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Not too long ago, I had the chance to see a live show of Welcome to Night Vale as the popular podcast does its tour of the West Coast. The audience was kindly asked not to reveal any details of the touring script since it would eventually be recorded as an actual episode of the podcast, so this won’t exactly be a recounting of the funny as hell and eerily satisfying experience of watching a live performance piece. Instead, I’d rather focus on why Night Vale works as theater and as a podcast. Why has a, until recently, unknown podcast combining elements of Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, George Orwell, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Rod Serling, and David Lynch captured the imaginations of fans around the world? Simply put: Night Vale relies on the fans to fill in the blanks, creating the world of Night Vale through a combination of being very specific and very vague.
Created over a year ago by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast centered around the town of Night Vale – which seems to be in an as-yet unknown location in the American Southwest – and the seemingly mundane things that happen to occur there as reported by the Night Vale Community Radio host, Cecil Palmer, voiced by Cecil Baldwin. On any given day, Cecil could report on the angels that took up residence with Old Woman Josie for a time, the Dog Park that no one is allowed to go to, speak about, or think of, or the helicopters of various colors that correspond to specific groups keeping tabs on the town. There are also several ongoing storylines such as the upcoming mayoral election between Hiram McDaniels (a five-headed dragon) and the Faceless Old Woman (the one who lives in your home), the current corporate infiltration of Night Vale by StrexCorp, and Cecil’s relationship with Carlos, a scientist who moved to Night Vale to study the phenomena that make it the “most scientifically interesting community in the U.S.”
As you can see, there’s a lot going on in the seemingly normal town where a mountain can randomly appear and citizens are mandated by the local government to eat at a pizza place once a week on penalty of a misdemeanor. Within each roughly 25 minute episode, listeners are given more insight into the workings of Night Vale while also being treated to the entertainingly weird underbelly of the town and its residents. The popularity of the podcast is due entirely to its fanbase, which is true of any podcast, but Night Vale’s rise has an element of interaction with its fans that differs from other popular podcasts like This American Life, The Nerdist, and The Moth. Night Vale isn’t about interviewing a celebrity or telling personal stories. Night Vale is theater of the mind, a program that requires its fans to “see” everything that’s happening based solely on Cecil’s descriptions. Because of this, the imagination of the fanbase is an additional element of Night Vale’s popularity and its success.
Like most radio shows, Night Vale has to be overly descriptive in order to establish its own reality and set the tone of each episode. So when Hiram McDaniels is revealed to be an “eighteen-foot-tall, five-headed dragon, weighing 3,600 pounds” and each head has differently colored eyes and voices, we get a picture of him in our minds but there’s also enough latitude there that someone with artistic talent could take the description and create a version of Hiram that’s no less accurate than another fan’s rendition. In contrast, incumbent Mayor Pamela Winchell has had very little said in the way of her personal appearance, but Cecil has provided many broadcasts that describe her near-demonic personality, which also allows the imaginations of fans to run with what they think Pamela looks like. Similarly, we have a vague idea of what Carlos looks like based on how Cecil described him in the pilot episode, but in 39 episodes of the podcast we have absolutely no idea of what Cecil looks like. Some have used his voice actor as a template, but many fans have essentially crafted their own image of Cecil out of thin air, though there does seem to be a running theme of adding a third eye. Even the community of Night Vale is a vague collection of buildings and landmarks, none of which are entirely set in stone by some map of the area. By keeping it intentionally vague, the creators can easily use the layout of the city at their leisure, but it still allows the fans to speculate and create. Plus, it’s really hard to put a house that may not exist on a map.
Night Vale has also benefited greatly from social media outlets, specifically tumblr, where fans have formed their own communities that share insights on the episodes or whatever pieces they’ve created to express their fandom. Again, it’s no different from any other podcast, television show, or movie with loyal fans. But Night Vale isn’t like Supernatural, which has a healthy and active fanbase present on pretty much every social media platform. Supernatural is a live-action television show, one that gives its fanbase visual depictions of its characters and settings. So if someone dresses up like Castiel, Dean, or Sam there are ways in which that costume or any pieces of art can be compared to the television counterpart. Night Vale’s cast and settings exist entirely in the head cannon of the fanbase. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone criticized because their Glow Cloud costume wasn’t accurate. More so than live-action or animated programs, Night Vale lives and breathes on the investment of the fanbase in the show and the characters. God forbid Cecil and Carlos ever broke up is all I’m saying.
That’s why I think the live shows continue to work. Very little changes in terms of how the show is presented except for a live musical performance for the weather segment and the presence of Cecil Baldwin reading the script. Cecil is still in character and the news reported is still of the same quality. The only real difference is the presence of the audience, but even then there’s still a sense of the audience perpetuating the illusion of the podcast. Sure, there are more audible reactions to what Cecil reports, but the audience doesn’t need visual cues. We know Carlos, Steve Carlsberg, and Tamika Flynn but we don’t need the live show to give us a definitive image. We already have the idea in our heads and all we really need is Cecil to transport us to a sleepy little desert town where our existence is not impossible, but it’s also highly unlikely.
Now a tradition of the long-running series, The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episodes are often the most anticipated of the season as they mark the return of the show from the summer hiatus and give the writers of the show a chance to tell out of canon stories where literally anything can happen to their characters without any repercussions whatsoever. Beginning in the second season, Treehouse of Horror is typically an anthology episode consisting of three different stories steeped in horror tropes, the macabre, and Twilight Zone style twists. While the episodes, in the early years, used to have a framing device that sort of justified the off-kilter tales, later seasons just jumped into the stories proper.
So, in keeping with this Halloween animation theme I seem to have going today, I thought I’d give you my 13 favorite Treehouse of Horror segments. Why 13? Do you really have to ask?
But it wouldn’t be The Simpsons without the requisite couch gag, so here’s one directed by one of the masters of the macabre, Guillermo Del Toro. Try to see how many characters, directors, writers, and concepts you can pick out!
Capitalizing on the Harry Potter craze, and even including a caricature of Potter chewing on some brimstone, Lisa and Bart are young wizards at Springwart’s School of Magicry where, surprise, surprise, Lisa is the star pupil capable of performing every spell perfectly. Bart, unfortunately, can barely manage to turn a toad into a prince, resulting in a creature that just needs to be put out of its misery. Seduced by the power offered by the evil Montymort and his pet snake Slithers, Bart agrees to sabotage Lisa’s demonstration of the “levitating dragon trick”, swapping her wand for a Twizzler. The trick gone awry, the dragon turns into Montymort who starts to absorb Lisa’s power causing Bart to have a change of heart and stab Montymort in the ankle with Lisa’s wand, which just so happens to be the dark sorcerer’s weak spot. In the end, Lisa and Bart patch things up and all is well.
Based on The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the Simpsons are vacationing on “The Island of Lost Souls” and discover that Dr. Hibbert is running the resort, presumably to stay out of sight after rumors that he’d gone mad. It doesn’t take long for Marge to realize something might be amiss (especially when the family dines on a turkey who looks suspiciously like Prof. Frink) and goes to investigate only to find herself caught and genetically mutated into a cat woman. The rest of the episode is essentially based around the visual gags of all the residents of Springfield in their animal forms: Homer a walrus, Bart a spider, Lisa an eagle, Maggie an anteater, Flanders a cow-centaur, etc. In the end, they’re pretty much happy being animals and embrace the lifestyle on the island.
When a freak Halloween candy x-ray accident occurs, Bart and Lisa develop superpowers; Bart the ability to stretch every part of his body and Lisa super strength. The only possible course of action? Become the superheroes Stretch Dude and Clobber Girl. Elsewhere, Lucy Lawless (dressed as Xena) addresses a group of nerds at a convention and dodges all questions of continuity errors with the brilliant line, “A wizard did it.” In the midst of the convention, Lawless is kidnapped by Comic Book Guy, calling himself The Collector, who seeks to preserve Lawless along with several other celebrity figures. Lisa and Bart come to Lawless’s rescue, but find themselves captured as well. Only by feigning interest in The Collector does Lawless get the upper hand, punching him to the point that he removes his limited edition lightsaber from its original packaging, thus destroying its value. Stunned, he accidentally falls into a vat of Lucite with just enough time to strike a dramatic pose before the chemical encases him forever. With everyone safe, Lawless picks up Bart and Lisa and flies them home, prompting Lisa to point out that Xena can’t fly, to which Lawless proclaims she’s not Xena, she’s Lucy Lawless. Makes perfect sense.
During the 1600s, Springfield fell pray to the same practices of Salem, accusing various people of being witches with an impressive body count. During a church meeting to decide who to condemn next, Marge attempts to talk sense to the congregation and is accused of being a witch herself. Told to jump from a cliff to prove her innocence, it turns out that Marge is actually a witch and upon her discovery returns to her wicked sister Patty and Selma. Falling back on her witchy ways, the sisters start going around the village collecting children to eat. Only after Maude Flanders offers them gingerbread men in exchange for the lives of Rod and Tod do the witches think treats are better than eating children. A year later and the tradition is set, with the occasional accusation of witchcraft still used sparingly. Serves you right, Lisa, for pointing out the obvious!
When Lisa’s compassion for animals drives her to free Snorky the dolphin from the local water park, she unknowingly brings about a war between dolphins and man. Snorky is, in fact, king of the dolphins and organizes his subjects to attack the surface world. When Snorky interrupts a town meeting following a series of water-based murders, he banishes humans to the sea. Outnumbered by the dolphins, the residents of Springfield are resigned to their punishment until Lisa is bitten by a baby dolphin and Homer discovers that punching dolphins is an adequate defense. Unfortunately, the townsfolk still find themselves banished to the sea because the dolphins, “just wanted it more.”
A parody of Soylent Green, when detention appears to be getting overcrowded with students, Skinner approves using the overflow of children as a substitute meat product in the cafeteria. With the student body decreasing as the teaching staff grows fat from consuming their charges, it’s down to Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse who’re chased through the horrifically changed school by the ravenous teachers. In a hilarious use of meta-humor, Bart points out that there’s no way any of them could die right before Milhouse falls into a giant blender. Amending his statement, Bart is then confident that nothing could happen to the Simpson children…until he and Lisa also fall to their deaths.
Looking for material to do a book report, Bart stumbles upon a book of black magic in the “Occult Section” of the Springfield Elementary Library. Later that evening, Bart offers to resurrect Lisa’s beloved Snowball I from the Pet Cemetery when he spies her lamenting the loss of her cat. Uttering an incantation at Snowball’s grave, Bart accidentally raises the dead in the regular cemetery who proceed to run amok in the town, turning many of its citizens into zombies. When Lisa posits that the library must have a counter spell, the Simpsons attempt to brave the zombie horde to end the curse. Along the way, Homer gets to use his trusty shotgun to shoot anything that gets in their way, including Flanders…who turns out to have actually been a zombie. Not unlike George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), “Dial ‘Z’ for Zombies” ends on a satirical note with the town cured and the family sitting in front of the television staring blankly into the screen. It was honestly a toss-up between this segment and “The Fright to Creep and Scare Harms”, but this one edged it out mostly for Homer shooting Flanders for non-zombie related reasons and the sequence where the zombies attempt to eat Homer’s brain, but find him wanting.
Invited to Mr. Burn’s castle in Pennsylvania for dinner, the Simpsons are greeted by their host who’s taken on a very vampiric look, an homage of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for the evening. Exploring the place Bart and Lisa discover Burns’ secret – he’s a vampire. Trying to escape, Bart is bitten and begins to exhibit signs that he’s also been turned into a vampire. Floating outside your sister’s window with all your recently turned friends is a pretty good sign, I think. About to bite Lisa, Homer and Marge walk in and realize he’s a vampire, leading the family to storm Burns’ castle to kill him and end the curse. The twist ending is probably one of my favorites as it’s so random you can’t help but laugh. While this segment is a big favorite of mine, this is also one of the segments my mother adores purely based on the staking gag. It’s The Simpsons at their best, defying your expectation of what’s actually happening as Homer stakes Mr. Burns only for Lisa to point out that he’s been staking Burns’ crotch.
A bit of a cheat, but the more I thought about it, there are just so many segments to choose from that narrowing it down gets a lot harder once it comes down to the top five. “Hungry Are the Damned” is an homage of To Serve Man, a short story by Damon Knight later adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone. Instead of the aliens (the first appearance of Kang and Kodos) trying to eat them, Lisa becomes the villain when she accuses them of trying to fatten them up for slaughter based on a rather dusty cookbook cover that uses the play on words gag of the source material and milks it for all it’s worth. “The Shinning”, is a pitch perfect parody of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. house sitting for Mr. Burns, Homer is denied the two things he needs in life: beer and television. Without them, he goes “something, something”, reenacting the intense chase sequence from Kubrick’s movie. Only with Bart’s “shinning” is the family saved when Groundskeeper Willie arrives and stops Homer’s insanity when his portable television drops into the snow. The family gathers around the tv and freezes together…until the Tony Awards come on.
Not only is this a great Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody, but it’s also a ridiculously funny political satire as Kang and Kodos return to run for political office by replacing then candidates Pres. Bill Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole. Learning to navigate the fickle political crowd, the two are eventually revealed by Homer to the American people. But because of the two-party system’s dominance over the political sphere, people are literally voting for the lesser of two evils, which is still pretty damn evil. Like I said, this segment is more political satire with aliens in it, but it has some of the best lines. When a cartoon can make you laugh at an abortion joke, you know they’re doing something right. There’s also the wonderfully trite statement of “Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos,” that tends to pop up every election year since.
A parody of The Devil and Daniel Webster, Homer makes a deal with The Devil, who ironically happens to be Flanders, to exchange his soul for a doughnut. Discovering that only by finishing the treat does the deal stand, Homer thinks he’s found the ultimate loophole. Homer being Homer, however, he quickly consumes the rest of the forbidden doughnut and earns his ticket down stairs. Marge, trying to save her husband, asks for a trial in which Homer is judged by the most vile fiends of Hell. With Lionel Hutz defending Homer, Marge reveals that he’d already given his soul away when he married her, thus the deal is null and void. The Devil concedes but only after leaving Homer with a reminder of their twisted arrangement. Another segment packed with jokes, the best sequence is Homer’s stay in Hell while Marge puts the trial together. Hell may revel in their ironic punishments, but there isn’t a doughnut Homer won’t eat and watching the demon’s expression turn from evil glee to confusion in the span of a time fade is hilarious. And it’s always nice to hear the late Phil Hartman’s voice as the inept Lionel Hutz.
An absolute must read for any fan of the macabre and horror, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” has endured not just because of its infectious rhyme scheme but also the imagery it conjures up of a man tortured by the presence of a raven in his study as he mourns the loss of his wife. Many interpretations have been made, but The Simpsons manage to strike the right balance of paying homage to the source material while also having some fun with it. Having James Earl Jones narrate the piece gives it gravitas, but there’s something to be said for hearing Homer spout Poe’s words in his own particular way that’s hilarious no matter what.
Hands down, this is my favorite segment of any Treehouse of Horror episode. Joke for joke, it all works when Homer buys a talking Krusty the Klown doll for Bart’s birthday from The House of Evil. Blowing off the warnings of the shop owner in regards to the doll being evil (as well as a fantastic exchange over frogurt), everything seems fine until the doll makes several attempts to kill Homer. After Marge calls a hotline, a repairman is sent and points out that the doll’s switch had been set to “evil”. Switching it to “good”, the doll becomes friendly and complacent, which Homer takes advantage of, making the Krusty doll his slave. The episode ends with the Krusty doll coming home from a hard day of work serving Homer to Lisa’s Malibu Stacy doll in her dream house. It’s a mundane end to a segment that’s anything but.
So those are my 13 Favorite Treehouse of Horror segments. What are your favorites and how would you rank them?