Autumn Classics: The Nightmare Before Christmas

The holiday cash-in that launched a whole aesthetic turns 25.

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Autumn Classics: <i>The Nightmare Before Christmas</i>

With autumn descending on us, it is time once more to nest indoors on a cold night and enjoy macabre and spooky movies. This month, Ken Lowe is looking back on four perennial fall favorites that are celebrating major anniversaries this year. After first looking at Halloween, it’s only natural we look forward, to The Nightmare Before Christmas.

One of the special things about growing up in the ’90s (besides being raised by cartoons to think Bill Clinton is stupid) was seeing a particular brand of playfully macabre movie hit theaters. A big part of that was the meteoric rise of Tim Burton in the late ’80s. With Danny Elfman serenading his Expressionism-inspired cities, candy-colored suburbs, and wild afterlives, Burton popularized a kind of skewed reality underpinned by the same winking, morbid sense of humor that made The Addams Family so popular back when it was a black-and-white sitcom. It’s probably the precise reason we got an all-star grand slam of an adaptation of it in 1991, followed by the obsessively quoted sequel in 1993.

(The utter dysfunctionality of TV families has jaded me so very much. I watched an episode of the classic Addams Family once and Gomez was such a good father that I remembered he is also Sean Astin’s adoptive father in real life which just sent me on a whole emotional journey.)

Any one of these works is worth thousands of words of reflection, but only one so completely embodied this sensibility that it launched its own aesthetic, which you can still plunk down your money to buy at several fine retail outlets.

For the merch alone (which has been stocked without interruption for a quarter of a damn century), it’s worth asking what made a quirky stop-motion kiddie flick like The Nightmare Before Christmas one of the most unforgettable movies of the ’90s.

This Is Halloween (and Christmas)

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On paper the idea must have seemed irresistible: A kid-friendly movie about Halloween and Christmas, envisioned by a supremely bankable director. Audiences weren’t prepared for the spooky, twisted sensibility of the movie or the loneliness and vulnerability at its core (and I was not prepared for the villain to be unraveled in a death almost as terrible as the one in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)

We are drawn into a fantasy world where every North American holiday has its own corresponding plane of existence, filled with the legendary creatures of that holiday’s mythos. (Does Europe have its own grove of evergreen trees with holiday-shaped doors leading to St. George’s Day or Bastille Day or the like? Does Polynesia? I’m not being snide—I want to know.) The tall, pale, fleshless, impeccably dressed Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King, the titular ruler of all things Halloween, but he’s in a funk, unhappy with the monotony of his macabre holiday and isolated by how much he’s being idolized by the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween Town.

He’s so wrapped up in his sadness that he doesn’t notice the clear adoration of Sally, a sewn-together Frankenstein’s monster whose mad scientist father created her from whole-cloth and accepts nothing less than exerting absolute control over her. (Is it a wonder the poor woman has become a cosplay staple?) While wandering around in his existential hole, he falls headfirst into the Christmas dimension, where he discovers exactly the spice his unvaried life has been missing. Like any oblivious tourist, he decides to appropriate this new culture, gearing up all of Halloween Town for Christmas.

The painfully earnest monsters of Halloween Town don’t get the point of it, of course, and fill up presents with creepy crawlies and disembodied horrors. In their defense, most people don’t know what to get each other for Christmas anyway, and I doubt you can purchase gift cards in the Halloween dimension. (What currency do they use?? Is it candy corn??? This movie is great, but you can’t think about it too hard for too long.)

Jack’s well-meaning attempt at giving Santa Claus a night off backfires spectacularly as the good little children of Earth open their gifts to be mauled by monsters and Santa Claus is hurled into the dungeon of the evil Oogie Boogie, who is a burlap sack filled with creepy crawlies because this film is severely disturbed. Jack and his team of animated skeleton reindeer are shot out of the sky by the freaking military. Realizing his cultural theft has ruined things for everyone, Jack puts things aright and everybody has a happy holiday.

Danny Elfman Gives Voice to Seasonal Affective Disorder

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The movie would have been pretty cool even without a great score, but it comes right out of the gate with a ringer of a musical number and then keeps the hits coming. Every October 31, somebody on social media will post “THIS IS HALLOWEEN THIS IS HALLOWEEN” with no context because none is needed. Danny Elfman’s musical numbers hit varied emotional tones that keep the audience engaged at all points of the story, and his performance as the singing voice of Jack Skellington is full of life. In an interview with Premiere magazine shortly after the movie was released, he said that writing the music for Nightmare was one of the easiest jobs he’d ever had because of the affinity he felt for Jack’s character. I’m inclined to forgive him for making it look so easy.

There’s something for everybody to enjoy in Nightmare’s music. “Jack’s Lament” is a tenor soloist’s dream, “What’s This?” is catchy and sells Jack’s total naïveté about Christmas, and “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” is a perfect mean-spirited anthem for all the folks out there who are in the mood to just burn everything down.

A Nightmare Crafted Frame by Frame

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It’s important to remember that Burton didn’t direct The Nightmare Before Christmas, though he was responsible for the concept. Burton served as producer, with stop-motion auteur Henry Selick directing. The idea was based on a poem Burton wrote in 1982, which he said was inspired by the perennial holiday specials of his youth and his attachment to the holiday season during a solitary childhood.

Disney took a chance on Burton’s off-beat story, but attached Selick to direct, since Burton didn’t have the time to take the three years necessary to painstakingly photograph a 76-minute feature frame by frame. The distance from Burton and Disney afforded Selick may have helped the picture, the director said in a 1993 interview. Ultimately, Disney thought the final product so dark that it palmed it off on Touchstone Pictures.

Hilariously, their squeamishness was proven entirely unfounded. The Nightmare Before Christmas was a critical and commercial grand slam that was fawned over for its technical achievements to boot, becoming the first-ever animated feature to earn an Academy Award nomination for special effects. Kids thrilled to the amazing visuals and catchy songs, and kids of all ages enjoyed the anarchic, distorted view of the holidays peopled by wacky characters.

That’s been the enduring legacy of the film for me. As we grow up and move away from home, as our families disperse across the country or we work terrible entry-level jobs at 365-day-a-year institutions with no time off, we all have some holiday seasons where we feel isolated and alone, surrounded by incessant pageantry, and we need to deal with it in our own way. The Nightmare Before Christmas is here to show us that we’re not the only ones who feel this way.


Kenneth Lowe is known as Mister Unlucky to a guy in Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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