Improbable Dreams

According to Patrick Kennedy, Gothic literature – a genre which largely began with the publication of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) – can be loosely described as a story that “employs dark and picturesque scenery, startling and melodramatic narrative devices, and an overall atmosphere of exoticism, mystery and dread.” The protagonists of these stories are often young and idealistic, questioning their place within wider society. Their sensitivity makes them more susceptible to dreams and visions, and they are frequently able to sense things invisible to others, leaving them open to hauntings and visitations. On the surface, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) clearly asserts itself as part of the Gothic tradition, filled with shadowy landscapes, ruined castles, and strange, “ghost-like” characters. But whilst it revels in its moody aesthetic, the film largely subverts the conventions of the genre, testing the limits of Gothic fiction to create something innovative and new. As such, the film looks both to the past and to the future, creating a Gothic narrative with a thoroughly modern sensibility.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is centred around Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who has become bored with his life of perpetual misery and darkness. After organising the annual Halloween celebrations, Jack wanders out into the hinterland, finding a portal to a world named Christmas Town. He is bemused and delighted by what he discovers, returning to give Christmas to the residents of his homeland. He orders the capture of Santa Claus and begins preparing to take over the holiday, but Sally – a beautiful ragdoll who is secretly in love with Jack – has a vision that his plans will end in disaster. Jack ignores her pleas, but having misunderstood the true meaning of Christmas, ends up terrifying the children of the human world, resulting in him being shot down by the military. Realising his mistake, Jack rushes home in time to save Santa Claus, allowing him to go free in order to save Christmas. Admitting his mistake, Jack and Sally declare their love for one another.

The film begins with an introduction to Halloween Town, a breathless opening packed with moonlit landscapes and sinister portents, effectively establishing the Gothic themes of the overall narrative. The characters are presented as being the embodiment of our most primal childhood fears: the monster hiding under our bed, the shadow on the moon at night, the mournful voices in the wind. We see shadows cast on eldritch gravestones; we see ghosts rising from the ground, as well as bats, black cats, broken mirrors and ruined castles. This opening is startling for the way in which it assembles an array of devices recognisable to any viewer familiar with Gothic narratives, establishing this particular film as an exploration of childhood fears and anxieties. But The Nightmare Before Christmas is also a film intended for a young audience and, as such, reassures the viewer as much as it terrifies them. The residents of Halloween Town are quick to point out that “[they’re] not mean,” and the tone shifts to become more comical at the end of the opening song. Even then, the language of the characters is excessively Gothic, and they complement Jack for his ability to “make wounds ooze and flesh crawl,” telling him that “[he’s] such a scream” after his performance in the town square.

The characters that reside in Halloween Town are largely influenced by a number of Gothic narratives, both in print and on film, though their personalities often differ from their literary counterparts. There are overt references to Dracula (1897), Frankenstein (1818), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), but there are also references to Nosferatu (1922), The Black Cat (1934), The Seventh Seal (1957), and Disney’s Snow White (1937). Like the introduction to Halloween Town, these allusions establish the Gothic context of the narrative, placing the film within a wider literary tradition. Characters like the Wolfman, Dr Finkelstein and Mr Hyde are intended to elicit an immediate feeling of familiarity, particularly as the film goes on to subvert our expectations.

Jack Skellington, in many respects, is the archetypal hero, exhibiting many of the same characteristics as the heroes of Gothic literature. He recognises that he is different from those around him – largely because he feels he is destined for something greater than the life he leads. While the residents of Halloween Town are already counting the days until the next Halloween, Jack is thrown into an existential conundrum, stating that he has an internal emptiness “that calls out for something unknown.” In novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), the central characters are sensitive, honourable men, taking pleasure – unlike those around them – in “scenes of simple nature, the pure delights of literature, and to the exercise of domestic virtues.” These men are more gentle and introverted than the other characters, susceptible to sudden passions, and prone to extended periods of self-doubt and depression. Jack fits in very neatly with these characters, exhibiting all the features of the traditional Gothic hero. In addition to this, Jack is also the most cultured and intelligent character in Halloween Town, familiar with the works of Shakespeare and Dickens, and housing an enormous collection of books inside his home. While his subjects are often depicted as being charmingly stupid, caring for nothing more than their Halloween celebrations, Jack is elevated above them by his love of art, as well as his highly developed sensibilities.

But Jack’s actions also subvert Gothic narrative conventions, breaking away from the traditions that the film so clearly takes inspiration from. In his book on the beautiful and the sublime, Edmund Burke suggests that Gothic fiction is characterised by anything which has the ability “to excite the ideas of pain, of danger…whatever is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” In novels like The Monk (1796), Vathek (1782) and Là-Bas (1891), the fear of damnation is also added, with characters questioning what will happen to them after they die. But Jack Skellington is already dead, and instead of fearing pain or perdition, is motivated by feelings of restlessness and boredom. Without the risk of death, Jack’s existence has become one of permanent stasis, one in which nothing new ever seems to happen. In this way, Jack is established as a thoroughly modern character, whose fears and anxieties are more aligned with those of a modern audience. Similarly, Gothic heroes are frequently plagued by visions of the supernatural, discovering sinister signs and omens in an unfamiliar place. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, this place happens to be Christmas Town, and the sinister images that beset him are those of healthy children, freshly-baked pastries, electric lights, and carousels. As such, the film can be seen as a reversal of the Gothic, an inversion of what we come to expect from these types of traditional narratives.

Gothic heroines are another integral part of these stories, with Janice Radway suggesting that Gothic literature is, in fact, “a mythic account of how women must achieve fulfilment in a patriarchal society.” These heroines are generally controlled by a dominating male figure, pursued and persecuted until they can finally assert their independence. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, this role is played by Sally, a humanoid ragdoll created by Dr Finkelstein, the mad scientist of Halloween Town. Despite being stitched haphazardly together with rags and dead leaves, Sally is also the most human character in the film, tormented by feelings of loneliness and ennui. She empathises with Jack after hearing his graveside lament, and spends the first half of the film trying to escape from Dr Finkelstein – a man who insists she remain locked inside a tower. Because of this, Sally’s narrative function is that of the deuteragonist, trying to dissuade Jack from what she knows will be a disaster, then attempting to save Santa Claus from the monstrous Oogie Boogie. By the end of the film, Sally succeeds in escaping from Dr Finkelstein, but she is also praised for her individual talents – presumably for the first time. When Santa Claus is finally rescued by Jack, he tells him, “I’d listen to her. She’s the only one who makes any sense around this insane asylum!”

The film ends with Jack and Sally declaring their love for one another in the graveyard, dreamily looking forward to a life where they can “gaze into the stars…forever.” In early Gothic literature, romantic relationships are less common than might be assumed, largely down to Ann B. Tracey’s suggestion that “the plots stress separation and isolation.” In the nineteenth century, however, the pursuit of love had more of a presence in Gothic novels, particularly in works like Wuthering Heights (1847) and Jane Eyre (1847). These relationships, however, are often ill-fated, as most Gothic narratives are preoccupied with extremes of emotion, and thus, result in tragedy. But Jack and Sally are not technically alive, and have none of the traditional fears of eternal damnation. In addition to this, Gothic narratives were not intended for children, and the moral messages – as in Frankenstein or The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) – were largely philosophical. As a Disney film, The Nightmare Before Christmas ends happily, relating the idea that those outside of society can still find others like them. The fact that the film ends with the image of Jack and Sally kissing suggests that this is the key message of the story – that being different from the rest of society does not necessarily equate to loneliness.

Oogie Boogie acts as the film’s central antagonist, but his characterisation separates him from those within the Gothic tradition. In novels like The Monk and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), the villains are both men of god, while novels like Dracula contain a much more straightforward antagonist. Though villains in Gothic novels come in many guises, there is one thing that ties them all together – the simple fact that they represent the antithesis to the central protagonist. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, Oogie Boogie is Jack’s opposite in almost every way imaginable. While Jack is slender, lithe and abnormally sensitive, Oogie is huge, graceless and preternaturally cruel, taking a great deal of pleasure in the suffering of others. Similarly, while Jack is quietly self-restrained, Oogie represents decadence and excess, with a lair that transforms into a brightly-lit casino. He admits that human lives mean little to him and refers to himself as a gambling man, even though he often cheats to win the game. But unlike the villains of Gothic novels, Jack and Oogie have very little to do with one another, only meeting on-screen at the very end of the film. His intentions – besides wanting to kill Santa Claus – are never clarified, denoting a total lack of interiority. Lock, Shock and Barrel, the three trick-or-treaters, are supplied to fill us in on these missing details.

Another important aspect of Gothic literature is architecture, with most stories featuring some combination of dark forests; ruined abbeys; graveyards; and ancient castles, complete with dungeons and hidden passageways. Halloween Town is the archetypal Gothic landscape, dark and foreboding, with skewed perspectives indebted to German expressionism. The sky above the town is almost consistently black, and a fountain in the town square, shaped like a horned devil, vomits green slime into a shallow pool. But more interestingly, perhaps, is the use of psychological overlay, with the emotions of the characters seemingly affecting the world around them. After Jack’s lament in the graveyard, he wanders out into the hinterland, resigned to a life of boredom and misery. As he walks dejectedly, the trees begin to thin, making him look increasingly isolated within the frame. The sky turns a wan and sickly yellow, and the sun becomes a grinning jack-o-lantern, gazing down at him derisively. Similarly, after Jack is shot down by the military on Christmas Eve, he wakes up in a graveyard in the human world, his Santa suit in tatters. Unlike the gravestones in Halloween Town – which are carved into screaming, demonic faces – here they are shaped like angels, quietly praying, weeping, or bowing their heads in mourning. Like countless examples in Gothic novels, the landscape here reflects Jack’s emotional state, echoing the words of his final, plangent song.

Almost 25 years since the film was released, The Nightmare Before Christmas still boasts an enormous cult following, particularly within the alternative and goth communities. This is not only due to the film’s themes of loneliness and isolation, but because of what Susan Sontag describes as “a nostalgic affection for its source materials and a self-conscious love of the exaggerated.” By referencing Gothic narratives and subverting them, the film essentially functions as a kind of parody, “a literal para-odos, a complimentary song to be heard not in place of, but alongside the original.” Instead of distancing itself from its Gothic influences, the film celebrates and subverts them, making them more relevant to a modern audience. As such, the film has ushered in a new wave of Gothic narratives that are also aimed at children, most notably Corpse Bride (2005), Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012). These films also reference Gothic narrative conventions, though none have been as influential as The Nightmare Before Christmas, which effectively revolutionised stop-motion animation. It’s a shame that Tim Burton’s recent output, including Sweeney Todd (2007) and Dark Shadows (2012), has devolved into a form of self-parody, essentially damaging the genre that Burton once helped to construct. But if the Gothic revivals throughout history tell us anything, it’s that there will always be an audience for these types of narratives – stories that delight and terrify us in equal measures; or, as Jack might say, stories that feel like “a most improbable dream.”

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