One of my favorite parts of the Halloween season are the TV specials.
As I’ve written about before, Halloween allows us to pretend to be someone you’re not for a little while. And Halloween allows our culture to engage in some some macabre activity that we don’t usually acknowledge. Death and violence are part of life, but Halloween helps us confront those unpleasant topics in a safe and fun way.
The Halloween TV special is part of that. Every show from The Simpsons to Mad Men has had Halloween episodes. For a short time, we get to watch our favorite characters explore secret sides of themselves, become monsters, run from zombies, and attend some of the craziest parties you’ve seen. It’s fun, it’s a little scary, and it’s an integral part of Halloween.
I’ve listed my favorite Halloween TV specials here. They range from silly to heartwarming to straight gross (looking at you, Community), but they’re all tons of fun, infusing Halloween scares into your favorite weekly shows.
1. Major Dad – “There’s No Place Like Farlow” (1992)
“MacGillis, Holowachuk, and Gunny volunteer to do some paper work on All Hallow’s Eve, but General Craig drives them crazy. Casey is running a fever so she has to stay home for Halloween, and while sleeping she dreams everybody is a monster.”
I’m not sure if anyone else remembers this show, but it was on NBC in the early 90s. I used to love watching Major Dad. I was so small that I don’t remember much of the show other than the Dad being a lovable curmudgeon and his children were adorably well behaved except when the plot demanded otherwise. However, one of my earliest memories is of watching this Halloween episode and being scared shitless.
Seriously. I remember screaming and crying because it scared me BAD. I was crying so hard my mom got really mad and called the local network affiliate to lodge an official complaint. That episode provoked my mother to chew out some poor person who had nothing to do with the show.
For that reason, and that reason alone, this episode is one of my favorite Halloween specials ever.
2. The Simpsons – “Treehouse of Horror V” (1994)
“The Simpsons get hired by Mr. Burns to take care of his country-side mansion for the winter where Homer starts going mad. In the second segment, Homer’s toaster breaks and in trying to fix it, he inadvertently made it into a time-machine in which cause terrible consequences. In the third segment, Bart and Lisa’s teachers start killing and eating the students in the school when they misbehave.”
Treehouse of Horror was a brilliant idea for The Simpsons, taking America’s First Family of Dysfunction and throwing them into classic horror scenarios and stories. It’s hilarious and, a lot of the time, genuinely disturbing. But in a fun way, I promise.
The Simpsons is at its best when its spoofing ultra-serious topics, like terrifying and surreal Stanley Kubrick film The Shining. But in the hands of The Simpsons, “The Shinning” pokes fun at the ominous hotel and its dark history, brilliantly satirizing Jack Nicholson’s performance with Homer’s own drinking problems. In “Time and Punishment,” Homer accidentally travels through time, ruining the past multiple times and then returning to increasingly hilariously “horrific” alternate timelines. And in “Nightmare Cafeteria”, the teachers get their revenge against both budget cuts and the heinous little brats they have to contend with every day.
If it weren’t for the unique humor of The Simpsons, all three vignettes would be terrifying. Thank goodness they’re not, and we can enjoy them for the blend of horror and comedy.
3. Boy Meets World – “And Then There Was Shawn” (1998)
“The gang finds themselves locked in the school, all alone, during detention.”
An integral part of the Friday night ritual that was TGIF on ABC, Boy Meets World was always one of my favorite shows. It was smart, funny, and had pretty developed characters for a TGIF sitcom. “And Then There Was Shawn” was no exception. I could tell that horror fans made this episode.
To write this blog post, I re-watched this episode and fell in love with all of the references to horror movies, particularly teen slashers. The episode screams Wes Craven, with plot points lifted directly from Scream and Shawn’s trademark sarcastic humor echoing Scream’s horror movie satire. Together, the gang play out every teen slasher cliché. There’s a legitimately creepy janitor who turns out to be a red herring. There’s a small clash over who has the best ridiculous scream. Jennifer Love Hewitt shows up, fresh off her turn in I Know What You Did Last Summer.
With this episode, Boy Meets World turned in a great Halloween special that was entertaining and a little bit scary (as far as children go).
4. Buffy The Vampire Slayer – “Halloween” (1997)
“On Halloween, Buffy and her friends patronize an unusual costume shop where customers turn into whatever costume they are wearing.”
Buffy The Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite shows of all time, as much for its supernatural, action-filled plot as its insightful messages. Halloween is a night of infinite possibility, where we can be whoever we want to be. In “Halloween,” the Scooby Gang takes full advantage of the opportunity to escape their current selves and explore other parts of their personalities. Xander, ever trying to prove himself, dresses up as a macho commando. Willow, still uncomfortable in the spotlight, hides behind her ghost costume. Buffy, feeling the pressure of juggling Slayerdom with societal notions of femininity, goes as a ladylike princess.
But they all get more than they bargained for on Halloween. It’s not long before an odd costume shop owner casts a powerful spell to turn everyone into their costumes, transforming Xander into a tough soldier, Willow into a literal ghost, and Buffy into a helpless damsel in distress. Lucky for them, Giles reverses the spell when he reveals another side of himself, dropping his gentleman scholar act for a bit to betray that he is, in fact, capable for beating the crap out of an old enemy.
Xander and Willow learn they’re capable of much more than they assumed, and Buffy learns that likes who she is, even if she’s not a “normal” girl.
5. That ’70s Show – “Too Old to Trick or Treat, Too Young to Die” (2000)
“The gang share a strange Halloween, complete with comic spoofs of several Alfred Hitchcock movies.”
This episode puts the gang into not one, but four different Alfred Hitchcock movies. It sounds like it might be stupid, and while some of the scenarios are little contrived, it’s actually a pretty good on Hitchcockian horror. Eric and the gang poke fun at Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Eric makes fun of Jimmy Stewart’s dramatic acting in Vertigo. Hyde and Fez take the roles of Grace Kelly and Kimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Kitty steps into Tippi Hedren’s shoes for a spoof of The Birds. Ripping off Carey Grant in North by Northwest, Kelso becomes embroiled in a case of mistaken identity with the neighborhood paper boy. Finally, Kelso and Laurie reenact the infamous shower scene from Psycho when Kelso uses Laurie’s shower, provoking her full, vapid rage.
6. Pushing Daisies – “Girth” (2007)
“In this Halloween episode, Emerson and Olive track down a “ghost” who’s been killing the jockeys at the old race arena where Olive used to race as a former jockey herself. With help from Ned and Chuck, they try to solve the big mystery.”
In case you don’t know, Pushing Daisies was a tragically short-lived ABC show about adorable pie maker Ned (played by sexy beast Lee Pace) who has the ability to bring the dead back to life with his touch. He can also kill them again with another touch, which presents numerous complications when he brings back his dead childhood sweetheart. It may not sound like it, but this show was heartbreakingly romantic, witty, and morbid. You should expect nothing else from Bryan Fuller, who has created another of my favorite tragically short-lived morbid shows, Hannibal.
In “Girth,” Fuller puts in all the horror movie nods he can muster, mostly referencing Friday the 13th b replicating the mother-avenges-her-son’s-untimely-death plot. There are tons of other horror elements, like a suspiciously locked basement, ghosts committing murder, and empty graves. In true Pushing Daisies style, these elements are played for both tension and winking at the camera, all without compromising the macabre undercurrent.
7. Community – “Epidemiology” (2010)
“The study group is left to fend for themselves by Dean Pelton during a rabies outbreak due to tainted food at Greendale’s Halloween party.”
First, I want to say that I ASPIRE to throw a Halloween party as amazing as the one Dean Pelton pulls together for the students of Greendale. Also, Ahmed and Troy had THE BEST couples’ costume ever, showing up Aliens’ iconic battling duo, the alien queen and Ripley in her cargo-loader suit. Inspired.
Everyone loves a good and nasty zombie outbreak, and “Epidemiology” delivers. This episode racks up mad points for not only portraying some excellent disgusting zombies, but for having all the main characters turn into zombies. Every time I watch this episode, I notice new little nods to the zombie subgenre. You can tell the writers for this episode really love zombie movies and had a lot of fun creating this episode. Much like Shaun of the Dead, “Epidemiology” pays homage to and pokes fun at cheesy zombie movies.
8. Modern Family – “Halloween” (2010)
“Claire needs the family’s help to run Halloween smoothly at their house. Jay and Manny have fun at Gloria’s expense, and the holiday brings back painful memories for Cameron.”
Modern Family has always been a really cute show about the lovable and quirky members of a family, and this Halloween episode only made them more lovable. Claire is a whip-cracking perfectionist, but that woman knows how to transform her tasteful suburban home into one of the most kickass haunted houses ever. And I can definitely sympathize with Mitchell’s dilemma about wearing a costume to work (which, for the record, I’m going to do anyway and no one can stop me). Gloria pretends to be American to spite Jaw and Manny, which shows just how ridiculous it is to pretend to be something you’re not. And Cameron falling to pieces is always a delight, especially when he’s recounting his traumatizing Halloween story.
Also, “Hot Mother Teresa” is an amazing Halloween costume.
9. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “Who Got Dee Pregnant?” (2010)
“The Gang gets a real ‘scare’ after Dee reveals she’s pregnant, forcing the guys to recall their last hazy Halloween Party to determine if one of them may be the father.”
This isn’t a scary episode, unless you count knocking up Dee or being knocked up by the Gang as terrifying. Which is horrifying in its own right.
Not only is this a hilarious Halloween episode, it’s also one of my favorite episodes of It’s Always Sunny. Watching Carlie, Mac, Dennis, and Frank recount their own versions of Halloween night had me in stitches. Each one of them is living in a literal fantasy world, to great comedic effect. Also, all the best It’s Always Sunny characters show up, like The Waitress, Artemis and the infinitely creepy McBoyle siblings. And I love that, in all of their memories, Dee goes from being a costumed angel to a literal ostrich by the end of the episode.
10. Parks and Recreation – “Meet N Greet” (2011)
“Leslie’s opportunity to stump for votes in the business community is sabotaged by Tom, who wants to promote Entertainment 7Twenty. Meanwhile, Andy and April throw a Halloween party, but don’t give Ben advance notice.”
Meet N Greet is another example of an awesome Halloween party thrown by none other than April and Andy Dwyer, Parks and Recreations resident creepy yet whimsical couple. Complete with solid costume choices, dope decorations, and Ron Swanson in attendance, April and Andy’s party puts this episode of Parks and Recreation firmly among my favorite Halloween specials.
Yet the episode is about much more than their party. In a nod to the meaning of Halloween, major characters struggle with being themselves. Notably, Tom sabotages Leslie’s campaign event to keep up appearances that he’s a successful businessman who isn’t desperate for clients. And Ben finds it difficult to let go of his passive aggressive way of dealing with conflict. Halloween in “Meet N Greet” allows them to put down their masks, which helps them grow and connect to the people around them. It’s a playful, sweet, and kind of absurd episode, and its where Parks and Recreation shines.
American Horror Story: Murder House – “Halloween” Parts 1, 2 (2011)
“Part 1: The spirits of the Murder House become ever stronger, blurring the line between life and death. Meanwhile, the house’s former residents offer some tips on decorating for Halloween to the Harmons.
Part 2: Tate comes face to face with his past; Ben and Vivien are haunted by one of the house’s newest guests.”
American Horror Story: Murder House has been the best season of AHS so far, and these were my favorite episodes. Never one to play it safe or tastefully, I found the first season of AHS to be pretty great, and these episodes were no exception. Unlike a lot of Halloween specials, these two episodes were able to be truly horrific and scary. I also appreciate how much the traditional lore of Halloween goes into these episodes, particularly the belief that the boundaries between worlds collapses on Halloween, and ghosts are allowed to roam free for one night. Free to leave the house for one night, many of the ghosts in the house pursued what had long eluded them—visiting family, venturing to old haunts, and warning others in danger. The ghosts also gain unparalleled strength on Halloween and are able to wreak havoc on the living.