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“The Nightmare Before Christmas” as Liturgical Fairy-Tale, Part 1

Published Friday, October 30, 2020 By Anthony G. Cirilla

As holiday films go, The Nightmare Before Christmas has an iconic status owed in part to its ability to serve double duty as a movie about both Halloween and Christmas. Its eerie but charismatic protagonist, Jack Skellington, serves as a walking memento mori to adults—his self-lauding remarks about his effortless ability to scare grown men off their feet stems from the simple fact that he is a skeleton who reminds us that our bodies will be likewise reduced one day to bare bones. Children who enjoy the story are caught up by his emotion—his lamentation about the wearisome nature of his role as pumpkin king and enthusiasm for Christmas provide an intense emotional connection for them to feel invested in his story. The Nightmare Before Christmas is hardly unique among Christmas and Halloween stories to use fantasy elements, but the special power of the film comes from the fact that it fuses the wonder of Christmas fantasy to Halloween horror.

In a Gothic fashion, Nightmare realizes a story effect of what Tolkien termed “Faerie,” and points as a result to fundamental truths that he believed were better understood when encountered in mythic form. And when Tolkien’s theory of the Fairy-Story illuminates the structure of Jack Skellington’s hero’s journey, one can catch, I believe, “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world” (71). To that end, we will examine the basic elements Tolkien contended constituted the fairy-story as they manifest in Nightmare, which are fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation, to the end of seeing in the film a logic of liturgical imagination.

Holiday Fantasy and Halloween Sub-creation

For Tolkien, Fantasy is “a higher form of Art” which perfects through reason the capacity of our imaginations to conceive of “images of things that are not only ‘not actually present’ but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there” (47). Naturally, a talkative and emotional skeleton who rules Halloween but is enamored of Christmas, and is in love with a sentient rag doll, certainly qualifies as imaginative, but the fact that such things are “not actually present” in our “primary world” is only a component of this definition. What makes The Nightmare Before Christmas so powerful isn’t that it uses these fantasy elements, but that it engages what Tolkien deems necessary to “make a Secondary World inside which” such Halloween fantasy creatures can “be credible, commanding Secondary Belief” (49). This secondary belief requires “labor and thought”—a lack of which makes imaginary premises shallow and so, however fantastic, not truly fantasy in Tolkien’s sense of the word. Perceiving how Nightmare produces this sense of sub-creation and secondary belief is fundamental to accessing its narrative power.

The film begins with an image evocative of the Wood Between the Worlds in C.S. Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew: the camera pans slowly over a copse of trees circling a clearing, with each tree bearing a door shaped in the iconography of a major holiday. The opening voice over immediately strikes a fairy-tale mood: “Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams.” In addition to evoking “T’was the night before Christmas,” the opening phrase also calls to mind “Once upon a time,” a phrase about which Tolkien says, “one can scarcely improve on the formula…. It has an immediate effect… It produces at a stroke the sense of a great uncharted world of time” (81). This idea of uncharted worlds of time is indeed enlarged upon in the next words of Nightmare’s narrator: “For the story that you are about to be told, took place in the holiday worlds of old.  Now, you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from.  If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun.” At once, this injunction transfers holidays from a time to a place: the atmospheric quality of holidays and their place in the changing seasons becomes an effect emanating from enchanted lands. As the camera sweeps the audience into the pumpkin-shaped door and hears the somber music begin to shift into the energetic “This is Halloween,” our imagination is prepared to enter into the film’s fantasy secondary belief.

Before moving on to discuss the psychological effects Tolkien regards as essential to turn a fantasy into its noblest realization, the fairy-tale, a word should be said about Tolkien’s view of the role of imaginative sovereignty in fantasy. In “Mythopoeia,” a poem where Tolkien details the core epistemic posture of seeing myth-making as essential to truth-seeking which underlines On Fairy-Stories, he writes of humanity, “Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,/And keep the rags of lordship once he owned:/Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light/…./That right has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we’re made” (54-55). Our role as stewards of the earth involves our imaginations, and though that is marred by sin and the Fall, we retain a right and need to engage in myth because it is part of our essential Imago Dei. This is partly why myth can glimpse at truth only revealed completely in Scripture, and why both creating and encountering secondary belief is worthwhile.

This point is important for The Nightmare Before Christmas because the protagonist, Jack Skellington, is himself a dis-graced but not de-throned steward of imagination. As the leader of Halloween Town, he bears the task of making the holiday’s celebration great, a responsibility that the Mayor wishes to underscore for him even on November 1st. Jack’s nemesis, Oogie Boogie, seems to have been imprisoned by Jack as part of his vision of Halloween—during the opening song, one of the Halloween creatures says, “But we’re not mean,” suggesting that real violence and harm is not encouraged even in this world of ostensible horror. Oogie Boogie makes an appearance as a shadow on the moon during the performance of the song but otherwise is confined to his cell, so that Jack as Pumpkin King has enforced his vision over the domain of the town. The videogame prequel, The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Pumpkin King for Gameboy Advance, shows Jack defending his title as Pumpkin King from Oogie Boogie, making it clear that when Jack shows up at the end of the film to reprimand Oogie for his mistreatment of his friends, this is an assertion about legitimate versus illegitimate sovereignty of imagination in Halloween Town’s community.

Incidentally, it should be noted that Jack discovers Christmas Town the day after Halloween, which is All Saint’s (Hallows) Day. From a liturgical standpoint, All Saints’ Day provides occasion for meditating on the fate of all who have been saved by Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, which itself requires the Incarnation—remembered at Christmas. The epistle reading for All Saints’ Day is Revelation 7:2-17, which emphasizes the sovereignty of the eternal God over temporal grief. Albeit the film’s intentions are certainly secular, the fact that Jack, a steward of the holiday which underscores our mortality, finds his comfort in Christmas Town immediately after celebrating Halloween serves as an opportunity to reflect on the liturgical calendar’s ordering of the holidays and the emotional logic there.

A Jolly Recovery of Nightmarish Wonder

Tolkien discusses how the storytelling element of fantasy derives from the cognitive development of the ability to recognize the role of adjectives in describing reality: “no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent” (22).  This can be used to a variety of effects, including fearful ones: “We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror” (22-23). Although such images are not real, it is not until we can conceptually produce them that we can say we’ve fully grasped the actual, present reality (I cannot see the green in the grass until I can comprehend it separately from the grass, for example). The skeleton has been magically abstracted from the body in the fantasy of Jack Skellington, and likewise the secondary world of Halloween creatures in which he dwells derives its in-world existence from such abstraction from primary world realities. But Jack’s lament, after an apparently successful celebration of Halloween in the minds of his townsfolk, makes it clear that the nightmarish wonders around him have lost their sparkle: “Yet year after year, it’s the same routine/And I grow so weary of the sound of screams/And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King/Have grown so tired of the same old thing.” Jack is summoned to his hero’s journey not by an outside force but by his own desire to keep alive that core love for surprise that makes the scares of Halloween fun—but the demand for ever-increasing fright without actually harmful fear has become boring to him.

The audience sits in a peculiar place during this lament, for they are new to a world where Halloween is year-round (though Christmas creep and Halloween creep seem to be worse than ever in 2020), and yet from the ordinary world can likely sympathize with Jack’s feeling that others are excited by the same old thing while it bores him to tears. In Jack’s view, the town’s imagination needs rejuvenation and he needs something new to refresh his mind—in a word, he wants what Tolkien calls “recovery,” defined as “a re-gaining of a clear view” of just how wonderful and surprising the Primary World actually is. We are given the benefit of such wonder ourselves, as we scoff at the fantastic idea of talking skeletons but then remember that, in some sense, that is actually what we are. The loss of epistemic humility, the bored belief that we have mastered knowledge about our world, is remedied by the experience of fantasy in the secondary world when it rekindles surprise over facts of the actual world, relieving us, as Tolkien puts it, “from possessiveness” of what we think we know and can take for granted.

So Jack begins his journey for renewal of perspective, with his ghost dog Zero at his side. A bit of foreshadowing occurs when he gives in to Zero’s desire to play fetch, tossing one of his own rib-bones carelessly so that it falls into shadow and Zero finds it with his glowing nose. He can’t see it, but glimpses of Christmas are shining even in the dark outskirts of Halloween Town. So it is that as he walks his dog he finds the same Wood between the Worlds that had introduced the audience to his world, and he says, as we had, “It’s someplace different, someplace new.” A denizen of Halloween Town, he is impressed to see doors leading to worlds of Valentine, Thanksgiving, and St. Patrick’s, but at first he walks past the door to his left that will most captivate him: the decorated Christmas tree door that leads to Christmas Town. As the figure of Death meets a symbol of new and renewed life, he too finds an enchanting vitality in this shining object of mystery.

Significantly Jack opens the door but he only peers in and turns to shrug to Zero, when a gust of wind draws him through the opening—suggesting that something more is at work than his own internal curiosity and pained boredom. Jack, as the ethos of Halloween, discovers the pathos of Christmas with utter wonder. But as the audience has celebrated Halloween and come to understand Jack’s frustration with a community that finds joy only in the surprise of scares, they too are given an opportunity to experience renewal in the face of iconic December scenes. Dropped into a world of Rankin/Bass Christmas, Jack asks with childlike awe, “What’s this?” of all the wonderful things we scarcely notice (or even feel frustration about as Jack did for Halloween), we remember to stop seeing Christmas in an over-familiar way. The decoration of trees, the baking of pies, the singing of carols, the “good feeling all around”—sure, the Christmas creep is annoying, but is it really more virtuous to view it all with disdain? Jack lets us see Christmas again for the first time because he, in his nightmarish imagination, never has before.

But there is a dark side to Jack’s experience of the holiday as he sings, “The monsters are all missing/And the nightmares can’t be found/And in their place there seems to be/Good feeling all around.” Even more so than in Halloween Town Jack looks monstrous as he casts shadows on sleeping elf children and brings to this joyous place a fear strange to the people there. His desire to get away from the overfamiliarity of Halloween Town actually underscores that he can’t change what he is: a frightening undead thing that relishes in the terrifying. Even his refrain, “I want it, oh I want it for my own,” becomes increasingly disturbing as he decides that he wants to capture Christmas and become master over another holiday. Like a legalistic attempt to overcome original sin’s death through works, the undead Pumpkin King cannot achieve participation in Christmas Town’s essence through sheer force of will or even rigorous intellect.

This thought leads to a point we’ll consider in the next post, namely, how Jack moves from recovery of wonder to what Tolkien would regard as an illegitimate expression of another function of the Fairy-Tale: escape.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

Blog Banner Image: The Nightmare Before Christmas, by Helgi Halldórsson, October 12, 2008. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic {{CC BY-SA 2.0}}, resized by MR.

  • Anthony G. Cirilla