#16: Treehouse of Horror

Season 2: Episode 3. Original airdate: October 25, 1990. 

I feel like it’s now safe for me to refer to The Simpsons as not just a television show, but a cultural institution. It has created its own language of sorts, ingrained its characters into American history, and deeply rooted itself, perhaps too much of late, in its own traditions. Of those traditions, one stands far above all the rest, serving as an institution of its own. I’m talking, of course, about “Treehouse of Horror,” the anthology-style show-within-the-show that has left an immeasurable mark on not just Halloween specials, but holiday episodes as a whole.

Writing a “Treehouse” segment has to be the most rewarding aspect of being a Simpsons writer. It’s a freedom from the limitations and rules of the show, a chance for any insane idea floating in their heads to make it on the air. In recent years, it’s been less easy to distinguish the important role of “Treehouse” in a season, as normal episodes have delved further into flights of fancy. In 1990 though, this first installment in the now-iconic meta series was a huge departure from anything The Simpsons had tried. Mind you, this was also in an age without spoilers and episode details revealed long in advance. Audiences likely had no idea what to expect until the episode began with a lingering shot of an empty stage.

No opening credits, no theme music—just an empty stage, curtains drawn. Marge eventually peeks out to warn viewers that what they are about to see is not an average Simpsons episode, and they should prepare themselves accordingly. She cautions any parents to put their children to bed, and promises that the next half hour will be terrifying. She makes sure to remind the audience that she did warn them, and that the show doesn’t want to receive any letters complaining about the content. It’s a nice wink to the very real strife The Simpsons was facing, and raises curiosity and anticipation for the episode even more.

Like every “Treehouse of Horror,” the inaugural installment uses wraparound scenes as a framing device for the episode, and this one actually involves the titular treehouse. Bart, Lisa and Maggie are telling scary stories in the treehouse, attempting to one-up each other’s tales. Little do they know that Homer is sitting outside, listening in. It’s a fairly insignificant story framing these segments, but it hangs together well and pays off eventually, as I’ll get to later. I’m taking a different approach with this post, as I will with every “Treehouse” episode, discussing each segment individually before bringing it all back together. Here goes:

Bad Dream House

It’s somehow fitting that The Simpsons goes straight for the most common horror trope, the haunted house story, in its very first segment. “Bad Dream House” is largely based on Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror, complete with the cause of haunting being an indian burial ground in the house’s foundation. This segment is a wonderful introduction to “Treehouse” because it firmly establishes that during these episodes, literally anything can happen to the Simpsons. If any fans were unsure whether the episodes were canonical beforehand, it should have been abundantly clear by the opening moments of this short.

When the Simpsons move into their new home, they begin experiencing all sorts of phenomena, from a mysterious, non-Bart force throwing books at Lisa, to an insidious vortex embedded into the kitchen wall. As the family tries to settle in, they are subconsciously manipulated to kill each other, leading to a hilarious scene in which Bart, Lisa, Maggie and Homer are all chasing each other with various knives in a hypnotic stupor. Marge stops the madness and delivers one of the all-time great Simpsons lines: “This family’s had its differences, and we’ve squabbled, but we never had knife fights before and I blame it on this house!”

After discovering the burial ground, Homer is furious and immediately calls the realtor demanding answers. He is debased when the realtor reminds him that he was told about the burial ground “five or six times.” Fed up, Marge confronts the house directly, demanding that it leave them alone. The house’s omniscient voice responds and begins to bargain with the family. They agree to let the house consider its options and step outside, only to have the house destroy itself behind them. A life with the Simpsons certainly isn’t worth the sheer pleasures of haunting them, and the house chose to sacrifice itself rather than deal with the family. Even though this segment is supremely silly, it’s genuinely spooky at times, especially in that knife fight. It’s a testament to the power of “Treehouse” episodes to both be hilarious and scary.

Hungry are the Damned

This…this is “Treehouse of Horror” at its finest. “Hungry are the Damned” is a classic alien abduction tale, with the entire Simpson clan being kidnapped by the Rigelian extraterrestrials Kang and Kodos. It’s become an unspoken rule that Kang and Kodos have to appear in every “Treehouse” episode, and in some cases, the animators have thrown them in at the last minute just to keep up traditions. In their first appearance, the Rigelians are played as consummate intellectuals, truly a superior intelligence to the humans they host. This beautifully contrasts with their massive, drooling octopus appearances.

Kang and Kodos offer the Simpsons meal after meal, which naturally tips Lisa off to foul play. Convinced that the aliens plan to take the family to Rigel and eat them, she raids their bookshelves and finds a book titled “How to Cook Humans.” She rushes back to her family, terrified of their impending deaths, when she is confronted by the Rigelians. What comes next is an incredible, absolutely breaktaking scene of messing with audience expectations.

The aliens correct Lisa, dusting off her book to reveal its title as “How to Cook FOR Humans.” Nonplussed, Lisa dusts off more of the title to reveal “How to Cook ForTY Humans,” but is corrected once again by Kang and Kodos who finally confirm the true title as “How to Cook For Forty Humans.” It’s a brilliantly-executed bit of comedy that never loses its punchline, unlike similar lengthy jokes that have permeated recent animated shows. The aliens are horrified by the humans’ indignant assumptions and return them to earth, letting them know the opportunities they will pass up for their ignorance.

The family gangs up on Lisa after ruining their chances of an extraterrestrial adventure, but thankfully this isn’t the last we’ll see of Kang and Kodos. Even though it’s a simple segment, “Hungry” is deceptively so, in that it constantly toys with expectations to create not only two unforgettable characters, but one of the most memorable “Treehouse” segments ever.

The Raven

Wait, what? The final segment of this episode is, wait for it—a completely-straight reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven.” Homer plays the tortured narrator, while Bart is the raven that antagonizes him. The Simpson women appear in cameos, but this is largely a two-man show. It’s certainly a bold move to take such an unabashedly-literary approach to the capstone segment of the night, and even Matt Groening was worried that the entire episode would come off as pretentious due to this segment.

Even though there’s no reason this should work, I actually enjoyed “The Raven” a lot. Most of that is due to James Earl Jones’ narration, which is the culmination of his increasingly-prominent guest roles in all three segments (he was a mover in the first, a secondary Rigelian in the second, and the central voice of this). I see this segment as a statement that The Simpsons truly isn’t just a joke machine, but an intellectual show, created by intellectuals, that is allowed to be indulgent at times. Of course, the scene devolves into some wacky physical comedy as Homer chases BartBird around his study, but overall it’s a wonderfully-subtle segment after the last two’s notable zaniness.

There’s no other episode in which something like “The Raven” could work, and that’s the beauty of “Treehouse of Horror.” It allows the Simpsons to be anyone the writers want them to be, and be placed in even the most unexpected situations. It’s a diversion that I’m thankful has become an annual tradition, because The Simpsons has been able to try wildly different approaches with each year and each segment. Just like tonight’s juxtaposition of “The Raven” to the other two segments, other years would take similar risks. Not everything always pays off in a “Treehouse” episode—but thankfully, in its first installment, everything did. If this episode wouldn’t have been so stellar, the writing staff may have never made a second one, but thanks to this first outing, I get another 21 of these suckers to pick apart.

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