Halloween is the one time of the year when television writers get to let their hair down a little bit. Normally constrained by the confines of their genre, a spooky holiday like Halloween gives shows the freedom to take their storylines in a different direction. A traditional sitcom can have ghosts in it all of a sudden, and a children’s show can embrace slasher film tropes. The opportunities are virtually limitless!
But while it’s fun to see familiar characters in a context that their show wouldn’t normally afford them, there are also plenty of series that use Halloween as a means to further develop their characters, or to progress narrative arcs already in play. In fact, there are many different ways to approach a Halloween episode, which is probably why they remain so popular: It’s a holiday that invites creativity, and the best Halloween episodes — including these ones — embrace that attitude whole-heartedly.
King Of The Hill — Hilloween
“Hilloween” is the rare political Halloween special, and it represents one of the many ways that “King of the Hill” was ahead of its time. Hank is excited to give Bobby a traditional Halloween, filled with trick-or-treating, pranks, and a very spooky haunted house. But his efforts are thwarted by a new evangelical member of the community, who first leads a Bible study session that convinces Luanne that Halloween is evil, and then threatens the school with a lawsuit, forcing them to cancel the haunted house that Hank had been putting together for them.
When Hank learns that not only will she be hosting a “Hallelujah House” on Halloween as a pious alternative to trick-or-treating, but Luanne has dragged Bobby along, telling him that his father is a Satanist. It’s a classic confrontation between two rigidly defined elements of Texas life: the cultural conservative and the religious conservative. And it shows how the two were beginning to become intertwined in the 1990s to become the Christian Right movement that exists as a voting block today.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer — Halloween
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was one of the scariest and most supernaturally-focused shows on television in the late ’90s and early ’00s, it doesn’t have a particularly great track record with Halloween episodes. “Halloween,” a Season 2 entry, is far and away the most enjoyable. As the Scooby gang prepares for a night spent ushering around young trick-or-treaters, they buy costumes from a new Halloween shop in Sunnydale. Haunted by the image of a young noblewoman from Angel’s past, Buffy decides to dress the part, thinking that he’ll like her better that way. But things take a turn when, during the night, everyone begins to transform into their Halloween costumes.
Little kids in strange masks turn into pint-sized demons. Xander becomes an actual soldier, rather than a teenager in fatigues wielding a toy gun. Buffy, festooned into a dramatic gown, changes into a frightened 18th-century damsel who not only doesn’t know that she’s the Slayer, but is terrified of all the cars driving by. This all turns out to be the work of a magician named Ethan Rayne, who becomes a recurring character on the show, popping up every now and again to produce an element of witchy chaos.
Supernatural — Monster Movie
Realistically, any episode of “Supernatural” could constitute a Halloween episode. They’re all pretty terrifying! But we have a soft spot in our hearts for “Monster Movie,” an episode in which Sam and Dean face off against a shapeshifter with a penchant for the classic Universal horror movies of the ’30s. Shot entirely in black and white, it’s unusually cinematic for the CW, featuring loving homages to characters like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy.
“Supernatural” would famously go off the rails in later seasons with constant meta self-references and blatant fan service, but “Monster Movie” is still early enough in the series’ run that its inventiveness comes across as charming rather than tiresome. For many viewers on the younger side, the episode likely introduced them to the classics of the genre that heavily influenced “Supernatural,” and it’s gratifying to watch the show’s writers take advantage of the opportunity to share their love for classic movie monsters.
Boy Meets World — And Then There Was Shawn
“And Then There Was Shawn” wasn’t officially released as a Halloween episode when it first aired, but in the years since, it’s become one of the most popular episodes of “Boy Meets World” to watch around Halloween. And there’s a good reason for that: Unlike one of the actual Halloween episodes, like the one in which Cory becomes convinced that he’s turning into a werewolf, this one is genuinely scary. The “Boy Meets World” gang is stuck in detention after hours when things start to get spooky: After a one-off character Kenny is dramatically killed with a pencil through his forehead, they realize that they’re being hunted.
A send-up of ’90s slashers, “And Then There Was Shawn” even features guest star Jennifer Love Hewitt, fresh off her performance in “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” as a new student named Jennifer Love Fefferman. Although “Boy Meets World” frequently ventured away from its light-hearted premise to cover emotionally complex material, it was rarely as unsettling and, frankly, gruesome as it was in “And Then There Was Shawn.”
Dead Like Me — Haunted
Halloween is the one day a year when grim reapers can take human forms that resemble the way the reapers looked when they were alive, rather than a slightly off version of themselves. So “Haunted,” the final episode of “Dead Like Me,” serves as a poignant and fitting end to the show, bringing full circle the story of how George (Ellen Muth) haunts her family, unable to let go after her untimely death.
For George, the temptation to run up to her parents and tell them everything that she wishes she had said when she was alive must be unbearable. But grim reapers aren’t allowed to approach people they used to know, and George’s acceptance of this reality highlights how much she’s grown. She still loves her parents and wishes she could be a part of their world, but she’s no longer a child, pushing her way into their lives with no thought towards the consequences. “Haunted” is not a very spooky Halloween episode, but as a series finale it’s quiet, contemplative, and bittersweet.
Chuck — Chuck Vs. The Sandworm
Halloween has always been one of the time-honored traditions of Chuck and Morgan, the two best friends at the heart of “Chuck.” Usually, they would dress up as a sandworm from “Dune,” a costume that requires two people to pull off. But this Halloween, Chuck is in the middle of a personal crisis. He’s only recently begun dealing with the power of the supercomputer lodged in his brain, as well as his new role as a CIA asset. Halloween is the last thing on his mind.
The stress from Chuck’s secret life bleeds over into his relationship with Morgan, who he tells to grow up at one point in “Chuck vs. the Sandworm,” leading Morgan to take lessons from Captain Awesome on how to be a mature adult man. But as much as Chuck’s new responsibilities lead him away from Morgan, “Chuck vs. the Sandworm” signals that he’ll always return to his best friend — after helping to disarm a rogue agent, Chuck still manages to make it to his sister’s Halloween party, where he can don his traditional half of the sandworm costume.
The Young Ones — Nasty
In Great Britain, especially in the ’80s, Halloween hadn’t quite become the juggernaut holiday as it is in the United States. As a result, many English shows don’t have proper Halloween specials in the way that their neighbors on the other side of the pond do. But “Nasty,” by far the most supernatural episode of “The Young Ones,” certainly counts as an honorary Halloween show. It begins when Vyvyan rents a VCR so that the crew can watch a bunch of bootlegged video nasties (films deemed too violent or sexual to be approved by British censors).
But things quickly descend into chaos when the flatmates are hunted by a South African vampire who’s been mistakenly shipped to their apartment. Featuring a cold open with a man playing chess with Death as a nod to Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” and a performance of “Nasty” (a song written specifically for the episode) from punk rock band the Damned, “Nasty” is one of the most atmospheric and objectively hilarious episodes of the irreverent ’80s comedy.
Bob’s Burgers — Fort Night
“Bob’s Burgers” has always luxuriated in a good holiday special. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas — the Belchers do them all. But while most of the “Bob’s Burgers” Halloween episodes aren’t particularly spooky, “Fort Night” stands out as one that is at least intensely dramatic, with real stakes for the Belcher kids. It’s Halloween night, and the Belchers stop by their homemade fort in an alley before returning home to put on their costumes.
Along the way, Louise rebuffs a particularly troublesome classmate, Millie (voiced by Molly Shannon), which turns out to be a mistake. After a truck pulls into the alley and blocks the kids’ escape from the cardboard fort, Millie takes her revenge by refusing to help them out. Things only get worse for the Belchers when they accidentally trigger the truck’s ramp, which threatens to crush their fort, and their tiny child bodies along with it. It’s a real predicament, made all the worse by the fact that, by the time they evade death and wriggle free, all the houses have turned off their lights, signaling that the kids have missed their shot at candy. A true Halloween nightmare!
Hey Arnold — Haunted Train
Every once in a while, Nickelodeon gets mega-dark with its cartoons. “Hey Arnold” spent most of its time being a light-hearted story of a boy growing up in the big city, but then turned on a dime to give us genuinely terrifying episodes.
Case in point: “The Haunted Train.” Arnold’s grandpa tells him and his friends the legend of Engine 25, a train whose engineer went mad and drove it off the tracks. Every year, it returns to pick up new passengers, blinding victims with a hypnotizing white light and driving them straight into the underworld. A little spooky for children, yes? Perhaps even traumatizing?
Well, later that night, Arnold and his friends end up falling into the clutches of the sinister engineer, and only manage to escape the ghostly train at the last minute. The most unsettling aspect of the episode is that, although the horror starts to deescalate when Arnold suggests that Grandpa probably made up the story and that the following action was all in their imaginations, the final shot shows the engineer singing as he rides his haunted train, implying that it was all real.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine — Halloween
You would think that Halloween wouldn’t be particularly fun for cops. After all, there are a lot more complaints and petty crimes on a holiday that encourages people to wander around after dark causing mischief. But in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the officers make their own fun, and “Halloween” is the first in a long line of Halloween episodes, each delightful in their own way. The premise, which returns in each subsequent follow up, is simple: Jake bets Holt that, before midnight, he can steal Holt’s Medal of Valor from his locked office.
If Jake wins, Holt will do all of Jake’s Halloween paperwork for the night, and has to say that Jake Peralta is an amazing detective and a genius. If he loses, Peralta will work the next five weekends without overtime. Let the games begin!
“Halloween” is cleverly written, with lots of twists and turns as the heist unfolds in real time. And since “Halloween” was only the sixth episode of “Brooklyn Nine Nine” to air, it goes a long way in helping to establish the characters that we’ll come to know and love.
Wandavision — All-New Halloween Spectacular!
The general gimmick of “WandaVision” is that each episode occupies a different space in television history. As Wanda creates an artificial reality to keep Vision alive and ward off her grief, the superhero couple first inhabit a black-and-white sitcom similar to “I Love Lucy.” From there, “WandaVision” moves forward in time until it hits the “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!,” which captures the spirit of a very specific style of late ’90s and early ’00s sitcom, specifically those shot to resemble a documentary. Traditionally, Halloween episodes tend to be pretty light on plot, but there’s a lot going on here.
For one, Wanda’s brother Pietro has miraculously resurfaced (albeit looking a little different, the show having cheekily cast Evan Peters, who played Pietro in the X-Men films, and not “Age of Ultron” star Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and takes Wanda’s twin sons trick-or-treating as they begin to exhibit their superpowers. Meanwhile, Vision, ever the suburban dad, is on neighborhood watch, but while exploring the outer reaches of Westview learns the secret of his sleepy little town. This episode is where we feel “Wandavision” careening towards its inevitable conclusion, as it takes one last opportunity to savor its forays into different periods of television history, a conceit that’s (sadly) phased out after this episode in favor of more traditional Marvel action.
Community — Epidemiology
If there was ever a network comedy that experimented with surrealism and genre storytelling, it was “Community.” It used plenty of traditional sitcom devices, such as the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Jeff and Britta and the friendship of Abed and Troy, but it also cultivated some really high-concept storylines. “Epidemiology” was one of their more interesting Halloween episodes, a riff on a horror film where Pierce inadvertently sparks a zombie apocalypse by eating a taco filled with meat that turned out to be spoiled military rations.
Once infected, the victims would experience brain damage after three hours and death after six. So the gang is stuck fighting for their lives, as more and more of their classmates are bitten and succumb to the effects of the disease. It’s a clever take on the zombie mythos, and it allows the ensemble cast to show their strengths as they work together to survive. Abed and Troy’s friendship, wavering at the beginning of the episode when Troy decides to adopt a more mature persona that pulls him away from Abed, is the true star of the show.
The Simpsons — Treehouse Of Horror V
It’s entirely possible that “The Simpsons” has more Halloween episodes than any other television show ever produced. It has been running for over 30 years, and every year it airs a “Treehouse of Horror” special, featuring a series of spooky vignettes all loosely tied together by some sort of a framing device. Sure, they vary wildly in terms of quality, but the show has been on for over three decades, so there are plenty of winners. The best is probably “Treehouse of Horror V,” which features one of the show’s most effective parodies in “The Shinning,” a comedic play on “The Shining” starring Homer as a homicidal maniac driven mad by a lack of beer and television.
We’re also treated to a short that demonstrates the butterfly effect in action when Homer repeatedly travels into the past and accidentally changes the course of history, as well as a nice little cannibalistic bit about teachers at Springfield Elementary eating their students. The name of the game here is consistency: many “Treehouse of Horror” specials have one good short, but it’s rare that they’re all slam dunks.
Dawson’s Creek — The Scare
There are many Halloween episodes from ’90s shows that are scarier than this “Dawson’s Creek” installment, but there probably aren’t any more unsettling than the final reveal of “The Scare.” Showrunner Kevin Williamson, who also wrote “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” gets the opportunity to bring some of his horror cred to the soapy world of “Dawson’s Creek.” Throughout the episode, Dawson is committed to pranking his friends with classic horror movie stunts. Meanwhile, Jen is convinced that she’s being stalked by the serial killer they’ve been seeing on the news after she receives a menacing phone call.
But all these horror movie antics are pure misdirection, because the actual scariest moment of the episode is not the one with the intense dolly zoom or the creepy music, but a seemingly innocent interaction between Joey and an older man while she waits for Dawson to come out of the convenience store. The two chat for a few minutes, but before Joey’s able to answer the man’s casual but somehow probing questions, Dawson emerges, and they go on their merry way. Later, they discover from a news report that this was the killer responsible for the deaths of several young women. A stark reminder that, even under the most benign circumstances, women always have to keep their guard up? Thanks, “Dawson’s Creek,” for those nightmares!
Freaks And Geeks — Tricks And Treats
If there’s one thing that “Freaks and Geeks” was always able to capture perfectly, it’s how awkward it is to be a teenager, especially when you feel stuck between childhood and adulthood. In “Tricks and Treats,” the act of trick-or-treating is a microcosm of that entire struggle. How old is too old to be going door to door dressed in a costume begging for candy? If there’s something from your childhood that brings you tremendous joy, should you have to give it up just because other people tell you that you’ve outgrown it?
Sam and his friends excitedly prepare their costumes and head out, only to be brutally mocked by both their peers and the parents in their neighborhood. Meanwhile, Lindsay wants to go out with her friends, but her mother wants to keep her at home a little while longer; Lindsay is convinced to hand out candy before leaving. But when she sets out on her own, getting a taste of independence, Lindsay ends up going way too far. “Tricks and Treats” evokes the bittersweet pain of growing up in a way that few other Halloween specials are able to.
/Film – ‘Slash Film: The 15 Best Halloween TV Episodes’
Author: Audrey Fox
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October 14, 2021