Here’s a riddle for you. What do skin-eating mutants, caramel-glazed fish, and sugar-guzzling fly-human hybrids all have in common? Okay, yes, they’re all gross. But more importantly, all three of those awful subjects feature in The Simpson’s “Treehouse of Horror VIII,” the ridiculously funny eighth installment of the seminal Simpsons Halloween parody series.
Like all the other “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, the ninth season’s edition featured three disconnected mini-episodes. All of them feature the highest quality cartoon writing this side of Home Movies. Homer calling Edgar and Johnny Winter “chalk-faced goons” never fails to make me laugh.
But the one segment that stands above the rest is certainly The Simpson’s Fly vs. Fly. It remains to this day as a poignant parody of the body horror trend. It’s also relatively creepy in its own right. There’s more to Fly vs. Fly than its source material, though. Here are three of the horror tropes that it laughs in the face of.
Summary of The Simpson’s Fly vs. Fly
If you’re a fan of 80s horror flicks, you likely will feel a strange sense of déjà vu while watching Fly vs. Fly. It opens with everyone’s favorite TV family shopping around at a yardsale hosted by Professor Frink. Homer spots a matter transporter being sold for a few bucks, but he’s unimpressed (“It only transports matter?”). He employs his expert negotiating techniques and takes it home for a grand total of $0.35.
At first, it seems like the matter transporter is a blessing unto the Simpsons. Homer uses it to skip the stairs, and then later grabs a can of beer (or so he thinks) without getting up from the couch. But things start to get weird when Bart begins messing around with it. The cat and dog end up in the machine, and a DNA mismatch causes a CatDog-like abomination to step out.
The boy is naturally intrigued, so he grabs a fly and steps into the machine to see what kind of superhero he becomes. The result isn’t quite satisfactory. Bart’s head is placed onto the tiny fly’s body and the fly’s head is grotesquely placed onto his human body. The tiny Bart with wings flies off while the fly-headed Bart stays behind.
The Simpsons grow to accept the new member of their family, but Bart in fly-form comes back to claim his spot. A fight ensues, but Lisa is able to get them both back in the matter transporter to make everything go back to normal. The segment ends with Homer welcoming his son back by chasing him around with an axe. Aww… a classic family moment. Cue the curtains.
Trope 1 – The Mad Scientist
Before The Simpson’s Fly vs. Fly can really dig into its main trope of body horror, it first must tackle the trope of the mad scientist. The mad scientist is a character that is all over cinema (and media in general), not just horror. Dr. Frankenstein is the prototypical example, but lighter instances exist in the likes of Doc Brown and even Rick Sanchez. They have brilliant minds that allow them to push science to its limits… and often beyond that.
The fantastical creations of mad scientists can definitely be humorous, but they are also inherently scary. We all rely on the fruits of science in our daily lives, but we are also well-aware of the fact that technology is a powerful force that could backfire against us. Climate change, the Singularity, or even just the tendency of guns to backfire are all solid reasons why we are afraid of the technology that we depend on.
Most of us don’t fully understand science, and the idea that it could transform our lives in terrifying ways is certainly an impactful one in horror. Professor Frink in “Fly vs. Fly” fulfills the mad scientist trope mainly by introducing a seemingly benign piece of tech that just so happens to cause major problems.
This is perhaps scarier than a truly mad scientist bent on introducing evil to the world. If Professor Frink’s $0.35 matter transporter could inadvertently cause so much chaos, who’s to say that our computers and smartphones won’t do the same? Or, further: who’s to say that they aren’t already?
Of course, the brilliance of “Treehouse of Horror” comes from the fact that the show turns terrifying tropes into hilarious ones. So yes, it’s scary to think that Professor Frink is a mad scientist creating Frankenstein-esque machines. But, at the same time, he is also making trippy “mood pants” and a dejected robot butler. That’s a little less scary.
Trope 2 – Body Horror
Seeing as The Simpson’s Fly vs. Fly is a direct parody of Cronenberg’s brilliant (and brilliantly awful) The Fly, it more or less has to be centered around body horror. This trope is all about bodily mutations and changes that send a character into a new state of being. This is on full display in The Fly, and Fly vs. Fly hits the nail on the head.
From the drool dripping out of the fly’s, uh, mouth to the slurping noises it makes while “speaking,” the body horror element rings true. Bart has been transformed into some new being, and there is an interesting amount of tension in the mini-episode. Just seeing the giant fly head on Bart’s body is enough to make your skin crawl, even if just for a second.
Taking on The Fly is a great way to parody body horror, as Cronenberg is largely considered the modern pioneer of the trope. Bloody Disgusting has referred to him as the “master of body horror,” and his savvy use of practical effects has inspired everyone from Eli Roth to Peter Jackson. The use of body horror in this segment feels more like the writers are paying homage rather than mocking the legendary director.
Still, we get a few laughs in at the silliness of body horror. A human that is half-fly is disgusting, yet the family almost immediately forgets about his grotesque appearance. They share a breakfast table with him, and Homer even tries to eat sugar alongside him.
It’s almost like they’re telling us that our bodies aren’t nearly as important as we think they are. If we don’t care about how we look or how our bodies function, body horror is suddenly not terrifying at all. So what if your son has the head of a fly? At least he’s not getting the dog addicted to cigarettes or being a general menace. That’s enough for Homer to accept him.
Trope 3 – The Doppelganger
For the most part, Fly vs. Fly sticks to the script from The Fly. But rather than the narrative being focused on one person, it is instead split between two. One has Bart’s head and mind, and the other has the fly’s head and the fly’s mind. This obviously creates an issue. Bart is no longer where he should be, as someone has taken his place.
This gives rise to another classic horror trope ripe for parody: the doppelganger. This is one that has been around since the dawn of literature, but it has seen increased popularity thanks to movies like Us. That movie expertly shows off just why an imposter (or a whole group of them) is so scary. Moon is another great example.
The true horror of the doppelganger trope relies on the feeling of the uncanny. There has long been a place for the uncanny in horror simply because it is a sensation that makes us feel unnerved and out of place. We are naturally put on edge whenever something feels familiar but slightly off. The feeling of stepping into your house and sensing that something is different is enough to give you goosebumps.
Whether it meant to or not, the double-Bart situation in Fly vs. Fly evoked this classic horror trope in a major way. It being coupled with the disgusting, Cronenberg-esque body horror only sweetened (soured?) the deal. The concept of waking up one day to find that you have been replaced by someone that looks just like you but with the head of a fly is really creepy… even if it is coming from a cartoon.
The Simpson’s Fly vs. Fly is certainly one of the most memorable “Treehouse of Horror” segments, and I’ve always loved it for blending legitimately scary ideas with that amazing comedic timing that defined turn-of-the-century Simpsons. And body horror just feels like the perfect trope to be taken on by a cartoon, no?
Last Updated on August 1, 2021.