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Growing Up With The Nightmare Before Christmas

It’s a well-known joke among my family members that I can quote The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) by heart because of how often I watched it growing up. I laugh along, but it’s true. Nightmare is the first film I remember loving (read: obsessing over) and it still holds a special place in my heart from its colorful cast of characters in Halloween Town to the genuinely-stunning score by Danny Elfman. Henry Selick’s Halloween-Christmas movie hybrid has rocked my world for 21 years and I’m proud of it. (It’s a common misconception that Tim Burton directed Nightmare. Burton did write and produce the film, but directing credits go to Selick—who also directed Coraline.)

And what isn’t to love? Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is going through an existential crisis, worried that the only thing he’s “good at” is being scary and organizing Halloween every year. He sees little purpose in his work and wants to do something different. So when he finally gets a glimpse into another world, Christmas Town, he’s blown away by the possibilities of what life could be. He tries to get everyone on his Christmas-making train and effectively scary-fy the typically joyful and bright holiday. He fails, of course, because he doesn’t understand the true meaning of Christmas, which is to provide joy and happiness. Even though the humans he tries to bring his own version of Christmas to might see him as a villain for “ruining” the holiday, you can’t help but love how endearing and determined his character is, especially when he steps up and decides to rescue Santa Claus from the evil clutches of Oogie Boogie.

Oh, and the Oogie Boogie subplot is single-handedly the best part of Nightmare. Oogie Boogie is a literal sack full of bugs and yet he’s one of the most amusing, terrifying villains in animation. His minions Lock, Shock, and Barrel kidnap Santa Claus (who everyone in Halloween Town refers to as “Sandy Claws”) at Jack’s request, therein holding the very essence of Christmas hostage. But the best part of the Oogie Boogie subplot is the utterly fabulous jazz song he sings to Santa about gambling with people’s lives. I literally don’t know anything more extra OR iconic than that.

Oogie Boogie imagines kidnapping Santa Claus for Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas
Art by Lyvie Scott

Nightmare has always been a favorite of emo and alt kids — something I discovered when I became one myself — because it was an off-kilter Christmas story. It took “the normal” and fused it with the Other. The ending message of the film, and quite frankly the message of the whole film, is that it’s fun, acceptable, and even uplifting to be different from the norm. Jack initially feels exhausted by the fact that his role in life is the Pumpkin King until he realizes — by trying to become Santa — that the world needs him to be the Pumpkin King. The world needs Halloween just as much as it needs Christmas, and it needs a Pumpkin King as much as it needs a Santa Claus.

In “Poor Jack,” the narrative complement to “Jack’s Lament,” Jack solemnly realizes that he’s made a mistake by trying to “do” Christmas. Although he’s upset that his Halloween-infused take on Christmas wasn’t a hit with the boys and girls, it’s only through his botched Christmas that he recognizes his true talents lie with making Halloween such a hit. That’s a sentiment I’ve been more than acquainted with as a writing professor: You can really only learn by doing. His identity (read: mid-life) crisis now passed, he realizes his true purpose. Jack gets to save Christmas by saving Santa from Oogie Boogie — and it’s implied that he can only do this because he’s embraced his Halloween-ness. He even learns to be proud of himself and his hometown. If you know anything about emo and alt kids, the two things they aren’t is secure in their identity and proud of their hometown, which is probably why Jack Skellington’s journey of self-discovery resonated with them so much back in the early 2000s, and still does today.

Nightmare preaches radical acceptance of who you are and where you come from, which is why Jack’s story resonates with me so much to this day. The people of Halloween Town, especially Sally, know that their rightful place in the grand scheme of things is to make sure Halloween goes off without a hitch every single year — and they take great pride in being spooky, scary, and different. Sally, herself a feminine take on Frankenstein’s monster, tries to tell Jack that he needs to stop pretending to be someone he’s not and to accept the fact that he’s the Pumpkin King. Although the film initially frames Sally as annoying for trying to stop Jack’s Christmas fun, her pleas to Jack are eventually revealed to be helpful and uplifting. Unlike every pop punk song will tell you, Sally’s words of wisdom are a reminder that it’s okay to be from your hometown.

Sally and Jack Skellington reconcile in The Nightmare Before Christmas
Art by Lyvie Scott

I’ve never really sat down and thought critically about Nightmare before (other than to casually muse about how it might be a really interesting case study in cultural appropriation), but I’m realizing now that it might actually be a really important movie to show young kids who feel like they don’t have a purpose, or don’t have a strong sense of identity. Hearing that each person — no matter how scary and “Other” they are — has a purpose and identity that makes them special is incredibly important for young kids to hear. It was important for me to hear.

Nightmare was long-baked into the cultural landscape by the time I was born in 2000, but that didn’t stop me from falling in love with it as a young child. My parents, both Disneyland cast members in the nineties, got to see a special cast member preview of the film back in 1993. My mother tells me that she had never seen a movie like it before and that it blew her away with its stop-motion animation and story. I really do have to credit my parents for introducing me to the film as a child and encouraging my love for it years later.

Going to Disneyland during the Halloween and Christmas seasons was always my favorite — because that’s when they would redecorate their Haunted Mansion ride in a Nightmare Before Christmas-theme. For a few years, my grandma’s birthday gift to me was always a Jack Skellington sweater. Last year, I finally got a “Vampire Teddy” of my own — one of the dolls that the vampires in Halloween Town made as a gift. So even to this day, Nightmare is a part of my life and watching it makes me feel incredibly nostalgic for my childhood and adolescence.

The movie still holds up for me 22 years later. I know every song, can quote most of the lines, and am never one to shy from a Nightmare-related gift from family. I love Nightmare for its identity-affirming story, its fabulous score, and its departure from typical Christmas movies. I watch it year-round because it’s such a great movie, but I always make sure to watch it to kick off my Christmas and holiday season. And every time I put it on, I’m reminded of its pivotal role in my childhood and how it (probably) contributed to my very-secure sense of self and innate sense of purpose.

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