The Simpsons' annual 'Treehouse of Horror' episodes set a new standard for what TV shows could do with Halloween - taking place outside the rules of the actual Simpsons world, the writers got to toy around with horror and sci-fi parodies that would never work in a regular episode. And while it was largely jokey and silly, there were a few moments from these episodes that serve as genuinely terrifying moments of actual horror. These are the 10 best ones:
1. The entirety of Nightmare Cafeteria
Nightmare Cafeteria plays on a lot of genuine childhood fears - of your teachers, of your parents' not taking you seriously, and of being eaten by a cabal of cannibalistic educators. Well, maybe not that last one, but the segment does prove pretty effective in its terror - and remains one of the FEW Treehouse of Horror segments that ends on a pretty horror-appropriate note: with Bart & Lisa NOT being able to find a way out of their situation and getting liquified by the enormous blender the teachers have set up.
The segment even manages to include some nuanced terror - the tension of the quiet, near-empty classroom...until a single pencil rolls off a desk and hits the floor, causing an engorged Mrs. Krabappel to smile and placidly say "Detention." We all know what that means - goodbye, Wendell.
2. The bus-gremlin holding Ned's severed head
While the Simpsons got a lot of mileage out of their parodies of The Twilight Zone, they usually did so by undercutting the horror of those scenarios in some way - downplaying things with jokes or references that made things a little lighter. But ya know what's NOT lighter? The gremlin that was destroying the schoolbus (which only Bart noticed) taunting him on his way to the mental institution by holding up Ned Flanders's severed head, which is screaming "HIDILLY-HO, BART!"
3. The hybrids of the Island of Dr. Hibbert
There's a lot of outright disturbing imagery in Treehouse of Horror segments, but seeing Turkey-Frink about to be eaten and Cow-Ned pleading with Homer to milk him are pretty freaky even by this show's standards.
4. Homer stalking the family in The Shinning
The premise of the Shining is something truly terrifying, particularly from the perspective of the wife and son of the main character - all of a sudden, the husband/father has inexplicably gone crazy and is attempting to kill them both, and no amount of reasoning or begging will stop him. Of course, there's implications that he may have had abusive tendencies prior to their stay at the Overlook Hotel, but it's there that some kind of supernatural influence takes over his mind and convinces him to murder his family.
And that same premise is pretty equally chilling in The Shinning (we don't want to get sued either) - Homer stalking through the snow, axe in hand, preparing to brutally murder his entire family. That's dark - especially when you consider that Homer ALSO had abusive tendencies prior to this: he would choke Bart, neglect Maggie, and was a barely-functioning alcoholic. In other words, this isn't THAT implausible.
Well, at least Grandpa was able to get back from that gas station.
5. The Ned-centric future in Time and Punishment
Homer inadvertently creates a number of terrible alternate-universes in his time travel debacles (and also his own literal utopia), but none are as terrifying as the dystopian society centered around Ned Flanders (as the unquestioned lord and master of the world). While this bit plays out quickly, its damn effective: subjects are forced to dress like Ned and Maude, have hooks placed in their mouths to force smiles, and get lobotomies if they or any member of their family acts out. Marge's dead-eyed "BLISSSSSSSSSSSS" and Moe's sadly adorable ogling of his own brain actually hit you pretty hard.
At least you also get a nap and a glass of warm milk.
6. The entirety of Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace
There's a lot of terrible things that happen in this entry:
- Willie is accidentally lit aflame, and the parents visiting the school choose to ignore his plight
- Willie does some pretty horrible shit to all the kids - and that final pose of Martin is just as freaky-looking as the terrified kindergarteners make it sound.
- Milhouse had TWO spaghetti meals in one day?! My god.
But mostly, this is another entry that takes its source material and uses it to good effect - the idea that kids aren't even safe IN THEIR DREAMS is terrifying because...well, you HAVE to sleep at some point. Knowing every time you close your eyes, you could die would be pretty horrible. But at least we all now know how Grandpa feels.
7. The plight of Bart's long-lost twin
Every family has secrets - which is why Hugo is such a frightening tragic figure: he is a family secret given flesh and life, and the implication that he has endured a lifetime of sorrow and yearning. That's some dark, dark stuff - but so is his stalking and attempted surgical procedure on Bart (at least, until we find out it was Bart who was the evil twin and not Hugo). Bart's confused and scared - there's a duplicate of him he never knew about who has been obsessing over him for his entire life, and now is deluded into performing a home-surgery on him that will likely kill them both.
Although, honestly, the pigeon-rat seemed pretty cool.
8. Homer having Mr. Burns' head sewn onto his body
I'll be honest: this episode STILL gives me the creeps - when I saw it for the first time I was an impressionable kid, and seeing Homer awaken to see an elderly man's head sewed onto his body hit me right in the nightmare zone. Could that happen to me too? When I was asleep, would someone attach their head to my body?! There would be times when I had nightmares of this very thing happening, and would rush to the bathroom mirror when waking up to make sure it hadn't happened to me too.
Also, the ending (which previewed a future where Homer and Burns' head had to share a body) made me genuinely think THAT WAS GOING TO BE THE NEW STATUS QUO GOING FORWARD. I was extremely confused (but relieved) when the next episode aired and Homer still only had one head.
In short, I was a pretty dumb kid.
9. Homer's journey into...THE THIRD DIMENSION
Homer's dilemma in Homer3 is the type of horror that really scares me the most - Kafka-esque. Homer finds himself in a baffling and impossible situation - he's accidentally stumbled into a new dimension, where nothing makes sense and everything seems foreign - and he has no idea of how to get out of it. Totally confused, no way out - the mysterious unknown and inexplicable are genuinely terrifying - especially when Homer quickly finds himself in a situation where the world is literally disappearing before his eyes.
...has anyone here seen Tron?
10. Fog that turns people inside-out
The animation of the family's entire bodies being morphed so that their skin explodes off their bodies and their organs and muscles are exposed is just FAR too freaky for what was mostly a kids' cartoon (especially the fact that Marge's hair is composed of muscles and veins). They even tear off Maggie's skin - A BABY'S SKIN IS RIPPED FROM HER BODY.
But Homer's transformation gets the real detail - let's look at it in slo-mo:
MOTHER OF GOD, THE ANIMATORS REALLY WANTED TO TRAUMATIZE US ALL, HUH?