“It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn't so much wilderness around you couldn't see the town. On the other hand, there wasn't so much town you couldn't see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. It was the afternoon of Halloween, the houses shut against a cool wind and the town full of cold sunlight. But suddenly, the day was gone. Night came out from under each tree and spread.”
So begins my favourite Halloween book/special, The Halloween Tree. Both the book and tv special were written by Ray Bradbury, and it's the perfect embodiment of seasonal nostalgia: that combination of fear and excitement children feel when faced with the prospect of deep, unknown things lurking in the dark.
The story begins, as you read above, in a typical town on Halloween. We follow a group of kids in costume (a mummy, a witch, a monster, a skeleton) as they rush to meet Pip, "the greatest boy who ever lived". He's the leader of the group, and the one each of them aspires to be like.
But when they arrive at his house, they see an ambulance, hear murmurings of "appendicitis", and despair that Pip is gone. However, a note encourages them to keep going, and in the distance, Tom (the skeleton) sees Pip running ahead of them... although he looks almost transparent in the moonlight...
While chasing Pip, the group comes upon a creaky old mansion and an evil-looking man named Moundshroud. He keeps the Halloween Tree, which houses pumpkins of all shapes, sizes, and faces. They learn Pip is on the run from Moundshroud, having stolen back his pumpkin, and they must embark on a journey through time to try and save him. In the process, they will each learn about why they are dressed up as they are, and indeed, about the origins of the holiday called Halloween.
I'm leaving a link here because the whole special (it's about an hour long) can be watched online! Past this point, the post will be spoilerly, so go watch (I'll wait.) and then come back for the in-depth analysis. :)
"The unemployed of all midnight Europe shivered in their stone sleep and came awake."
First, I will just say, the book and the special are pretty well on par in my eyes. The book does have more detail and a couple more characters and segments, although it's still only 150 pages long. As someone who saw the special first, I find the tone very similar and the narration sufficient to provide the novel-like structure it needs. However, the special is animated, and adults might have a deeper experience reading the book without the visuals provided.
Even though the special focuses heavily on the kids learning about other cultures and the historic origins of Halloween, it doesn't come across as too educational or stilted. This is a place where the book shines, especially, because the deeper implications of each segment are made more plain. In a section on cavemen, for example, the book explains how fire and night were the first stirrings of Halloween.
"When you and your friends die every day, there's no time to think of death, is there? Only time to run. But as time progressed, by the night fires, cavemen were at last able to turn their thoughts on a spit and baste them with wonder. They remembered those dead, and shivered and wept at those ghosts even the fire could not drive off."
I quite like the section on witches as well, especially the explanation that a witch was anyone who was too smart or had their "wits" about them. Knowing the nature of Christianity in the Dark Ages, it makes sense that mistrust and fear would centre on anyone who appeared to have knowledge or certainty within themselves. There's a part where one of the boys says, "England is no place to be a sinner!", which gave me quite a chuckle.
The Notre Dame segment is interesting because, while religion is painted as ignorant and reactive regarding witches, here the kids answer "religion!" to "what is stronger than darkness?" It reinforces the fact that religion can be used like any other tool, for good and safety or for evil and vengeance. I also had a realization reading the book this year that, as the gargoyles on the cathedral's arches were necessary for its completion, we also need the darkness just outside the boundaries of faith and security to remind us of their power.
The parts on mummies and the day of the dead are probably the most "educational", but even those have the benefit of reminding us that other cultures honour and revere and in fact celebrate the dead in a way that we have never been comfortable doing. And that it's really for our own comfort that we mourn quickly and don't revisit those feelings.
In the overarching story, I like that each kid has a sort of "secret" with Pip - like, he never made fun of them, or he helped them conquer a fear, or something. It really resonates that he's the cornerstone of the group, and in addition to being afraid for him, they're all afraid of what they will be if he's gone.
I definitely found the whole concept of Pip's wandering soul rather frightening as a child. The idea that he is lying in a hospital somewhere on the edge of death for the entirety of the story is rather unsettling. In the book, especially, he seems very frightened and uncertain about where he will end up. The ending, in which each kid pledges a year of his life in order to bring Pip back, also has a hopeful but dark feeling to it. In the short term, they get their friend back, but the adult in me now can't help but wonder what happened as they got older... did some of them regret the pledge they'd made? Were they right to borrow that time from death?
Obviously, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, this is a special I watch every year because it encapsulates what I love and fear most: darkness, and the unpredictable nature of humanity. If that's your brand of existential dread, I'm sure you'll like it, too.
O autumn winds that bake and burn
And all the world to darkness turn
Oh, storm and seize and make of me
A swarm of leaves from autumn's tree!