A Halloween appreciation of the Christmas movie The Nightmare Before Christmas


nightmareposterWhen most of us think of Halloween movies, we tend to think of horror flicks, psychological thrillers, or bizarre mind-benders. The Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, or What Lies Beneath, or 12 Monkeys. But since 1993, a stop-motion animation musical has become as much a part of American Halloween culture as any horror franchise.

Boys and girls of every age
wouldn’t you like to see something strange
Come with us and you will see,
this our town of Halloween

So begins the opening song of what is perhaps the most misunderstood Christmas movie of all time, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Yes, I’m serious. For all the references to pumpkins, death, trick-or-treating, and the Boogie Man, The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually a Christmas movie. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the last 16 years and are unfamiliar with the plot, here’s the basics (spoiler warning).

  • Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King and unofficial leader of Halloweentown, finds his annual Halloween hijinks unfulfulling.
  • Jack discovers “Christmastown” and decides to claim Christmas as his holiday instead of/in addition to Halloween.
  • Jack convinces the residents of Halloweentown to help him, but Sally thinks that something is horribly wrong.
  • Sally tries to convince Jack to abandon his plans for Christmas, but after he doesn’t, she has a premonition of just how bad it’s going to go.
  • Jack has Santa Claws Claus kidnapped, and he starts delivering the presents that Halloweentown made for Christmas around the world.
  • Jack has an attack of conscience, rescues Santa, and restores Christmas to its rightful place.

This isn’t a plot of a horror flick, or a thriller, or even a brain-bender. It’s a plot of redemption, of discovery, of caring. The two main characters each have a conscience, even if one of them doesn’t recognize it until it’s almost too late. Halloween movies view conscience and caring as a weakness that get you killed, imprisoned, or driven insane. It’s Christmas movies that illustrate the power of caring for your fellow people (although perhaps “people” shouldn’t apply to the various residents of Halloweentown).

And there’s no such thing as redemption in a Halloween movie – you survive and drive off/kill the monster, or you die a gruesome death. Redemption and it’s related theme of renewal are cultural themes of Christmas. Christians say that Christ was born to save us, and he saved us through his sacrifice and resurrection, not with a chainsaw or by traveling through time to harvest virus samples. And the Winter Solstice, the darkest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, presages the return of the sun and the renewal of the earth and life itself.

That’s not to say that Nightmare doesn’t have Halloween elements, of course. It does, after all, take place in Halloweentown and is largely populated with a cast of Halloween miscreants (vampires, witches, a mad scientist, scarecrows, monsters, and the aforementioned Oogie Boogie Man). And while Jack rescues Santa from Oogie’s chamber of Halloween horror, he does so by killing Oogie. And this is after Jack sings:

And for the first time since I don’t remember when
I felt just like my old bony self again.
And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King.
That’s right, I am the pumpkin King! Hah! Hah! Hah!
And I just can’t wait until next Halloween
’cause I’ve got some new ideas that will really make them scream
and, by God, I’m really gonna give it all my might!
Uh-oh, I hope there’s still time to set things right….

nightmaresantaSo Nightmare isn’t your standard Christmas movie. It’s not A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, or even The Polar Express. It’s not sickly sweet and heavy on the moralism like It’s a Wonderful Life, or brain candy like White Christmas. It’s more along the lines of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the related Scrooged, or the 1964 version of Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer – scary and disturbing on several different levels, but with a good message.

So by all means, enjoy your Nightmare at Halloween, but perhaps you should watch it yet again during the Christmas season, as it is truly intended.

And finally, everything worked out just fine.
Christmas was saved, though there wasn’t much time.
But after that night, things were never the same—
Each holiday now knew the other ones’ name.
And though that one Christmas things got out of hand,
I’m still rather fond of that skeleton man.
So many years later I thought I’d drop in,
and there was old Jack still looking quite thin,
with four or five skeleton children at hand
playing strange little tunes in their xylophone band.
And I asked old Jack, “Do you remember the night
when the sky was so dark and the moon shone so bright?
When a million small children pretending to sleep
nearly didn’t have Christmas at all, so to speak?”
And would you, if you could, turn that mighty clock back
to that long, fateful night, now think carefully, Jack.
Would you do the whole thing all over again,
knowing what you know now, knowing what you knew then?”
And he smiled, like the old Pumpkin King that I knew,
then turned and asked softly of me, “Wouldn’t you?” (closing narration from the soundtrack)

Lyrics from The Tim Burton Collective

Image Credits:
Touchstone Pictures

1 reply »

  1. Tim Burton is a master at turning conventions inside out, and while I’ve always found this film to be a little hard to watch, from a critical perspective it’s one of his masterpieces – for the very reasons you note here.