The Nightmare Before Christmas: Where Halloween Meets Christmas

“Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams; For the story that you are about to be told took place in the holiday worlds of old.

Now you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun.”

The question “Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween or Christmas film?” is probably old hat by now, but as that time of year draws near, I can’t help but continue to wonder when the most appropriate time is to indulge in this annual right of passage.  Even if we asked Burton himself, I doubt we’d come to any kind of unanimous understanding.  It is, I believe, entirely subjective.  If you’ve never seen the film before (shame on you), this piece of narrative will be as useful to you as a pumpkin on Christmas day. It is the quintessential example of “love it or hate it”.  In fact, I will go as far as to forbid you to watch this timeless tale and feel nothing. 

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Twenty one years on and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas has lost none of it inherent charm.   One of the few popularised stop-motion pictures of our time, the animation automatically gains “classic” film status.  This aspect of the film, while truly captivating, is purely superficial.  What makes the movie a masterpiece is undoubtedly the singular story at the heart of it.  It is here where you’d imagine we might be able to ascertain the true categorisation of the film:

Enter Jack Skellington, the protagonist and King of Halloween Town.  Adored by his loyal subjects, he struggles to understand why he is unfulfilled.  It seems there’s a hollowness that transcends even beyond his physical pumpkin form. This might best be illustrated by his annual attempt to reinvent himself, which provides the memorable opening to the film.  Unhappy with his latest transformation, we follow Jack to the outskirts of Halloween Town.  As he casually laments in the company of his sidekick Zero (some kind of Ghost dog with a coincidentally bright red nose), he inadvertently stumbles into another seasonal dimension: Christmas Town.  Inspired by curiosity and his own personal crisis, he endeavors to make Christmas his own and bring it to Halloween Town.  With every best intention, the diabolical plan is doomed from the start.  The sleigh is a coffin led by a crew of skeleton reindeer; the presents are wrapped in what only can be assumed to be Beetlejuice’s wallpaper; and the stockings are filled with surprises designed to either scare or ensnare the children of Christmas Town. 

While the story largely takes place in Halloween Town, a grim setting consumed by distinct images of darkness and horror, and the majority of characters in our acquaintance are ghosts and ghouls, the underlying message is warm and fuzzy as opposed to being in any way chilling or bleak, thus laying the foundation of an interesting paradox.

In the end, both Christmas and Halloween triumph.  Santa Claus makes amends for Jack’s disastrous efforts and secures a Merry Christmas for his people, while the message of Halloween prevails as Jack finally comes to terms with his true calling as Pumpkin King.  The final scene depicts this perfectly as we watch the snow fall for the first time on Halloween town and a medley of  “This is Halloween” and “What’s This?”, the two most polarising songs of the film, plays.  It is perhaps in this ambiguity that the real splendour lies.  The film has the ability to cross boundaries and appeal to everyone – or at least almost everyone.  Halloween holiday makers and christmas fans alike can indulge in their seasonal preferences and equally fantasize about concepts of Christmas everyday and a perpetual Halloween.

After having just watched it, I feel suitably excited for both occasions and it seems this wasn’t too far off Burton’s intention.  The 1982 poem on which the film was based was reportedly inspired by the director having witnessed a store replace their Halloween display with a Christmas one, signifying that once Halloween is complete, we’re already in pursuit of the next “thrill”.  His Nightmare Before Christmas grants us rare permission to appreciate and anticipate both events simultaneously and with equal excitement.  Burton becomes both our Bogeyman and Santa Claus all wrapped in one.

So, if you’re feeling particularly Halloweenie, I suggest you turn out the lights and treat yourself to the horrors of Halloween Town and it’s inhabitants.  The eerie scenery and macabre characters truly put the “eek” in freak.   Alternatively, if you’re on the home straight to Christmas, curl up by the fire and indulge in the festive undertones of this delightful feature.  The scene in Christmas Town alone will warm the cockles of even the hardest of hearts (just wait until you hear that snow crunch). Or if like Jack, you need an excuse to occasionally escape to another land, do what I do and watch it all year round.

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The Imagination Question

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In dedication to Joseph Brolly.

My nephew’s imagination astounds me. I’ve seen him turn cushions into cows, the shower into a barn and his baby brother into a bag of turf (it’s pretty obvious what this kid wants to be when he grows up). We play regularly but I have recently found myself stumped, almost embarrassed, by his level of creativity as a three year old.  Every game we play or scenario we fabricate is all down to my nephew and his imagination.  He sometimes asks, “Becky what can we play?” and to this question, I rarely have an original answer. If it’s not a preconceived game – jigsaws, tig, hide and seek – i’ve got nothing.  It seems his aspirations are already greater than mine.  He sees every day tools as tools to play out his imagination.  What we might use as a hairbrush or a spoon, he can conjure up something much more magical.  He sees the extraordinary in the ordinary.

This got me thinking: where did my imagination go? Surely, I had one once.  I can recall as a youngster running a chip shop with only lego and newspaper and saying Mass using my granny’s tea set and smarties.  It seems we are all born with the ability to be imaginative but at some point this capacity begins to slip away from us.  Do imaginations come with expiration dates; are they meant to last a certain amount of time and then fade away into obscurity as we grow older? Or is it a case of “use it or lose it”? 

“Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination.  But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.” – Walt Disney

It would appear that, just like any other skill, we must learn to foster our imaginations.  They can not be tossed to one side, unused, and picked up at a later date.  The problem with this is that it becomes the social norm to remove ourselves from our more imaginative tendencies as we begin to mature.  Obviously, there comes a point when building forts and befriending imaginary people aren’t conducive to real life.  At some stage, we all have to grow up. We are encouraged to keep our head out of the clouds and our feet on the ground, and rightly so, or who knows where we’d end up.  But does something special get lost in this process?

I recently read a piece from a fellow blogger on the perils of the imagination, taking the view that some of us are either blighted to have one or blessed to be without.  Those “unlucky” enough to have been cursed with one, spend most their lives in pursuit of perfection, desiring the unattainable.  They are doomed to a life of falseness and disappointment.  Perhaps, it’s a classic case of “the grass is always greener on the other side.”  What you have, you don’t want and vice versa. Interestingly though, many in the comment section of her blog stated that they daren’t trade in their imaginations for the world. 

Admittedly, the improper use of our imaginations can, on occasion, serve to undermine us. Consider the proverbial daydreamer.  They spend more time dreaming than doing and in the end can never fulfill their wildest imaginings as they are too busy well, imagining.  Similarly, if our imagination can lead us to places centred on notions of progression and goodness, it also has the potential to lead us down darker paths.  Ultimately, though I believe the world would be much worse off in its absence than in its abundance. 

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

Some of life’s greatest achievers – Einstein, Disney, Picasso, Wilde, Newton – were all advocates of the imagination. While knowledge teaches us ‘what is’, the imagination reveals to us ‘what might be’.  Relying on our own knowledge can, therefore, only take us so far; we must allude to something greater in order to create greatness.  Take even just a peak back at history: any discovery, invention, or work of art were all borne of someone’s imagination.

The problem with so many of us is that we lack imagination.  I include myself in this.  We find ourselves bored and yet have more to occupy us than ever before. We have no idea what do with our lives because we find it difficult to conceive ideas beyond the “normal” or “practical”. We’re taught to make decisions rationally, to measure the pros and cons.  And while i’m not advocating abandoning reason, there is little encouragement to consider the more daring, adventurous routes in life – the routes that actually mean something to us.

If we don’t imagine or dare to dream, then what does our future hold?  Complacency? Stagnancy? Boredom?  The question is then, can we reacquaint ourselves with our once so active imaginations? While children have a lot to learn from their elders, it seems to me, we have a lot to learn from them.