28 Years Later: Why Treehouse of Horror persists

Nothing encapsulates the goofy terror of Halloween like The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror specials. They are perfect, giving us just enough gore to stand apart from the regular violence of Itchy and Scratchy without actually causing any nightmares. The earlier episodes show this best — with Marge coming from behind the curtain at the show’s start to warn against the the terror that is to come.

treehouse title

“Nothing bothers my kids,” she says in the inaugural Treehouse of Horror. “But tonight’s show, which I wash my hands of, is really scary. If you have sensitive kids, maybe you should tuck them into bed — instead of writing us angry letters.”

So much build-up for what amounts to, by today’s standards, mild violence. Its last segment, told so earnestly by my idol Lisa Simpson, is a recreation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” I still remember my high school English teacher playing this clip for our class, where I realized, “This is really cool for an English class, but pretty nerdy for primetime TV.”

Though the violence and blood increased throughout the 90’s and as The Simpsons passed into the 21st century, that nugget is still there: these episodes are creative, unique and satisfying, but absolutely lack the horror of their title.


One incredible example, “Treehouse of Horror IX,” highlights this well. My favorite segment of all-time (though an unpopular opinion, I’m sure), “Hell Toupée,” depicts Snake’s execution, before which he vows to seek his revenge on the eye witnesses to his crime, Apu, Moe and Bart. His organs are donated, and Homer unluckily and unknowingly receives a gorgeous hair transplant from Snake. The hair digs its roots into Homer’s brain, taking over his body and exacting Snake’s revenge on Apu and Moe. That is, until Homer-Snake try to kill Bart, and Homer’s fatherly instincts (somehow) win out. He yanks the hair out of his head, and it promptly tries to smother Bart, just as Chief Wiggum bursts in to save the day, remarking “Now that’s what I call a bad hair day!”

These episodes are undeniably goofy, yet thoroughly beloved. Variety reports that this season’s Treehouse sported a 20 percent ratings increase, making it this season’s most watched episode without a Sunday-night football boost.

Speaking for myself, the Simpsons specials have been a staple of my fall experience since childhood. I can still recall the Halloween of 1997 when, at the tender age of four, I sat myself down in front of the TV — in full costume — and became so enrapt in Marge and her sister’s witchcraft that I elected to skip trick-or-treating to finish the episode.  

Why do these dark, hilarious, on-the-nose episodes persist? A few potential reasons exist. Treehouse of Horror lets our beloved, everyday characters break out of their normal story lines — with real consequences. So satisfyingly, a brave fandom soul tallied that the series’ 28 Halloween episodes have seen 76 main character deaths. It’s not like other themed sitcom episodes where the deaths are all a dream, or violence is chalked up to some elaborate hoax. No, in the Simpsons, our main characters die and die and die; yet, they return the next week as if nothing happened.

Only topping the incredible violence and sincerity of these episodes are the parodies, for which the Simpsons will go down in history. Though some are better executed than others, the classic Treehouse segments, parodies of The Shining and Citizen Kane (which becomes more and more relevant every day), shine. They are the episodes I return to year after year to get into the Halloween spirit.

And with that, we close our 13 Nights of Fright. As if that wasn’t enough to get you in the Halloween spirit, FXX airs a 13-hour Treehouse of Horror marathon today, from 11 a.m. to midnight. Relive Snake’s hair taking over Homer’s body, revel in all the goofy name changes in the episode’s credits, and count the appearances of Kang and Kodo.

[Photo Credit: FXX]

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