Twenty-five years ago this October, Jim Davis’ popular comic strip Garfield took an unexpected detour through The Twilight Zone, running a week-long dream sequence in which the orange tabby with an insatiable appetite wakes up alone in a long-abandoned house. Surreal, unsettling, and free of punchlines, the storyline proved divisive among the strip’s audience. But this wasn’t Garfield’s first brush with the horror genre: That came four years prior, in the animated primetime special Garfield In Disguise. Later retitled Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, the Emmy-winning program became a seasonal staple for CBS, spooking a whole generation of young viewers with eerie ghost effects and one gruesome storyteller. With Garfield’s Halloween Adventure now bundled with four other specials on the DVD and digital release Garfield Holiday Collection—available at Walmart beginning November 4 and on iTunes beginning November 11—The A.V. Club spoke with Jim Davis about the Halloween special, the lasting effect it had on its audience, and his reasons for stranding Garfield in that spooky house in 1989.
The A.V. Club: Garfield’s Halloween Adventure is a departure from the Thanksgiving and Christmas specials, which focus more on family and holiday traditions. What did you want to achieve with the Halloween special?
Jim Davis: I wanted to start it with something very familiar: Garfield going into the day being Garfield with the “candy, candy, candy”—going out trick-or-treating, things like that. Then I wanted to turn it. I wanted to go somewhere that would at least scare 4-year-olds. The only way I could do that was to get [Garfield and Odie] away from the house and the neighborhood—so that’s what the boat represented: if they lost control and then the boat took them somewhere else. Wherever they end up, it’s going to be a lot more believable than it would be if it was in Garfield’s house. I did have to rely on and fall back on things like ghosts and pirates, but I think the marriage of it with the music and the use of Lindsay Workman—just a great character actor with that great, deep voice as the old pirate.
Getting special effects was a bit of a challenge because it was 1985 and we were still doing things on film. We actually animated the pirate ghosts in Indiana because we wanted to do it in white and get a sort of swirly, cross-dissolve kind of effect. Then we did what’s called a double burn, where we’d get them to glow. These days, in digital, you just press the “glow” button and it glows. [Laughs.] We worked the special very hard to get just the right timing and the right music and the build—just building, building, building. If you listen, in the background, there’s even a heartbeat at one point, to get the kind of action going that we wanted.
Believe it or not, we really pushed the limits of what Standards And Practices would allow as far as being scary. As soft and as family-oriented as it appears today, we rode the line.
AVC: Was there anything specific that CBS’ Standards And Practices disapproved of?
JD: It was just the look and the timing—it was hard to grasp because they said, “scaring kids.” [Laughs.] “Too scary.” We could have the ghosts, but we couldn’t have anyone touch anyone else in a threatening way. It couldn’t be anything that appeared to be physical harm. Even with Garfield waking John up: He could put his hand on John’s cheeks, but he couldn’t put it on his shoulders, because it was too close to the throat. We couldn’t do that, and we had to change a piece of animation in that part of it.
AVC: What is it like to write something that’s intended for a young audience but also intended to be scary?
JD: It wasn’t so much the writing as it was the hearing and seeing it in your head. It was the timing. It was the cutting back to the clock going “tick, tick, tick,” getting closer to midnight. One of the things I think we did that was fairly effective was we slowed the show down: We didn’t do the kinetic Warner Bros. kind of timing with that kind of action. You really had to stop things and let it build and let the kids let their own imaginations play with them. You have to stand back and let them do a little bit of the work, rather than feeding them everything. That’s really tough! [Laughs.] Not everybody thinks quite the same way, so you try to go down the middle of the line.
It’s almost like a dance: Where to edit and cut back and forth between the people being scared and the people doing the scaring. I wish I could put it in words. I can look at it in my head and if you opened my head up, you could see what I’m seeing, you know? It’s like, “Oh, that!” But that’s the magical part about the animation: getting other people to see the same thing—between musicians and writers and actors and editors. It really gets out there and it’s sort of like what you saw in your head, and that’s very exciting. I stood over a Moviola with the editors timing some of those cuts and editing some of the music into it frame by frame, and sometimes you’re like, “Cut! There! There!” So it took a lot of hours, but it was great fun.
Also, for those scenes back and forth, a lot of that timing, I always like to record in one room. We opened up all the mics and all the actors really related to one another. We’d lay out like five pages of dialogue on big music stands and have everybody just go for it. We’d go through it and through it and through it ’til everything just worked right. Occasionally, it could be one take. No pickup lines, nothing—we just kept it rolling. If it was working, it was working. It was a very organic kind of production.
AVC: Lindsay Workman had previously played Garfield’s grandfather in your second CBS special, Garfield On The Town. What was it about his voice that made you pick him to then play the creepy old man in Garfield’s Halloween Adventure?
JD: It was through the producer, Lee Mendelson. We talked to some of the other voice talent and were like, “Okay, here’s what we hear: [Affects deeper voice.] ‘On this day, a long time ago…’” I started doing that and they were like, “Oh, Lindsay Workman!’ and I was like, “Yeah?!” [Laughs.] I did impressions of a voice I heard, and then they came up with a name.
AVC: Do you have any specific memories of designing that character? He looks so different from anything else in the Garfield universe.
JD: We did the storyboards here, and some of the layout drawings for the animation as well. When we got to the character of the old pirate, I said, “I need somebody older.” So I’m trying to draw this old guy, and I draw like a cartoonist, so everything is coming out a little cute and really funny. [Laughs.] The antithesis of what I need. One of the artists on the staff was a caricature artist, so he said, “Give him some warts here, and one eye can’t be the same as the other,” and it really took off from there. It was a guy that was kind of nice looking, yet a little sinister. It was a really good balance there, and the storyboarding and the character designs were a cooperation between all of us. We set up this one big room at the top of the studio and worked [Sighs.] for a solid week there day and night on character design and starting the storyboards.
AVC: The haunted house and the old man seem to stick with people who first saw Garfield’s Halloween Adventure when they were kids, often dominating online discussion of the special. What is it about those scenes that give them a such a lasting effect?
JD: One of the things I like about stories and cartoons is when a writer respects you enough as a reader or a viewer to let you do some of the work and think about it: Was that guy really there? Was he one of the pirates? It was 100 years ago, he’d be like 110 or something like that. So I left it up to the viewer to determine whether Garfield met him or not—or if he, indeed, was one of the spirits that was returning.
Because everyone has their own opinion of it, I didn’t want to define the character—if had he had wife and kids and stuff. He was a little amorphous. I think that helped lend some of the mystery of it, not telling the story. It wasn’t necessary: He was only there to scare people anyway. And to set the story up. He advanced the plot, then he got out of the way. [Laughs.]
AVC: In terms of the Halloween strips that followed in 1989, do you think Garfield lends itself well to these sorts of eerie setups?
JD: I’ll leave that up to you to decide. I had a ton of fun doing [the strips] because we got to do some other cartoon styles, got to do some other writing things—it was just a breath of fresh air, a real stretching exercise. A little self-serving, I have to admit: I really, really wanted to do it. The only thing is I scared the heck out of a lot of my licensees and my syndicate editors. [Laughs.] [As editor.] “Is this a new direction, Jim? It’s a little dark.” “No, no, no it’s just Halloween.” Garfield wakes up and is experiencing the biggest fear anyone can experience, and that is being alone—totally alone. That’s. Scary. Frankly, I was tired of the old rattling chains and all the kinds of spiders and Draculas and stuff like that. That stuff really doesn’t scare me.
In order to do it, we did different angles, a little different line treatments—and it had to be a dream at the end. And, honestly, when I got done with it I go, “Okay, I had fun with it, but I don’t know that anyone had fun reading it.” [Laughs.] I don’t know if I scared anybody. I just confused a few people. It really created a lot more questions than it created accolades. I wasn’t going for accolades anyway—I thought, “Darn it, it’s Halloween! Let’s do something different. Let’s scare people or make them think and have fun.”
I honestly don’t know how I feel about it in retrospect. I certainly don’t regret doing it. It’s a point of pride: It’s there, I did it! We moved through it together, and I think it was more of a growing experience for the readers as well. I wish I had something really definitive to say about it, but I can’t. [Laughs.] I don’t know how scary it got because I couldn’t take the readers with me. They just stood back and watched and said, “What the heck?” [Laughs.] “What’s going on here?” They were so busy watching the action of what was going on in the strip that they forgot to follow the story and get scared with it.
AVC: It came about very suddenly. It’s sort of like the turn that the TV special takes, except the buildup to the turn was 11 years of non-horror-themed strips.
JD: It was a shock, I guess: Too big of a move too quickly. You know what? That’s right: I probably should have had the boat ticking down the river for a week or two in advance, to warm up to that so the readers could follow it. Okay, I have to do it again now. [Laughs.]
AVC: You may have answered this while talking about how loneliness is the scariest thing a person can experience, but what scares Jim Davis?
JD: Wow. Let’s see: I suppose standing in the middle of the San Diego Comic-Con and someone says, [Affects high-pitched voice.] “Aren’t you Jim Davis? Don’t you do Garfield?”—and me without a pen. [Laughs.]
That’s a good question. You know I’ve never been asked that. Roller-skating—that scares me. Anything that would mess with my mind. Fear of any eventuality where I lose the ability to think. Anything that would compromise the ability to think and write with humor. I could lose sight, hearing, my right hand—I have an assistant. [Laughs.] But the mind, anything to do with that. That’s scary.