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Points of Light Christmas Edition: The Nightmare Before Christmas

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Season’s greetings once again, as we continue our look at holiday classics.  Last week we explored the Christmas horror of the Krampus, and this week, we continue that theme with one of the most well known holiday mashups- Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The Plot

Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, a land that is literally all about making Halloweeen.  Jack and the other monsters work each year to create the perfect holiday, but Jack has grown bored with the same thing over and over.  He stumbles across the Hinterlands, an area of the forest that borders other holiday worlds.  Jack finds the doorway to Christmastown, and is enthralled by how different it is from the scares of Halloween.  Jack brings some of it back home, but it unable to truly grasp the ‘science’ of the holiday.  However, his enthusiasm convinces him that he can perform Christmas as well, and he gets the other denizens of Halloween to aid him.  But the monsters don’t understand the idea of the holiday, and make toys and gifts designed to frighten children.  Oblivious, Jack kidnaps Santa and delivers the toys, only to be shot down and lament his poor choices.  However, the experience has reinvigorated Jack’s creativity and love for Halloween, so Jack returns to save Santa from the clutches of the Oogy Boogy Man.

What Writers Can Learn; Obsession, Finding Purpose

Most fans love Nightmare for its design, songs, and imagination.  And with Burton’s mind, Danny Elfman’s songs, and its unlikely inspiration (Burton saw the mix of Christmas and Halloween decorations while shopping), these are all great reasons to enjoy the film.  But for writers, the film is a great example of two classic themes.  First, we have obsession, and a kind we can easily see around the holidays.  Jack is someone that is tired of the demands of his life, and living in a world that is a reminder of everything he has grown bored with.

But suddenly, he is thrust into a world that is bright and colorful and full of joy.  He not only brings this home, but tries to grasp to understand it and then make it his life.  We can all relate to feeling enthralled by the Christmas season and its colorful spectacle.  But anyone that has seen houses over decorated and people trying to outdo each other with gifts and parties knows that it is easy lose yourself to it as well.  But Jack’s attempts go farther- he tries to make his own Christmas before he understands it.  He recruits monsters, who only know scaring people, and happily accepts the frightening toys and decorations they make.  Anyone could tell Jack that he’s missing the point, but he simply accepts it because they resemble the things he’s seen.  Therefore, the movie stands as a metaphor for getting lost in Christmas spectacle and missing what makes it work.

But the greater purpose of the story is as a story of a mid life crisis and renewed purpose.  While all the monster of Halloweentown love their work, they require Jack’s creativity to truly shine.  And Jack has been doing this since Halloween began, so it is easy to imagine how draining the experience has been for him.  It has made him feel bored and unsatisfied with his life, but he has no way to leave the holiday he is in charge of.  Therefore, he is going through what can be called a midlife crisis- where he is wondering about the point of his life, and whether or not he can continue with it.  But the discovery of Christmas gives Jack the total opposite of what he’s been doing and lets him feel that he has something new to design again- in other words, it’s his new car.  But obviously, Jack’s creativity doesn’t fit the Christmas setting, and he is literally shot down in flames.  But as he lies among the ruins, he realizes that despite his failure, he has performed to the best of his abilities and has enjoyed his work for the first time in years.  Feeling reinvigorated, he promises new ideas for next Halloween.  For writers looking to sculpt a character full of self-doubt that rediscovers purpose, this is a perfect arc.

Further Reading

For those that enjoyed the style and themes of Nightmare, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice carry it on in spades, while James and the Giant Peach, a Burton production, carries on the stop-motion style and features a cameo from Jack.  And for those that enjoy more weirdness in their holidays, come back next week as we hitch a ride on the Great A’Tuin and visit the great city of Ankh-Morpork.