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The Nightmare Before Christmas changed mall culture forever

As anyone can see, they’re simply meant to be

A collection of Nightmare Before Christmas products from Hot Topic, all on a background of the spiral hill from the movie Graphic: William Joel/Polygon | Source images: various

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

It’s hard to think of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas or edgy retail chain Hot Topic without thinking of the other.

For the past 30 years, Jack Skellington’s face has graced T-shirts, backpacks, shoes, and more at Hot Topic — and thus filled high school hallways across America. Together, the stop-motion cult classic and the alt-friendly clothing and accessory store have been hallmarks of counterculture teenagers for a solid 20 years, even as both have made their way from the fringes of culture to the mainstream. The stories of how each reached the center of teen culture are inexorably intertwined, and they have been since the early 1990s.

But was it Hot Topic’s strong alternative brand that made it the perfect place for Nightmare to flourish into a cultural landmark, or was it Nightmare’s darker-than-usual-Disney fare that primed it for Hot Topic? As it turns out, it was a little bit of both.

“Merchandising has arguably been as crucial to the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas as it has been to Star Wars,” says author Lisa Morton to Emily Zemler in Beyond Halloween Town: The Story, the Characters, and the Legacy. And as it turns out, the timing was a perfect storm. “The film’s original release in 1993 also coincided with the rise of Halloween collectibles, so it provided a new tsunami of delightful collectibles that were more affordable than many of the sought-after vintage pieces.”

While there was a lot of immediate demand for Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise, the offerings were limited, especially on the apparel front, which was mostly limited to T-shirts featuring Jack Skellington and not many other characters. That’s where Hot Topic came in. Founded in 1989 in the back of Orv and LeAnne Madden’s garage, by the early ’90s the counterculture retailer became the go-to for emo kid clothing, band T-shirts, and edgy accessories — concerned parents claimed it was a hotbed of Satanic influence, a surefire way to get rebellious kids interested.

Hot Topic brand studded belts hang on a rack at a Hot Topic retail store  Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Maddens had a pulse on what the youth wanted, and what the youth wanted — beyond fingerless gloves that made their parents freak out — was fandom merch, but the store didn’t yet have a signature franchise. The Hot Topic of the early 1990s had been slowly building up popularity, but hadn’t quite become the fandom hotspot it is today.

Similarly, while Nightmare Before Christmas collectibles were available at the movie’s release around the holidays, there wasn’t a dedicated place throughout the year for more hardcore fans. Hot Topic’s early status as simply the “goth store,” with dim lights and a scrawled blood-red logo, made it a perfect storefront for the distinct art style of Nightmare, which was darker and edgier than typical Disney fare. Nightmare became one of the first pieces of pop culture that Hot Topic heavily invested in, solving both brands’ problems.

The first Nightmare merchandise appeared in Hot Topic in 1994, after the movie’s release. According to Beyond Halloween Town, in the first year Hot Topic sold Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise, the sales numbers were 10 times the projected amount. It was a pairing that just made perfect sense, and one that would shape the fate of both franchises for the next three decades.

Nowadays, Hot Topic boosts anime Funko Pops, Stranger Things T-shirts, and hosts of other merchandise for popular fandoms — and so do Target, Walmart, and other chains. But Hot Topic catered to fringe pop culture back when it was actually fringe, allowing the fandoms behind those off-kilter movies and shows to blossom when no other retailer was paying attention.

The tall skeleton-like figure of Jack in a Santa Claus outfit kneels before a young boy in a living room with a Christmas tree in the background in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Image: Walt Disney Pictures

As a 2019 New York Times retrospective recounts, Hot Topic was the first store to stock South Park merchandise. It had “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts as Napoleon Dynamite was on the road to becoming a cult classic. There were Twilight events planned at Hot Topic locations around the first movie’s release, before anyone knew how big it would be.

From its inception, Hot Topic marketed itself to teens who belonged to non-mainstream subcultures: goths, emos, skaters, you name it. And that soon grew to include fan communities, especially as the internet helped fans connect with one another and maintain interest in their designated pop culture staple. And the fact that there were dedicated places to purchase fandom-related merchandise, beyond conventions, helped budding internet fandoms blossom in IRL spaces. Other retailers would eventually pick up on this burgeoning market, but Hot Topic and The Nightmare Before Christmas did first.

Hot Topic still stocks Nightmare Before Christmas merch, though the offerings have expanded greatly. Today, you can find Nightmare-themed eyeshadow palettes, glow-in-the-dark hoodies, stationery sets, trinket jars, backpacks, bathing suits, and more on the Hot Topic website. For nearly 30 years, fans of the movie had a reliable place to go, especially for products more exciting than just T-shirts with Jack Skellington’s face on them.

“Regardless of the trend cycle between genres and pop culture, Nightmare always has a home,” Ed LaBay, senior vice president general merchandise manager of Hot Topic, said in Beyond Halloween Town.

Hot Topic took a chance on The Nightmare Before Christmas before the movie became a cult classic — and somewhere at Disney, some licensing executive took a chance on this quirky counterculture store long before it became the go-to source for fandom merchandise. Hot Topic became a constant for anyone who loved Nightmare, allowing the movie’s budding fandom to grow and grow. And Nightmare was the first of many, many fandom collaborations that would shape Hot Topic into what it is today.

Hot Topic caters to fan interests, and that means stocking up on Loki merchandise abreast of the new season and keeping Friends T-shirts in rotation. Sometimes they’re cleared out of Stranger Things Hellfire Club T-shirts; sometimes The Flash (2023) doodads pile up on the sales racks. But regardless of how other trends ebb and flow, Jack Skellington’s and Sally’s smiling faces are always present on the shelves of Hot Topic, and probably always will be.