Tim Burton transcended time and culture with The Nightmare Before Christmas. In that act, he tore down the walls of holiday propriety and let out the monsters of Halloween Town. Whereas of yore, it was only acceptable for proper folk to pull on a boggart’s mask on All Hallow’s Eve, this film sunk its skeleton hook into the heart of nerdy ethos and pulled us into the sun, excusing us to be the freaks we really are—every day of the year.
You, too, can join in once you understand these few ideas. It’s not as tricky as it seems and why should they have all the fun?
I. Halloween is the freaky Holiday
Nerds are freaks. Maybe you’re one too?
Tim Burton is a freak; you can tell by the way almost every movie he’s made is about the experience of being one. The Nightmare Before Christmas is, arguably, his magnum opus (literally—it’s an opera) on the subject. In part, this is because he chose to brave stop-motion as the medium so he was able to fully express himself without being constrained by real environments or existing actors (an act that launched the highly acclaimed stop-motion studio Laika Studios in its wake).
Beyond this, though, he created a home for all the freaks. He’s got his typical freaks: Jack, the misunderstood misanthrope, the mad scientists on the hill, Dr. Finkelstein, and the monstrous man with the tear-away-face. He’s also got the subtler freaks: Sally, the caged girl who pines for the boy down the road, Lock, Shock, & Barrel (the children who cause trouble), and Behemoth (who lamentably has a hatchet in his brain) is slow on the uptake.
Halloween Town is where all of these people have a space and a role.
II. Curiosity and Ambition and Failure
We hear a lot about how we should chase dreams, pursue goals, and generally be ambitious, but for children of the night this is often paralyzing advice. The advice of this film seems to be that we should pursue our curiosities with abandon, try to understand their glittery magic, and act on what we’ve learned. Not because this will lead us to success (some Santa-like perfection), but to real knowledge about what we can make.
…and if we ruin a Christmas along the way, or unleash some monsters into some nurseries, so be it.
III. Christmas is a Season
Jack the Pumpkin King is not like us: he did not know Christmas. Unlike Halloween—which has only one night—Yuletide canvasses a season. Moreover, it has a spirit that we are meant to carry us through the rest of the year, no matter our creed. That spirit is community, gifting, and magic—just like Halloween—but Jack didn’t grock that when he visits Christmas Town. He sensed its wonder, though. He knew its power.
In the end, through experiment and creation, he was able to learn what he needed from his adventure as Sandy Claws and bring back real knowledge to his freakish comrades. It is this year-round principle that keeps the nerds wearing Nightmare paraphernalia year-round and why they care about the movie so much.
Micah Faulkner, 23 October 2018
Come visit Micah at Zionsville Books & Brews. He’s there a few times a week in the evenings.