How to Make a Halloween Special: The Complete Guide to TV’s Best Season

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How to Make a Halloween Special: The Complete Guide to TV’s Best Season

Of all the holiday themes available to American television, Halloween is the most fun. Unlike its more culturally and/or religiously weighted fellows with more exacting briefs, Halloween is a free spirit. It is intrinsically egalitarian, independent of ideology, and open to endless televisual creativity. You want kid-friendly? Funny? Crafty? Weird? Television can make Halloween all those things, with style to spare. You want spooky? Television can make Halloween spook-tastic. You want bloodcurdling? Television can make Halloween shake you to your core. Television can even make Halloween a bop.

It’s so fun to make Halloween television, in fact, that the on-screen season of tricks and treats began expanding to fill the entire month of October almost as soon as Peak TV gave networks—and now, streamers—the room to run. From unevenly themed family costumes to murderous haunted houses to the competitive creation of spooky cauldron cakes, whatever you want out of your Halloween holiday experience, television has got you… even if what you want is a 24-hour stream of all the Disney Channel Halloweentown movies, back to back to back to back, for 31 days straight. (I don’t know what will happen to this stream after October 31, 2018, but I couldn’t not include it here for everyone to enjoy as much as I did upon discovering its existence at 3 a.m. a few nights before filing this piece.)

Sure, some might lament the purer joys of Halloween falling to the excesses of commercial opportunism (my kingdom for more homemade costumes!), but I saw an ad for Christmas at Disney World during network primetime on October 1, and Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas 2018 starts October 26—let us celebrate any defense that Halloween, even at its most commercial, is mounting against the worst excesses of that immoderate boondoggle. Let us study how best to build our October bulwarks in the future, should an early Christmas come bearing down even harder then.

To that end, here are all the ways that television has tackled Halloween, past and present, listed by degree of difficulty. Learn them, love them, live them.

1. Be a Whole Network

Difficulty level: Elementary or Impossible

Look: The best way to make a Halloween splash is to have enough money to pay for great (or at least, extensive) Halloween content, and a home where all that great Halloween content can completely take over. This is not the purview of mainstream linear television—those networks have too many balls to juggle to drop everything and focus on the spookiest time of year. No, this is the domain of your SYFY channels, your Food Networks, your Disneys and Freeforms and AMCs. It is also the domain your Netflixes, your Hulus, even your badly-organized-but-super-rich Prime Videos. Not all of these treat Halloween with the same universal fervor, but every single one of them has both budget and flexibility enough to make Halloween a Thing They Do.

The most memorable of these titans of Halloween programming are those who’ve managed to stick to one marketing strategy consistently: SYFY with its horror-centric “31 Days of Halloween” (see above, then never sleep again) and Freeform with its tamer “31 Nights of Halloween” (expanded this year from previous years’ 13) in one vein, Disney with Monstober, AMC with Fearfest, and Hulu with Huluween in another. But even without a network-wide brand, the wall-to-wall programming of scary, spooky and spellbinding movies that Netflix’s coffers boast, punctuated each year with all their scare-adjacent original series and specials (The Haunting of Hill House, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Castelvania, The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, etc. etc. times a billion) more than makes up for the lack of innovative marketing.

So, there’s that possibility: Just have all the money, and make Halloween the broadcasting air you breathe.

2. Be a Sitcom

Difficulty level: Elementary

Of all the holidays available to a sitcom, Halloween is the easiest to pull off. For one thing, it sits in a calendrical sweet spot, when all the fall series are settling into their grooves and before the various hiatuses of winter holidays and/or sports blackouts that might affect the timing of other holiday episodes. For another, there are very few reasons the characters of any sitcom, young or old, with kids or without, religious or not, couldn’t interact with Halloween. Few sitcoms could pull off a Harvest Moon Festival episode like Andi Mack, or Lunar New Year episodes like Fresh Off the Boat, or a Juneteenth episode like black-ish, and while most sitcoms do nod to Christmas, that doesn’t mean Christmas is universal. But Halloween? Everyone can do Halloween—even if it’s just to be mad at it, like the 9-9’s local Halloween curmudgeon, Amy Santiago.

On a more substantive level, while the sitcom is a form in which any major change is anathema, incremental changes are both inevitable and necessary, and the solidity of the real-world social rituals involved with any holiday episode, along with the absolute goofiness of those involved with Halloween in particular, act like a kind of shock to the sitcom’s internal systems, briefly crystallizing all the plot and character development that had until then been building up molasses-slow. See: Fresh Off the Boat’s fourth-season Halloween episode, “It’s a Plastic Pumpkin, Louis Huang,” in which crossed Halloween signals force Louis (Randall Park) to finally notice how (uniquely) grown up his youngest son, Evan (Ian Chen), is, or Freaks and Geeks’ sole Halloween episode, “Tricks and Treats,”—Paste’s choice for the best holiday episode of all time—in which the awkwardly-costumed geek trio realizes for themselves that they’ve grown out of something, while Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) marks her own maturity by making Halloween peace with her mom.

Not that every sitcom Halloween has to go so deep. Mostly, Halloween is an easy holiday for sitcoms to take on because it lets everyone—the cast, the writers, the set designers, the costumers, the makeup artists, the editors, the, I dunno, foley artists—go all out, in whatever direction they want. It’s just fun, and that’s exactly what sitcoms (and Halloween!) should be.

3. Be a Classic

Difficulty level: Easy (if you own the rights) or Hard (if you’re trying to make a classic from scratch)

Holidays are all about tradition. Television is all about making money. Put the two together and you get mysterious industry forces turning some holiday-themed properties into “classics,” which through brute repetition become genuinely beloved, which through human nature become seasonal appointment watches, which ultimately make (one presumes) lots and lots of money for whichever network or streaming service was savvy enough to snag that holiday-themed property’s rights when they were still dirt cheap.

That’s the cynic in me talking, of course. But while it’s true that It’s a Wonderful Life became a “classic” that way, as did Clue and Hocus Pocus, the formula isn’t so consistent as to obviate a need for some kind of dark magic to be at work at some point in the process. Otherwise, how to explain the fact that Disney and Freeform’s (née ABC Family) seasonal airings of Hocus Pocus captured enough of the imaginations of fans born after its disappointing 1993 release to warrant a huge 25th Anniversary Bash this year, whereas Halloweentown—also produced and owned by Disney, also celebrating a milestone anniversary (20th) this year, also starring an elder Hollywood stateswoman in a witchy lead role—is stuck streaming on loop on the company’s YouTube channel?

How, too, to explain the fact that It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is still a Halloween mainstay, regularly airing on network television 52 years after its 1966 premiere, whereas the equally atmospheric and arguably spookier Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, a CBS Special Presentation from 1985, seems to have resigned itself to an afterlife as a bootleg YouTube video? There is no way. The Garfield special had just as much potential to be a holiday classic, but it just… didn’t.

Anyway, if you figure out the dark magic spell behind a classic’s rise to the top, your Halloween legacy is set.

4. Be a One-Off Special

Difficulty level: Easy/Moderate

If all you have is one weekend night to fill (or if all you have the budget for in terms of new original programming amounts to the same), putting together one big Halloween-y special is the way to go. The big specials this year are anniversaries—the Hocus Pocus 25th Anniversary Bash on Freeform, the Very Wicked Halloween 15th Anniversary special on NBC, the network-wide celebration of 10 years of 31 Days of Halloween on SYFY—but a milestone party isn’t the only form a special can take. Aesthetics-based specials, like this year’s Decorating Disney: Halloween Magic on Freeform and Food Network’s Halloween Cake-Off always play well, but so do Halloween outings on scripted shows that air as stand-alone episodes—especially when those scripted shows take the task seriously enough to dress their title sequences up nice and spooky, like Teen Wolf did for its rave-themed Halloween episode in Season Three, Disney’s Big City Greens did for its Halloween outing this year, and Freeform’s Summer/Winter series Pretty Little Liars did for its cursed trio of Halloween specials in the early half of its series run.

Now, I don’t expect every Halloween one-off to be so committed as a Rosewood-born Liar, but if you want your Halloween programming to stand out, that degree of commitment should be a bare minimum.

Or, you know, just wait for Disney’s Z-O-M-B-I-E-S to turn 25, and throw a blowout bash.

5. Be Fright-Free Fun

Difficulty level: Moderate

In September, Netflix conducted an online survey of more than 1,200 adults with kids aged 2-6 and found that 68% of parents admit their littlest kids are frightened by many of the Halloween things that older kids, adults, and television for older kids and adults adore: 51% are reportedly scared of spooky masks, 48% of creepy monsters, and 44% of scary decorations. I don’t have kids, but 100% of the littlest ones belonging to my friends who are parents fit into these statistics somewhere (in addition to being scared for all the kids with un-bandaged boo-boos repeatedly showing up at the front door).

This may explain why It’s the Great Pumpkin has made it to “classic,” while the truly scary Garfield special has not. It’s also why your Netflix queue was so suddenly full of new Halloween-themed Super Monsters content, and why PBS KIDS’ Halloween programming has such a cheerfully bright landing page. Disney Junior and Nick Jr. have similarly benign, costume- and play-focused Halloween programming, with Disney’s slightly more mature Hotel Transylvania kicking in its own friendly Halloween fun. But don’t be fooled by the comforting simplicity of all this fright-free programming: It takes skill to finesse spooks into successful children’s programming. Walk this path happily, should you want to, but do so with care.

6. Be Crafty

Difficulty level: Moderate to Hard

At the risk of being an old lady shouting at clouds, kids these days don’t do nearly enough homemade Halloween crafting—and I mean kids of all ages, my “a single neon ghost is sufficient Halloween spirit, right?” adult self included.

Enter: Food Network’s goofy and saccharinely gory Halloween Baking Championship and Halloween Wars. Enter: Decorating Disney: Halloween Magic. Enter: Monstober Theater’s novelty cake, pumpkin carving and pet costume tutorials.

But enter, most especially, the new high bar of all crafty Halloween television high bars: Netflix’s six-part reality-sitcom-horror-show hybrid, The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, which finds the Instagram artist and lover of Marilyn Munster dressed like a dark Halloween sylph while she whips up harrowingly intricate pastries, dresses, and decorations in her haunted, monster-puppet-filled mansion on a hill.

Produced in collaboration with Henson Alternative, The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell is a show that has—and I am not joking—just as much murder as it does edible body parts, with a trio of spooky Henson puppets that are straight out of Labyrinth. It also has the ghost of Dita Von Teese giving fashion design advice from inside the mirror she likes to haunt, a complete (and creepy) story arc, and more power tools than you could possibly expect (as Christine says, “They say the fastest way to a man’s heart is with a power saw”).

All crafty Halloween content is good, but if this series in particular doesn’t inspire you to approach your Halloween crafting with more deliberation and eldritch love, then nothing will, and you’d better find another programming outlet to master.

7. Be a Sitcom, but Make It Fashion

Difficulty level: Expert

If all sitcoms are going to take on Halloween at some point, the best way to set your Halloween treatment apart is to make the very idea of Halloween a part of your show’s signature. The breezy universality that makes Halloween such an attractive target for sitcom treatment in general, though, is the exact same thing that makes it nearly impossible to elevate to signature status: How do you find an innovative, unique take, when even the most outlandish take imaginable is still imaginable? It seems like an impossible task.

And yet, there are those sitcoms that have risen to the challenge—the titans among giants, the greatest of the Halloween great: Roseanne. Community. The Simpsons. Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror tradition is so rich and so long-lived that it’s impossible to beat outright, but the utter novelty of the premise behind Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Halloween Heist series, matched with the significant emotional growth it has iteratively marked in the arcs of all the characters, all set against the backdrop of drunk costumed adults wandering around the precinct’s sparkly black and orange bullpen, makes it the most expert player in the league. As I wrote when I ranked the Halloween Heists third in my list of the Nine-Nine’s 9 Best Episodes,

The more years the 9-9 puts under its gaudy Halloween heist title belt, the more excited I am to see what possible combination of competitors and outcomes they come up with in the future. [2017]’s “HalloVeen,” written by Dan Goor and directed by Jamie Babbit, went the furthest afield yet, […] the series’ most iterative gag working like a well-oiled joke machine in the background while the emotional arc between its central romantic pair gracefully leveled up.

That is how you make a sitcom Halloween tradition your own, and while Brooklyn Nine-Nine won’t be returning to NBC for its resurrected sixth season until next spring, the firmness with which the show has established the heist as part of its DNA means that Halloween VI won’t be forgotten.

8. Don’t Be a Halloween Episode at All

Difficulty level: Don’t Try This at Home

Finally, if you really want to flex on your Halloween competition and/or give the excess of Christmas a check beyond October, you can try to pull off the Halloween-episode-that-isn’t-actually-a-Halloween-episode—the episode that either didn’t air in October or doesn’t feature Halloween, but which is so Halloween-y to its core that it won’t ever not be associated with the holiday. The Dick Van Dyke Show did this in 1964 with “The Ghost of A. Chantz; a cabin-in-the-woods horror spoof which aired on September 30 and never mentions Halloween. Boy Meets World did it in 1998 with its nightmare-inducing Season Four classic, “And Then There Was Shawn,” a slasher film spoof which aired in February and featured a serial killer in a Scream mask. Gravity Falls did it twice, first with Season One’s “Summerween,” then again with Season Two’s “Northwest Mansion Mystery” (also, coincidentally, a February episode). Psych did it all the damn time—so often, in fact, that an official Psych-O-Ween DVD collection was eventually released just to commemorate the Psych-os’ particular brand of spooky madness.

All of these not-Halloween Halloween episodes are killer, but more creative than all of them, weirdly, is Supernatural’s black-and-white Season Four banger, “Monster Movie”—weirdly not just about the idea that any single Supernatural episode might stand out as especially Halloween-y compared to the rest of the monster-filled series, weirdly, too, for the fact that “Monster Movie” aired a mere two episodes before the series’ official, Samhain-busting Halloween episode, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester.” But while all the razor-filled candy and Ashley Benson cameos in “It’s the Great Pumpkin” are great, it is the classic monsters of the silver screen that the shapeshifter in “Monster Movie” takes the form of that stick in the memory in that shivery-great Halloween-y way.

This is the television industry at its most recursive, a series of purpose-built “classics” begetting a tradition begetting a loving imitation begetting now another, different classic, but look, it’s a season of tricks as much as it is of treats. And if you, too, ever want to add to television’s storied Halloween tradition, you’ll be taking notes.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.