“Why are you trying to scare us? Are you trying to keep us from getting close to you? Maybe even loving you?” – Lisa Simpson
“Leave me alone.” – Haunted House
It is a measure of just how flat out tired Zombie Simpsons is that they can do four different segments for their Halloween episode and have literally not a single one be something they haven’t done before. Fake apocalypse? Did that way back in Season 11. Mysterious gateway to another dimension? Season 7. Time travel with alternate timelines? Season 6, baby. The most repetitive of the four was the third segment, the not so cleverly titled “Un-normal Activity”, which closely follows the form, if not the function, of the “Bad Dream House” segment from the original “Treehouse of Horror”.
Both stories take place in haunted houses, and both take as their jumping off point popular horror movies. Right here in the source material, however, the different paths taken by each can be plainly seen. “Treehouse of Horror” riffed on Poltergeist and all those other 1980s haunted house movies, but it didn’t specifically copy anything. The house in “Bad Dream House” is nothing like the Poltergeist house, nor are there any static filled televisions or trips to the other side. Yes, “Bad Dream House” is about an unsuspecting family that moves into a house built on the fabled “ancient Indian burial ground”, but it uses that as a platform for its own story and broader satire about scary movies and horror tropes in general.
By contrast, “Treehouse of Horror XXIII” takes the found footage gimmick of Paranormal Activity and makes it the centerpiece of the entire segment. Worse, they don’t really do anything within that gimmick other than the usual Zombie Simpsons crap of having Homer get hurt, clock eating filler (the peeing thing alone went on for twenty seconds!), and lots of pointless exposition. So not only are they resting everything on a one-trick idea, but they can’t even be bothered to come up with inventive things to happen within it.
Consider the first scene, where we see Homer filming himself in the mirror:
Found footage is still a thing people care about, isn’t it?
This is the entirety of the dialogue here:
Homer: Day one, we bought this camera because strange things have been going on at our house in the dead of night. If anyone finds this footage after we’re all missing or dead, remember me as a hero.
Bart: Dad, you forgot to pick me up after Little League.
Lisa: You tossed your car keys in my bean plant.
Homer: A hero!
Flanders: Homer, is that my camera?
Homer: Hero, away!
There isn’t anything the least bit Halloween-y here, it’s just the standard Zombie Simpsons crap of Jerkass Homer acting dumb, followed by the world’s most formulaic beat-punchline-beat sitcom writing. As usual with this kind of hacktacular script, you can practically see where the laughtrack would go:
Homer: Self aggrandizing exposition.
Bart: Contradicts Homer.
Lisa: Contradicts Homer (again).
Homer: Sticks to story.
Flanders: Contradicts Homer (x3)
Homer: Sticks to story (again).
There’s nothing remotely that clumsy or non-Halloween related in “Bad Dream House”. Homer’s still a buffoon and a jerk, of course, but here he’s a jerk because he tips the mover a single dollar and thinks he’s a good guy for doing so, because he ignores his family’s misgivings about the obvious creepiness of the house, and because he stubbornly refuses to believe that the place is haunted because it saved him thousands of dollars.
“Okay, boy, let’s see you talk yourself out of this one.”
Homer isn’t just acting out, he’s actually got a motivation (getting a good deal, for once) and his natural callousness and cheapness drive his actions. The Homer in “Un-normal Activity” doesn’t have anything like that going on. He seems to know what’s going to happen before it does, and is content to go through the motions of getting hit with a golf club, falling down the stairs, and having a demon-three-way because whatever.
Beyond Homer, we can see the lazy adaptation at work with Marge and the kids as well. “Un-normal Activity” is theoretically a story about Marge having made a deal with Satan that would one day result in the abduction of one of her kids. But the kids are hardly in the episode, and Marge doesn’t do much but stand by for Homer’s antics. I guess she’s supposed to be possessed or something when she stands over him in bed and watches him take that endless leak, but that has nothing to do with what we later learn is actually happening. Right through to the ending, the segment is about Homer doing typical, Zombie Simpsons Homer things rather than the family living in a haunted house.
The comparison with “Bad Dream House” couldn’t be more stark. There we see the entire family react to and be affected by the evil all around them. Whether it’s the walls bleeding, Lisa feeling an evil presence, or the culmination where they almost murder each other, there’s a lot more going on than just whatever happens to be hurting Homer at any given moment.
Which brings us to the respective endings. “Bad Dream House” concludes when the inherent Simpson-ness of the Simpsons drives the house to destroy itself rather than live with them. It doesn’t want to be loved by Lisa or bossed around by Bart, it doesn’t want to put up with Homer’s boorishness or Marge’s attitude of constant politeness and good housekeeping. It’s a true twist ending, with the house becoming the victim rather than the perpetrator.
By contrast, the resolution in “Un-normal Activity” reads like an underpants gnome business plan:
1. Marge makes deal with Satan
3. Demon threesome
No part of it has anything to do with any other part, and the resolution is just another way to have Homer be the manic center of attention. There wasn’t even any need for the found footage idea. Zombie Simpsons just dressed up their usual tricks for a few minutes and then slapped on an ending. The Simpsons took a ton of ideas, fit them all into a tidy but cool plot, and never needed to rely on a single gimmick or trope to keep things moving. And, of course, The Simpsons did it from scratch twenty years ago; Zombie Simpsons just rehashes ideas and hopes we’ve forgotten about them.