Lately I’ve been engaging in a lot of conversations about genre and genre studies with students in my writing classes. I’ve been asking them questions like “What makes a genre a genre?” and “What makes this genre different from other genres?” And, for the most part, The Simpsons can neatly be put in the venerated category of animated sitcom. But every year, once per season, the show changes somewhat. That’s right; today we’re talking about Treehouse of Horror.
Treehouse of Horror, a series within The Simpsons, is the show’s take on horror, featuring episodes comprising three segments which are typically elaborate homages to classic horror film and literature. First introduced back in Season 2, Treehouse of Horror is always a treat to look forward to. It always features some of the most interesting animation of the season, along with some genuinely good scares. And in honor of Halloween, it’s time we take a deep dive on one of these episodes.
Treehouse of Horror IV is framed through a guided tour by Bart of a gallery of paintings, each of which leads into one of the segments proper, the first of which, is my personal favorite so far, “The Devil and Homer Simpson.” This segment, a parody of The Devil and Daniel Webster according to Wikipedia, is most memorable for the satire of Ned Flanders as the Devil, who Homer sells his soul to for a donut. The way the episode plays out in a pseudo trial about the technicalities of selling one’s soul may be a send up of the classic play, but it’s much more interesting on that satiric/thematic level. In a sense, this segment exists to mock the religious zealotry often encapsulated by characters like Ned Flanders, whose practice of being so beholden to the rules exists as an antithesis to the often-anarchic nature of the show’s comedy. To tie religious orientation toward rules and order to the very evil those rules are meant to combat is some of the sharpest philosophic satire the show’s come up with to date.
The episode continues with the segment, “Terror at 5 ½ Feet”centers around Bart’s ride to school on the bus, where he’s the only one to notice a demon terrorizing the vehicle. As the other students and adults treat him like the boy who cried wolf, Bart grows more and more agitated, until ultimately, he is restrained off-camera. Before long, the bus arrives at school and Bart is institutionalized, even while the demon is proved real, killing Flanders and showing up on the ambulance they take Bart away in. This segment, although funny, is admittedly less thematically rich than the previous one, but provides some good shock, all the same.
But the episode pulls back around to be one of the best moments thus far with the closing segment, “Bart Simpson’s Dracula.”Mr. Burns takes the role of the titular vampire, infecting the family one by one in his ̶T̶r̶a̶n̶s̶y̶l̶v̶a̶n̶i̶a̶ Pennsylvania estate. (On an unrelated note, this segment also features the best joke of the episode, featuring Grandpa Simpson.) In connecting the only major character on the show consistently shown to be wealthy with vampirism, and explicitly the horror-inducing blood drinking that is their most well-known trope, The Simpsonsplays on a well-known line from Marx’s Capital, but in a way that could be easily missed if not looking for it.
So, what does all this have to do with genres and genre theory, you may ask?
A definition I like of genre comes from writer and theorist Amy Devitt in the intro to her book Writing Genres. She pulls together older theorists and conventional wisdom about what makes a genre a genre to say that they come together from associative qualities (i.e. Star Wars and Star Trek are both sci-fi because they feel similar in some ways), matters of form (a half-hour T.V. sitcom is a fundamentally different beast than a feature film or a TikTok), and rhetorical situation (essentially, why a thing was made, with what constraints, for what audience). A regular Simpsons episode (perhaps a subgenre all its own) fits with a standard sitcom on all of these points. It’s funny, it feels like sitcoms in the way it’s funny, it’s always the same length, and was generally made under those constraining factors. Where Treehouse of Horror differs is in the loosening of constraints. TOH doesn’t need to make you laugh, if it can make you scared, or thoughtful, or anything else. It can vary in length (three short segments rather than one interconnected narrative), and the animation can break the boundaries of violence or political frankness of what you’d see on a regular episode. TOH rules because it can break the rules of what the show ordinarily can be. ¡Ay Caramba!
Ben Shahon is a writer whose work has appeared in various literary journals both online and in print, including Taco Bell Quarterly, Voidspace Zine, and here at The Daily Drunk. He is a graduate of ASU in English and Philosophy, and holds an MFA from Emerson College. Ben currently lives and works in the Boston area. He keeps getting promoted, even when the boss forgets him.