Horror Is Metal: Jack, Sally, and the True Meaning of Christmas - Tor Nightfire

Horror Is Metal: Jack, Sally, and the True Meaning of Christmas

© Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Inside you there are two wolves. One thinks The Nightmare Before Christmas is over-commercialized, Hot Topic-ified cringe. The other thinks The Nightmare Before Christmas is a huge achievement of filmmaking with a stunningly great soundtrack and will defend it to their dying breath. They’re very opinionated wolves, okay?

I don’t know what it is about The Nightmare Before Christmas, exactly. It came out of nowhere, leaping around a corner to beat me over the head with a baseball bat. It was 1993 and I was… man, I dunno, I’m not doing that math, but I was in third grade and my parents were desperate for anything to shut me and my sister up one day. We took a family trip to the movies, my parents figured a musical was probably fine, and I then proceeded to have my life trajectory forever changed. My parents and my sister left the theater in various states of freakout and disquietude. I walked out skipping with excitement and delight, enraptured and enchanted by the messed up Halloween tableau and Christmas crimes. I begged for Nightmare Before Christmas merch for Christmas that year but there was none to be found. All I wanted was a plushie Jack Skellington! Now you can find an entire wall dedicated to the film in Hot Topic, but back then it was non-existent in stores, much to the disappointment of my childhood self. 

My parents did buy me the soundtrack on CD though, one of the very first CDs I ever owned, and then quickly had to buy me my own Walkman so they wouldn’t have to hear the soundtrack every waking moment of the day. I can’t say I blame them. My Dad likes showtunes and Frank Sinatra and my Mom is into the Beatles and country music. They still have no idea where this goth punk weirdo they have for a daughter came from. That soundtrack plagued their waking hours. I would sing it constantly. I still know all the words. You could put a gun to my head and I’d be able to faithfully and flawlessly sing the entire thing. I can’t remember my own phone number but you can be damn sure I know all the words to “Sally’s Song.” 

You know what The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I’m not going to bore you by going over all the major plot points. Depressed skeleton King of Halloween discovers Christmas and kidnaps Santa so he can have a shot at it. It’s a triumph of filmmaking, rendered lovingly in mindblowing stop-motion animation so smooth it’s hard to believe it’s not real. Based on a poem written and illustrated by Tim Burton (but not directed by him! That’s a common misconception. Put some respect on Henry Selick’s name!), it’s a spooky little treasure that feels radical and special, somehow. When I was younger it felt like it existed just for me and it taught me horror can be funny, musical, and whimsical. Halloweentown is so beautiful and realistic that it makes Christmastown look like the weird one. 

© Disney Enterprises, Inc.

So much of the movie hinges on the spectacular soundtrack. Without that, it wouldn’t have been as incredible as it is. It was already a big ask to get people to be interested in a movie about a skeleton trying to steal Christmas, but the audacity to make it a musical as well! Breathtaking decision. The Nightmare Before Christmas could have been a strange little blip in movie history without that soundtrack but it’s become a cultural juggernaut due to the songs. We have one man to thank for that and his name is Danny Elfman. 

Danny Elfman started his musical life in a fantastic 80s band called Oingo Boingo. They had a few popular songs, including the phenomenal “Dead Man’s Party,” but it’s his film soundtracks that he’s really known for now. Tim Burton was a huge fan of Oingo Boingo and asked Elfman to score his 1985 big screen adaptation of Peewee’s Big Adventure. Elfman was initially hesitant since he had never scored a film before but with Burton’s coaxing he decided to give it a try and absolutely knocked it out of the park. His partnership with Burton would continue for several more films, including Beetlejuice and Burton’s bonkers Batman film. When The Nightmare Before Christmas was being written, Burton knew there was only one man he needed to call. 

Elfman wrote the songs and the score of the movie with grinning, exuberant gusto. It’s a fantastic film score, creepy and beautiful in equal measure, and the songs are now iconic. The first mournful oboe note that opens the movie is sinister and lovely and I’ll remember hearing it in a dark theater for the first time for the rest of my life. It might be cliche but I still get chills watching the opening of the film, the macabre music raising to a crescendo as the Halloweentown scarecrow turns in the wind and the graveyard comes into view, introducing us to singing ghosts and a town of wonderful horrors excited to welcome you. It’s still so wonderfully effective. Elfman’s glee is apparent in every note of the score. You can tell he’s having an absolute ball writing it. When it came time to cast the singing voices, Elfman himself stepped into the shoes of Jack Skellington, giving our skeleton protagonist pathos and panache. There is a style to Jack Skellington, an undeniable je ne sais quoi, something alluring and fascinating about him. I think a lot of that has to do with Elfman’s masterful work as our depressed skeleton’s singing voice. We really hear him sing before we hear him speak, as the movie introduces us to his bone-weary ennui with the spectacular “Jack’s Lament.”

That isn’t to say Elfman was the only voice that mattered. Far from it! My god, the entire movie is packed with so many fantastic characters and voices it’s almost overwhelming. The brilliant Catherine O’Hara (you may know her best as the brilliant disaster that is Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek, but she was also the mother in Home Alone and Beetlejuice!) gave a longing, fragile sweetness and puckish charm to the ragdoll Sally who is in love with our bony hero. Chris Sarandon, better known as Prince Humperdink in Princess Bride, is Jack’s speaking voice and he packs that skeleton full of acerbic, erudite wit. Patrick bloody Stewart even lent his voice as the narrator of the film, though his parts were cut and only remain on the soundtrack. The film is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to talent. 

It would have been so easy to make this movie and the music therein hokey and hackneyed. Instead, Elfman gives it a dramatic gravitas balanced with dashes of whimsy. He doesn’t shy away from the horror. Some of the lyrics are appropriately fucked up for a town compromised of monsters (the Town Meeting song is especially messed up in just the best way). The film as a whole doesn’t shy away from being genuinely scary and unsettling, either. There are some townspeople who are truly freaky (a special fuck you to the Clown with the Tear-Away Face) and the main villain, Oogie Boogie, is horrifically gross (especially when you learn what’s kept inside his burlap body). I mean, the trick or treaters who go to kidnap Santa Claus sing about torturing him! And read that sentence back: let us not forget that this is a movie about KIDNAPPING SANTA. God, it’s just so delightfully fucked up. The fact that it exists is a gift. It almost didn’t! 

The Nightmare Before Christmas was created via a partnership between Burton, who produced the film, and Disney. All Disney had to go on was a cute and slightly creepy poem Burton had written. I’m not quite sure Disney knew what it was getting into, exactly. Stop motion animation on this scale was a big risk and Disney was oddly hands-off about the whole thing. The film is Henry Selick’s directorial debut, and the loving care and attention in each frame is evident in the final product. It was a passion project for everyone who worked on it. 

Disney, despite having been relatively blasé during production, balked at the final version of the film, which didn’t fit the vibe they were going for at the time. This was the early 90s and the “Renaissance era” of Disney films. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Homeward Bound, and The Lion King all came out around the same time Nightmare Before Christmas did. (So did Hocus Pocus but that’s another story entirely and, alas, bombed at the box office when it was first released). Disney didn’t want to release a film that might scare children and, after hemming and hawing, decided to not shelve it and instead released it under their Touchstone studio banner. It was enough distance that if it bombed Disney could pretend to not be involved and if there was backlash it would be on Touchstone instead. Thankfully the film was a hit, both critically acclaimed and loved by audiences. 

© Disney Enterprises, Inc.

I think The Nightmare Before Christmas is, oddly enough, a very important milestone in the story of horror as a genre. Horror tends to wander around and take on a new mantle with each decade. In the 90s, horror became acceptable for children. Being scared was no longer a bad thing and softer introductions to horror became incredibly popular. Scary television shows for children started to pop up, like Tales From the Crypt and Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?. The 90s were also the heyday of the Goosebumps novels by R.L. Stine, the teenage horror novels by Christopher Pike, and the (frankly fucking terrifying) Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark with its iconically nightmarish illustrations by Stephen Gammell. I think many of us grew up watching movies we weren’t supposed to that scarred us for life (like, I dunno, Poltergeist, not like I speak from experience or anything) but the 90s saw a boom in scary stuff created explicitly for children. These properties were a safe way to introduce the concept of being scared and that it could be FUN instead of horrible. The Nightmare Before Christmas, with its gamboling monsters and fantastic music, was a way to show children that scary stuff was good and it was natural to be fascinated by things that were spooky and dark. Burton, Selick, and Elfman, an entire generation of goths thanks you. 

The film has a slightly cringey connotation now, due to its aforementioned Hot Topic-fication. And that’s fine, honestly. I think it shows the enduring power of the film. It meant so much to an entire generation of people. It made them feel okay about being an outcast, about being sad, about yearning for something different and exciting. It made it fun to be spooky and creepy. The music continues to make an impact as well, being cited as an inspiration by musicians and filmmakers alike. There have been several tribute albums created over the years, featuring groups like Panic! At the Disco and other emo juggernauts. Blink-182 famously referenced living “like Jack and Sally” in their song “I Miss You.” Sure, it might be a little cringey but, honestly, it’s okay to be a little cringey sometimes. I think Jack Skellington would embrace it with joy. 

“But Meghan,” you say, noticing the column is coming to an end for another month, “is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween or a Christmas movie?” Ah right, the most important question… well, in my opinion–hey, look over there! (*sound of running, a door slamming, a car roaring to life and peeling out of a driveway*)

Welp, that looks like all the time we have for today! I hope you have a wonderful (and spooky!) holiday season with your family and friends. Thank you so much for reading and enjoying my column, it means the world to me. I can’t wait to continue to talk about music and horror all next year. In fact, let’s start 2022 off strong. Did you know My Chemical Romance recorded an album in a haunted house that was trying to kill them? 

And don’t miss Leah Schnelbach on the beautiful meaninglessness of The Nightmare Before Christmas over at Tor.com!

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2 thoughts on “Horror Is Metal: Jack, Sally, and the True Meaning of Christmas

  1. I saw this film in the theater on my 21st birthday, not by choice. My guy friends decided it would be a great way to celebrate me. I did fall in love with the music as a lifelong Elfman fan (I still have Boingo vinyl) and love the covers album, but I wasn’t really in an animated film place at 21. Now I appreciate this film for all it’s done in an artistic sense. I love this film for bringing the darkness out for those of us who prefer to dwell there AND because we then got the brilliant film The Corpse Bride, which I love so much more! This was a great post. Thank you for sharing and readers, if you haven’t listened to the full Oingo Boingo catalogue you’re missing out!

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