'The Simpsons' Treehouse Of Horror History And Scariest Episodes
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Hello, everyone. You know, Halloween is a strange holiday. I don't understand it. Kids worshiping ghosts, pretending to be devils. Things on TV that are inappropriate for children. Things like the next half-hour. Nothing bothers my kids. But tonight's show, which I wash my hands of, is really scary. If you have sensitive kids, maybe you should tuck them into bed instead of writing us angry letters. Thanks for your attention.
And with that warning from Marge (based on real-life cautions before 1931 screenings of Frankenstein), The Simpsons began a Halloween tradition that has hacked, gored, and chain-sawed its way into our hearts for more than 30 seasons. And as with many amazing Simpsons bits, the Treehouse of Horror was Matt Groening’s idea.
“(Groening) had an idea for an episode where the kids tell ghost stories in a treehouse,” says writer Jay Kogen. “It gave us a chance to be even weirder and break out of the sitcom form we were in most of the time. It was meant as a one-off, but it was so much fun we did it again the next year and it became a tradition.”
The chance to get freakyweird is why writers love Treehouse of Horror. “You were allowed to go way outside the bounds of what we normally were allowed to do,” says Simpsons scribe Bill Oakley, “both in terms of gore and scares but also in terms of being faithful to the characters and relationship status quo in Springfield.”
There’s one other benefit, adds writer Mike Reiss in Springfield Confidential. “How often do frustrated writers get to kill off their characters?”
So draw the curtains and grab a flashlight. We’re taking a deep dive into the scares and slaughter, breaking down the most disturbing sequences in the long history of Horror. (Apologies in advance for focusing on episodes from the first dozen seasons, but if you know The Simpsons, you know.) If you choose to read on, you can’t say that Marge didn’t warn you.
Nightmare Cafeteria (Treehouse of Horror V)
Nightmare Cafeteria holds the distinction of being not only a darkly disturbing Treehouse of Horror entry but also a defiant, animated middle finger to Congress.
Early days of The Simpsons always courted controversy, and concerned parents decided that the cartoon carnage of Itchy and Scratchy had gone too far. They demanded that Fox remove the offensive bits from the show, even convincing a few members of Congress to join in the fight.
The Simpsons were itching to fight back. With an opening caution from Marge that Congress had deemed the episode too scary for broadcast, viewers settled in for an exceptionally bloodsoaked treat. An ultra-violent parody of The Shining and a gruesome time-travel tale lead things off, building to the revolting climax of Nightmare Cafeteria.
Budget cuts at Springfield Elementary have Lunchlady Doris reduced to using Grade F meat (mostly circus animals, some filler). Jimbo Jones trips her, spilling gruel all over his shirt, giving Principal Skinner an appetizing idea.
One by one, the school’s students are turned into burgers and bratwurst, fattening up the faculty as they eat Jimbo, Üter, and Wendell. Soon, Milhouse, Bart, and Lisa are the only students left, terrified because it’s clear that their friends are being turned into Lunchables. Inevitably, they too are shoved into a giant industrial blender to be turned into ground kid meat.
Or are they? Lucky for Bart, it all turns out to be a nightmare. He awakens to his loving family with nothing to be afraid of. Except perhaps that fog that turns people inside out.
“Uh oh, it’s seeping in! Stupid cheap weather-stripping!”
Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace (Treehouse of Horror VI)
If Treehouse installments were actual calendar years, Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace might be 2020, the single most frightening entry in the decades-long Treehouse series. It gets off to a blazing start when Homer turns up the thermostat at Springfield Elementary, firing up a furnace that burns Groundskeeper Willie alive.
When the parents refuse to let flaming Willie speak, his flesh continues to burn until all that’s left is a smoldering Scottish skeleton. “You’ll pay for this -- with your children’s blood!” Yeah, they're already kinda piling on at that point.
So Willie is off to get the kids of Springfield Nightmare on Elm Street-style -- in their dreams. Lisa and Bart concoct a scheme to defeat the Scotsman in the world of nightmares, but Willie returns from a quicksand dream-death as a giant set of ravenous bagpipes (which is exactly how Sean Connery will re-animate). Can Maggie’s quick thinking save her siblings? And does Willie have a gun waiting back in waking life?
While Nightmare is the episode’s scariest entry, many remember this Treehouse for its final story, Homer3. The story stars a pre-Pixar, 3D version of Homer that looks dated now, but for its time, this was a jaw-dropping animation breakthrough.
“It was the most ambitious episode I’ve worked on,” says former Simpsons producer David X. Cohen, “requiring the most people to suffer the most to get it on the air.” And isn’t suffering what Treehouse of Horror is really about?
I Know What You Diddily-Iddly-Did (Treehouse of Horror X)
Driving down a lonesome road on a full-moon night, Marge accididdly-dentally rams the family car into defenseless Ned Flanders.
Parading Ned’s corpse around like a giant Jeff Dunham puppet, Homer convinces Maude that her husband is just fine, helping with chores like cleaning out the chimney (despite a vulture pecking out Ned’s eyes). “Relax, I’m fine! But when I do die, I don’t want any autopsies!”
One faked heart attack later and the Simpsons believe they’re home free. But soon, someone is scrawling bloody messages on their front door.
It’s Flanders, of course. And Marge didn’t really kill him because a werewolf bit Ned just moments before the car crash. In a rare win for lycanthopy-afflicted-Christians, Werewolf Ned cheerfully mauls Homer to death.
Dial Z for Zombies (Treehouse of Horror III)
It could happen to anybody. Bart checks out a book on black magic from the Springfield Library, then travels to the pet cemetery to try his hand at resurrecting the family’s dead cat, Snowball I. He nails the incantation but his aim is off, hitting the nearby human cemetery instead. Oops!
The Simpsons barricade themselves in the house, but Homer forgets to lock the back door. A horde of zombies attacks with a vaudeville joke when they discover Homer doesn’t have enough brains to make him worth eating.
There’s plenty of dark imagery and violence along the way, as Bart laments “I thought dabbling in the black arts would be good for a chuckle. How wrong I was.” Bart shouldn’t be too hard on himself -- who doesn’t love the sound of a zombie sinking its teeth into Ned Flanders’ wound-tight-as-a-golf ball skull? Bonus points for undead versions of Principal Skinner, Sideshow Mel, and Krusty.
After Lisa discovers a reverse spell at the library, there’s a happy ending. “The zombies that plagued our town,” announces Mayor Quimby, “are now just corpses rotting in our streets.”
Starship Poopers (Treehouse of Horror IX)
This one’s scary enough, but it’s represented here for being profoundly disturbing as well.
Starship Poopers was another Kang and Kodos tale, two characters who were created specifically for the Treehouse of Horror episodes. (The aliens have appeared in every installment so far.)
Kang takes a lead turn in this installment, recalling the time he abducted and impregnated Marge. (Wut? Seriously, it’s tough-to-watch.) That makes him Maggie’s real father … er, parent? Drooling tentacle-giver?
“And now, she must return home to Rigel 7, where she will be guaranteed a civil service job for life.”
Of course, Homer isn’t going to give up paternity rights just like that. They all appear on the Jerry Springer Show to settle the issue once and for all, but Kang vaporizes the studio audience with “his fancy ray gun.” Joker totally should have ended that way.
If Homer and Marge don’t agree to hand over Maggie, Kang and Kodos threaten to destroy “all your leaders in Washington.”
“Oh, you couldn’t destroy every politician,” insists a coy Marge.
The aliens laugh maniacally as they board their flying saucer. “Just watch us!”
So Maggie stays with the family. But not before baring a fang and announcing that she’ll be driving home.
Terror at 5 ½ Feet (Treehouse of Horror IV)
Based on Reddit threads with titles like “This episode scared me so much,” it’s clear that Terror at 5 ½ Feet left an indelible mark on plenty of horrified young viewers.
The story is a parody of Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, starring a young William Shatner in his sweaty, scene-chewing prime.
Instead of a plane, Bart rides the school bus. Like his black-and-white counterpart, he sees a gremlin hanging outside of the vehicle, slowly dismantling the wheels. Panicky Bart tries to warn everyone on the bus, but you’ve seen these stories before -- no one believes him. Finally, he climbs halfway out the bus window and blasts the gremlin with an emergency flare.
The gremlin catches fire and drops off the bus, where he’s adopted by good Samaritan Ned Flanders.
Once the bus has stopped, it’s pretty clear that something was ripping up the outside of the bus, but Bart is sent to an asylum anyway. (The shots of straight-jacketed Bart inside the loony wagon are nearly as terrifying as the business with the gremlin.) At least Bart is safe from the monster -- or is he? Soon, the cackling gremlin has attached himself to the back of the ambulance, holding Ned’s disembodied head as a trophy.
“So disturbing,” wrote Reddit user u/mmaatttthheeww. “I had nightmares for a long while.”
We all have, dude, and they're not stopping anytime soon.