5 great Halloween TV specials

Juliette counts down five great Halloween specials, with a little help from Buffy, Supernatural, Community and more...

Halloween episodes are rare in certain types of genre shows, partly because apparently, in the future, no one will celebrate Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or Hannukah, or Christmas, or Divali, or New Year’s or Easter or Yom Kippur or really anything except occasionally the Klingon Day of Honour. But it’s also because Halloween episodes are really the purview of sitcoms. Contemporary-set dramatic shows will occasionally dip a toe in, and the longer they run, the more likely it is that there will be a Halloween party with full costumes at some point. But for semi-regular Halloween specials, it’s sitcoms you really want, where the subject of the spooky and the scary can be prodded, poked, used and sent up, all while your female leads are dressed in accidentally provocative costumes. And so, an appropriately sitcom-heavy list… 

5. Supernatural – It’s a Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester 

What goes bump in the night? A couple of witches want to raise the Samhain, which involves razors (ew) and leads to blood, the undead… a whole lot of badness, basically.

It’s come-as-you-aren’t night: Not much dressing up here, unless you count the Winchesters pretending to be FBI agents. The students targeted (and in really unfortunate cases, exploded) are in various standard Halloween costumes such as witch, Roman centurion and so on, but the cheerleaders could well be actual cheerleaders.

How scary, on a scale of Casper to Arachnophobia?* Edging towards Arachnophobia – pretty scary, in a gross-out kind of way. Razors and boiling faces are not something to watch on a full stomach.

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Worth sleeping with the lights on: If you actually want to be scared by a Halloween special, this is the one you want. Supernatural’s Halloween-themed run-around has witches, ghosts, zombies, angels, demons and girls in cheerleader outfits. What more could you possibly ask for?

Quotable: “Zombie-ghost orgy, huh? Well, that’s it. I’m torching everybody” (Dean)

The End? The episode concludes with a conversation between Dean and Castiel relating to the on-going story arc.

4. Sabrina the Teenage Witch – Good Will Haunting 

What goes bump in the night? Hilda and Zelda go to Aunt Beulah’s Halloween party, only to be told once they’re there that it’s taking place in an ‘Insane Asylum,’ in which they are trapped with the campest mad scientist known to man. Meanwhile, Aunt Beulah sends Sabrina a Molly Dolly, which summons Frankenstein’s monster, a mummy and a vampire to terrify Sabrina, Harvey, Valerie and Justin on their double date, even more than last-minute scary-movie-substitute, The Bridges of Madison County.

It’s come-as-you-aren’t night: Valerie having learned from last year’s duck fiasco, the girls are in civvies, but the boys come dressed as a mummy and Frankenstein’s monster. This makes the climax, in which Harvey-as-monster is held upside down from the ankles by the actual monster, especially amusing. The bit where the two of them cry together over The Bridges of Madison County is even funnier.

How scary, on a scale of Casper to Arachnophobia? Further away from Casper than you might think, Molly is pretty freaky. The ‘Insane Asylum’ is only really scary for the horrifying flatness of the characters, but it is suitably Halloween-y.

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Worth sleeping with the lights on: Sabrina did several Halloween episodes and most of them were pretty good; the first one, A Halloween Story, was especially touching as Sabrina got to spend half an hour with her late grandmother. But Good Will Haunting is particularly memorable for the inspired chase sequence set to The Monster Mash, which is full of the sense of silly fun the show was built on. In Molly, it also has a genuinely creepy villain who carefully walks the horror-comedy line between too creepy and just creepy enough.

Quotable: “We’re never going to see Enchanted April!” (Sabrina)

“We were running and he was… frolicking” (Hilda)

The End? Molly didn’t summon a werewolf… More effectively, if no less predictably, Narrator-Salem comments on how it’s all behind them now, only for the viewer to be returned to the opening scene of the episode. Salem looks up from the replay and cries “It never ends!” I actually got chills, just a little bit. 

3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Halloween 

What goes bump in the night? Thanks to chaos-worshipping warlock Ethan, everyone except Cordelia turns into their costumes. Genius in its simplicity.

It’s come-as-you-aren’t night: Willow, uncomfortable with Buffy’s determination to, as Britta Perry would say, use Halloween as an excuse to dress up like a slut, dresses as a ghost and manages to keep her own personality and memory, albeit without an actual body. Buffy, meanwhile, shows terrible taste in pink hideousness and turns into a useless 18th century society girl, Xander becomes a really quite sexy soldier and Larry is a pirate.

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How scary, on a scale of Casper to Arachnophobia? Not especially scary, though Spike leaning in to kill a helpless, crying Buffy at the climax is pretty creepy (this being firmly back in the Scary Spike period). A little nearer to Casper than Arachnophobia.

Worth sleeping with the lights on: A really nice character piece, even though everyone’s acting out of character. You can’t help feeling that this society lady lives inside Buffy somewhere, just as the macho soldier lives inside Xander – though it is an immense relief when Buffy pops up, bottle-blonde and kicking ass, at the end.

Quotable: “She couldn’t have dressed up like Xena?” (Willow)

The End? This episode is also notable for the first appearance of Ripper-Giles, brought out by his old buddy Ethan… 

2. The Simpsons – Treehouse of Horror IV 

What goes bump in the night? Homer sells his soul to the Flanders-Devil, Bart is terrorised on the school bus and Mr Burns is revealed to be, as we always suspected, a vampire. Gary Oldman/Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, to be precise.

It’s come-as-you-aren’t night: No one is ever as they are in a Treehouse of Horror episode, but Homer with a head that is literally a doughnut is especially unsettling.

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How scary, on a scale of Casper to Arachnophobia?  See above re: doughnut-head. I’ve always found the strange green creature that terrorises Bart rather alarming, too. On the other hand, casting Ned Flanders as the Devil, while hilarious, does reduce the scare factor just a little bit. The Dracula story is probably closest to Casper, with the Devil story in the middle and the gremlin on the school bus edging towards Arachnophobia.

Worth sleeping with the lights on: How to choose just one of the always-classic ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes? VII gave us Kang and Kodos at the US Presidential elections, and X offered the classic response to Lisa’s objection that Xena can’t fly – ‘I told you, I’m not Xena. I’m Lucy Lawless, the actress.’ In recent years, XXI gave us a gorier, scarier version of Twilight starring (in a piece of casting so meta it might just make your brain dribble out of your ears) Daniel Radcliffe and featuring Sesame Street’s The Count eating Big Bird. But IV, framed by spoof  Night Gallery sequences and featuring Dracula, Homer eating his own head and an homage to the classic Shatner-starring episode of The Twilight Zone, just edges it for me.

Quotable: “Hello, mother. Hello, father. I missed you during my uneventful absence” (Vampire Bart)

The End? Treehouse of Horror episodes exist out of canon, but I bet Ned Flanders really is the Devil… 

1. Community – Epidemiology 

What goes bump in the night? Everyone at Greendale’s Halloween party is infected with a rabies-like disease (from old army rations) that can only be cured by air-conditioning. In retrospect, it’s clear why it had to be Troy who saved them all.

It’s come-as-you-aren’t night: Everyone’s in costume, and most of the costumes reflect the character (Annie as Little Red Riding Hood, Jeff as David Beckham) while Troy switches from Aliens’ big yellow machine to ‘a sexy Dracula’ in an attempt to impress the ladies. Shirley thinks everyone is being racist when they don’t recognise her costume, apparently oblivious to the fact it’s probably the colour of her clothes that’s putting everyone off (Glinda the Good Witch doesn’t wear pink, Harry Potter doesn’t wear red). This is also the Dean’s first of many cross-dressing costumes (Lady Gaga).

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How scary, on a scale of Casper to Arachnophobia? The scariest thing is probably Shirley sleeping with Chang (shudder), which is full-on Arachnophobia levels of wrong. The darkened, smoke-filled set is suitably creepy too.

Worth sleeping with the lights on: It’s a zombie episode. Of a supposedly contemporary sitcom. In Halloween costumes. All set to Abba’s greatest hits. With zombies. I don’t even like zombies that much and I know that’s awesome.

It’s also built on a simple but sweet story between Troy and Abed rooted in the conflict between Troy’s inner footballer and his inner nerd who loves his best friend. Of course, this thread is concluded with lines from Star Wars (“I love you”; “I know”) before Troy uses his nerdy Aliens costume to get him far enough through the zombies to save everyone. How else?

Quotable: “What is up with that cat?” (Jeff) “Is someone throwing it?!” (Troy)

“Be the first black man to make it to the end!” (Abed to Troy)

The End? This episode’s chief legacy is the scariest idea of all – the possibility that Shirley’s third child is half-Chang… 

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 Bubbling under: Quantum Leap made several game attempts at Halloween specials but they tended to seem… silly. Thanks to the premise, it could just about pull off a gooier angel episode but horror, not so much (though Al as the devil in The Episode That Shall Not Be Named is pretty freaky). The Big Bang Theory’s ‘The Middle Earth Paradigm’ is rather sweet and features Leonard and Penny’s first kiss, while The Vampire Diaries, appropriately enough for a vampire show, often uses Halloween to bring bubbling stories to a close. 

*I have never actually seen Arachnophobia, but since I suffer from the titular condition, I consider it the scariest movie ever.

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