Friday, October 30, 2015

It's the Psychobabble Halloween Special!

With its rituals of begging for candy, playing dress up, and believing in the kinds of things you should stop believing in at age seven—Flying witches! Ghosts! Werewolves! Pumpkins!—Halloween is definitely a kids holiday. I admit that even as I get more into Halloween the older I get. That’s because adult children such as myself can indulge in a month-long orgy of horror movies with content way to axe-centric for Trick-or-Treating tykes. When it comes to feature films, the kids are mostly shut out despite a few seasonal kid-friendly flicks like Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and Mad Monster Party (am I dating myself with my references? Nah.). Kids generally need to turn to the small screen for their Halloween entertainment. Fortunately, there’s plenty of Halloween entertainment on TV to eliminate the dangers of playing outside in the late-October fresh air. At least there have been since the late 1970s when annually aired Halloween specials really became a thing on TV. Before that period, specials popped up pretty infrequently outside of spooky episodes of “Bewitched”  (“Trick or Treat”; “Twitch or Treat”) or “The Beverly Hillbillies” (“Trick or Treat”—are you sensing a lack of imagination here?). Other shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Monkees” really blew it by airing episodes such as “Ghost a Go-Go” and “The Monstrous Monkee Mash” far removed from the holiday (and both series aired shows on October 31st during their runs, so the scheduling was extra stupid).

The kids who tuned in to watch “The Monkees” and “Gilligan’s Island” in 1966 could still get their spooky fix by watching a brand new special from Charles Schulz. Coming after the perennial smash “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the less enduringly smashing “Charlie Brown’s All-Stars”, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” became the first stand-alone TV Halloween special worth mentioning when it aired on October 27, 1966. Schulz eschewed anything supernatural (well, aside from Snoopy’s eerily non-canine behavior) to focus on his daily comics’ usual child neuroses as Charlie Brown struggles with his pathetic ghost costume and depressing trick-or-treating haul (a bag of rocks) and Linus misplaces his faith in some sort of gourd God and wastes Halloween night in a pumpkin patch. Without even a passing attempt to spook the kids, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” totally captivated an audience too young for Kill, Baby, Kill! and Eye of the Devil, and it continued to air year after year at Halloween time. In fact, switch on ABC this October 20 at 8PM, and there it will be again, just one year shy of its fiftieth anniversary.
Get a grip, kid.

Despite the popularity and success of “The Great Pumpkin”, Halloween specials didn’t totally take over the tube for a good decade after its airing. In the interim, Rankin & Bass—who defined Christmas on the small screen with specials such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964), “Frosty the Snowman” (1969), and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (1970)—only attempted one Halloween special, and they couldn’t even be bothered to use their patented stop-motion techniques to animate “Mad Mad Mad Monsters” (1972). You can rest assured that ABC will not be airing this one in prime time this year.

So why did Halloween specials boom five years later with the debuts of “Halloween Is Grinch Night” and “The Fat Albert Halloween Special” (insert your own “Cosby is a monster” joke here. I can’t be bothered with that creep)? I don’t know. Maybe it was the Emmy-winning success of the Grinch’s return in a truly surreal and definitely scarier-than-Snoopy half-hour that finally drilled the notion that Halloween specials could be exceptional into the skulls of TV execs, because the next year CBS recycled a bunch of classic Looney Tunes shorts in “Bugs Bunny’s Howl-oween Special”, the special that really solidified the positions of Witch Hazel and Count Blood Count in the WB pantheon. 
Witch Hazel: funnier than Foghorn Leghorn; less offensive than Speedy Gonzales.

A year later, ABC attempted to put living actors into the pointy hats and capes in “The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t”, a charming and amusing monster rally led by Mariette Hartley as the Witch and Judd Hirsch as Dracula, who try to set aside their sexual-tension-soaked squabbling to revive the world’s flagging Halloween spirit. Perhaps it is the show’s more dated qualities—it ends with a full-on, no-holds-barred disco sequence—that kept it from attaining the essential annual status of “The Great Pumpkin” or “Howl-oween”, though it eventually became an October staple on the less discerning Disney Channel. 1979 also saw such new animated specials as “Casper’s Halloween Special”, “The Flintstones Meet Rockula and Frankenstone”, and “Raggedy Ann and Andy in the Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile”, which would all get regular rotation for years on the less essential buttons of your cable box.

In the eighties, every property that could possibly spin off a Halloween special did: Garfield, Jem, Pac-Man, Snorks, The Smurfs, and so on. No surprise that these are not exactly regarded as classics today. 
Don't forget to highlight this one in your TV Guide.
For infinitely better annual Halloween animation, one had to wait until the decade was over, and “The Simpsons” began airing its divine “Treehouse of Horror” episodes in 1990. That first mini-portmanteau in the series was also the first episode of “The Simpsons” that erased all traces of the series’ early growing pains. With its riffs on “The Amityville Horror”, “To Serve Man”, and “The Raven”, “Treehouse of Horror” was one of the few shows in the first two years of “The Simpsons” that could stand proud alongside any episode in the show’s peak run from seasons three through seven. Twenty years removed from that peak period, the annual “Treehouse of Horror” episode is the only “Simpsons” I still bother to check out every year, even as it continues to be utterly disappointing. But I just can’t stand the thought of having a Halloween season without at least one new special to check out. As much as I take advantage of the more adult horrors of An American Werewolf in London, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Psycho every Halloween season, they simply do not capture the season’s childlike spirit like a half hour of animated TV does. Happy Halloween, kids.
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