“It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state.” The opening line of Ray Bradbury’s 1972 fantasy novel The Halloween Tree reads like the beginning of a good horror movie, and the film adaptation’s intro does little to quell this terrifying tone. With ominous music, a jack-o’-lantern title card, and Bradbury’s narration, the 1993 feature-length animated television movie produced by Hanna-Barbera seemingly set the stage for something sinister. And that’s how I remember my childhood viewing of this film, as one filled with my favorite holiday tropes. Upon revisiting it, I recognize the adaptation is much more faithful to Bradbury’s work than my younger self realized. That is to say, this is an extremely educational look at Halloween and how its tropes came to be, from witches to mummies and lots in between.
It’s hard not to relate The Halloween Tree to current juggernaut Stranger Things. Both quickly ask that viewers be emotionally attached to a young boy that has been whisked away on a journey that could determine whether he lives or dies. The characters left behind are so enamored with the boy that it makes it hard not to care, too. And like Stranger Things’ Mike, The Halloween Tree’s Pipkin is being pursued by three guy friends and a girl. Each one is introduced separately to show off their costume—a monster (Wally), a mummy (Ralph), a skeleton (Tom), and a witch (Jenny)—and mentions Pipkin’s love of Halloween, at one point going so far as to declare him “the greatest boy who ever lived.” As an adult, I’m not entirely sold on this notion, which makes the ending—in which each child sacrifices a year of their own life so that Pip can live—a bit hard to swallow. But I am pleasantly surprised that the friends’ initial quest to simply find Pip and bring him home leads them on a much more profound journey, thanks in part to the shadowy Mr. Moundshroud (voiced by Leonard Nimoy).
Introduced to the children after they follow who they think is Pip through the forest, Mr. Moundshroud is the tenant of a sweeping mansion that borders the namesake tree. He too is trying to catch the runaway boy, who has taken a pumpkin eerily resembling himself from the tree. However, Mr. Moundshroud reveals that what the children have in fact been chasing is the ghost of Pip, and the only way they can save their friend is by keeping pace with him on a journey that spans thousands of years and is punctuated by the requisite Halloween lore placeholders. The children agree, Mr. Moundshroud builds a kite made of posters culled from an old barn, and they embark upon their journey to find their friend.
What could have been a dry, rote handholding through historically significant instances of Halloween celebrations, traditions, and symbols here becomes a genuinely moving journey of self discovery and education, and a tribute to the value of friendship. With each successive stop on the Halloween timeline, the children discover something about the holiday relative to their costumes, about the friend with whom they long to be reunited, and about themselves. In Egypt, they learn about mummification, and Ralph uses his costume to chase off priests proceeding to embalm Pip. When Ralph implores Pip to return, by explaining that Pip was the only one never to have mocked him, Pip encourages his friend to have confidence in himself. When the group is chased by a mob of witch hunters after learning about the history of witches and Jenny saves them with a collection of flying brooms while suffering a fear of heights, Pip reminds Jenny of her bravery. In France, they learn of the gargoyles used in the construction of Notre Dame, and Pip reminds Wally he’s not awkward and he’s a good friend. Finally, they’re whisked to Mexico to learn about Day Of The Dead celebrations, and after an encounter with animate skeletons, Tom reveals the guilt he feels after only wanting to be in charge for once, to which Pip responds that he can lead anytime he’d like.
The journey ends with the aforementioned sacrifice the children make to save their friend, a sequence that seems unnecessary and a little clunky as it relates again to Pip being dubbed “the greatest boy who ever lived.” Instead, I think the insights into the friends’ relationships that occur naturally throughout the journey are what make the movie so affecting. In the process of learning about the holiday itself, the children (and viewers, too) learn the importance of friendship and courage. It’s a movie that’s actively educating about history while simultaneously reminding us that we don’t need to fear what we don’t understand. Mummies don’t conjure plagues and stalk the living. Witches don’t fly around on brooms and pluck children from the ground. Gargoyles serve as utility. And sometimes death is shown the same respect—and celebrated just as passionately—as life. In The Halloween Tree, education takes many forms. And sometimes it starts with a pumpkin.