Season 3: Episode 7. Original airdate: October 31, 1991.
While I think “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are a writer’s dream come true, I can’t imagine the stress of having to write a segment. Sure, every regular episode has built-in expectations to meet the standards of the show, but the “Treehouse” segment has very few fellow segments to compare to. On top of that, the need to go bigger and better than last year’s model adds another layer of challenge to these episodes. In its second installment, “Treehouse” hadn’t been worn out by those expectations, nor had it run out of horror tropes to parody.
The framing device here is a nice evolution from last year’s straightforward storytelling. Homer, Bart, and Lisa load up on Halloween candy despite Marge’s warnings, and the three of them have sugar-induced nightmares. The runners are cute, and there’s some great animation on display here, particularly when Bart wakes up from his personal nightmare. Enough of that, though—on to the segments!
This one is a really wonderful take on “The Monkey’s Paw,” a story everyone in the English-speaking world has seen adapted many, many times. Its central warning, “be careful what you wish for,” is one that applies pretty well to the situation of the show in 1991. It had reached a level of success nobody could have predicted, and had become ubiquitous in stores and homes across America. When Homer buys himself a wish-granting monkey’s paw, every wish that’s made manages to thwart his expectations. The most significant is a wish for the Simpsons to become rich and famous, and it turns into a commentary on how huge the show had become.
There are bits in this sequence that are very close to their real-life counterparts, like the “Simpsons Sing Calypso” album, an obvious play on the “Simpsons Sing the Blues” album from 1990. Perhaps fulfilling the writers’ own worst fears, the people of Springfield grow tired of the Simpsons, and exhausted by their universal appeal. The family, too, feels alienated by their fame, and so Lisa uses the final wish to get world peace. Her wish inadvertently causes an alien attack (with a cameo from Kang and Kodos), and the people of Earth submit to their new alien overlords.
Meanwhile, Homer feels clever and gives the monkey’s paw to Flanders, who he thinks will ruin his life through the paw’s magic. Instead, Flanders’ golden heart of hearts saves the planet and once again, thwarts Homer’s expectations by building himself a grand castle that looms forever over the Simpson home.
Bart’s dream is a riff from the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” and man is it creepy. The premise, that Bart can control everything around him and construct the world the way he wants it, is firmly rooted in his status as the show’s breakout character. In the minds of many kid viewers, I’m sure Bart ruling the universe would have been mighty appealing, but here it’s played as downright terrifying.
He forces those around him into a sort of worshipful servitude, making life far better at school, with Skinner singing an endless loop of “Hello! Ma Baby” on the intercom. It’s spooky even through the laughs, but Bart takes things too far when he turns Homer into a giant jack-in-the-box. After visiting Marvin Monroe for some psychotherapy, he and Homer-in-the-box bond, ultimately leading to Bart using his powers for good and turning Homer back. I wondered when this happy ending would turn into a nightmare, but then I realized sharing a tender moment with Homer is a nightmare for Bart, turning a sweet moment into my biggest laugh of the night.
Ehhhhhhh…they can’t all be winners. Don’t get me wrong, this segment, featuring Burns and Smithers in a Frankenstein riff, is pretty funny. It’s not the funny that’s the issue though, it’s the fact that everything comes a little too easy here. Especially compared to the prior two segments, this one comes off as more of a by-the-numbers Frankenstein riff, instead of one organically integrated into the show’s universe. Even though last year’s “Raven” homage was pretty inspired, it was due to its strict adherence to the story and form of that poem; here, it’s trying to desperately follow the rules but make its own identity as well. It all falls a little flat.
With that said, it really does have some incredibly funny moments. Burns using Homer’s brain as a Davy Crockett hat is one of those jokes that’s so brilliant it goes beyond words. Even at its most middling, a “Treehouse” episode has those moments of greatness, which makes me thankful for this crazy, wonderful annual tradition