With Halloween nearly upon us, it's time to remember when The Simpsons was one of the best shows on television and every year would produce a "Treehouse of Horror" episode that offered horror parodies that managed to be hilarious, uncannily well observed, and decently scary as well. The Simpsons still makes new "Treehouse of Horror" episodes, but we're not here to pretend that the show is even a shadow of what it was in its golden years. In choosing the ten best "Treehouse of Horror" segments — each episode is an anthology of three stories, almost all of them a parody of a familiar horror film (or Twilight Zone episode) — there are too many legendary choices to bother making room for a token late-season entry. The show's first eight seasons are called the golden age for a reason.
And so, with due credit to honorable mentions like "The Genesis Tub" (Lisa creates life in her science experiment) and "Dial Z for Zombies" (is this the end for Zombie Shakespeare?), here are our picks for the best-ever Simpsons spooky-season offerings:
The short story that we all probably read in junior high is familiar enough for its be-careful-what-you-wish-for theme, and it makes for great Simpsons fodder after Homer acquires the accursed appendage and the family begins making wishes that come true in the worst ways. Already in Season 3 The Simpsons were making self-reflexive jokes about their own pop culture status, so when Bart wishes that his family would be rich and famous, it comes with plenty of gags about how the Simpsons have become over-merchandized and annoying. .
The kids at Springfield Elementary prove themselves to be so unruly that Principal Skinner, Mrs, Krabapel and the rest of the faculty deal with the overcrowding in detention by eating said kids. There's a touch of Soylent Green to the "Sloppy Jimbos are made of Jimbo!" but this turns out to be even more macabre, with Lunchlady Doris a particular terror all spattered in blood and chasing Bart and Lisa with a hand mixer.
Based on the classic Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man," this story from the very first "Treehouse of Horror" episode sees the Simpson family abducted from their backyard by an alien spaceship captained by Kang and Kodos (their first of many appearances on the show), who proceed to welcome the Simpsons and feed them extravagant buffets of food. The twist in "To Serve Man" was that the seemingly benevolent aliens were planning to eat the humans all along, and indeed Lisa finds a book titled "How to Cook Humans." Of course, the book is covered in space dust, the aliens really were as generous as they seemed, and the Simpson family mucked it up by suspecting the worst of them. Way to go, Lisa! This is the clear highlight of the very first TOH episode, setting the template in all sorts of ways, from the many Twilight Zone homages that would follow, to Kang and Kodos themselves. The conclusion was more of a one-to-grow-on lesson than subsequent episodes would offer, but the sight of Siroc the Preparer (voiced by James Earl Jones!) moved to tears by the Simpsons' selfishness is some good business.
You had to figure Homer Simpson's love of donuts would damn him sooner or later. In this case, his desire for frosted yeasty goodness leads him to sell his soul to a Flanders-y devil. The trial that follows is based on a work of classic literature ("The Devil and Daniel Webster") with some classic Simpsons touches. Homer getting fed all the donuts in the world in the "Ironic Punishment Division" of hell is a particularly memorable gag. And the conclusion, where Homer beats the devil when Marge reveals he'd already pledged his soul to her is genuinely sweet.
Another alien abduction, though this time it's just Homer who's taken up to visit Kang and Kodos. Their plan for world domination this time involves capturing Earth's political leaders, and since this episode was produced in 1996, that means President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole. Somehow nobody clocks that Clinton and Dole have begun speaking in terms of haughty world domination (Marge: "That's Slick Willie for ya") until it's far too late. Honestly, this segment — which sees Homer struggle in vain to convince everyone around him that aliens are masquerading as our leaders — is probably the most memorable thing to emerge from the 1996 election, and some of the most memorable lines, like "Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!" and "Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos" have become enduring testaments to political nihilism.
The Gremlins-inspired gag at the beginning of this segment — where a curio shop owner offers Homer a free forgurt with purchase — is one of the great Simpsons bits. But just as Gizmo the mogwai turned out to be more trouble than he let on, so too does the talking Krusty the Clown doll turn out to present some problems when he ends up becoming sentient and bent on killing Homer. The allusions to Gremlins and Child's Play work here, but it's mostly the jokes that sell this story, from Homer screaming "the doll's trying to kill me and the toaster's been laughing at me!" to the "evil" switch on Krusty's back.
The very best of the Simpsons/Twilight Zone mashups is this take on one of the best known TZ episodes, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." In that one, William Shatner goes mad when he sees a gremlin on the wing of the airplane; in this, Bart tries to warn everyone on the school bus (including Milhouse, Otto, and Principal Skinner) of the monster trying to kill them. The fourth edition of "Treehouse of Horror" is when The Simpsons saw that they could be genuinely frightful, and this one is both funny and successfully scary, especially the sight of Flanders's severed head. And you've gotta love a story that includes Kang, Kodos, Hans Moleman, and Uter.
Freddy Kreuger and A Nightmare on Elm Street was eventually going to make it to a "Treehouse of Horror" episode, and casting Groundskeeper Willie as the dream killer was a stroke of genius. This is a tremendously creative segment that plays with animation styles (the Chuck Jones-inspired opening doesn't get talked about enough) and dream logic, while also featuring some of the show's best jokes ("lousy Smarch weather"). All that and Maggie ends up saving the day, a true Dream Warrior.
The particular alchemy of a perfect "Treehouse of Horror" segment mixes intricately well-observed parody of the source material, a decent element of scariness, and some great jokes. "Bart Simpson's Dracula" delivers on all three, sending up Francis Ford Coppola's extravagantly art-directed Dracula story (including Mr. Burns aping Gary Oldman's "queer" hairstyle). Burns wasn't prominent in all that many early "Treehouse of Horror" segments, but having him play an eternal figure of malevolence turned out just right.
The source-material parody on display in "The Shinning" is so frighteningly accurate, and that word choice is very intentional. The Shining is one of the most iconic horror films in history, and The Simpsons lovingly sends it up with dozens of details great and small, casting Homer as the patriarch gone slowly mad in isolation, Marge as his frightened, bat-wielding spouse, and Bart as the little boy who can "shin." Everything is here, from the blood on the elevator to Moe as the ghostly bartender to Groundskeeper Willie as Scatman Crothers. No TV and no beer end up making Homer go crazy, and his rampage as he tries to murder his family is genuinely scary. As it turned out, what he typed was a window into his madness.
All 31 of The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror episodes are available for streaming in their entirety on Disney+.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.