Imagine you’re a parent around the time the first “Treehouse of Horrors” aired. Your children have gone gaga over the Simpsons; everyone has. By the start of its second season, the show had already become a global phenomenon and a magnet for controversy due to its irreverent take on American life and the failings of every social institution, from religion to politics to news.
You know the Simpsons better than you know your family and yourself yet every Halloween, The Simpsons, in the spirit of the holiday, put on costumes and become someone else. The defining American satire of the twentieth century stops being a comedy and becomes a horror-comedy anthology. But “Treehouse of Horrors” is no Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein: the series has the capacity to be simultaneously funny and absolutely terrifying. Shit, there have been segments that have almost been too intense and scary for me, and I am a jaded old man.
So you can only imagine the kind of nightmares“Treehouse of Horrors” has engendered in small children. That’s why the first “Treehouse of Horrors” opens with Marge breaking the fourth wall and warning parents that what they’re about to see is very, very scary so they may want to consider putting their children to bed for the night instead of firing off enraged letters the next morning.
Marge is so traumatized by the gruesome events chronicled in the episode that she washes her hands of it completely. In one swift move, the show anticipates the harsh criticism of moralistic busybodies and dismisses it with a curt, cutting wisecrack delivered by a paragon of all-American wholesomeness.
Writing a “Treehouse of Horrors” segment has to be incredibly liberating. For one magical episode per season, the rules all fly out the window and The Simpsons can be whatever the writers want them to be. They become malleable creatures that somehow manage to hold onto their very distinct personalities while inhabiting the skin of characters from throughout the horror canon.
It’s a highwire balancing act the first “Treehouse of Horrors” doesn’t entirely nail; the third segment in particular has the deadening air of the classroom while the two segments the precede it are relatively short on jokes and gags. That’s thoroughly all right though.
The first and second segment have more on their mind than generating chuckles. Each subverts a classic horror narrative. In the first segment, the Simpsons move into a suspiciously pricey mansion with only one big drawback: it’s built over an Indian burial ground and consequently haunted. Incidentally, why are only Native American burial ground haunted? If you build a home over a Jewish burial ground does that mean the dead will rise and kvetch about the afterlife?
Nevertheless, Homer moves in all the same and it isn’t long before the house has come alive and is encouraging each of the Simpsons to murder one another with the possible exception of Marge. It’s a funny set up with two killer punchlines. In most of these narratives the house torments a family until the family is so overwhelmed that they can’t take it any more and gives up. The opposite happens here: the house chooses to disappear rather than provide a home for the Simpsons. The Simpsons haunt the house instead of the other way around.
In the second killer punchline, Marge frets that they were never told that the house was on an Indian burial ground before Homer lets slip that the real estate agent may, in fact, have mentioned it. Five or six times.
The second segment represents an extended riff on the “To Serve Man” episode of The Twilight Zone, the quintessential spooky anthology series and the inspiration for many of the best “Treehouse of Horrors” segments. Like “To Serve Man”, the horror classic that inspired it, the segment revolves around a seemingly benevolent alien race that offers invaluable aid to humanity, but at a price.
The segment delights in upending expectations created by “To Serve Man.” It’s the old satirical rope-a-dope; when tentacles-sporting aliens Kang and Kodos lustily gaze at their Earth guests devouring giant plates of food we’re primed to expect the same climactic revelation as “To Serve Man.”
The writers fuck relentlessly with our expectations by having Lisa uncover what she perceives as the alien’s sinister secret agenda when she stumbles upon a book entitled “How to Cook Humans.” Only it turns out the book is covered by dust that obscures that it’s actually titled “How to Cook for For Humans” Several reversals ensue before the aliens reveal that they aren’t monsters after all; they just wanted their guests to enjoy nice meals and be happy. As Lisa wearily laments, there were monsters onboard the spaceship but they were of the human variety.
Who could have foreseen the rich future ahead for Kang and Kodos? Few could have guessed they’d become such a beloved fixture of Simpsons mythology but it’s not hard to see why we’ve embraced them. They’re beautifully designed with an old school E.C Comics feel and voice-acted with just the right notes of arrogance, grandeur, condescension and pettiness. And all they wanted to do was help us. Is that really so wrong?
The episode concludes with the weakest segment, a frustratingly straight reenactment of “The Raven” with Bart in the role of the taunting bird and Homer in the part of the grieving gent tormented by a mocking bird (though not a mockingbird). The animators throw in lots of visual gags and Dan Castalenetta does his damnedest to make antiquated poetry funny but there’s only so much they can do. The show acknowledges the difficulty of making the Gothic poetry of the nineteenth century scary and relevant to contemporary kids raised on Freddy Krueger by having Bart complain about how non-scary Poe’s work is but this meta-textual commentary just highlights the segment’s fatal fault. The Simpsons take on "The Raven" is faithful all right, but not particularly funny or scary and at its best, “Treehouse of Horrors” manages the formidable feat of being some of the funniest and scariest TV around, animated or otherwise.