By Guest Contributer, Chris Hall
The Treehouse of Horror is an episode made each year by The Simpsons, celebrating Halloween and exploring more outlandish and darker topics than the series generally allowed. Considered non-canon to the larger series, Treehouse of Horror (ThoH) episodes bent the rules for what could be shown in the then mostly grounded show: Supernatural elements, gore, death, and world-changing events to name a few. The very first Treehouse of Horror debuted as the third episode in the show’s second season (and 16th episode overall) on October 25th, 1990.
The episode opens with Marge Simpson stepping out from behind a red curtain on a stage, to address the television viewers directly, warning them that tonight’s episode was frightening and could disturb younger or more sensitive viewers. She urged parents to put their children to bed, and not let them watch – A warning that no doubt went largely ignored (I know my parents did).
Afterwards, the show begins with a fun, spooky twist on the typical Simpsons intro. The music is made to sound creepier and the visuals sweep across a cemetery, the tombstones having amusing things written on them (“Your name here”. “Disco”, “Elvis”, etc.) before zooming in towards the eponymous Simpson treehouse. It’s worth noting that, despite the series being named after it, it makes its only appearance as a framing device in this episode.
Within, Lisa, Bart and Maggie are engaged in telling each other scary stories. Passing by, Homer decides to eavesdrop on his kids story-telling session. Bart kicks things off with his tale, and the first ever segment.
Bad Dream House
In this story, our favourite four fingered family moves into a new home that they got at an amazing bargain. Unfortunately as it turns out, this house is cursed. It takes a while for the Simpsons to notice, though: Marge is ignorant of the bleeding walls in the kitchen, and Homer assumes Bart being strangled by a floating cord is a trick. And whilst they notice a swirling vortex that leads to another dimension, they don’t pay it any mind.
The imagery is rather creepy, particularly the excessively bloody kitchen. But the segment gets truly unsettling once the spirit of the house starts whispering to the Simpson family members ,compelling them to take up arms and kill each other, the walls and windows of the house pulsating as it does. The music becomes rather creepy as the family laugh manically against blood red backgrounds, knives and axes drawn at the ready to start the slaughter, the house chanting for death… But, since at its core, The Simpsons is a comedy, before any bloodshed can begin or things get too disturbing, the tension is immediately defused with the reveal that Marge was actually using her knife to prepare herself a sandwich. She walks in on her family about to begin their knife fight and quickly brings them back to their senses.
The family now comes to the realisation that their house is haunted/cursed when Lisa discovers an ancient Indian burial ground in their basement. This prompts Homer to call their realtor to accuse him of hiding this very concerning fact from him when he sold him the house. However, the realtor says he mentioned it “five or six times”. Classic Homer.
The house begins to speak again, the walls twisting as it does. It threatens the Simpsons, graphically: “Your stomachs will swell. Your intestines will write and boil. Your eyes will burst and some horrible stuff! Possibly your brains will start coming out through your nose.” But Marge, angrier than she has ever been, has had enough. She shouts at the house to shut up, and puts it in its place for pushing her and her family around. The house, thrown by its cowing, begins to be annoyed by the Simpsons now they are unafraid and unsuseptable to it – Bart begs it to do ‘the blood walls’, Lisa questions if the house is projecting in order not to get close to anyone, and Marge is strict on the house’s tone. Now faced with the prospect of living with the Simpsons forever more, the house ultimately chooses to destroy itself instead. Lisa feels “a little rejected” at the fact the evil spirit of the house would rather die than live with them.
As the first ever Treehouse segment, this gives a fairly good impression of what these Halloween specials can be like. It was unnerving and creepy, and had moments of violence. The lack of any real gore or death could drag it down slightly for some, but if you had no idea what Treehouse episodes could be, and had only seen the tame early season episodes up until this point, it would be a pretty thrilling experience! Overall, I’d rate this segment a solid B thanks to the sinister nature of the house, the almost knife fight and the tune that plays whenever things start getting really spooky.
SEGMENT RATING: B
Back at the framing device, Lisa is unimpressed by Bart’s story, and his attempts at further scaring her with a fake severed finger backfire when Maggie gets her gross baby spit all over the gag. Bart isn’t deterred though, and decides to begin his second “scarifying” tale…
Hungry are the Damned
While having an outdoor barbecue (Complete with Homer creating an enormous fireball with the amount of gasoline he used on the grill), a flying saucer descends upon the frightened family. One by one they are pulled up towards the ship by tractor beams – Homer, of course, needing two beams, and throwing the saucer off-balance as it struggled to lift his weight.
Huddled together aboard the strange spaceship, the Simpsons come face to face with the Rigellians, Kang and Kodos, in their first appearance. A Rigellian named Serak the Preparer is also present, his real name apparently only able to be pronounced after pulling out one’s tongue. Astoundingly, the native dialect Rigellian and English are exactly alike. Convenient, huh? Even curiouser, these hideous, drooling, tentacled aliens seem to be treating their human captives very well. They show the Simpsons around their ship, regaling their incredibly advanced alien technology, such as their electronic version of table tennis (which is just Pong). But the thing the aliens seem most interested in doing for the Simpsons is serving them food.
Between the oddly constant meals, being weighed on a large set of scales, and the aliens commenting things such as “Grow large with food” and “Your wife is quite a dish”, as well their sinister sounding laughter upon claiming that the Simpsons will be the “guests of honour” at the great feast on Rigel 4, Lisa starts to become suspicious of their abductors true motives. She sneaks off while the rest of her family is eating and overhears Serak in the kitchen, reading from a book and preparing something that will “give the humans the perfect flavor”. When Serak is out of the room, Lisa quickly grabs the cookbook and sees that it is called How to Cook Humans. Alarmed, she hurries back to her family to reveal her discovery.
But when they confront Kang about the aliens fattening them up to eat them, the segment’s most memorable gag occurs: there is a back and forth of Kang and Lisa blowing dust of the cover of the book, gradually revealing the title as How to Cook For Humans, How to Cook Forty Humans, and finally How to Cook For Forty Humans. The Rigellians are mortified at the insinuation that they could do something as unthinkable as eat the Simpsons. Serak the Preparer in particular is left in tears at the accusations. Their journey soured by the mistrust and accusations, the Rigellians decide to return the Simpsons to their home, but not before laying on plenty of condescension about how the humans could have had it all had they been a bit more trusting. Truly, Lisa laments, the real monsters on that spaceship were the Simpsons all along.
The Simpsons meeting aliens? And being abducted? UNTHINKABLE! This would DEFINITELY never happen in the main canon episodes of the series, right?
…Right? Ok, so yeah, decades later there would be an actual canon episode of the Simpsons called ‘The Man who came to be Dinner’, in which Kang and Kodos abduct the Simpsons and take them to their home planet. Only this time, they actually DO intend to eat them. This whacky nonsense is sadly a sign of how the show has generally lost its way as the seasons went on, with thoughtful, grounded stories giving way to something with less content than an Itchy and Scratchy short.
This was a fairly good segment, though. The subversion of the viewers expectations with the Rigellians being revealed to be friendly and not actually planning on eating the humans comes as very unexpected on first viewing, but it also raises questions on subsequent watches. Why were they weighing the Simpsons and praising their weight gain? Why were they saying things such as “Grow large with food”? Even though English and Rigellian are similar, some of the phrases and cultural customs don’t translate well, I suppose.
I want to give special mention to the lighting in this segment. Whilst the previous segment also had a lot of great use of dramatic colouring, this one really went all out: Surreal shading helps sell the uneasy atmosphere in the short. The unpleasant designs of Rigellians, and some well angled scenes (like the Simpsons heads looking like they were being served in one) are nicely ominous, and set up the viewer to fall more in line with Lisa’s way of thinking. I do really enjoy this segment, and would rate it a B-. If they explained some of the Rigellian cultural weighing and that, it’d be higher, but it’s a minor nitpick.
SEGMENT RATING: B–
Back at the treehouse, Bart is again trying to scare his sister by pretending to be strangled by someone outside, but Lisa doesn’t seem very interested. Instead, she is reading a book in preparation for her own tale of terror: an interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.
In probably one of the weirdest and most unique Treehouse segments of all time, we get a dramatic reading of The Raven, read by the legendary James Earl Jones. This, coincedentally, marks his third appearance in the episode, having voiced a mover in the first segment and Serak the Preparer in the second.
The narration comes along the backdrop of Homer, alone in a Regency-era study, as he is slowly tormented by an invading raven that looks like Bart. As the poem progresses, things get more and more out of hand until Homer is on a full-blown rampage trying to destroy the bird.
The script for this segment stays amazingly faithful to the actual poem, save for the occasional commentary from the real Bart. Seeing Homer supposedly cite dramatic prose is… Interesting for the oaf, yet it somehow works remarkably well. There’s plenty of neat gags, too, like the raven dropping books on Homer’s head, and Marge/Lenore’s absurdly tall portrait… That still needed a second one just for the rest of her hair. Bart’s interjections aren’t annoying, either, and help keep the story from being too dull: “Quoth the Raven: Eat my shorts!”
This segment has actually become one of my favorite Treehouse segments of all time, thanks to how different it is and how faithful it remains to the actual prose of The Raven, perfectly married to The Simpsons wit. Admittedly, I do get a bit extra sentimental about it as I remember a time I watched it with two friends who didn’t speak English as a first language. It was a fun and funny experience trying to modernize and translate it for them, noting how difficult the olde English made it at times. They were frustrated the poem wasn’t actually scary – Which perfectly echoes Bart and Lisa’s disappointment after the story is done. I’d rate this segment a definite A.
SEGMENT RATING: A
Their storytelling session done, the Simpson children decide to head back to the house, claiming that they’ll probably sleep alright because their stories weren’t that scary. Homer, however, feels much differently – He’s shaking and, back in his bedroom, begs Marge not to turn off the lights. He ends the episode with a sad “Oh, I hate Halloween!”
The very first Treehouse of Horror is a pretty great watch, and was no doubt a welcome surprise for fans back in the day. I’d consider it to be one of the best Simpsons episodes, period, and overall would give it a B+. But this was just the first of what would become a long line of specials: Will others push the boundaries even more? I’ll return soon, with my review of Treehouse of Horror II.
EPISODE OVERALL RATING: B+Become a Patron!