they only had a few minutes.
“Time And Punishment” is the flat-out funniest segment of the episode, perhaps because it revolves entirely around Homer (who doesn’t even appear in the final segment, which is crazy). Equipped with a time-traveling toaster, he immediately disobeys his father’s wedding advice (“If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything!”) and starts visiting increasingly weird alternate realities. The Flanders dictatorship is the most fleshed-out and probably best summed up by his greeting “Hidily-ho, slaver-inos!”
I like the Flanders-king nightmare enough to want more of it. In fact, it’s almost too stereotypically dystopian and evil, with the only special Ned touch involving the forced smiling—surely the whole thing would be a theocracy? I guess it’s too much to think about. The segment really gets bonkers funny after that as Homer zaps from world to world to world, with every new reality sillier than the last. The seemingly-perfect world that lacks donuts as a food (and instead considers them a weather phenomenon) is an unforgettably funny Twilight Zone twist of a gag; the following nightmare featuring Willie’s second axe to the back escalates as far as The Simpsons can by having James Earl Jones voice Maggie.
“Nightmare Cafeteria” has always been a favorite of mine for a couple of reasons. It’s a Halloween episode that lets Principal Skinner become a preening villain, which he so rarely gets to do. Just watch him gloat over Uter’s death! “I've got a gut feeling Uter’s around here somewhere. After all, isn’t there a little Uter in all of us? In fact, you might even say we just ate Uter and he’s in our stomachs right now! Wait, scratch that one.” Edna makes for quite a satisfied child-eating monster as well. The segment feels like fantasy revenge for the school staff who must toil in endless, time-frozen agony on this show.
“Nightmare Cafeteria” is also probably the grossest of the three segments, if only for that creepily realistic blood spatter at the bottom of the giant child blender. You don’t see Milhouse impact the spinning blades, but it’s almost worse when left to the imagination. That image of a bloody Lunchlady Doris approaching Bart and Lisa with a whisk is burned onto my memory (again, it’s an extremely funny lurid take on a typically subdued character).
But Mirkin (and writers Greg Daniels, Dan McGrath, David S. Cohen, and Bob Kushell) save the best for last with the warped musical number sung by an inside-out family.
Since watching this episode, I have definitely had dreams where I woke up in bed, surrounded by my family, and was quickly running from a deadly eviscerating fog. It’s hard to hold The Simpsons responsible though since I was the one who kept watching over and over again. The “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes can have the same feel as Marvel’s What If? series, indulging dark, imaginary whims for its characters, and “Treehouse Of Horror V” is particularly good in that regard while always maintaining the funny.
- Burns is thrilled to see Homer and the family. “Oh, goody, the sea monkeys I ordered have arrived!”
- Willie sets some ground rules for Bart’s “shinning.” “Don’t you go reading my mind between four and five. That’s Willie’s time!”
- “Nightmare Cafeteria” is unusual in not featuring Homer and fitting in only one brief scene with Marge.
- The guest appearance by Mr. Peabody and Sherman would probably sail over a contemporary audience’s head, but it makes me laugh, particularly when they zap into Kang and Kodos’ bodies. “Quiet, you.”
- Lunchlady Doris is using Grade F meat: mostly circus animals, some filler.
- This week in Simpsons signage: We pan through a graveyard featuring one tombstone labeled “AMUSING TOMBSTONES”
- Next week: Erik meets “Bart’s Girlfriend,” probably the greatest role of Meryl Streep’s career.