Starting in the second season, The Simpsons kicked off their annual tradition of the Simpsons Halloween Special, better known as the Treehouse of Horror. From spooky names in the credits (Bat Groening, Nasty Nancy Cartwright, etc.) to goofy epitaphs (until “Amusing Tombstones” themselves died a death), each episode was stuffed with references to the spookily dookily, as well as three distinct tales of terror.
As the years wore on and much of the traditional Halloween fodder had already been mined for material, later seasons saw the stories become more about the opportunity to explore a fantastical plot or parody whatever was in the national zeitgeist, rather than celebrate Samhain. And while this resulted in some entertaining vignettes, like “How to Get Ahead In Dead-Vertising” (a rare treat considering it was season 20), along the way it seems that the writers strayed a little far from the treehouse. We can still relive the glory days of The Simpsons, though, so enjoy our list of the top 10 Treehouse of Horror tales below:
Based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, the story starts with the Simpson family vacationing on Dr. Hibbert’s Island of Lost Souls. They’re greeted by the good doctor and a hairier-than-usual Willie, but remain undeterred as they settle into their creepy jungle abode. Even clueless Homer realizes something is amiss after he beds a feline Marge and has to milk a half-cow Flanders. The hilarity of the human-animal hybrids is compounded by Homer’s realization that he envies the life of these cryptids who just eat… and mate… and eat… and mate…
On a cold Smarch day, Groundskeeper Willie perishes in the fiery boiler room thanks to the negligence of the PTA and, as expected, Homer’s stupidity. The late Scotsman takes his revenge by stalking the schoolchildren’s dreams. Martin dies via a tongue-lashing, prompting Lisa and Bart to challenge Willie to a showdown during their next nightmare. It’s a particularly satisfying homage, as Willie’s Freddy Krueger opens up doors for some truly ingenious plaid-covered creations, including him as a giant bagpipe-arachnid.
Okay, this may have made it on the list purely for Smithers’ line, “I think women and seamen don’t mix.” Rendered in black and white, Grampa Simpson tells the tale of “King Homer,” which is just like King Kong, except the great ape doesn’t have the stamina to climb all the way up the Empire State Building.
Homer wakes up from a daydream to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes—consuming a delicious donut. When even his emergency stash is nowhere to be found, though, he makes a deal with the devil for dessert. And who better to embody Satan than wholesome neighborino Ned Flanders? Marge manages to stage a trial to win back Homer’s soul with a verdict from a jury of, well, not his peers, exactly (Lizzie Borden, Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth, and plenty of other creepy characters), but a jury nonetheless. Despite some sly legal maneuvering from the Simpson matriarch, though, the devil has the last laugh.
Bart, Lisa and Maggie are horrified to find out they have a secret fourth sibling: Bart’s former conjoined twin Hugo, who was apparently pure evil and therefore kept locked away in the attic. Fed on a steady diet of fish heads and chained to a wall, poor Hugo has gone mad and makes his escape, hellbent on sewing himself and Bart back together. What makes this story really work, though, is the sinister reveal at the end.
This tale finds its inspiration in the “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone rather than Child’s Play, as you may have thought (as Jim Vorel notes, though, the 2019 reboot of the slasher series essentially has the same premise as this episode). When Homer forgets Bart’s birthday, he makes a quick stop at the House of Evil shop to pick up a cursed talking Krusty doll and some (also cursed) frogurt. Bart is delighted with the gift, but soon enough the toy clown begins to threaten Homer’s life. A change in the factory setting is all that’s needed to get the Simpson household back to its usual, slightly less lethal chaos, thankfully.
How could we forget the first appearance of our favorite green, tentacled extraterrestrials? Not only does this tale deserve kudos for the introduction of Kang and Kodos (try saying that ten times fast), but the continued reveal of the ominous cookbook Lisa discovers on their spaceship makes every moment worth it. For the first of many occasions, the monster is not quite who you’d expect.
Decades after and political lightyears away from the 1996 presidential race, this vignette is still a gut-buster. Our greasy green friends Kang and Kodos disguise themselves as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in an attempt to take over the United States and, by extension, the world, but with zero knowledge of earthly politics. The result is the oddest election—yes, even including 2016—that is itself quite the Halloween horror.
Nearly every Treehouse of Horror tale is a parody on a classic scary story, but “The Shinning” proves perhaps the pinnacle of these retellings. After a long journey delayed by multiple trips back to lock the house, the Simpson family settles in as the new winter caretakers of a famous lodge that was once the setting of (shudder) five John Denver Christmas specials. Without his vices (Duff and television), Homer descends into madness. The rest of the episode essentially does what it says on the tin, with some requisite lampshading (Willie asks Bart if he wants to get sued when he actually mentions The Shining).
“The Raven” sets itself apart not just with the voice talent of James Earl Jones—which, let’s face it, could be reason enough for this story’s high placement. However, unlike most Simpsons parodies, the dialogue rarely deviates from the author’s original words, showcasing particular inventiveness on the animators’ and voice actors’ parts. And the only thing more memorable than an incessantly croaking raven is one that resembles Bart Simpson. May God help us all.
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.