01
Nov
11

Compare & Contrast: Halloween vs. Bad & Baseless Storytelling

“Fine, then you tell one scarier.” – Lisa Simpson
“Flashlight please.” – Bart Simpson

Ever since its beginning, the Treehouse of Horror series has depended on parodying, satirizing, and outright stealing from movies, television shows, and other stories.  When The Simpsons was still itself that meant taking familiar ideas, themes and stories and remaking them in the style, language and irony of Springfield.  That sounds simple, but it’s an extremely delicate process.  They had to inject enough original ideas and twists to keep things from feeling stale or rehashed, while at the same time not changing the original source material so much that it became unrecognizable.  On top of that, they needed to tell a coherent story that didn’t require any knowledge of the source material from the viewer.  Oh, and the whole thing had to take place in just a few minutes of screen time.

Treehouse of Horror I4

This is harder than it looks.

That intricate, multi-step dance is why the Treehouse of Horror series is so rightly famous.  The Shining is two and a half hours long, but they got all of the major scenes and most of the ideas into seven minutes and worked jokes and humor into every piece of dialogue.  Those classic episodes of The Twilight Zone take twenty minutes or more, but The Simpsons retold them in a third of the time and made them hilarious.  They chopped “The Raven” down to five minutes, preserved the mood, the unrelenting bleakness, and the bottomless despair of the ending . . . and made it funny.  As Zombie Simpsons has so often demonstrated, that isn’t easy to do, and screwing it up even a little can spoil the entire thing.

The craftsmanship and cultural span of those episodes is stunning, but they all have three things in common.  The first is incredibly strong source material.  The second was a remaking of that material into something that is recognizable to people familiar with the original, but still coherent, accessible and funny to people who aren’t.  The third is the way the whole thing is both funny and scary, with moments that, if taken seriously, are truly terrifying, but that never lose their sense of humor.

Consider the very first “Treehouse of Horror”.  The source material is incredibly famous from start to finish.  The opening segment cribs from Poltergeist (a movie that directly spawned two sequels, indirectly spawned a television series, and is currently being remade) and a number of other classic American horror and haunted house tropes, including the ubiquitous “ancient Indian burial ground”.  The second part takes its cues from The Twilight Zone, one of the most well known and critically acclaimed television series of all time.  And the third retells a poem so famous that a couple of years later they named an NFL team after it.

That alone isn’t enough, of course.  Each segment goes beyond what spawned it to give it that special Simpsons twist while remaining clear to people who’ve never encountered the originals.  You don’t need to have seen any haunted house movies to get that the demonic house wants the Simpsons family gone, nor that it’s funny that Bart thinks his conscience wants him to kill his family.  The suspicion that Kang and Kodos are planning to eat the Simpsons is baked into the entire story, but throughout it there are jokes about the family, about space dust, about cable television costs.  Thanks to the clever wraparound with Bart and Lisa discussing “The Raven” in the context of modern times, we get both the poem itself and the idea that poems don’t carry the same weight they once did.  The Simpsons mocked and retold the originals, and did so in a way that rewards you for knowing them but doesn’t penalize you for not knowing them.

Poe Books

You don’t need to have read these, but it’s nice if you have.

Finally, Treehouse of Horror episodes contain genuinely scary and gory moments, but they are always leavened with plenty of knowing asides and gags, often right in the same scene or even the same shot.  This means that we see the alien spaceship abducting the pitiful humans, but we also see the beam that sucks them up fail to lift Homer until it gets some additional help.  The walls of the house bleed profusely, but Marge just takes it as a sign that the house needs a woman’s touch.  Accompanied by swelling and ominous music, Homer lies defeated in the inescapable shadow of the raven, but the black hearted creature laughs the same way Bart does when he gets one over on his dad.

You can see those three characteristics throughout the good years of Treehouse of Horror.  You can also see the complete failure of all three of them throughout “Treehouse of Horror XXII”.  Let’s start with #1: strong source material.

Dexter is a decent little show, but it’s also confined to premium cable and doesn’t have what you’d call a mass following.  The same is true of 127 Hours and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  Both of those are well regarded independent movies, neither of them is famous.  Avatar is certainly famous, but what, if anything, it has to do with Halloween or even Halloween related themes is a bit of a mystery.  But that just brings us to Zombie Simpsons’ failure on point #2: making the story derive from the original while adding enough to make it your own and keeping it entertaining for people who aren’t familiar with it already.

Even people who elected not to see Avatar are probably familiar with the basic story, if only because the marketing and media coverage were everywhere and the premise of “white guy goes native” isn’t exactly novel.  But Zombie Simpsons didn’t do anything but recreate a couple of disconnected scenes and props.  For it to even qualify as a parody it would have needed to have some kind of plot or resolution, which it manifestly doesn’t.

The beginning is Bart in a wheelchair before becoming an alien, but that entire idea is forgotten as soon as he steps into the tube.  The middle is taken up with a love story and pregnancy (huh?), which are promptly dropped when it comes time for the goofy battle at the end.  That little action piece consisted of one thing over and over again: an animal you’ve never seen doing something to generic background figures you don’t know.  The whole scene has nothing to do with Simpsons and resembles Avatar in only the vaguest way.  The segment is so disjointed, senseless and irrelevant that it actually doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve seen the movie, which is conceivably the only positive thing about it.

Avatar 2 - Flaming Ant Eaters

Was this in the director’s cut?

Even that small mercy is absent from the other three segments, however.  If you didn’t know what 127 Hours was about, what would you have made of that opening?  Homer driving to the desert and falling into a canyon only makes sense if you know the story beforehand.  The same is true of seeing Flanders do things like tie his laundry bag and spread jelly on his toast.  If you haven’t seen the opening sequence of Dexter, none of it makes any sense because there is nothing there besides Flanders repeating it.

Obviously, the title sequence isn’t the only part of the Flanders as Dexter segment, but that just takes us to #3: managing to be both funny and scary at the same time.  The basic premise there was that Flanders thinks God wants him to kill people, and he starts by decapitating Burns:

Lifeless Gore

This scene is, quite literally, bloodless.

Even though it involves two of the show’s biggest secondary characters, there is nothing scary, gory or funny about this.  If it were going to be funny, there’d need to be a joke.  If it were going to be scary, there’d need to be some tension or suspense.  None of those things are present, and we’re left with a scene that has no impact.  Compare that to another removed head, this one in Season 5:

Treehouse of Horror IV12

Funnier and gorier, much better.

Here we’ve got a joke (the disembodied head of Flanders being his usual cheerful self) as well as some nice dramatic irony (Bart not being able to escape from the gremlin).  It’s scary and funny, which is what makes it so good.  Flanders as Dexter has none of that, it just trots out a few pointless murders before running out of ideas so completely that it has to have God and Satan show up out of thin air.

The paralyzed Homer skit suffers from the same problems.  Its basic premise, Homer gets paralyzed and communicates by farting, is so thin, stupid and tension free that it’s impossible for any part of it to be scary or funny.  After that quickly runs its course, they’re left with dropping something vaguely Halloween-y out of nowhere.

Sky Spider

They ran out of things to do in a segment that’s only four and a half minutes long.

When the apparently radioactive spider finally does reach Homer, it crawls in and out of his head for a while.  Again, this is neither scary nor funny.  Homer’s in no danger (he’s already paralyzed after all), and even if he was in danger we in the audience wouldn’t know it because this spider, unrelated to everything else in the segment, just showed up from nothing.  It isn’t funny for the simple reason that there is no joke.  Creepy?  Maybe.  Funny?  Nope.

The Treehouse of Horror series was meticulously based off of brilliant material, given a Simpsons shine to make it work for anyone, and managed to be scary-funny and funny-scary all the while.  You don’t need to have seen Poltergeist or any other haunted house movie to get “Bad Dream House”, just as you don’t need to have seen The Twilight Zone or read any Poe to get the other two segments from “Treehouse of Horror”.

In “Treehouse of Horror XXII”, on the other hand, the audience would be lost without knowing the original material, which itself mostly came from things only a few people have seen.  Even that wasn’t bad enough for Zombie Simpsons, though.  They took their weaker source material and ignored it where possible, crammed it into nonsense where they couldn’t ignore it, and generally spent their time doing their usual routine of jumping from one lifeless scene to another.  Ultimately, this was less a Halloween episode than it was one of the “storytelling” episodes where they just have three (or four) unrelated segments, and even those were nonsensical and boring.


23 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Halloween vs. Bad & Baseless Storytelling”


  1. 1 Snaked
    1 November 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Another great C&C! Good goin’ Charlie!

  2. 1 November 2011 at 8:24 pm

    I’ve stopped watching the show, but for some reason I come back for the Halloween shows. I remember last year’s was pretty dull, but had a few choice laughs, but this one was fucking awful. This write-up is pretty succinct regarding how far Treehouse of Horrors have fallen. No jokes, no suspense, no creepiness, and comprised of source material that as you said makes no sense to those who haven’t seen it, and is also NOT HALLOWEEN-Y AT ALL.

  3. 3 Derp
    1 November 2011 at 8:40 pm

    The Flanders intro is ridiculous. The Dexter intro is already about him doing non-violent things that look violent. Having Flanders do the exact same thing is a very low form of parody. Why didn’t they do the opposite?

    • 2 November 2011 at 12:22 am

      Exactly. It’s not even really a parody, is it? It’s more like… a reference. It’s just him doing the same exact things dexter already does in the intro. And as you pointed out, the Dexter intro’s point is to be kind of darkly humorous, so this is just basically “hey, let’s take something clever from elsewhere but put FLANDERS in place of Dexter! WOW!” That’s why I’m not into Family Guy (or South Park, usually); that kind of humor of “let’s reference other things people like and not really do anything with it” is about the worst kind of humor there is. Good humor is timeless. Look at the humor of Bill Hicks, or early Simpsons. Hasn’t really dated at all, honestly. Yeah, they make references to a few things that have been forgotten now, but as the blog post points out, you didn’t need to know exactly what they were they were talking about to get the joke. Now, the whole POINT of the Treehouse of Horror/etc. is it seems to be made for people who only know the material they’re stealing from so the audience can apparently go, “HAW HAW DAT’S FROM DAT SHOWTIME SHOW LAWL BUT IT’S FLANDERS LAWL.” Which I’m sure is how most of the youtube comments for that scene looks.

      • 5 Patrick
        2 November 2011 at 7:56 am

        Now let’s just add that The Simpsons was one of the only TV shows that Bill Hicks liked and he also wanted to live in Springfield.

      • 6 kokairu
        2 November 2011 at 8:21 am

        South Park do know how to parody and they’re very good at it. I think The Simpsons is drawing ever closer to those Vague Genre Movies that came out every year up until a couple of years ago, e.g. Epic Movie and Meet The Spartans. Has anyone else had the misfortune of watching one of those? It is literally just reference after reference regarding the year’s biggest films.

        • 7 Patrick
          2 November 2011 at 11:11 am

          I walked out of (furthest from) Epic Movie and my poor brain was shrivelling from watching Vampires Suck which was worse than Twilight and this is coming from someone who totally despises that irritating crap! :@ and not just films they “parody” they also “parody” EVERY FORM OF POP CULTURE IN A DESPERATE ATTEMPT TO GET A LAUGH FROM PEOPLE WHO HAVE JUST WASTED THEIR MONEY ON THAT CRAP! and speaking of South Park is it me or does it remind you of Bill Hicks’s type of humour?

  4. 8 RCreed
    2 November 2011 at 1:40 am

    Eh, I don’t know about this one. I haven’t seen Dexter, 127 hours, or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and I knew exactly what was happening. I will agree with the Avatar parody though. They just put you right into the movie, using the same characters and everything.

  5. 9 Chris
    2 November 2011 at 2:52 am

    These Compare & Contrasts are always excellent. You guys always hit the nail right on the head in terms of exactly how the show was better during seasons 1-8. Yesterday I commented that that your previous Quotes of the Day came from King Kong and The Shining parodies, in other words strong source material. And here you flesh that idea out, in detail. Very well done.

  6. 2 November 2011 at 2:52 am

    From an old alt.tv.simpsons posting in 2002:

    “Thought Number Six: The difference between satire, parody, and allusion
    One thing that gets my goat is how, anytime the writers put a reference into
    the show, people here on the newsgroup (now the NHC) hail it as a brilliant parody. “Oh,
    look at me! I’m drinking out of a mug just like they do on Larry King! What
    a parody! Man, the King must really be stinging right about now! I sure
    wouldn’t want to be his life insurance company!” Well, I’m sorry folks. That
    is not a parody. That is just plain pathetic. The Simpsons is rife with
    allusion-but an allusion is just a synonym for reference. It’s nothing
    special. A good example of an allusion (one that is non-parody, non-satire)
    is in the couch gag on “The Old Man and the Key,” where Homer comes up to
    the couch and sees the Blue Man Group playing there. There is nothing funny
    about this at all; it is just an allusion and, methinks, an allusion that
    was meant to be a parody.

    So, let’s talk about satire and parody. These two words are not
    interchangeable when placed under the microscope.
    Satire takes allusion and goes a step further: it uses the allusion to
    attack some stupidity or inanity through literary techniques such as irony,
    derision, or wit. Satire is evident in Kodos’ “I am Clin-Ton.” This is
    satire because it makes fun of the tendency of science fiction movies to
    give their alien villains exotic names that all happen to have similar
    suffixes, like “-ton.”

    Parody, meanwhile, is different from satire. It begins with an allusion and
    then attacks something or someone by making fun of it. Parody is evident in
    Chief Wiggum’s announcement, made in front of Old Springfield Library, that
    the dogs have picked up the scent of books. Mistaking these for the stolen
    books, he then orders the battering ram, which crashes through the doors.
    This is a parody of the police system. It makes fun of policy stupidity, and
    police use of excessive force.

    The difference between satire and parody is that satire pokes its fun by
    using subtle literary techniques as mentioned above, while parody pokes its
    fun by explicitly poking fun.”

    ^^^The critics had Zombie Simpsons (before it was called Zombie Simpsons) outed.

  7. 11 Adam
    2 November 2011 at 6:54 am

    Why does Matt Groening even continue with this show? Doesn’t he have enought money? He would easily have a few hundred million dollars.Why doesn’t he stop the show and travel to every country in the world for the rest of his life? Would sure as hell beat pumping out this crap.

    • 12 Danny
      2 November 2011 at 8:12 am

      It’s not up to Groening, it’s up to FOX, and as long as the show still makes enough profit, they won’t end it, regardless of quality.

      • 13 Adam
        2 November 2011 at 10:17 am

        So if Groening left they would continue making it without him?

        • 14 Patrick
          2 November 2011 at 11:13 am

          Sadly yes ol’ Rupert loves the $$$ hell he hates Family Guy enough to keep away from anyone involved with that show but will keep it on as long as the $$$ come his way

        • 15 D.N.
          2 November 2011 at 6:47 pm

          I think Groening’s a figurehead at this point. He doesn’t have anything to do with what goes into the show now, and probably hasn’t had any actual input for years.

          • 16 Adam
            3 November 2011 at 1:20 am

            Matt Groening is insane,he should just leave and go travelling around the world for the rest of his life, he would probably get paid royalities anyway ,Sam Simon still gets 50 million a year from The Simpsons.

  8. 17 Anonymous
    2 November 2011 at 7:35 am

    I’m still sad with all their film pilthering, they never got around to Jurassic Park, perfect Treehouse of Horror material. Even Zombie simpsons couldn’t screw up Homer wailing as he gets ripped apart by Velociraptors having unintentionally saved the rest of the family in the process. The characters in the film are so archetypal that parody would be fairly simple too.

    • 18 Talbert
      2 November 2011 at 8:38 pm

      They used elements from Jurassic Park in the Itchy & Scratchy Land episode… though repeating plots from classic episodes has never stopped Zombie Simpsons in the past.

  9. 2 November 2011 at 3:56 pm

    The main problem I have with the ZS Halloween specials is that they aren’t that much different a normal episode. The Simpsons in its heyday was at least grounded in reality, and I always thought that the Halloween episodes were where they could let their hair down and bit a little bit crazy, like an actual cartoon. It was actually a nice surprise to see what would happen once the rules are turned off.

    But Zombie Simpsons is clearly a cartoon. In a world where peoples’ eyeballs pop out of their heads without consequence and Homer can be mauled with his guts showing and still be okay, the Halloween episodes hold no weight. There’s no point. Homer gets horribly hurt without any problems in nearly every episode, so who cares if he gnaws his arms off in this one?

  10. 22 Anonymous
    3 November 2011 at 3:50 pm

    One of my favorite “Simpsons twists” is the ending to Homer Kong: the famous scene with the Empire State Building is skipped because Homer is just too lazy to climb above ground level. So he marries Marge instead.

    There was a missed opportunity with the Avatar segment. One of the easiest things to parody in that movie is the flimsy central crisis: “We can make you walk again if you return to your pitiful lonely life on the hell-hole called Earth… OR, or if you’re a Na’vi, you can walk again AND you can stay with your hot naked girlfriend AND you’ll be in a seven-foot-tall athletic body AND you’ll be able to fly cool dragons and stuff AND you’ll attain an eternal peace that humans could never dream of.” The way the movie treats this as a serious dilemma is ripe for parody. Since the Simpsons traded the beautiful aliens for the ugly Kang/Kodos species, they could have easily subverted the story more rather than hitting on the exact same familiar plot points: Bart befriends alien tribe, Bart impregnates female. Big Battle, etc.

    Granted, there were a few jokes about how grossed out Bart was by these aliens, but that aspect barely has an impact on the story.


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