The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror Episodes, Listed and Analyzed
It sounds wrong, but it’s true: The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror series was what introduced many kids to horror.
Long before their parents allowed them to watch The Shining or Friday the 13th, children of the 90s and the early 2000s were watching cartoon parodies of those very same movies. In a way, these short spoofs function as a perfect gateway to the genre. Each segment breaks down what makes horror so special with equal doses of reverence and irreverence.
For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick introduction. Treehouse of Horror is the annual Halloween episode of The Simpsons. Each episode typically is made up of three bite-sized episodes that each take on a different piece of horror media. These topics can range from Poe to The Twilight Zone to everything in between.
The level of inspiration used in each segment varies. When a movie is being parodied, the segment will generally stick pretty close to the script. Others, however, will just take a typically scary idea and run with it. Homer’s time-travelling odyssey due to a broken toaster isn’t necessarily a shot-for-shot remake of any film, but the tropes still ring true.
The First Episode
An important thing to keep in mind for newcomers to The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episodes is that the roman numeral tacked onto the end of each installment of the series doesn’t actually line up with what season it’s from. You might expect “Treehouse of Horror VI” to be from the sixth season, but it’s actually from the seventh.
This is because we didn’t get the first Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episode until season two. The episode, simply titled “Treehouse of Horror,” didn’t hint at a yearly series beginning. It did, however, establish many of the traditions that would continue in future installments. It marked the first appearance of recurring aliens Kang and Kodos, the three-segment structure, and the disclaimer opening.
The first episode also was the one in which one of the most acclaimed Treehouse of Horror segments appeared. Before wrapping up the episode, Lisa launched into a reading of “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. The cartoon adaptation of the poem, narrated by the legendary James Earl Jones, was so strong that English teachers to this day still show it in class.
“The Raven” segment still stands as an encapsulation of what makes Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror so great. It showed the writers’ deep understanding of literary history by creating such a faithfully chilling atmosphere; it showed the ability for each of the characters in the series to work as stand-ins for horror stereotypes; and it was damn funny.
Early Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror Episodes
Since that first episode of Treehouse of Horror, there have been multiple standout additions to the series. “Treehouse of Horror IV” had the stellar “Bart Simpson’s Dracula,” a short that poked fun directly at Francis Ford Coppola and indirectly at the general cheesiness of the gothic. “Nightmare Cafeteria” from “Treehouse of Horror V” has shades of Soylent Green, but it is also just genuinely terrifying in its own right.
And that is where the real brilliance of Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror lies. While it can just be appreciated as a laugh-fest like the other Simpsons episodes, there are also some segments and moments that are pretty scary. The Tron-inspired creepiness of “Homer^3” is unsettling, and a few of the other parodies trade out humor for realism and end up nearly as scary as the source material.
Of course, at the end of the day, it’s a cartoon designed to make us laugh. But the writers behind the Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episodes understand why horror is intriguing and scary, and they regularly include that in the series. The episodes work on their own, but they can also tend to feel like a sort of analysis of the genre as a whole. Like the entirety of The Simpsons, Treehouse of Horror episodes can be appreciated on many different levels of subtlety.
Later Episodes of Treehouse of Horror
As horror – particularly horror cinema – has continued to grow and become more multifaceted throughout the course of The Simpsons existence, the Treehouse of Horror series has largely refused to innovate. Just like the first installment, the new episodes take on scary stories both classic and new. As a perfect example, “Treehouse of Horror XXXII” parodies both Parasite and The Ring.
There have been some changes since the series heyday in the 90s, though. The newest episode showcased five segments rather than the usual three. Additionally, many have criticized the writing on the modern episodes to be far below the quality established by their early predecessors. (The fact that newer episodes of The Simpsons are being critically dismissed should come as no surprise to diehard fans.)
Regardless, Treehouse of Horror remains one of the standout examples of horror in the world of cartoons today. Despite how you may feel about the status of the writing on the show, it’s great to have the trends and tropes of horror being critiqued, parodied, and celebrated on such a large stage.