There are a few questions and debates around film that just never seem to go away: Is Deckard a replicant? What’s in the mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction? Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?
Well, another question that always crops up at this time of year relates to Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (which was directed by Henry Selick but conceived by Burton). This macabre, stop-motion musical fantasy was first released back in 1993 and tells of Jack Skellington, the disillusioned Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, who one day stumbles upon a portal to Christmas Town – a land with which he becomes instantly and obsessively enamoured.
After his discovery, Jack becomes devoted to bringing Yuletide to his own home, but his plans are hampered by a lack of cooperation from his fellow residents, who can’t quite seem to get to grips with the alien concept of Christmas cheer. The film ends with Jack’s disastrous attempt to deliver presents after he had ordered the kidnap of Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws) – leading him to rescue his captive just in time for Kris Kringle to go about fulfilling his usual Christmas Eve duties.
So here’s the question: should The Nightmare Before Christmas be considered a staple of spooky season, or a firm festive favourite? Given both festivals feature prominently, you could certainly argue either way, but if we’re to consider what the creators of the project have to say, the matter can actually be cleared up pretty easily.
In 2017, director Selick definitively declared “it’s a Halloween movie” during a Q&A at Colorado’s Telluride Horror Show film festival, while two years later composer Danny Elfman told USA Today, “It’s obviously about Christmas, but for me, it’s a Halloween movie.” Furthermore the release date of the film – on October 29th – provides more evidence originally it was intended to be enjoyed primarily as a Halloween treat.
But simply taking the words of those who created it at face value would be boring – so let’s do a little bit more theorising. Those who dispute Selick’s and Elfman’s claims the film is a Halloween movie can certainly point to a few factors in their favour: for much of the film, Jack is unambiguously pro-Christmas, appearing to favour the joy and bright lights of this previously unheard-of Winter festival to the ghouls and demons he’s all too familiar with.
Moreover, the sight of Santa struggling to get the job done on Christmas Eve is a trope that’s been seen in all manner of Christmas movies – from Miracle on 34th Street to Elf. And then there’s the time of year at which the film is set – following the opening song and dance, all of the action takes place after Halloween, leading to a climax on Christmas Eve itself! How, then, could this be anything other than a Christmas film?
On the other side of the debate, fans would point out that the protagonists are all residents at Halloween Town, not Christmas Town: the characters have inspired many a fancy dress costume on 31st October over the years, but you won’t find many people turning up at a caroling service dressed as Jack Skellington. This is also a film filled with more Halloween imagery and iconography than just about any other, with an overarching tone that is a masterclass in the macabre
And the ending, of course, sees Jack give up on his attempts to turn Halloween Town into another version of Christmas Town, realising the uniqueness and wonder of his own community and fully embracing Halloween in all its ghoulish and ghastly glory.
On balance, then, I’d say that, despite the presence of Christmas throughout the narrative, the film’s atmosphere, visual style, and ending, when taken in conjunction with the claims of the brains behind the project, ensure that it should always be seen, first and foremost, as a Halloween movie. If you do want to watch it at Christmas though? Well, I’m not going to stop you!
A Nightmare Before Christmas is available to stream on Disney+. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.