Based on the general demographic of this site, I’m going to assume most of you fine people grew up watching The Simpsons. The longest running scripted show on television, The Simpsons is such an indelible part of the public lexicon that even people whose parents wouldn’t let them watch the series are at least somewhat familiar with the good people of Springfield. Though most would argue that the show’s glory days are far behind it, there’s still one thing about the series that keeps bringing fans back year after year; one special episode that always seems to draw the crowds to see if the writing staff can still craft eight minutes of watchable TV; a seasonal tradition that has sort of got away from its central premise as a horror story to become more of a sci-fi anthology. I’m talking, of course, about The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween special, Treehouse of Horror.
Premiering in 1990 as part of the show’s second season, Treehouse of Horror was fun departure from the show’s early formula (which, let’s be real, they didn’t really nail til halfway through season 3). Three vignettes placing familiar characters in spooky, non-canonical settings helped introduce an entire generation of young viewers to the conventions of scary stories. Speaking personally, the first Treehouse of Horror (which aired when I was 7 years old) was my first introduction to the concept of scary stories — and lord knows I was hooked. I picked up Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books from my school’s book fair, grabbed a copy of the works of Edgar Allan Poe from the library (admittedly, I didn’t really appreciate it for many years), would peruse the scary movie sections at my local Blockbuster Video, and even started writing my own scary stories to spook my friends. The Simpsons literally changed the way I viewed pop culture and engendered in me a love of the scarier side of fiction.
Though that first outing changed the landscape, the show entered a seven year streak of excellent Halloween episodes that started to incorporate homages to genre favorites like The Twilight Zone (Hungry are the Damned, “Terror at 5 ½ Feet”, etc.), Night of the Living Dead (“Dial Z for Zombie”) and my personal favorite, Nightmare on Elm Street (“Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace”). Even niche favorites like the Omega Man and Soylent Green got some love in outings cleverly dubbed “The Homega Man” and “Nightmare Cafeteria.” Some of these episodes even created elements that would impact the show at large, whether that be introducing new characters (German exchange student Uter first appeared in “Terror at 5 ½ Feet”) or hinting at future story developments (With Smither’s sexuality hinted at in “King Homer.”). These labors of love, and you need only look at the spooky monikers the cast and crew all take in these episodes’ credits to prove that they were indeed a labor of love, reached their pinnacle with “The Shinning,” The Simpsons‘ excellent take on Stanley Kubrik’s cinematic classic. The episode perfectly balanced the movie’s own quirks and tropes with its own character to create a piece of art that transcends the episode as one of the greatest and most important contributions The Simpsons have made to the public lexicon.
While these homages to horror greats are probably the best remembered parts of the Treehouse of Horror, you can’t sleep on the great original stories the series has spawned. Whether we’re running from the giant advertising monsters of “Attack of the 50 Foot Eyesores!” or meeting Bart’s not-quite-so-evil twin Hugo in “The Thing and I,” the Simpsons writing staff has produced some inspired works of comedic terror that subverted common tropes in the horror genre, even as it embraced them. The brilliance of the format is that the lack of continuity allowed these episodes to take risks and interject little moments of realism amid their own ridiculous bits of surreal humor. This is a show where super intelligent dolphins can drive humanity into the sea (“Night of the Dolphins”) or a toupee can murder a shopkeeper by drowning him a frozen novelty beverage (“Hell Toupee”), and walk away from it with their cast intact. The show’s most famous (mostly) unique outing is “Homer3“, an episode that not only featured the show’s first foray into 3D animation, but its first usage of live action when Homer is transplanted into the real world at the end of the episode. This came at a time when 3D animation and CGI were in their infancy (and super expensive), so incorporating it into a seasonally specific episode was a big indication of the importance of the Treehouse of Horror series to the Simpsons faithful.
The lasting cultural impact of the Treehouse of Horror series is its effect on young fans for whom these specials were the first introduction to these kinds of stories. For those of us too young to have seen the Nightmare on Elm Street movies or The Shining, Treehouse of Horror was our first experience with frightening films. While the gore of early outings helped to prepare us for the often ridiculous violence of these movies, the jokes taught us that there’s plenty of fun to be had in scary situations. Over the years, these episodes have created legions of horror fans, and even as the quality dipped (right around season 11’s awful “Desperately Xeeking Xena“) the episode has become an annual tradition that still draws in fans hoping to see the latest take on some of the scariest stories to tell in the dark…oh, hey that came back around! Anyway, whether the show ever regains its former glory or not, the legacy of Treehouse of Horror is intrinsically tied to the Halloween season and horror fandom in general. Just remember, no TV and no beer makes Homer… something something.