There’s this part of nerd culture that likes to be the evangelist. You shake your fist at the Heavens and taste and lament why the amazing things you love aren’t embraced by the rest of the world.
Christmas has always been a tremendous thing in my household— the very house I spent most of my youth in was painted green with bright red doors by design. There were collections of Santa Claus statues and trimmings present nearly year round. The other seasons existed, but were given a little less pomp.
In 1993 I was an eight-year-old in the middle of a long stretch of Catholic schooling. It wasn’t particularly awful, but I was just as interested in Star Wars as I was sports and that was frowned upon from time to time. But one particular sticking point became kind of a banner for the family; “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.
I recall neighbors attacking my family for even watching the “satanic” film with its bizarre imagery. It seemed, as things sometimes seem before you have anything resembling perspective, that no one outside my family quite understood this movie. I recall a music class were we were asked to bring a cassette to sing along with and getting into trouble for bringing Nightmare’s soundtrack with it’s emphatic “And, BY GOD, I’m really gonna give it all my might”. There was confusion at Halloween when I dressed as Jack, and all sorts of nonsense from parents about how evil a movie this was. Fifty million dollar box office be damned, the world I personally was living in a world wasn’t interested in seeing “something strange”.
But this was a movie about Christmas. It was about it from a different lens, for certain. A wildly different angle. Clear as anything this was a story about both accepting who YOU were and enjoying all the many flavors the world had to offer— and in my household it was celebrated, even as everyone else around us seemed ready to carry it off with pitchforks.
I recall so clearly later in life walking into a mall store and seeing Nightmare Before Christmas toys and clothing and being aghast. I couldn’t believe that there was a market where the film was thriving. I had trouble comprehending that it had become accepted. Couldn’t dream that there would be covers of the soundtrack by big name rock stars, 3D re-releases, and an integration into culture at large.
My favorite moment came at a gathering years later at one of the cruel neighbors’ houses, looking at all the Disney movies on a shelf and realizing that someone, somewhere along the way had changed their mindset on that “satanic” movie that now sat next to all the other children’s films in the family room.
On the radio this week I heard “This is Halloween” a few times; both rock covers and the original in its entirety. I got a giant Halloween card with Jack on the front and music on the inside from my sister. I saw costumes at the Halloween stores and decorations at non-specialty locations.
And while Tim Burton and Danny Elfman take guff for working together continuously, Nightmare never feels stale or in any part replayed in their other work to me, perhaps simply due to the magic of Henry Selick’s animation. The movie is timeless, effortless, and it represents the holidays to me more clearly than anything.
It’s become commercialized, yes. But while a part of me always wants to hop on a rooftop and say, “I was here first”, I can never bring myself to begrudge a tattoo of Lock, Stock, and Barrel or a T-shirt from Hot Topic. It’s much like the film— the characters of Halloween Town are brought something new none of them, even the evangelist among them, understand. But eventually after a long dark night of misinterpretation we come together to get it.
The video selection is simply a spoken word piece from the soundtrack. Patrick Stewart narrated a version of Tim Burton’s book, and at some point was brought in to read Santa Claus’ opening and an unused ending. Every year I listen to the soundtrack, and every time we get to the end I choke up a bit…
“And would, if you could, turn that mighty clock back
to that long fateful night, now, think carefully Jack—
Would you do the whole thing all over again?
Knowing what you know now? Knowing what you knew then?”
“And he smiled like the old Pumpkin King that I knew
then turned, and asked softly—”