While Halloween is the perfect holiday for horror films, we shouldn’t give short shrift to the more family oriented fare that comes out at this time of year. Nowadays, Halloween is arguably a kids’ festival, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood would want to cater to those who love and celebrate the holiday but are too young or, like me, too wimpy to watch The Exorcist.
Perhaps it’s fair to say, then, that there are two major genres of Halloween film: the scary and the family friendly. (There’s also the funny or the romantic goth-y, but those subgenres are much less popular, and, moreover, the films that fall under those categories usually also fit into the aforementioned dichotomy.) Real horror films can shock or disgust, but the very best of them terrify us by confronting us with things we are scared of in real life: dead bodies, foreigners, nature, pregnancy, clowns. Family friendly Halloween movies, like all other family friendly films, have happy endings and seek to comfort us. The only difference is that these films, being Halloween-based, tend to be a bit quirkier than usual.
You’d think that It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown would fit in the second category, not the first. I disagree. It may be the scariest Halloween movie there is.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m engaging in hyperbole here, but you have to admit that It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is a much scarier title than you’d expect. Let’s look at what actually happens in the beloved TV special.
1. The Linus Plot.
In the “A” plot of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Linus waits all night outside in a pumpkin patch for the spirit of Halloween, the title and titular “Great Pumpkin.” Like Santa Claus (whom Linus alludes to early in the piece), the Great Pumpkin is a jolly spirit said to arrive on Halloween night to give the good boys and girls presents. Although Lucy berates her “blockhead” brother for his belief in this merry figure, Linus’ faith is unshaken. He knows that the Great Pumpkin will arrive. He even manages to get Sally to wait with him, although her faith isn’t as firm as her male counterpart’s.
Imagine, if you will, that this show was about Santa Claus and not the Great Pumpkin, his stand-in. Can you imagine that Santa Claus would not arrive? Of course, he would! This is Hollywood! You can’t have Hollywood teaching kids that Santa Claus is a myth. That would shake them to their cores.
But Charles Schultz was a cynical bastard. The Great Pumpkin – Spoilers Ahead! – does not arrive. Linus is left alone, shivering with cold, in the pumpkin patch. Sally, his love, abandons him. The Great Pumpkin – or is it Santa Claus? – is it God? – doesn’t exist. Like Linus, we are alone, shivering in the dark. What could be scarier to a kid than that?
2. The Charlie Brown Plot.
Charlie Brown’s plot in this film is essentially the same as it always is. He thinks that, this year, things will turn around for him. Life will get better. The Universe won’t piss on him anymore. Things will be Different.
Of course, things never are. Lucy pulls the football away once more, leaving Charlie Brown staring at the cold, cold sky. There are no parents to punish her for her cruelty. In fact, the off-screen adults reward her. While trick-or-treating, she gets candy from the owners of the first house she visits – indeed, more candy than any other child, because she steals Linus’ take. Our friend Charlie Brown’s bounty? A single rock.
“Well, okay,” you think. “That’s weird, but it’s the first house. Maybe it’s owned by [insert strange social group here]. Surely the owners of the next home will be more even-handed…”
You’d be wrong. Charlie Brown finds himself stuck in an infinite loop in which he continually tricks-and-treats but never gets his candy. It’s rock after rock after rock. Until the night is over, there is no escape from this horror. And he did nothing to deserve it. That’s the scariest part of all.
3. The Snoopy Plot.
Snoopy’s plot is the most brutal. Unlike the other characters, who dress as clichéd bedsheet ghosts and witches, Snoopy does his homework and decides to dress as a flying ace from World War I. Immediately, things take a nasty turn. The costume appears to be cursed; the second he puts it on, he finds himself in the midst of an air battle against the infamous Red Baron.
For a dog with no military experience, Snoopy holds his own remarkably well for the first few minutes, even managing to take down an enemy plane. His victory, however, is short lived (pronounced with a long I). The Baron fights back, and, soon, Snoopy is fighting for his life. A terrified Snoopy plummets to the Earth and crashes. Luckily, he escapes death, but is life any better? The poor dog can’t stop shaking.
Next, Snoopy must skulk through occupied France under the cover of night to escape the Germans. Schultz cuts away before we can see much, but it’s assumed Snoopy went through hell, as most soldiers who lived through the Great War did.
Snoopy finally escapes his world of nightmare and makes his way to Lila’s Halloween party. But it’s no party for Snoopy, who is now suffering from PTSD. Even Schroder’s piano playing cannot cheer up the poor dog. In fact, just the opposite. Schroder’s music has reduced Snoopy to a sobbing, broken being. Snoopy come home? No. Snoopy can never come home again.
Despite being about children, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown confronts us with our deepest fears: that God doesn’t exist, that there is no justice, and that we live in a world consumed by war. Now, you watch it and tell me. Is this not the most horrifying Halloween film of all time?