Twenty years ago today, a hot new show called The Simpsons was in its first full season, and decided to do a Halloween special consisting of three short segments based on classic horror or science-fiction stories. Of course, as we all remember, the special got such a dismal reception that the producers of The Simpsons decided never to do anything like that again. And by “never again” I mean “twenty more times.”
One thing about the “Treehouse of Horror” special is that it’s a living reminder of the days when writers didn’t think we’d ever know the titles (unless the titles were displayed onscreen). The actual onscreen title was always “The Simpsons Halloween Special,” but the first one was officially titled “Treehouse of Horror,” and the subsequent specials, being sequels, were all called “Treehouse of Horror II, III,” and so on, even though the first one was the only time the actual treehouse appeared. Once the internet and DVDs had made the official title known to everybody, they had to actually call it “Treehouse of Horror,” but they’d never have used that name if they thought we would ever know it.
As for the actual content of the specials, I sometimes find it interesting to see if the segments will have happy or sad endings. In the first special, even though the segments weren’t taking place in “reality,” the first two segments actually brought everything back to the Simpsons status quo: in the first segment, their new Amityville-style house commits suicide and they have to go back to their old house; in the second one, the aliens deposit them back on Earth and everything is as it was. In the second special, they felt comfortable enough to have fantasy endings to the dream sequences, but each of the three segments has a basically happy ending (Kang and Kodos are defeated thanks to the awesome power of a board with a nail in it; Bart gives Homer his body back, and so on). When David Mirkin came on board as showrunner in season 5, he decided to amp up the blood and guts in the Halloween specials and actually try to make them scary; he also started doing segments with genuinely depressing endings, like the segment with Bart and the gremlin on a bus. Since then, the segments have gone back and forth between happy and unhappy endings, though they’re not usually as dark as they were in seasons 5-8, when they often had genuinely bitter, nasty twists a la The Twilight Zone.
And speaking of which, if it wasn’t for The Twilight Zone, would there even be a Treehouse of Horror? That has to be the most frequent source of story material for those shows — maybe less so in recent years, as there are fewer writers who grew up watching the reruns.
Finally, what’s your favourite Treehouse of Horror segment? I think “Dial ‘Z’ for Zombies” (from season 4) is usually my favourite — though in my opinion it’s the standout in an otherwise weakish special, where you can sort of tell that the other two segments came out poorly and were saved by endless redubbing and re-cutting. A close runner-up is “Time and Punishment” (season 6), which has led me to expect Mr. Peabody to tell Sherman “Quiet, you!” whenever I see a Rocky and Bullwinkle rerun.