by Jinxed Jonathan Persinger
The very first Treehouse of Horror (or “The Simpsons Halloween Special”, as it’s titled in the opening credits) begins a tradition that we’ll eventually see abandoned: the episode opens with Marge speaking to the audience, warning us that what we’re about to watch may be too scary for some audiences. It’s not much of a bit and lasts less than a minute, but for historical purposes it’s a noteworthy first.
The wraparound story is where Treehouse of Horror found its name. Bart and Lisa try to top one another with scary stories while spending Halloween night in their treehouse; Homer listens in and finds himself more scared than the kids. Nothing groundbreaking, but I’ve always liked these wraparounds for the chance to see the Simpsons in a normal Halloween setting.
Bad Dream House:
In this send-up of haunted house movies (particularly Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror), the Simpsons purchase and move into an over-sized old house at a low cost. The house turns out to be haunted, of course, complete with bleeding walls and an Indian burial ground in the basement. The house commands our beloved family to turn on each other…and frighteningly enough, they do, climaxing in most of the Simpsons attempting to murder each other with butcher knives. But in the end, the Simpsons are too awful for an even a vengeful ghost or whatever, and the house decides to implode on itself rather than live with them.
This segment doesn’t have a ton of memorable gags, and honestly, it’s one I had totally forgotten about. But it does establish a lot of precedents for these episodes. We get to see reality/canon totally broken, leading to sights like Homer and Bart being flung around by a poltergeist. And while it may lack laughs, it definitely delivers on the horror. The sight of Bart, Lisa, and Homer maniacally laughing while preparing to murder the rest of the family is pretty unnerving even now–I could see myself being pretty freaked out as a kid.
Memorable Gag: After the house implodes, Lisa sums up both this segment’s conclusion and the show’s early-seasons thesis statement: “It chose to destroy itself rather than live with us. You can’t help but feel a little rejected.”
Hungry are the Damned:
The Simpsons are enjoying a peaceful family cookout (wow, you can tell this isn’t in canon!) when they are abducted by space aliens Kang and Kodos from the planet Rigel IV. The aliens offer our favorite family food, cable television, and Pong, but the Simpsons can’t help but think they’re going to be eaten. In a twist ending, their suspicions turn out to be totally off-base and the family is returned to Earth, their rudeness costing them a chance at a paradise where they would “have been treated like Gods” and “live forever in beauty”.
Funnier than the first segment but quite a bit less spooky, Hungry are the Damned introduces series mainstays Kang and Kodos (as well, oddly, as a third Rigel IV alien who I do not believe has ever re-appeared). They’re memorable characters right off the bat, perhaps because they are so, ahem, alien to the world and characters of Springfield that we’re used to. It’s fitting that this segment is way more memorable than Bad Dream House–it’s one of many that I, and surely many other fans, know almost line-for-line. And interestingly enough, it continues a theme in this episode: not only are the Simpsons so awful that a possessed house couldn’t live with them, but they also reduce aliens to tears with their bad manners.
Memorable Gag: The alien ship requires two tractor beams to lift the weight of Homer, who keeps chomping on a hamburger as he ascends with mild interest.
This is one of the MOST recognizable segments from any Treehouse of Horror, and deservedly so. Looking back, it’s a pretty bizarre segment. They’re not parodying Poe here, but preserving the original text (with a few asides from Bart and Lisa). That’s some dense, heavy, wordy stuff, and yet it totally works. I’m not even sure WHY it works, other than Dan Castellaneta’s fantastic performance as Homer, but it’s infinitely watchable.
And that’s a real feat! The Simpsons has never even pretended to be an educational show, but somehow they took a poem by Poe and managed to captivate kids. There are multiple generations who probably think of this segment before anything else when they hear about “The Raven”–sorry, John Cusack!
Memorable Gag: Before beginning the story, Lisa throws out a nod to its educational/literary vibe, as if speaking right to the children in the audience: “Don’t worry, Bart. You won’t learn anything.”
This isn’t the funniest, most memorable, or overall best Treehouse of Horror, but it was a VERY solid start. With two of the three segments being such iconic classics, it’s not hard to see why they brought this concept back for Season 3, or why it became a yearly installment with 27 entries and counting.