Ever since ‘The Simpsons’ first Halloween Special aired back in 1990, it’s been a solid fan favourite that horror lovers like myself look forward to all year round. And thanks to Disney+, it’s become a bit of a tradition in my house to binge watch all the ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes during Spooky Season.
If you’re not familiar with these episodes, they’re separate from the regular ‘Simpsons’’ timeline and main story, and usually consist of three segments. They’re often parodies of classic horror and sci-fi such as ‘Poltergeist’, ‘Dracula’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘The Fly’, and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’. Other inspirations include episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’ and, in the last ten years, more mainstream entertainment like ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Stranger Things’, and ‘Jurassic Park’. They’ve even done a Halloween musical spoof of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ entitled ‘There’s no Business like Moe Business’.
The first ever episode aired in Season Two and featured three spooky segments: ‘Bad Dream House’, ‘Hungry are the Damned’, and ‘The Raven’. Inspired by EC Comics, this special episode opens with a warning in the style of James Whale’s 1931 classic ‘Frankenstein’. Marge expresses her personal distaste for Halloween, condemning what is shown on television at this time of year to be “completely inappropriate for younger viewers…things like the following half-hour”. That line will never not be funny. Marge goes on to warn the audience that what they are about to see is very scary and that if the viewers have sensitive children, that they should “tuck them into bed instead of writing [them] angry letters tomorrow”. A hilariously self-aware comment on righteous parental anger of the 90s.
The first episode feels tame by 2021 standards, and it’s odd to think about the episode being a source of worry for show creator Matt Groening, who felt at the time that ‘The Raven’ would be “the worst, most pretentious thing [they had] ever done”. Turns out, Groening needn’t have worried – it was a hit, and has been going strong ever since.
The writers and animators love making these specials, despite the creative pressure it can put on them. It gives the production team a chance to be hilariously violent or absurdly far-fetched. David Mirkin, former executive producer, believes the episodes should be both scary and funny, and has been responsible for some of the more gruesome moments. Al Jean especially loves the specials. He has been executive producer for more ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes than any other EP. The specials have even been nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards, including “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Musical Composition for a Series (Dramatic Underscore)”.
It’s no surprise that some of the ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes would be inspired by the King of Horror and master of the macabre, Stephen King, but what is surprising is that in over thirty years of Halloween specials (and despite many winks and nods to his work in specific scenes) only three shorts have been directly based on Stephen King stories. They are all vastly different in their storylines and level of violence, and have received drastically mixed responses from viewers.
Treehouse of Horror V (1994) | The Shinning (The Shining)
‘The Simpsons’ parody of the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ is not only widely considered by fans to be the best ‘Treehouse of Horror’ segment, but one of the best ‘Simpsons’ segments ever. It is often listed high among film and television journalism listicles. Entertainment Weekly described it as “ a parody […] with such detail [and] comic timing” and that it is one of the “greatest spoofs of all time”. IGN.com went as far as to say that it’s “not only a standout instalment of the annual Halloween episode, but of ‘The Simpsons’ period”. The showrunner at the time, David Mirkin, wanted the episode to be as full of “as much blood and guts” as possible as a Fuck-you to Congress who tried to censor the show; they argued the regular episodes of the show were too violent.
"You've got the Shinning"
"You mean Shining..?"
"Shush, do ye wanna get sued?"
- A conversation between Groundskeeper Willie & Bart
Directed by Jim Reardon and written by Greg Daniels, Dan McGrath, David Cohen, and Bob Kushell, ‘The Shinning’ is a pretty spot-on imitation of ‘The Shining.’ Mr Burns hires the Simpsons as caretakers of his Lodge. The segment’s opening brilliantly alludes to Kubrick’s use of overhead driving shots, jarring days of the week title cards (a countdown to the horror that increases the tension throughout the segment), and the ominous, instantly recognisable brass instrumental theme.
The dialogue throughout ‘The Shinning’ is bloody fantastic and full of references to both the film and the novel. Mr Burns notes that the Simpsons, “work hard, and they play hard”, alluding to Jack Nicholson’s infamous “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene, and out of all the horrible, horrific things to happen at the Lodge – witch burnings, being built on an ancient Indian burial ground, satanic rituals – the thing that really makes Homer shudder is the Lodge being the site of five John Denver Christmas specials. One of the best moments of the entire sequence follows: the iconic wave of blood flowing from the elevator. Not only is it a great reference to the horrific visuals ‘The Shining’ is known for, but Mr Burns’s nonchalant comment, “that’s odd, usually the blood gets off at the second floor” is hilarious. Mr Burns is the perfect character for this role.
Taking on the role of psychic chef Dick Hallorann is Groundskeeper Willie, and Bart as young Danny. Not only is Bart the perfect age and gender to play Danny’s part, but his character makes the mind-reading gags all the more hilarious. When Groundskeeper Willie thinks that Homer is “going to go crazy and chop them all into haggis”, all Bart wants to know is what haggis is. Homer chopping them up doesn’t even faze him – he gets strangled all the time, being chopped to death is hardly a shock. The horror of the reality of the situation is perfectly balanced by the show’s sense of humour.
Hoping to get rid of any distractions, Mr Burns removes all beer and television. In an amusing reference to the film’s opening, where Jack Nicholson’s character is being interviewed and is told that the previous caretaker went crazy and murdered his entire family, Mr Burns tells Smithers that if they come back and everyone’s slaughtered, he owes him a coke. The scene cuts to the first trigger of Homer’s madness. The cable is out (the humorous shot shows Maggie at the bottom of the frame, spelling the infamous REDRUM with kid’s toy blocks). Next, he discovers that there is “not a drop” of beer in the house. After Marge chastises him for saying, “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill all of you” in response to her expressing pride in his initially calm reaction, Homer leaves to “check out that axe collection”. Well, we all know where this is going.
Moe plays the part of the spectral barkeeper who convinces Homer to murder his family perfectly. Homer’s enabler in the regular episodes, his promise of beer once Homer turns his family into ghosts takes on a more sinister meaning.
The following scene is the best part of the entire segment. Jack Nicholson’s iconic “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed hundreds of times shows his wife Wendy that he’s finally cracked, so when Marge finds Homer’s page, the music rising to a crescendo, we’re expecting to see the same thing. Instead, we get “feelin’ fine”. The subversion of our expectation makes for a humorous moment, but it quickly returns to horror when lightning strikes and reveals that Homer has written “no tv and no beer make Homer go crazy”, which is somehow even more terrifying than the actual scene in the film. But the writers balance out the horror again by having Marge say, rather casually, “this is less encouraging”. An amusing understatement.
Homer then goes crazy – “don’t mind if I do!” – and forces Marge to break the “break in case of spousal insanity” (ha!) glass to retrieve a bat, which she ends up not needing because Homer accidently frightens himself and falls down the stairs. When Marge locks him in the freezer, it is a lot more comical than the film’s version. In keeping with his character, Homer cares more about eating the freezer’s food than executing Moe’s demands for murder: “can’t murder now, eating”. When Moe frees him, Homer chops through a door with an axe, exclaiming “Here’s Johnny”…to an empty room. D’oh! It takes him two more attempts to get it right before he chases his family through the Lodge. In keeping with the running gag that Springfield’s police force is dangerously but hilarious incompetent, when Marge communicates over the radio system that her “husband is on a murderous rampage, OVER”, Wiggum relaxes and sighs, “well, I’m glad that’s over.” One of my favourite lines.
Bart uses his “shinning” to contact Willie to come to their rescue. When Willie receives Bart’s psychic cry for help, he exclaims “that little fat boy and his family are in trouble”, an unnecessary but amusing joke. Willie arrives at the Lodge, abandoning his mini TV in the snow. Like in the film, Homer murders Willie with an axe in the back – Willie appears in the episode’s following two segments, getting murdered by an axe each time – and attacks his family. They are saved when Lisa holds up the mini TV in defence. Homer’s murderous rage subsides and the family huddle together to watch it…freezing in the snow, like Jack Nicholson. The novel and the 1980 Kubrick film have been referenced, although not to this level, in a few other episodes too. But as far as direct parodies go, ‘The Shinning’ is pretty much perfect.
Treehouse of Horror XV (2004) | The Ned Zone (The Dead Zone)
‘The Ned Zone’ is one of the most underrated ‘Treehouse of Horror’ segments in my opinion. Though that may be because I love Ned-based Halloween segments and I think Stephen King’s novel ‘The Dead Zone’, upon which this is based, is also underrated.
Like the novel, our protagonist suffers a head injury in an accident and wakes up with the ability to see the future of the person he touches. In the novel, our protagonist Johnny gains his psychic powers after he hits his head while ice-skating. Ned, on the other hand, gains his psychic powers when Homer’s attempt to retrieve his frisbee from the roof using a bowling ball goes badly wrong – it bounces off the chimney and hits Ned right on the noggin, before Homer realises his frisbee was behind him the entire time.
“Concussion, diddly, haemorrhage, doodily, injury, bodily”, Ned says as he wakes up in hospital. When Dr Hibert welcomes him back to the land of the living, Ned has a vision of Dr Hibert’s early demise – falling through the air to his death. Moments later, Ned’s vision comes to pass; Hibert attempts to retrieve Homer’s frisbee off the roof, hilariously saying “this is the very last time” (how many times has Homer lost his frisbee?) and meets his end on the pavement below.
Ned is the perfect protagonist for this kind of story because not only does he genuinely care about the health and wellbeing of his neighbours, but the idea of possessing knowledge beyond what humans are meant to know – what only God is meant to know – adds an extra layer of depth to his reactions. He is burdened by the knowledge; it feels like he could be a genuine Stephen King character. After having a vision of the Rosie O’Donnell musical closing early – ha! – he runs into Homer, who asks if Ned has seen his frisbee (a random but great running gag throughout the segment).
Freaked out by the death of Moleman, Ned confides in Homer, who does what most of us would do in that situation – “do me, do me!” Ned foresees himself shooting Homer in the back and, because of his good nature, is horrified by the idea of killing the man he considers his best friend. When Ned later assures Lisa that he won’t kill her father, Homer, predictably, mocks him and tries to provoke him into shooting him. Throwing the gun away, changing the future, Ned is happy but then he has another vision – Homer will destroy Springfield by blowing up the nuclear plant.
When Ned tells Homer not to go to work because he’ll kill everyone in town, Homer protests because he wants ice-cream cake for Lenny’s birthday party – very in character. Ned rushes to the power plant where he finds Homer, eating ice-cream cake, in a dome full of buttons, including the CORE DESTRUCT button. Ned tries to communicate with him via a faulty intercom, which cuts him off at hilariously inappropriate times: “[Don’t] do it, do it, [you’ll] kill everyone”. To save the town, Ned has to make his original vision come true – he has to shoot his best friend. He shoots Homer, who falls beside the button. Ned thinks all is well, until Homer’s tongue falls out and hits the button. The segment ends with Ned uncharacteristically but amusingly shouting “you stupid son of a – “ before meeting the Simpson family in Heaven.
The segment is decidedly less scary and gory than ‘The Shinning’, but it parodies the original novel very well, taking advantage of the natural dynamic between Ned and Homer to create moments of hilarity. The segment received mixed reviews. One critic dismissed the episode entirely, claiming it to be “old hat, and comfortably so” and accusing it of “not only failing to elicit a single laugh, but also [demonstrating] how much the annual tradition had come to rely on spoofing pop-culture horror films, rather than using the conventions of the genre to craft something funny and memorable”. As harsh as that may be, it is kind of true. ‘The Ned Zone’ is enjoyable for what it is. Enjoyable, but forgettable, according to viewers.
Treehouse of Horror XXVIII (2017) | Mmm…Homer (Survivor Type)
‘Mmm…Homer’ is the last segment of ‘Treehouse of Horror XXVIII’, and it is the Halloween episode viewers seem to be more disgusted and horrified by. Based on the lesser-known Stephen King story ‘Survivor Type’ from the short story collection ‘Skeleton Crew’, ‘Mmm…Homer’ follows Homer’s spiral into cannibalism of himself. Of the original tale, King said “as far as short stories are concerned, I like the grisly ones the best. However, the story 'Survivor Type' goes a little bit too far, even for me”. If King’s own story freaked him out, how did viewers react to the ‘Treehouse of Horror’ version? Not well.
The episode opens with Homer overjoyed at having the weekend to himself (Marge and the kids are away on a trip with Patty and Selma) and, predictably, he gorges himself on as much junk food as possible. After eating everything in the house, Homer resorts to eating a lone, frozen hotdog in the back of the freezer. After grilling it on the BBQ for a while, Homer tries to cut into it but it’s still frozen so the knife slides and cuts off Homer’s finger, which lands on the grill. Homer’s reaction to losing his finger is less dramatic than his reaction to realising Santa’s Little Helper has eaten his hotdog – ha! As his severed finger cooks on the grill, an angelic chorus sounds, and Homer starts to drool. His brief worry that eating his own finger is unholy is quickly subsided by his desire to eat – what’s worse than eating your own finger is doing the unthinkable…eating something medium rare!
After eating his own finger, Homer finds that regular food doesn’t satisfy him anymore. In the original King story, the protagonist is a medical professional stranded on an island who strategically eats portions of himself to stay alive.
In ‘Mmm…Homer’, Homer is literally addicted to eating himself. He reasons that he is “delicious” because he “eats more and exercises less than the most succulent pig”. When Marge and the kids return home, Marge is delighted to see that Homer has lost a lot of weight. Later that night, Marge discovers, to her absolute horror, that it is not exercise that has made her husband look better…he has been eating himself. She walks in on Homer nonchalantly frying his own leg – one of my favourite bits in this segment, Homer’s straight face is so bloody funny – and exclaims that it is the “worst moment of [their] entire marriage”. When therapy doesn't help them (Homer sitting on the therapy couch with no legs and acting like nothing is wrong is hysterical), Homer donates the rest of his body to the restaurant industry so everyone can enjoy the taste of Homer. An oddly touching ending to a Halloween segment.
Now, come on, how is that not funny? In a reference to Marge’s classic warnings before the early ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes, Lisa warns viewers before the segment that it’s so disgusting “you’ll watch ‘Game of Thrones’ to calm down”. It’s really not that bad. There’s no blood, not really. And even Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer, thought the “me-gan” diet was “in character”.
The episode was Al Jean’s response to fans saying they wanted the “horror back in ‘Treehouse of Horror’”. He wanted to make something legitimately scary, something disturbing. Cannibalism seems to be one of those grotesque things that makes people squirm, even in cartoon form. People flocked online to complain about the segment, accusing it of “going too far”. You wanted scary? ‘The Simpsons’ delivered.
With 63 novels and over 200 short stories, the show has plenty of Stephen King works to get inspiration from. We have had other nods to King's work throughout the series and in September 1999 Bongo Comics annual comic-book version published the story 'Dark Lisa' written by Jill Thompson, which is directly inspired by King's debut novel 'Carrie'. I, for one, look forward to more ‘Treehouse of Horror' Stephen King adaptations. Happy Halloween folks!
- Victoria Brown