About two years ago, I embarked upon a quest to watch as many made-for-TV Christmas specials as possible. This resulted in my top 13 animated Christmas specials. In an attempt to recreate some of this surprise magic I discovered on this journey, I decided to spend most of my free time in October to watch as many Halloween TV specials as possible. It was actually a bit harder this time around, mainly because I usually like to marathon horror movies around this time. Having to trade some of my free time away from horror films was a tough move. But in the end, I think the right decision was made.
Halloween is far away my very favorite holiday. As a kid, it used to be a great excuse to run around visiting strangers’ houses in costume, yelling “Trick or treat!” and collecting as much candy as possible. These days, I’m less enamored by sugar and more fond of red wine, but I still love to dress up every year and enjoy all the spooky offerings the holiday has to offer – including the film and TV specials of the season. As with the Christmas viewings, I widened my scope to include stuff from as many decades as possible, both animated and live-action, some as short as ten minutes and others around feature-film length. Nonetheless, I largely emphasized animated specials from the 70s-90s with a runtime of around 20-35 minutes.
As the title states, I am listing my favorite Halloween specials as proven by my journey through this colorful pile of TV shows and made-for-TV movies. I’ve written about a lot of these, but others I simply lacked the time and/or energy. Unlike the Christmas post, I will be including both animated and live-action fare. While many of these are suitable for all ages, there will also be some adult-oriented stuff here – just a mild disclaimer! Other than this special notice, if you’ve taken a look at my Christmas post, you probably have some idea of what to expect here.
Before I move on to the definitive list, I’d like to include a couple lists of honorable mentions. The first involves specials that were originally aired as “Halloween episodes” and certainly carry the same spooky energy as many of the others – but their plots were not specifically centered around the holiday. Just separating these out from those that are in order to keep things from being totally misleading!
- Adventure Time – “The Creeps” & “From Bad to Worse” (2011): From a Clue-style murder mystery, to a zombie invasion (the second one in the show). Both of them are chock full of the kind of absurd awesomeness one would expect from Adventure Time.
- Animaniacs – “Draculee, Draculaa” (1993): Some of the best segments of Animaniacs involve Yakko, Wakko, and Dot performing and endless array of pranks on prominent figures. In this case, it’s Count Dracula (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) and it’s as enjoyable as it sounds.
- Dave the Barbarian – “That Darn Ghost!” (2004): Dave the Barbarian never quite got the recognition it deserved, but this episode is one of the funniest, most clever bits of its one entire season. Also, they invent Halloween at the end!
- Festival of Family Classics – “Jack o’ Lantern” (1972): If you enjoy Rankin & Bass’s Christmas specials, you’d probably enjoy their traditionally animated take on Jack Pumpkinhead. It’s super weird, but super worth watching, if you can find it.
- Futurama – “The Honking” (2000): Not among the top tier of episodes from this usually incredible show, but it takes the tried-and-true concept of werewolf affliction in an interesting new direction nonetheless.
- The Muppet Show – “Vincent Price” (1976) & “Alice Cooper” (1978): Typical Muppety humor to be found in these episodes, but the inclusion of these guests make it a tad more macabre. The Vincent Price episode is especially wonderful.
- The Powerpuff Girls – “Boogie Frights” (1998): I was so sad to leave this off. It’s a fun premise that takes the freaks who come out at night, adds in a disco theme, and throws in an ending that references Star Wars for some reason. It’s one of my favorite PPG episodes ever.
- Spongebob SquarePants – “Graveyard Shift” (2002): Technically the plainly titled episode “Halloween” is the first official Halloween episode of Spongebob, but I always found this very in the spirit as well. It’s the one with the Hash-Slinging Slasher and the Nosferatu punchline. It’s one of my favorite episodes of the show and I revisit it every year.
- Tiny Toons Night Ghoulery (1995): I’m still waiting for this one to completely click with me, but I sure admire the hell out of it. In a “Treehouse of Horror” style anthology, the Tiny Toons characters lampoon such spooky bits of media as The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Twilight Zone, Night of the Living Dead, and others. It’s a blast!
- Toy Story of Terror! (2013): Nothing about this screams “Halloween” at all, but it does make for a genuinely thrilling mystery tale. It’s certainly one of the better Toy Story spinoff shorts we’ve got.
- Two Heads Are Better Than None (2000): A Nickelodeon made-for-TV movie featuring Kenan & Kel, this begins as a wacky family road trip and ends up in a sort of proto-Get Out scenario. It’s uneven, but good, childish fun.
And now, a second list of honorable mentions, this one for all the TV specials and episodes that undeniably center around Halloween, but unfortunately missed this cut this time around.
- The Amazing World of Gumball – “Halloween” (2012): Gumball is one of the most innovative kids’ animated shows out there, and the first Halloween special showcases all that makes the show so wonderful to watch.
- Bugs Bunny’s Howl-oween Special (1978): This is a bizarre TV special, in that it is mostly an assorted collection of Looney Tunes shorts clumsily spliced together to create some sort of narrative centered around Witch Hazel. Good to watch for nostalgia’s sake, I guess.
- A Disney Halloween (1982): An even clumsier splice-a-thon than Bugs Bunny’s Howl-oween Special, this is nonetheless a pretty cool 80s relic, in that it joins together a bunch of little clips from various Disney animated films, in a time where it was very hard to watch such films in pieces. It’s kind of boring in retrospect, but might be good for kids.
- Ed, Edd, n Eddy’s Boo Haw Haw (2005): This does some really impressive stuff with the idea that one can actually watch way too many horror movies! The animation is also a slight cut above what I’m used to from the show, so that’s neat.
- Even Stevens – “A Very Scary Story” (2001): It really takes a lot for me to enjoy the sterilized writing in most Disney sitcoms, but the concept of zombie possession through a school’s routine eye exams is too compelling to pass up – and for the most part, it delivers!
- The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t (1979): This Emmy-winning TV special features a collection of the most famous horror monsters (Dracula, the mummy, the wolfman, etc.) teaming together to make Halloween scary again. Unfortunately, the dust really shows on this one and it’s rarely as enjoyable as that description promises. Still, it’s fun to watch grown adults run around in silly costumes – plus it ends with a disco dance!
- The Halloween Tree (1993): A classic Ray Bradbury story is given the 90s Cartoon Network treatment. Sadly, this doesn’t always work in its favor, as the writing is mostly disjointed and sloppy. Still, I could see young kids really enjoying this one.
- The Last Halloween (1991): This is a weird one. This TV special won an Emmy for its special effects – but the early 90s CGI on this one really shows. As does the truly awkward humor. Nonetheless, there’s enough unintentional camp in this one to make it worth the watch – at least I think so!
- Mighty Morphin Power Rangers – “Life’s a Masquerade” (1993) and “Trick or Treat” (1994): The first of these two Power Rangers episodes features an insidious Frankenstein monster as the villain; the second features a rapping pumpkinheaded guy. These are just as watchable as all those other cheesy MMPR episodes, but with the added bonus of Halloween costumes and general festive aesthetics to boot.
- The Proud Family – “A Hero For Halloween” (2002): Proud Family were always very hit-or-miss, but the magical realism edge given to Penny’s Halloween experience as a high-flying, wish-granting superhero make this well worth a watch.
- The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile (1979): Unfortunately, the pacing of this particular short is a tad too leisurely to casually recommend it to just about anyone. However, this is worth the watch if only for the scene where the pumpkin meets his boy – which actually brought a little tear to my own eye!
- Rugrats – “Candy Bar Creep Show” (1992): There are certainly far better Rugrats episodes out there, but the first Halloween episode succinctly captures the melding of confusion and joy upon first discovering the wonderful wackiness of the holiday.
Alright, the final list is down below. However, I should also note that, unlike my Christmas list, this list will not be ranked! I frankly just found it rather impossible to rank any one as better or worse than the other… so feel free to imagine your own ranking! Alright, here we go now… THE BEST OF THE BEST!
The Adventures of Pete and Pete: “Halloweenie”
The selections on this list will be in alphabetical order by main title or series title, so we’re kicking things off with something a bit more unusual than what these lists usually have. I am a bit too young to have remembered the very early, pre-Nicktoon days of Nickelodeon, but I have watched a few episodes of The Adventures of Pete and Pete since then. Despite having never grown up with this show, I feel a strange sense of nostalgia watching it, certainly helped by its effortlessly 90s vibes, killer soundtrack, and awesome cinematography. The Halloween episode, “Halloweenie”, is definitely a favorite of mine for possessing an abundance of these characteristics, and much more. Little Pete is hoping to break the town record for most houses visited in a single Halloween (something I’d undoubtedly at least half-attemped myself), but Big Pete is torn between accompanying his brother out of loyalty or avoiding the ridicule of his classmates for trick or treating at much too old of an age. This is all the more complicated by a league of vandalizing school bullies with pumpkins for heads! Really, though, there are so many pumpkins in this whole episode, giving it that extra Halloween edge. The camerawork absolutely kills, the use of suspenseful music is just fantastic, and Iggy Pop appears in a pullover sweater and orange cardigan. Really, everything about this is just perfectly, gleefully seasonal.
Bob’s Burgers: “Tina and the Real Ghost”
I was fiercely debating whether I wanted to add this episode to this list or “Fort Night”, which is less spooky but offers an interesting take on the claustrophobia horror genre. In the end, I went with the spooky one. At its peak, Bob’s Burgers was among the funniest, most well-written animated family-centered sitcoms ever – a fair replacement for the throne once possessed by The Simpsons and Family Guy. Awkward preteen Tina Belcher had become a fan favorite at this point, so it was only a matter of time before we’d get an episode centered primarily on her endearing crush on the ghost of a thirteen-year-old boy named Jeff. Fully skipping past the morbidity of the restaurant possibly housing the murder of a child, Tina takes Jeff to school (via shoebox vessel) and typical elementary school drama occurs… because of course it does. The actual Halloween night scenario is actually pretty climactic, with Tina getting the last laugh at the end of the night. Alongside all this are Bob’s Burgers‘ brand of idiosyncratic humor, such as a side-plot that illuminates the BS of paranormal investigators, as well as Gene’s terrific Turner and Hooch costume. Sometimes all we need from our Halloween fare is a middle-school love story between a girl and a ghost – nothing more!
What’s more frightening than a college campus Halloween party with an ABBA soundtrack no one can turn off? How about all of the above with a zombie epidemic thrown in for good measure! While I generally enjoy the Christmas episodes of Community more than the Halloween ones, it’s hard to deny how much fun it is to watch the gang (all costumed) run to avoid being bitten by their peers and faculty. The series has never shied away from building entire episodes off of movie references (“Contemporary American Poultry” being probably the best at this), and this one works as sort of a giant mish-mash of every zombie movie/TV show imaginable. Of course, it’s the ABBA soundtrack that underscores it all and really adds a cherry atop this wonderfully spooky cake. Other highlights include the Dean’s fabulously flashy Lady Gaga costume, Abed’s awesome xenomorph costume, and the climactic slow crawl to the air conditioner featuring an admittedly impressive bit of grotesque body performance by Donald Glover – certainly fitting for Halloween. But the real reason it’s on the list? Probably the ABBA. Yeah, it’s the ABBA.
Freaks and Geeks “Tricks and Treats”
One of the greatest mysteries of TV (for me, at least) is how a show as great and timeless as Freaks and Geeks was only allowed a single season. Thankfully, it’s an incredibly consistent single season – I could probably make a top list of Freaks and Geeks episodes alone, and still have to make some painful cuts. Nonetheless, the episode “Tricks and Treats” always stands out to me as the one episode where I realized just how special this show really was. Like “Halloweenie”, this episode deals much with the internal tension faced in questioning just how old is too old for trick or treating and other childish trifles of Halloween. It also deals with the essential need for high schoolers to fit in with their peers and the constant fear of humiliation by these very folks. It’s got the usual sense of cartoonish joy and chaos basically inherent to these Halloween specials, but with the lingering sense that something is just off. Not even the good intentions are paid off well, as Mrs. Weir’s homemade cookies for trick or treaters are passed off by their parents who instruct their children to not accept homemade treats out of paranoia over hidden drugs or razorblades (undoubtedly fostered by the media). Altogether, this results in one of the most depressing Halloween evenings on this list, crumbling downward into pure disaster. Obviously this episode works best when it’s connected to the series as a whole, but it’s great for those seeking a more heartbreaking take on the holiday.
Garfield’s Halloween Adventure
Yeah, I really have no idea why it had taken me so long to get around to this. Like I mentioned in my longer review, Garfield’s animated series and specials never really appealed to me all that much. It’s all for pretty shallow reason, though – I tend to like my animation on the more edgier, darker side of things and the mere aesthetic of Garfield never quite caught my interest past the comic strip. With that being said, had anyone told me that Garfield’s Halloween Adventure contains a single image that would have undoubtedly been nightmare fuel for me as a kid, I would have rushed over to it sooner. Sure, its spooky bits are sandwiched between some pretty wholesome scenes with Garfield and Odie trick or treating and singing about the harmless joy of Halloween. But then they stumble upon a tall, dark house and… well, I’ll just leave the rest to you. It’s easy to see why this has had consistent syndication through the years – it’s bright and cheery enough for all ages, yet its surprisingly dark turn kicks this up a notch for lovers of horror stories like myself. And it ends on a sweet, endearing note! One thing’s for certain: this is one that I won’t be passing up any longer.
I will never stop lamenting over Gravity Falls‘ far-too-early termination – it really was one of the freshest, most creative kids’ shows we had, in an era where fresh, creative kids’ shows really weren’t all that hard to find. Upon revisiting a handful of their episodes recently, I’ve found that I’m especially upset that we’ll never get a sequel to what I consider among their better episodes, that being “Summerween”. The episode takes a variety of really cool, unique ideas, throws them together in a big ol’ candy bag, and somehow ends up with a perfect combination of sweet and spooky. While I’m generally a bigger fan of the episodes that feature more of Grunkle Stan, this is more than made up for by the introduction of the Summerween Trickster, who is definitely one of the coolest designs the show has ever put out. There are moments of terror and hilarity at equal portions, but the episode also takes a few moments to underline some of the more delicate moments of the plot, primarily with the kids’ growing up and eventually growing out of Summerween traditions. There’s a whole lot to love here and while the show’s plot would grow deeper and darker as it went on, it’s the clever, colorful episodes like this one that really get to the crux of what makes the series so enjoyable. I only hope that the passage of time would treat its reputation as kindly as some of the best, most beloved holiday specials.
Halloween is Grinch Night
As I posted in my Halloween list a couple of years ago, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is my favorite animated special to watching during the Christmas season. The combination of its colorful atmosphere with sly, rhythmic prose characteristic of Dr. Seuss is one for the ages, and at the moment at least I’m pretty sure that nothing else of its type could top this for me. As these things go, however, it was only a matter of time before a sequel would be cranked out… or in this case, a prequel! Halloween is Grinch Night surmises that none of the events of the first Grinch special have happened (yet) – in fact, this special takes place on a night known as Grinch Night wherein a series of events triggers the Grinch to coming into Whoville and terrorizing the poor frightened Whos! Instead of the Christmassy atmosphere from the first program, the stunning backdrops are instead replete with ominous browns and oranges. The Seussical rhyme patterns are back, but the music is much more frantic and the music numbers not quite as cheerful. And yes, the part that everyone remembers from this one is the third-act hallucinogenic sequence that frankly comes plumb out of nowhere – yet somehow fits right in. To go from the Christmas special to this might result in a kind of whiplash effect, but by its own right this is pretty damn wonderful for its decidedly scarier take on the Grinch mythos. It fits right in with Halloweentime, and the autumn season as a whole!
I actually intended on watching the entire crop of these made-for-TV films during this Halloween season. As time and sheer luck would have it, this didn’t quite happen – but boy, am I glad that I finally got around to the series’ first installment! As with a lot of other stuff on this list, Halloweentown is one of those pieces of media that you just have to take for what it is. The writing involves itself with some pretty tamed-down humor typical of Disney Channel programming, and this results in some pacing issues and a more than a handful of jokes that simply don’t land. Yet moving past this, though, there are more than a few glimmers of light to find in this. The concept seems simple enough, but the amount of love and care it takes in its world-building goes far beyond my own expectations. Debbie Reynolds and Judith Hoag carry the film quite well, as does Robin Thomas as the charmingly deceptive Kalabar. The characters are great, the plot is compelling, the designs are creative and impressive – even the dated special effects bring their own bit of magic to the table. While I’d always thought that three sequels to this film seemed a bit excessive, I’m now fully aware of the rich potential for growth in its narrative and I can’t wait to watch all the rest!
Hey Arnold!: “Arnold’s Halloween”
I still think a whole lot about “Arnold’s Christmas”. As I mentioned before, its sentimental value and effortless maneuvering through some really complex, heavy themes is absolutely impeccable. Here, the sentimentality is toned down quite a bit – though that doesn’t mean the show gets any less dark. In a retelling of the real-life story of Orson Welles’ catastrophic 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds (which, for the most part, is a myth itself), Arnold and friends opt to use the heightened paranoia surrounding the Halloween festivities to play a prank on the adults. It is assumed that their staged broadcast of an extraterrestrial landing could only be heard by members of their immediate circle and their makeshift alien costumes could be easily pulled off as a blissful punchline. Unfortunately, things don’t turn out so well for Arnold, Gerald, Helga, and the rest of the gang… it turns out pretty horribly, in fact. It primarily remains pretty cartoony, but as Hey Arnold! has proven time and time again, something darker always lies beneath this presumably innocent kids’ show. Overall, I enjoy it for its clever writing, filled with enough twists and turns to hold up the average horror flick. This time, however, the results lie nicely above average.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
And just so I check off the little box that requires this very special to be on every list of this type – here it is! Okay, so I dare not be too harsh on this one. After all, it pretty much is the definitive Halloween special and we probably wouldn’t have any of these other ones here if not for this one’s mere existence. Like most Peanuts cartoons, the charm here comes from its sheer innocence, from the simple illustrations, even simpler animation, real child voice actors, and characters doing things that real-life kids do on Halloween, such as trick or treating or bobbing for apples. And yeah, sometimes kids do such inane things as sitting in a pumpkin patch all night, waiting for an imaginary creature to fall from the sky and give them presents. Even having watched this countless times and knowing exactly how it ends, I still somehow always wait on bated breath that Linus will be greeted by the presence of his beloved Great Pumpkin. On a side note, I’ve always been bored by the Red Baron parts as a kid – it was always my cue to leave the room to take off my costume or get cookies from the kitchen. Even as an adult, this scene still sticks out like a sore thumb, especially when I’m already so infatuated with the Halloween imagery of the rest of the special. Some things never change, I guess.
King of the Hill: “Hilloween”
Generally speaking, I’ve never been too much of a King of the Hill fan (besides the hilarious memes, of course). However, I’ve always really admired their Halloween episode, which takes an approach to the holiday that I couldn’t imagine many other programs ever daring to touch. It’s Halloween time and while Hank is lamenting to Bobby about how the holiday has lost its scary factor, Luanne is slowly pulled in by a new member of Bible study who claims that Halloween is a Satanic holiday. Throughout the episode, it soon becomes clear that this woman and other fear-mongering Christians of the group intend on ridding the town of the holiday altogether – which leaves Bobby concerned that his father may have his own ulterior feelings about the holiday. The conflict involves two warring forces: these paranoid religious types, and regular ol’ horror lovers who just want to celebrate in peace. At its climax, this point is further hammered by paralleling a hilariously obtuse “Hallelujah House” with adults of the community trick or treating out of protest. Basically, this whole entire episode is brilliant and doesn’t get the recognition nor the respect that it desperately deserves. It’s just edgy enough to actually get me to consider watching the show… for a little bit, at least.
The Simpsons: “Treehouse of Horror V”
Yeah, one of these just had to make the cut – what kind of list would this be if it didn’t?! Anyway, this season I attempted to watch through every single “Treehouse of Horror” episode that has existed so far. I’ve actually gotten the closest to finishing as I ever had, but long story short: you can basically skip every one after “Treehouse of Horror XII” and you wouldn’t be missing much. Honestly, though, the moment I started watching the fifth installment, I knew it would be the best of the batch. It’s the only one where all three segments are incredibly consistent, with “The Shinning” obviously being the best of the bunch. I feel like not enough love is given to “Time and Punishment”, which is a pretty simple Bradbury-esque concept that, nonetheless, rides along the wave of humor that this show executes so damn well. And “Nightmare Cafeteria”… oh gosh. Later seasons have attempted to redo this brand of pitch dark humor, but none have ever gotten close to accomplishing it quite so gruesomely. Okay, so more often than not, Simpsons‘ Halloween episodes have nothing at all to do with Halloween itself. But what can I say – they’re staples to the genre and I’d be nothing if I didn’t save a spot for America’s favorite family.
Witch’s Night Out
I first discovered this special a couple years ago and have made it a case to include it in my Halloween viewing every single year from then on. Though it’s from 1978, it seems to have only gained a bit of a following within the past handful of years – though I imagine this to be different from its home country of Canada. The story here is pretty simple – in a strange town where most folks are named after adjectives, two children named Small and Tender are bummed that their Halloween costumes aren’t scaring anyone. Fortunately, with the help of an eccentric witch (voiced by Gilda Radner!), they are transformed into a real ghost and werewolf. Unfortunately, though, the other townfolk don’t take too kindly to this. I just plain adore the look of this special, with its unadorned, simple-colored illustrations balanced by some bizarre voice acting and erratic animation that could only have come from the 70s. Overall, I just love the note of positivity it signs off on – specifically, the love for Halloween to offer the opportunity for the weird and cast-off to express their creative side and just be someone else for the night. And who can forget that catchy-as-hell theme music: “It’s Halloween witch magic!”. If any of these specials deserves a wider reach and a more positive reputation, it’s this one.
It took a lot of sitting and thinking on this one to really come to terms with how much I actually enjoyed it. Sure, the garishness of its costumes and cheapness of its special effects took a lot of getting used to… but then once I was, I sure was hooked. I’m not at all familiar with the line of children’s books from which this it based, but I do think that this made-for-TV film really nails its concept of “dark magic for kids” pretty well, and did so years before the Harry Potter series would come along and expand on this very idea. Fairuza Balk gives a stellar, sweet performance as the titular charismatic youngster who just plain can’t do a dang thing right. The strengths of this special all come down to how rich it is with its specific brand of ridiculous camp, from the awkwardly edited scenes of Mildred turning the class bully into a pig, to a group of witches dancing and cackling in the woods for eons, to the hilarious 80s green screen of Mildred’s broomstick rides. And I dare not forget the contribution by Tim Curry and his flashy, psychedelic musical number that really needs to get more love around these parts. Anyway, it’s pretty clear that this special is flawed in a number of ways, but it sure is charming nonetheless. I knew I would’ve definitely obsessed over this one had I watched it as a youngster myself.