Like baseball, apple pie, and poorly-spelled, racist comments on Yahoo! news stories, The Simpsons’ annual Treehouse of Horror Halloween specials are a cultural institution. Beginning in the second season, there have been 29 ToH episodes. And with each episode containing three installments, there have been 87 individual tales.
Like every other statistic related to the program’s longevity, this is, of course, absurd.
What’s unusual about Treehouse of Horror episodes, though, is that unlike The Simpsons of the past 15 years (and some would argue longer), they still tend to be consistently decent. Oh sure, there are some absolute bombs— I’d pull my eyelashes out one-by-one rather than sit through season 27’s “Homerzilla” again— but for the most part, they are good.
Now, one could make a compelling argument that the scariest moments on The Simpsons haven’t even been during their annual Halloween spectaculars. Season 27’s “Halloween of Horror,” was outstanding— scary and funny and wonderfully crafted. (It is easily the best Simpsons episode of the last decade, and if you abandoned ship long ago, it is worth checking out.)
In Season 18’s “Yokel Chords”—also a decent recent-season effort— Bart tells the tale of “Dark Stanley” a cannibalistic cafeteria worker. Animated in a style recalling Edward Gorey, and scored by Astor Piazzolla’s “Suite Punta del Este,” (from the film 12 Monkeys) Dark Stanley is one of the program’s more stylistically marvelous efforts. And it’s also pretty damn scary.
But this isn’t even really about scary Simpsons’ moments. To be great, a Treehouse of Horror doesn’t need to be “scary” at all. Sometimes they’re that, sure, but sometimes the brilliance lies in plain old weirdness or hyper-surrealism. Other times still, it’s made great by what sets The Simpsons apart in general: peerless writing.
Anyway, here are the Top 10 Simpsons Treehouse of Horror tales…
10: “Bad Dream House” Season 2
Rarely is the first iteration of anything all that great. This is why 50% of all marriages end in divorce and Ford no longer makes the Model A. This isn’t the case with Treehouse of Horror, though, because their first segment ever knocked it out of the park.
“Bad Dream House” is an amalgamation of multiple horror movie tropes. The Simpsons move into a strangely cheap house, only to be confronted with a disembodied (and terrifying!) voice, bleeding walls, and objects that fly around on their own. The spirit begins to possess the Simpsons who, in the segment’s dark climax, all set out to murder each other with various instruments of death. What a hoot! They find out the house was built on a Native American burial ground, and the piece ends in very Simpsons-style: rather than choose to live with the family— who steadfastly refuse to leave of their own volition— the house destroys itself.
9: “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse” Season 20
In “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” Linus writes a letter to the Great Pumpkin, something that I believe he hallucinated while taking LSD. (It was 1966, everyone was on drugs, even schoolchildren.) In “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse,” Bart’s wiener friend tries to get everyone to believe in something called the GRAND Pumpkin, which is just a thing that Bart made up to mess with his pathetic pal. Oh, but then the Grand Pumpkin actually comes to life and exacts revenge on the town for, you know, making pumpkin bread and carving jack o’ lanterns and other things pumpkincidal in nature.
What makes this effort so good are the details that mirror the original. The painted-quality animation of the pumpkin field. The Vince Guaraldi-Esque jazz. The kids in the trick-or-treat costumes.
Oh, and then it gets pretty gruesome when the pumpkin comes to life. That uh, that wasn’t in Charles Schultz’s version.
8: “I Know What You Diddily-Iddily-Did” Season 11
This loosely-plotted parody of I Know What You Did Last Summer features so many memorable moments that the IDEA of excluding it from this list is nearly as criminal as running over and killing your neighbor in a dense fog, then concealing his death in a series of increasingly absurd ways.
“I Know What You Diddily-Iddily-Did” starts with Marge hitting and killing Ned Flanders while he’s on one of this “late-night fog walks,” all because of, what else, Homer’s idiocy. (“Guess I forgot to put the fog lights in,” he sings to the tune of the Sugar Crisp cereal jingle.) In an attempt to cover up the accident, Homer fakes Ned falling off the roof (Homer-as-Ned: “But when I do die, I don’t want any autopsies!”) But Maude misses it. Instead, he settles for a plain old heart attack. But the kicker is, Ned was dead the whole time! Before he was hit by Marge, he’d been bitten by, and subsequently transformed into, a werewolf. While the rest of the family flees, the temptation to zing “Werewolf Flanders” is too much for Homer, and he is mauled to death while cracking wise.
7: “Bart’s Nightmare” Season 3
Treehouse of Horror II is different in that the three segments are nightmares suffered by the family (Lisa, Bart, and Homer, specifically) and are titled as such. “Bart’s Nightmare” is a parody of “It’s a Good Life,” a classic episode of the Twilight Zone. (This would mark the second time they’d done a parody of the seminal sci-fi program; the first was in season two’s “Hungry Are the Damned.” They have since gone back to this particular well many, many times.)
Anyway, Bart has unexplained powers that keep the town living in a state of constant fear. When a wrathful Bart injects Homer into a football game, (“the kick is up— the ball is turning into a fat, bald guy!”) Homer attempts to bash Bart’s head in with a chair. He gets caught, though, and transformed into a jack-in-the-box. A counselor suggests that maybe Bart wouldn’t be such a monster if Homer spent a little quality time with him. He does, they bond, and Bart gives him his body back. All is well in Bonerland. The whole thing is pretty wholesome for a Treehouse of Horror, which is why Bart wakes up screaming. Hey, that explains the title!
6: “Clown Without Pity” Season 4
With allusions to The Twilight Zone’s “Living Doll” and the film Gremlins (and Child’s Play, I suppose, though CP probably wouldn’t have happened without the Twilight Zone episode), “Clown Without Pity” is the terrifying tale of an innocuous toy turning sentient and becoming murderous, as self-aware toys are wont to be.
In one of the entire series’ 50 or so most quotable scenes (“the Frogurt is also cursed”), Homer visits an oddities shop to procure a last-minute gift for Bart’s birthday. He comes home with what every little boy wants— a homicidal talking doll! After the Krusty doll makes multiple attempts on Homer’s life, he contacts the doll maker who sends out a worker to take a look. “Yep, here’s your problem. Someone set this thing to ‘evil’.” With his evil turned off, Krusty becomes Homer’s slave. That’s bad! But he gets to go home to Cheerleader Malibu Stacy. That’s good!
5. “Time and Punishment” Season 6
The Butterfly Effect in Chaos Theory suggests that minuscule changes in a nonlinear state can result in larger, more pronounced differences in a subsequent environment. And if you’re Homer Simpson with your time-traveling toaster, sometimes when the toast pops up, you’re in a dystopian future where Ned Flanders is the supreme ruler.
“Time and Punishment” owes its plot to just such a simple sci-fi concept: Homer’s poor fix of the family’s broken toaster turns it into an existence-changing kitchen appliance that he wields with a predictable level of irresponsibility. In a cruel, perfectly Simpsons twist, Homer eschews the world with wealth and dead sisters-in-law due to a lack of donuts (“Oh, it’s raining again.”) to settle on a world where donuts are “plentiful” but everyone eats with lizard tongues. “Eh, close enough.”
4. “Hell Toupee” Season 10
Plenty of schlocky-horror has sprung from “person in need of (insert body part) receives a (said body part) from a psycho killer, less than desirable results are achieved.” I’d be willing to wager, however, that this Season 10 entry is the only time the body part in question has been a scalp. By being equal parts silly (Snake’s nacho-cheese pomade, Wiggum’s segment-ending bad pun) and unnerving (well, like two Springfield citizens being murdered, for example), “Hell Toupee” earns a high spot in the top 10.
After Snake is arrested for smoking inside the Kwik-E-Mart, he is, naturally, executed. (“Well, you’ll be seeing lots of nuns where you’re going, pal- Hell!”) Homer, the transplant recipient of Snake’s scalp, kills Apu, Kwik-E-Mart’s beloved clerk, and Moe, who’d merely been shopping for a breakfast cereal for people with syphilis. When Homer tries to kill Bart, the third witness to Snake’s transgression, it’s up to bumbling Police Chief Wiggum to save the day. And he does, by shooting the nightmare hair.
3. “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace” Season 7
The original Nightmare on Elm Street film gave us Freddy Krueger, a burnt-bacon-faced, child-killing weirdo who is arguably one of cinema’s greatest monsters. “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace” gave us, thanks to some misprinted calendars purchased by Springfield Elementary, the extra month of Smarch. (It’s lousy weather.)
Both of these things will forever live triumphantly in the hallowed halls of the American entertainment industry.
“…Evergreen Terrace,” for the uninitiated, closely mimics the plot of Wes Craven’s 1984 horror masterpiece. After Groundskeeper Willie ignominiously burns to death during a PTA meeting while Springfield Elementary parents fail to act, he returns to murder their children in their sleep. The most horrifyingly funny scene— of this segment, and perhaps any other Treehouse of Horror— is Principal Skinner’s accidental uncovering of Martin Prince’s gnarled, rigor mortised corpse. It’s pretty ballsy to solicit laughs at the expense of a dead kid, and while this isn’t the only time ToH has done it, it is probably the most memorable.
2. “Terror at 5 1/2 Feet” Season 5
There’s probably a fancy French word for the recurring horror device where no one believes the victim in spite of an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports the victim’s claims, but I don’t know what it is. It is, however, at the root of many a scary story, and this segment taps that fear by means of a decapitating gremlin.
Based on—what else— a classic Twilight Zone episode (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), “Terror…” replaces a handsome young Bill Shatner with Bart, an airplane with an Otto-driven school-bus, and a spooky man in a monster costume with an evil gremlin.
One morning on the way to school, Bart notices a monster slowly destroying the outside of the bus. After unsuccessfully alerting his fellow passengers, he’s able to fend off the creature with road flares. Ned Flanders picks it up because he’s Ned Flanders.(“Aw, isn’t that cute, he’s trying to claw my eyes out!”) Despite everyone seeing the damage the gremlin caused, Bart is sent to an insane asylum. The segment ends nightmarishly with the monster taunting Bart by holding Ned’s severed head up to the rear window of the ambulance. It’s so unsettling, you may even have a hard time finishing your Joy Joys Mit Iodine. Uter would be ashamed.
1) “The Shinning” Season 6
You don’t need telepathy— aka “the shinning”— to have guessed that this would be at the number one spot, right? I mean, it’s a take-off of an outstanding horror movie which is based on one of the greatest horror novels ever, you know? It’s like a club sandwich of spookiness or some other food-related scary thing. (Sorry, I’ve been writing this forever and it’s dinner time.)
If you’ve seen or read the source material, you know how the story goes. Hotel owner hires an alcoholic caretaker to move his family to a cold, remote mountain to oversee hotel affairs in the offseason. But the thing is, there’s no booze. Oh, and lots of ghosts.
What makes “The Shinning” so absolutely perfect is the sterling writing. From end-to-end, there isn’t a single wasted, unmemorable or unquotable line. The failed initial attempts to get there. Mr. Burns bizarrely thinking the Simpsons are sea monkeys. The sordid history of the hotel (including five John Denver Christmas specials!).
And seriously, this is all within the first 90 seconds.
“The Shinning,” from snout-to-tail, is seven minutes of purely perfect television. In fact, it’s one of the greatest acts in the entire history of the Simpsons, Treehouse of Horror or not.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got 29 episodes to watch in preparation for October 20th’s Treehouse of Horror XXX. (It’s gotta be good, right?— it’s going to be the show’s 666th episode.)