“Treehouse Of Horror VI” (season seven, episode six; originally aired 10/29/1985)
There are plenty of reasons that the “Treehouse Of Horror” series became a beloved Simpsons tradition, something to look forward to even in the show’s advancing age. There’s the simple fun of seeing the characters in their Halloween costumes (so to speak); there’s the thrill of recognizing a certain horror-movie trope or Twilight Zone allusion. “Treehouse Of Horror” is also the show’s yearly chance to break out of the comedy mold and play to another extreme of the emotional spectrum: fear. (I distinctly recall being upset by the first two segments of the original “Simpsons Halloween Special”—the bleeding walls and disembodied voices of “Bad Dream House” just don’t sit well with kindergarten-age viewers.)
On a deeper level, “Treehouse Of Horror” endures because it’s the one time a year when the Simpsons staff can fully embrace the fact that they make a cartoon. Various fantasy episodes and trips down the non-canonical timeline also afford this chance, but “Treehouse Of Horror” is a dependable, perennial opportunity to go whole hog with the animated wackiness. Any given episode of The Simpsons might find Homer surviving blunt trauma (and trauma and trauma and trauma, etc.), but only in “Treehouse Of Horror VI” can he trip through an interdimensional rift and drool in state-of-the-art-for-1995 computer animation.
Yet “Homer³” (the title being a mathematical joke and a riff on the promotional campaign for Alien 3, according to the crew assembled for “Treehouse Of Horror VI”’s audio commentary) isn’t the only showcase for the animators and director Bob Anderson. (Anderson’s Halloween name: “Bedlam Bob Anderson.”) “Nightmare On Evergreen Terrace” is packed with adventurous character designs and fantastical digressions—like the opening segment, which places Bart in an old-school, hand-drawn dream world with elegantly painted backgrounds and looser rules regarding talking animals. This is what I imagine Itchy and Scratchy shorts look like to Bart and Lisa—the ones produced while Roger Meyers Sr. was alive, at least.
“Nightmare On Evergreen Terrace” is also highlighted by Groundskeeper Willie’s many monstrous forms, which are humorous and terrifying in equal measure. By the time “Treehouse Of Horror VI” debuted, The Nightmare On Elm Street series had put its central boogeyman through the franchise wringer: After devolving from a sinister child killer into a Match Game panelist with razor-tipped fingers, Freddy Krueger was killed off in 1991 and revived three years later in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The Simpsons’ riff on Freddy expertly plays to both sides of the character’s personality, establishing him as a menacing force who isn’t undermined by all the puns—because he’s supposed to be funny.
And the animation work makes him all the more menacing. The casual neglect of the Springfield Elementary PTA is funny as ever in “Nightmare On Evergreen Terrace,” but it leads to the unsettling image of Groundskeeper Willie as a smoldering specter, his eyes an unearthly shade of red. Later, when he rises, unnoticed, from the “sinky sand” behind Bart and Krusty, the reveal of Willie’s ultimate transformation is blocked like any number of similar fakeouts from the slasher canon. For added heebie-jeebies, that arachnid look calls to mind the Roach Motel death of Brooke Theiss’ character in A Nightmare On Elm Street 4, my pick for the franchise’s most stomach churning moment. (If you have an aversion to the crunchy, squishy side of splatter cinema, don’t click that link. I’m already regretting the decision to rewatch the scene.)
“Treehouse Of Horror VI” ends its first segment by advising the citizens of Springfield to “just don’t look” at the newest terror destroying the town, a sly joke from such a visually engaging work. I wouldn’t argue that the episode’s three writers—John Swartzwelder, Steve Tompkins, and David X. Cohen—shaped their segments around shared themes, but a thread about the powers of perception runs through “Attack Of The 50-Foot Eyesores,” “Nightmare On Evergreen Terrace,” and “Homer³.” Willie-as-Freddy and the sentient Lard Lad only hold sway over those who pay attention to them, and “Homer³” forces Homer and Bart to see their world from a new perspective. And that’s horror at a basic, fundamental level: Having everything you know and understand suddenly, startlingly disproven.
A lot of moviegoers would have their own perception-altering experience a month after “Treehouse Of Horror VI” debuted, as Toy Story ushered in the dawn of a new era in feature-length animation. The work of John Lasseter and the Pixar crew outpaces the quality of what Pacific Data Images did for The Simpsons, but both “Homer³” and Toy Story endure because each is more than just a pretty, computer-generated face. As the DVD commentary attests, a lot of the “Treehouse Of Horror VI” segments ran long because each goes through a full story arc. Advertising icons come to life, they wreck Springfield, they’re felled by the sweet sounds of Paul Anka; Homer seeks refuge from Patty and Selma, falls into a parallel dimension, then gets sucked into our reality. And so on.
That’s a commitment to fundamentals that’s harder to come by in more recent “Treehouse Of Horror” installments. I still look forward to each new volume in the series, but like the dwindling reserves of horror fiction from which the Simpsons crew can pull, there’s less and less time for a newer “Treehouse Of Horror” segment to tell a complete story. (And “Treehouse Of Horror VI” predicted the source of this, as Kent Brockman takes a cue from the conclusions of Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Thing From Another World, sagely warning “the scourge of advertising” would one day eat the Simpson family—or at least their available airtime.) At least the specials haven’t lost their sense of aesthetic boldness, as exemplified by the three-minute history of genre fiction that Guillermo Del Toro attached to the start of “Treehouse Of Horror XXIV.” Even at a time when a burping, “bulgy” Homer isn’t a million-dollar investment, “Treehouse Of Horror” keeps chasing new animated horizons.
- As noted by Matt Groening in the DVD commentary, Pacific Data Images would later merge with DreamWorks to form DreamWorks Animation—so the people associated with “Homer³” are quite accustomed to being bested by Pixar at this point.
- “Homer³” stands up on story terms because it’s based on the framework of “Little Girl Lost,” one of the freakier no-frills episodes of the original Twilight Zone. The disembodied cries of a young child will never not be scary.
- Beyond its excellent horror riffs, “Treehouse Of Horror VI” is also responsible for one of the all-time great Homer non sequiturs: “Lousy Smarch weather.”