Compare & Contrast: Haunted Houses

Treehouse of Horror I7

“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:

Normal Rockwell's Self Portrait This Is Not

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)
[Bigger Laughs]
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.

Treehouse of Horror I6

“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
2. ??????
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.

21 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Haunted Houses”

  1. 9 October 2012 at 6:06 pm

    The demon threesome joke seems like something that would be more at home on Family Guy or American Dad. Have you guys covered how The Simpsons have become more sexual over the past several seasons? I know The Simpsons have made references to snuggling and my personal favorite “Rocking the Casbah” but it was nothing worse then you would hear on any family sitcom.
    This to me is one of the worst traits of the Zombie Simpsons and a fairly recent symptom to appear on the bloated corpse on what was once the greatest show ever.

    • 2 D.N.
      9 October 2012 at 6:39 pm

      There was no going back after the rape-by-panda.

      • 3 Charlie Sweatpants
        9 October 2012 at 8:10 pm

        No, there really wasn’t. But what I think bartcrowe may be getting at is that the show is much more crudely sexual than it used to be. It always had a surprising amount of raunch to it if you were really paying attention, but when it was still good it was clever little things like Homer figuring if anyone knew where to get some “tang”, it’d be Bill Clinton, or the way Homer’s cookie dough squirts out of the package when he finds out Marge is pregnant. These days it’s much dumber, where you’re just supposed to laugh at the idea of Homer having sex with two demons because, hurr, demon threesome.

        It’s the difference between expecting people to laugh because you said “penis” out loud and actually making a joke. Witness that episode where Bart was constantly making it with Jimbo’s girlfriend, either of the times they’ve had Marge kiss another woman, or any of countless other examples of late.

        • 4 Al Gore Doll
          9 October 2012 at 8:14 pm

          Ironically, this is after Fox had the evil power to prohibit naked asses on the show.
          It seems to be a struggle to remain relevant and edgy with sexual content. Playboy shoot, anyone?

          “and I’ll leave you with what we all came here to see: hardcore nudity!”

        • 5 Stan
          9 October 2012 at 10:00 pm

          Maybe it was just me, but the time they mentioned a “demon threesome”, I didn’t even make any sexual relation to it. I thought that they were just fooling around. I mean, it’s not like you can actually picture a demon doing it in Homer’s ass. It’s a fucking joke, yeah a dumb one, but still a joke. Yet when they show Marge making out with Ned Flanders – THAT – really creeps me out.

    • 6 abra cadaver
      11 October 2012 at 1:07 pm

      “Oh Marge, grow up!”

  2. 9 October 2012 at 6:49 pm

    You know, if you are so disappointed with modern Halloween episodes, you should see Paranorman. It reminded me of older episodes, with a good mix of humor and horror, fun characters, and some nice twists like the fact that the zombies are the ones being harassed and endangered. It may not be as good as Hom^3r or the Monkey Paw, but I would chase the Kaiser until dickety thirteen if he stole it.

  3. 9 Al Gore Doll
    9 October 2012 at 8:11 pm

    You know Charlie Sweatpants, nobody forces you to repeat over and over and over again how ZS is missing any sort of inventiveness, humor or originality. But you do it anyway, as a service to future generations so they will know how to spot the genuine article from its poor imitator.
    When I first saw “bad dream house” on TV it genuinely scared me to see the family put in an evil murdering trance, and yet to see the house rather collapse instead of spend one more day being inhabited by the Simpsons was very funny.
    Of course there’s something to be said about picking good source material.
    And by the way, I did see Paranorman, and it was so cleverly-written that it’s no wonder American audiences didn’t go see it.

  4. 10 Stan
    9 October 2012 at 10:02 pm

    I’ve got only one thing to say here: thought you stopped watching them =)

    • 11 Charlie Sweatpants
      10 October 2012 at 10:06 am

      I only said that I was hoping to watch no more than half of the season. So I’m planning on skipping some and watching others, but I couldn’t pass up a craptacular Halloween episode, now could I?

      • 12 Stan
        10 October 2012 at 6:01 pm

        True, but there was no ratings review post this time, so I figured out you’d skipped it. I always enjoyed your snarky comments about how many people watched the given episode and what went wrong in it. Now I miss those…

  5. 13 Orangutanagram
    9 October 2012 at 10:54 pm

    That picture of Homer in the mirror looks like the ALF opening sequence.

  6. 15 J.Doe
    10 October 2012 at 8:13 pm

    “Time travel with alternate timelines? Season 5, baby.”

    I hate to be “That know-it-all” but, you mean Time and Punishment from Season 6?

    • 16 Charlie Sweatpants
      10 October 2012 at 9:18 pm

      Whoops, yeah, you’re right. It’s “Treehouse of Horror V”, but it’s Season 6. Fixed it, thanks.

    • 17 abra cadaver
      11 October 2012 at 1:10 pm

      Homer: Lousy bragging know-it-all showoff…
      Marge: What exactly did he say?
      Homer: Get this. He said, uh, he said… Well, it wasn’t so much what he said; it was how he said it.
      Marge: Well, how did he say it?
      Homer: Well, he…
      Marge: Was he angry?
      Homer: No.
      Marge: Was he rude?
      Homer: Okay, okay, it wasn’t how he said it, either… It’s the thought that counts.

  7. 18 Josh
    11 October 2012 at 2:56 am

    The most recent halloween episodes is that they aren’t all that scary. The Black Hole and Back to the Future ones weren’t Halloween related at all, let alone creepy in any way. I suppose their reasoning that Sci-fi is close enough.

    Also theirs the recent trend of parodying popular movies, Twilight, Avatar and now, Paranormal Activity. Lazy!

    Compare to episodes like Nightmare Cafeteria that genuinely freaked me out as a kid. Even when they did sci-fi or movie parody segments, they were still creepy in a Twilight zone way.

    • 19 Al Gore Doll
      11 October 2012 at 12:04 pm

      It really is a sign of a show on its last legs when the normally rule-free Halloween episodes are as boring and poorly-written as the rest of the show.

    • 20 Stan
      11 October 2012 at 6:45 pm

      I’ve personally got nothing against those as plot elements, it’s how they present it that sucks. How did the black hole choose whom to suck in and how not to? It stands right next to Lisa and things behind her get sucked instead. Also, where did Frink got a Prius? I thought there would AT LEAST be a joke about him traveling from the year 2002 into the year 2012 in a car that he thought would be mostly polluting in the future or something like that. Nothing! He just comes, literally “drops in there” and goes back.

      Anyway, it’s really the scriptwriting that is suffering from that kind of crap attention span the most.

  8. 21 abra cadaver
    11 October 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Wow, great writeup… Love “the world’s most formulaic beat-punchline-beat sitcom writing” … that really sums up the zombie humor … I couldn’t put my finger on why it all felt so weird yet familiar, but it’s just a shitty punchline-driven sitcom, but without a laugh track and with shitty animation. Old Simpsons would be mocking what Zombie Simpsons is doing now. Fuck.

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