Episode 23: The Nightmare Before Christmas […is still technically a holiday.]
It’s the month of Spooky—or Spoopy, whichever you prefer—so how about a month of themed reviews? Not a question. I’m doing it anyway.
I think being festive is a great thing. It’s a chance to experience a new kind of joy and excitement outside of the monotony of our daily lives that we may be taking for granted anyway. Take the Christmas season for example (and I’m mostly talking about the commercialized version that gets crammed down our throats every year regardless of what religions or philosophies we believe in never mind practice). It’s a chance to be sentimental, to slow down and enjoy the family we normally don’t make the time to see and the snow that we normally curse as an inconvenience when we’re trying to get to work.
Take Halloween as a second example. It’s a chance to embrace the specters that both scare and fascinate us. Ghost stories allow us to piece together our fears in a communal way, and that community gives us the sense of safety that makes this possible. But on the other hand, these supposed horrors draw us together to create the sense of community that we need to get by during the rest of the year.
And we have a connection with this ghosts themselves, don’t we? Even if we don’t remember the origins of the monsters that chose this night to reveal themselves, they still come out and play, like the old friends of childhood days whose consistency is a virtue in and of itself that sets them apart from everyone else we will ever meet. And they are just as frank as longtime friends as well. In them, we can see the dark side of our nature—of our existence—and for once, it doesn’t scare us. In this context, with the rest of the world partaking in this exercise, we aren’t alone, and we’re safely behind the wall that is the cultural context. We can be scared safely, enjoying the thrill that comes from confronting the worst part of us.
But the flip side of this festive nature is that—sometimes—it can make us realize just how much of life we are missing out on. Maybe we should call our extended family more often. Maybe we shouldn’t work overtime to impress a boss that doesn’t care when we could instead take life a bit more slowly. Maybe we should see the beauty of forces that don’t work according to our demands.
Or… Maybe we should dance with monsters and appreciate the taste of pumpkin more often now that we aren’t so bound to the seasons as past generations were to dictate the flavors of our lives. Maybe we should dive into the world of vampires or of Frankenstein’s so-called monster and see what created these ghouls in the first place. Maybe we should embrace the absurdity that is our short lives in the face of the darkness just around the horizon.
But if you zoom out of these thoughts and look at the broader picture, what you realize is that every day when you go about what is or what resembles a set routine you are missing out on everything that doesn’t fit neatly into that box. And—to take it farther—the many limitations innate to human existence make it so that there is no getting around this reality. Our rotating seasons of festivities negate this somewhat. But still, what about the ghouls of summer? What about those things that don’t fit in this model either?
I don’t recommend thinking about that part too hard. That’s actually where it gets pretty scary.
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Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 23.
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Today I want to talk about The Nightmare Before Christmas, the 1993 film directed by Henry Selick with a screenplay by Caroline Thompson, conceived by Tim Burton and released by Touchstone Pictures. Yes, it’s from 1993. But it has a timeless feel, doesn’t it? The animation and design style create a fully-fledged world where our rules about time and fashion don’t seem to apply. The dialogue and music don’t have a distinct 90s feel that would have trap it in that era. And—as a whole—the movie holds up well to time aided by its ability to maintain a fan base whose enthusiasm pushes it to keep airing and to keep the merchandise flowing. Or that’s how I felt when I looked up the production facts for the sake of this episode.
But that might be inconsequential. We don’t care when our favorite movie was made as long as we have it. And the director, screenwriter and producer are only relevant when we are looking for other things to watch that strike that same chord.
The big debate around The Nightmare Before Christmas is whether or not it should be considered a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie. Well, it was released in October, but it’s the tale of a Christmas gone awry not a Halloween gone awry. So each side has a compelling argument. And if you are engaged in this back and forth, you might be wondering what position I take in this ongoing debate.
And—honestly—(Music cuts) I have a hard time thinking about this as a holiday movie at all.
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If you haven’t turned this episode off, it may be because you’re yelling at me for straddling the fence, which I’m not doing. I see the fence. I see all the sides of the fence. And now I am walking away. Let me explain.
If you’re new here, this podcast is largely about my subjective interpretation and experience with the media that I love. And because of the subjective nature of this show, I’m going to have weird, subversive, and potentially illogical opinions on topics that I’m happy to explain if you can make it to the end of the episode. Or transcript if you’re a transcript reader. No shade on you. Just a quick hello. Hope you’re having a good day. Is the website formatting okay? I can fix it if it’s not. Just send me an email and give me some time to get a day off of work to do all the reformatting and all of that.
But to get back to the point, I have a weird relationship with this movie. And that’s why I am walking away from that argument rather than engaging with it in any way. It’s a fitting relationship, I think, when you consider some of the details and the broader themes of the story, but yeah, I get it. I’m weird. And when I make a joke about that at my day job, I’m risking a check-in meeting with HR. Why can’t my office mates properly appreciate my dark humor? Genuine question.
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I think most people found this movie through friends or family or through images of Jack Skellington. Or from seeing it on television. Though I have no data to prove that and make no effort to deny the unscientific nature of my claims. It’s just how I assume most of us found movies before Netflix, and even then, I’m sure Netflix algorithms fall into these same habits.
Also unscientific claim. These methods of movie recommendations are often driven by context. Television stations like to play themed movies or seasonal movies as a long, elaborate marketing plan motivated by the need or urge to generate more revenue. And on the other hand, in order to be recommended a movie, you need your recommender to think of that movie, which could very well depend on content. I might not think of my favorite holiday (setting aside the issue of which holiday for a moment) in July, no matter how good that movie is because I’m thinking about all the movies that defined my summer days in college or the movie my now ex took me too when we first got together and long before we ended on surprisingly good terms.
And as a result, when we finally see that movie, we are primed by the circumstances of that introduction. Maybe—and this is just speculation—your opinion on that movie’s festive nature is directly correlated with when you saw it. Although… correlation does not equal causation and all that that.
Look, maybe that’s true for you. But that’s completely irrelevant to me here. I didn’t find this movie during a holiday season. And consequently, it isn’t attached to anything other than a bittersweet memory.
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Back in high school, I was in the marching band. I was also in concert band, but that activity was far less of a time commitment than marching band was. Consequently, it’s surprisingly easy for me to overlook it. But marching band [which I will largely call ‘band’ because it’s easier] defined my high school years.
Now, Disney just in general was a big part of my band life because our director was absurdly obsessed with it. It wasn’t even that she was one of those hardcore adult fans who make it their family vacation every year, have every Disney movie ever released (on both DVD and VHS when relevant) and have decorated their home appropriately, not just their kids’ rooms but the entire house, including their bedroom. (Pause) Okay. Maybe that’s just what it was, but most people didn’t have this context to express their love for Disney in. And by context, I mean a band program to shove it into. Every one of her concert band ensembles had a Disney piece shoved into our music folders for the performances. But it’s different for marching band because you have a set show around a set theme. Often around a move or a Broadway show or even a Cirque de Soleil show. You can’t force a piece in just to fit your obsession.
So what do you do? You find a show built around the music from a Disney movie and make that your show for the entire season.
Now, you’re probably asking, is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Disney movie, which is what I asked all those years ago. The answer… Yes and No. If you think of “Disney” as a style, then no, it doesn’t fit into that style. If you think of “Disney” as a company or source of entertainment, then yes. Tim Burton wrote the poem that became the movie, and he made a development deal with Walt Disney Studios to make the film, but then Disney panicked at the figurative last second and released the film through its Touchstone Pictures brand because the movie seemed to dark to be a kids’ movie. When it started pulling in the critical acclaim and revenue that Disney thrives off of, Disney backpedaled hard and reissued it under the Disney name.
As for my band, The Nightmare Before Christmas band show predated me by—for the sake of my anonymity—x number of years. But a few members of that small ensemble who had taken that show to victory again and again still remained in our group, and they pushed to watch the movie at every bus ride they could and at band camp in August. To them, that film represented all their accomplishments and their bond as a team, which was an extraordinarily strong one even by the standards of marching bands. It was the embodiment of their communal successes and love for another. It was a symbol of so much goodness in their lives, of the thing they would take with them long after high school years onward to the rest of their lives.
But this isn’t their podcast. It’s mine. And therein lies a bit of a conundrum.
If you made it through those early episodes, I’d like to apology for my terrible editing. But also, you heard me mention circumstances of my Arizona days that I desperately wanted to escape from despite no one person being an aggressor or no one really intending to do me wrong. If you listened to last week’s episode, (editing was a lot better on that one) I mentioned an extracurricular activity that was supposed to be the highlight of my high school years and a life-enriching activity that actually had a pretty bad effect on me moving forward.
I’ve consciously tried to dance around specifics because I know that nobody was at fault for what happened, but that the internet—and people in general—don’t really appreciate nuance. But honestly, and I’ve thought this for a while but wanted to be absolutely sure, I think I need to say it because I’ve spent far too long trying to convince myself that my experiences weren’t true, to my detriment. Even if this is all factual, I’ve tried to ignore all the promises people had no business making and how often they inevitably fell through. But now here’s the truth.
I hated being in marching band, but I won’t go so far as to say I regret it because it likely helped me get into college, a place that profoundly change my life for the better. So yeah, life is complicated.
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If you were in band and liked your band days, good for you. I sincerely mean that. But with almost eight billion people on the planet, you’d be naïve to think that one experience can be good for every single one of them. And that’s all I’m saying. Band isn’t universally bad. It just wasn’t good for me. And maybe only me but still me. It might have been the program and the director. It might have been me. But most likely, it was that we weren’t a good match. But appearances were far too important for any party involved to admit that.
Imagine a fairytale land for a second. That might be cold climate-wise but figuratively, it’s warm. It is the embodiment of sentimental joy and familial comfort. It is a place where people come together to celebrate all that is good in the world. There’s gifts, food, kinship, and so much more. You accidentally fell into it at first, but still, you instinctively know that it is something to admire. You fall deep into its charms and whimsy. Headfirst in love, some may say even if you don’t quite know what you are looking at.
So you let yourself fall deeply into it. And try to make a place for yourself in that world. It’s where you want to be, so if you try hard enough, then it should work out, right? Not exactly. Your best efforts are foiled time and time again. You push harder and fail harder. Maybe determination should have carried the day, but at the end of that day, the fact remains that it’s not your place. It’s just not your home. And in your home, you have many of those things too. They just come in your own style.
And that might be hitting it a bit bluntly. Or with too much force. I’m not going to pretend that isn’t the case. But you see my point, don’t you? And you can see why I genuinely fell for this movie, this story of an envious fish wanting to try a new and beautiful pond only to find that the water composition is completely wrong and slowly killing it and that it is killing the larger ecosystem.
Ultimately, the message of The Nightmare Before Christmas, or the one I pulled from it, is a uniquely timeless one. And it’s one that can be particularly relevant for kids or teenagers, despite the darker imagery. Namely, it doesn’t matter how good a place is for other people, if it’s not your place, then at some point, you may hit a wall you can’t get over, forcing you to return to your own home. To the place where you genuinely thrive.
I’m trying to avoid spoilers but there was always something particularly movie about the climax of this movie. One that gives a seemingly hopeless observation a remarkably positive direction. Because, yes, at some point in the movie, Jack could have fallen into despair. And we, watching the movie and going through our own version of this narrative arch, may be more inclined to fall into despair when we find yet another place that we don’t mesh into. But there’s no need for that. As hard as it is, we just have to keep trying.
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Because the Pumpkin King, as Jack is known, is an important figure in Halloween Town. More than that, he’s a good person, using that latter word loosely, I guess. Halloween Town is a good place to live for beings who like the Spooky, and it’s good at what it does. All under Jack’s direction. And compared to the film’s actual antagonist we can clearly see that Jack lacks any malice. He is the goodness of Halloween incarnate. With enough strength and courage to see when he has made a mistake.
Jack is a hero—in the literary sense and in a more literal sense. And those of us who can’t grasp what other people exalt have a pretty good anchor in him. Not role model per say because it sometimes stops short of that or side steps that entirely. I guess it depends on how multi-faceted you want to take the term “role model,” and I can’t dictate how you use that term. At the same time, I need you to understand what I mean as someone who has experience being on the other side. You see, we don’t always need a map to lead us towards a direction we are already headed in. But we may need some sort of affirmation that this direction—this constant movement towards a place others may shy away from—is okay.
Because mentally, I was already on my way out of the program once I hit the second year mark. I had accepted that I needed to be in it all four years for the sake of my college applications, but that didn’t make this constantly feeling and occasional reminder that I didn’t belong any easier to take. I did the best I could. I attended every rehearsal and did all my drills. I practiced the music. I worked hard. But all the same, it wasn’t my place.
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For one, the program was surprisingly filled with extroverted people who occasionally insisted that I too be extroverted against my better nature. Which inevitably failed and then seemed to be held against me. And then there were the fundamental differences of opinion ninety-nine percent of the students had with the band director that have to remain unspoken for the foreseeable future. On these things, I could choke down my thoughts, but when it got to feel like personal attacks, that got to be a lot more difficult. Then there were the attitudes I didn’t want to put up with. And so much more.
But ultimately, the problem was that while I loved music and had loved my prior experiences in band classes, I wasn’t a musician. And that’s what our director wanted: potential musicians and only potential musicians. Not enthusiasts but people who could reasonably be expected to at least consider this line of work for the rest of their lives.
And that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to do something with writing. I had many dreams but writing was always a component of them. Music, not so much. I thought of it as a gift, a gift I wanted to give whatever children I someday had, but that was it. And I think it was obvious because of my constant scribbling and more indifferent attitude to leadership positions in the program. In regards to the program, all I had wanted was just some place to belong. And when I couldn’t have that, I’d take a placeholder on my resume to get me some place where I did.
Now, I don’t care. Life moved on, and I’m happy where I am, so I can’t really say I regret what got me here. Assuming that any of our life experiences could ever fit together like some sort of Jenga game, which is a very controversial opinion I’m sure, but I don’t mean it to be a universal one. That’s just a good way of describing what’s happened in this specific aspect of my life. If the miseries of high school band put me on a trajectory to get here where I am right now, then okay. I’m content with that.
But back then, this weird disconnect between me and what felt like a universal current hurt greatly. Because I was a teenager who wanted—and with my dad having died relatively recently needed—acceptance and care, only to not get it despite it being promised to me because of aspects of me that I couldn’t change and didn’t want to change. This was my Christmas, right down to the warm and fuzzy sentiments of those around me. But I belonged somewhere else. And that’s okay.
Halloween Town has its benefits.
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