Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Unsettling Simpsons

My name is Brother Bill and I am a Simpsons fan.

I can spout Simpsons quotes off the top of my head the way a revival tent minister can quote the Good Book (and with comparable fervor!) Sure, the show has had its ups and downs--its salad days and dry patches--and the occasional unwatchable episode, but I just can't stay mad at The Simpsons. It gives so much and asks so little in return.

The Simpsons is one of the rare (maybe only? Roesanne is perhaps another) television series to truly embrace the concept of the Halloween special. And while there have been several Christmas-themed episodes, and the occasional story set around Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, or Valentine's Day, only Halloween gets the blood-red carpet rolled out for it every year, consistently and thoroughly.

Titled "Treehouse of Horror" (the debut Halloween episode, first broadcast Oct. 25, 1990, was framed as a trilogy of ghost stories being told in Bart's treehouse, and the name stuck) these non-canon episodes reimagine the first family of Springfield in a wide variety of fantastic scenarios, evoking horror films (I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Amityville Horror, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nightmare on Elm Street), science fiction (Fantastic Voyage, Demon Seed, The Omega Man, The Fly) classic anthology television (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents), fantasy fiction (Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe), and even Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Even relatively obscure horror radio drama Lights Out is referenced in one episode depicting a mist that turns people inside out.

Sometimes these episodes were actually set on Halloween, with The Simpsons telling ghost stories, throwing costume parties, or going trick-or-treating. The best "Treehouse" episodes captured the spirit of the season with macabre imagery and situations while still retaining the classic Simpsons humor.

But the series did not save all its "scary" content for the Treehouse episodes. Several non-Halloween episodes dealt with spooky subject matter (relatively speaking--it is a sit-com, after all).

"The Springfield Files" (S8,E10), an X-Files themed episode, follows Homer's nightly close encounter with a glowing, supernatural presence lurking in the woods. Contributing to the suspenseful atmosphere is the spine-tingling staccato of Bernard Herrmann-esque strings that, in a truly surreal spectacle, are coming from live symphony musicians riding together on a bus.

Bart carelessly sells his soul (symbolically represented by his autograph on church stationary) to Milhouse, and soon regrets it, in "Bart Sells His Soul" (S7,E4), a genuinely uneasy episode that manages to tap into real anxiety about loss of agency and regret. You can feel the existential desperation as Bart first begs for, then tries to take by force, a replacement soul from a frightened Ralph.

A stage hypnotist using Homer as his subject accidentally unlocks repressed childhood horrors in "The Blunder Years" (S13,E5), sending him into a days-long seizure of non-stop shrieking that manages to be both hilarious and horrifying at the same time. Peer counseling (and some "Yaqui memory tea") eventually help Homer come to terms with a long forgotten incident involving a drowned corpse in a canal.

Sometimes isolated spooky elements would creep their way into otherwise non-scary storylines. "Lisa's First Word" (S4,E10), for example, is a funny flashback episode in which a toddler-aged Bart adjusts to the arrival of his new baby sister, Lisa. But when Homer tries to entice Bart to vacate the crib by building a homemade clown bed, the results are accidentally horrifying...

...even at a distance!

It's Lisa who is afraid to go to bed in "The Girl Who Slept Too Little" (S17,E2), after a cemetery is built next to the Simpson house, casting nightmarish shadows through her bedroom window.

In "The Ziff Who Came To Dinner" (S15,E14), Homer thoughtlessly takes the kids to R-rated horror film The Redeadening when the family-friendly cartoon they hoped to see is sold out. The children cower in their theater seats as the story of murderous possessed doll 'Baby Button Eyes' unfolds.

Sometimes these moments were not scary in a traditional sense, but were funny or weird or strange in vaguely unsettling ways.

Like this uncomfortable moment when the barber, who Bart has been working for part-time, tries to pay him with an envelope of hair, grinning vacantly as a frightened Bart backs out of the store ("Lisa the Tree Hugger", S12,E4).

In "Secrets of a Successful Marriage" (S5,E22), a fight with Marge finds Homer evicted from the house and forced to live in Bart's treehouse. Lisa pays him a visit only to find her disheveled father fashioning a substitute Marge out of a shrub. "You will respect your new mother. Now kiss her!" he insists, while shoving the effigy in Lisa's face.

Homer and Mr. Burns get a severe case of cabin-fever after becoming snowed in during a team building exercise in "Mountain of Madness" (S8,E12). Hungry and freezing, they build snowmen to pass the time. But their complete disconnection from reality comes to the fore when they decide to dress the snowmen in their own clothes, a portrait of madness as they stand shivering before their creation.

In "Bart vs. Lisa vs. the Third Grade" (S14,E3), Bart becomes so addicted to their new satellite TV that he can't concentrate at school. He hallucinates a giant TV remote while his schoolmates turn into various TV characters, including a clown (not Krusty, ironically) who informs him in a matter of fact voice that will send chills down your spine, "It's finally happened, Bart. You've lost your mind."

In another example of disturbing hallucinations, Homer imagines himself becoming wealthy through pearl diving ("Saddlesore Galactica", S11,E13), waking up in a pearl-encrusted house from a pearl-encrusted bed, being served by a pearl butler who pours him a bowl of pearls for breakfast. But even in this fairy-tale fantasy, the spoonful of pearls shatters all his teeth, causing Homer to laugh like a mad man while staring at his gaping mouth in a pearl-encrusted mirror.

In "I'm Going To Praiseland" (S12,E19), Ned Flanders builds a Bible-themed amusement park to honor the memory of his recently passed wife, Maude. The tribute takes a turn for the creepy when Ned dons a souvenir Maude mask and mimics her voice.

In that same episode, we find out Ned has been preserving the indentation of Maude's body in the bed sheets.

In "Homer vs. Dignity" (S12,E5), Mr. Burns declares war on the town of Springfield, enlisting Homer in a series of cruel and disgusting pranks, which culminate in Burns posing as Santa Claus for the Christmas parade so he can throw buckets of fish guts on the unsuspecting children gathered to see him. The deliberate spoiling with liquid viscera of what should have been a beautiful moment had me flashbacking to Carrie White's prom.

Finally, this vignette from "Colonel Homer" (S3,E20) plays like a ghost story of sorts. Homer is on a long road trip and passes a restaurant sign, "Flaming Pete's; 75 Miles". The sign entices him and he clearly looks forward to arriving there.

A while later, a second road sign, "Flaming Pete's; 30 Miles". Homer is too tired from driving to react this time.

A third sign: "Flaming Pete's; Next Exit!" Homer perks up with excitement. Flaming Pete has been beckoning to him all night and they are finally going to rendezvous.

But there is no Flaming Pete's. Flaming Pete burned down years ago, on a night just like this one. Not sure who you think you saw waving to you out there on the road, but it couldn't have been Flaming Pete.

(Yea, yea yea---I understand the actual punch-line is that a restaurant with "flaming" in its name literally went up in smoke. But I tell you, there's a ghost story buried in there!)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Please, Sign In! (1981, Weekly Reader)

Back in the olden days before Internet social media profiles and emoji voting buttons, if kids wanted to document and share their likes and dislikes within their circle of friends, they had to get a little creative.

Enter "Please, Sign In!", a Weekly Reader entry that I ordered through my grade school Scholastic Book Club sometime in the early 80s (the publishing date is 1981). It's "compiled" by Edward J. Zagorski and Robert F. Gaynor, although that's really nothing to brag about since it's little more than a list of bland survey questions printed on a ruled notepad.

Unless TV sitcoms have lied to me, this type of friend-friendly questionnaire is called a "slam book", (the idea being the respondents write in their answers anonymously, allowing them to "slam" their peers with brutally honest opinions). Questions are supposed to be personal, embarrassing and salacious.

I first heard the term "slam book" in a 1982 Facts of Life episode, "Kids Can Be Cruel", where the book is circulating campus and the gals of Eastland Boarding School snicker over some of the cruel nicknames written in for an acne-scarred boy at neighboring Bates Academy.

The emotional consequences of such unhindered opinion-posting were also dramatized in a 1987 young-adult novel "Slam Book" by Baby-Sitters Club author Ann M. Martin.

Mid-90s magazine Ben Is Dead deemed slam books to be a significant paper artifact of Generation-X history, featuring them alongside cootie-detectors and M.A.S.H. fortune-tellers in the first of what would become a three-issue long retro-nostalgia deep dive (Retro Hell! Issue #25, 1995).

But "Please, Sign In!" is just a kiddified and commodified version of this DIY phenomenon, so the term "slam book" is never used within its pages, and the questions are of the non-controversial variety (with some cute illustrations by Richard Maccabe.)

Unfortunately this is not the actual specimen from my youth, but a recently acquired unused copy, so I don't have the pleasure of presenting my grade-school classmates hand-written answers, just the original dull questions.