In honor of its anniversary, we reflect on the history and legacy of Tim Burton’s holiday horror treat, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.
Growing up, it seemed I was alone in my appreciation for Halloween. Every year, I would look forward to watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but I wondered why there weren’t more Halloween specials.
In 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas came along. With it, Tim Burton gives us the perfect holiday special that really can be watched on both Halloween and Christmas.
Burton is unique in that he tells a tale whimsically using macabre imagery. Working alongside longtime collaborator Danny Elfman, Burton tapped director Henry Selick and helped assemble an extensive team of animators to bring us a contemporary fairy tale that encourages us to accept who we are inside.
The Nightmare Before Christmas takes place in an alternate reality where each holiday has a town whose citizens create the magic of that holiday in our reality.
We’re introduced to Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon with Danny Elfman providing the singing voice), The Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. Halloween has just ended. While the residents of Halloweentown are satisfied and enthusiastic for next year, Jack isn’t in a celebratory mood. He’s tired of Halloween and wants something new. So, he decides to take a walk through the woods to think.
He stumbles on a crossroads with seven trees, each marked with a symbol of a specific holiday: Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day.
Jack ends up in Christmas Town and is immediately dazzled by holiday lights, trees, and snow.
He decides that this year, instead of Halloween, the residents of Halloween Town will create the magic of Christmas.
Jack sends trick-or-treaters Lock, Shock, and Barrel (Paul Reubens, Danny Elfman, and Catherine O’Hara) to kidnap Santa Claus (Edward Ivory). They deliver Santa Claus to Jack’s nefarious rival, Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), a gambler who plays a game with Santa’s life at stake.
In the meantime, the only resident of Halloween Town who isn’t enthusiastic about Jack’s plan is Sally (Catherine O’Hara), a ragdoll created by mad scientist Dr. Finkelstein (William Hickey), who is always looking for a way to get away from Finkelstein. After unsuccessfully trying to reason with Jack, she attempts to rescue Santa Claus from Oogie Boogie.
Jack’s plan fails miserably when the toys made by the residents of Halloween Town come to life and attack the children, almost leading to Jack’s undoing. In trying to take over Christmas, he almost ruins it. However, Santa is saved just in time to save Christmas.
Released in the United States on October 29, 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas earned a total of $91.5 million combined from its initial release as well as 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2020 reissues. Considered a “sleeper hit,” upon its initial release, the movie earned $50 million.
Disney felt the film was too dark to put their name on the film, so they released it through Touchstone Pictures.
After first seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas, I came away with a clear message: embrace who you are, and don’t try to be someone you’re not.
In Halloween Town, being dark and creepy is the norm — the residents of Halloween Town excel in delivering delightful scares. So, naturally, when told they have to try to provide Christmas joy, they can only deliver it in their own way, with a macabre twist.
I thought it was the perfect Halloween tale with iconic actors such as Chris Sarandon as Jack and Catherine O’Hara as Sally. Each character is iconic in its own way, and many classic horror creatures were incorporated as residents of Halloween town: vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein references with mad scientist Dr. Finkelstein and Sally. Of course, we can’t forget Oogie Boogie.
Danny Elfman wrote wonderful, iconic songs that will stick in the viewer’s head for years to come, some of which have been covered by many bands over the years.
Multiple sources inspired Burton, who originally conceived the story of Jack Skellington in a poem.
Burton said that since he didn’t experience seasonal changes growing up in Burbank, California. Thus, holiday decorations played an important role in marking the seasonal change. Seeing Halloween and Christmas decorations featured side by side in stores sparked the idea for Halloween Town trying to take over Christmas.
Rankin/Bass’s classic 1970s stop-motion holiday specials, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, inspired the style of animation.
Burton laid the foundation of the story of The Nightmare Before Christmas in a poem he wrote while working at Disney.
Written as a parody of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” aka “The Night Before Christmas,” the poem told the story of Jack Skellington’s waning enthusiasm for Halloween and also included his dog Zero and Santa Claus.
It would take 10 years for Burton’s idea to become a full-length feature film.
Burton considered both television and print before pitching The Nightmare Before Christmas as a full-length feature film. While Rankin/Bass’s stop motion animation holiday specials inspired the film’s look, Burton also imagined it initially as a made-for-TV Christmas special that would air annually beside these holiday classics. However, no television studios were receptive to his idea. After television, he pitched his idea to book publishers.
At the time production was set to begin, Burton was working as a director on Batman Returns. Burton served as producer and chose Henry Selick, a former colleague at Disney, to direct. His name went above the title since the film was based on his concept.
Jack Skellington subsequently appeared in other Selick films, such as the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach as a pirate captain and a difficult-to-spot appearance in a breakfast scene in Coraline in which his face appears in an egg yolk.
The cast includes many Burton alumni.
Up until Nightmare, Elfman and Burton had collaborated on multiple projects. Elfman provided Jack Skellington’s singing voice.
Beetlejuice’s Catherine O’Hara provided Sally’s voice and trick-or-treater Shock. Glenn Shadix, who was also in Beetlejuice, played Halloween Town’s two-faced mayor. Paul Reubens, who starred in Burton’s directorial debut, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, lent his voice as trick-or-treater Lock.
Vincent Price, who appeared as the inventor in Edward Scissorhands and lent his voice to Burton’s animated short Vincent, was originally cast as Santa. Price was re-cast after his wife, Cora Browne, died in 1991. Mental Floss reports that the director replaced Price since he felt that “he sounded too sad for Santa.”
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Patrick Stewart originally lent his voice as the narrator and read poetry during the beginning and ending of the film. After these monologues were condensed to only a few lines, Edward Ivory’s voice was used instead. Stewart’s voice is found in full on the film’s soundtrack.
Tim Burton had a cameo that was cut. In the scene in which vampires play hockey with a jack-o-lantern, the jack-o-lantern was originally a head made in Burton’s image. Deemed too gruesome for children, the head was changed to a jack-o-lantern. Danny Elfman’s cameo did make it to the final film as a member of the Halloween Town band.
When production began, they had a soundtrack but no final screenplay.
Selick worked with an extensive team, including 13 specially trained animators, plus a large staff of prop makers, set builders, and camera operators. One minute took one week to shoot, and the entire film took three years to make.
Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey influenced the film’s artistic style. Selick said that he and his team looked “to give it that sort of etched texture or feel to make it look like a living illustration” by scratching lines into plaster and clay.
Burton had no interest in making a sequel. Mental Floss quotes Burton from an MTV interview:
“I was always very protective of [Nightmare Before Christmas], not to do sequels or things of that kind. You know, ‘Jack visits Thanksgiving world’ or other kinds of things, just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it. Because it’s not a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it. I try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible.”
The Nightmare Before Christmas is the perfect holiday film for both Christmas and Halloween.
Misunderstood at first, the film has become a classic holiday film with a relatable message: embrace who you are and emphasize and work with your unique qualities — even if you are dark and strange!