Welcome to Polygon's 13 Days of Halloween series! Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 31, Polygon will publish 13 opinion pieces about different films, shows and specials that exemplify what Halloween means to us. Whether that's the scariest movies you haven't seen yet or a look at a popular Treehouse of Horror episode, this is our tribute to the world of the strange, creepy and downright horrifying that exists within popular culture.
The holiday special is a longstanding tradition of television. There’s the Halloween episode, the Christmas episode, the New Year’s Eve episode, and the Valentine’s Day episode. Most of the time, these episodes do their job: act as filler content that ties into the seasonal spirit and gives the writers a theme. They’re not overly memorable, but some series have pulled off shows that keep the holiday spirit alive while also being great television.
None have done this as well as The Simpsons and its long-running Treehouse of Horror Halloween special For this series, I revisited some of the most memorable Treehouse of Horror episodes. While I admit that I haven’t seen some of the newer ones (The Simpsons fans who have can join the discussion in the comments), it’s the classic takes that draw me in each time.
And none are as important — or as downright clever — as "The Shinning."
Like The Shining, "The Shinning" includes a psychic child, a wave of blood that comes spilling out of the elevator, a tender family moment in the frosty winter gardens. But, sticking to what makes The Simpsons as brilliant as it is, each replication is exaggerated, turning the downright horror of Stephen King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film into a strangely delightful comedy. Despite that, "The Shinning" is full of commentary on Homer and the rest of his family that doesn’t get acknowledged with the same level of horror during the regular season that it does in the segment.
Its most popular line is Homer, during his manic period, reiterating that "No beer and no TV make Homer go something something." Marge finishes his sentence with a hesitant, "Go crazy?" to which Homer replies, "Don’t mind if I do!" The Simpsons has always used Homer’s blatant alcoholism as a comedic tool, using Marge and the rest of his family as the voice of reason, reminding him that he drinks too much and far too often. The Simpsons is a sitcom, though, so the responses must always be funny. The goal was to get to the next joke and keep the story moving, not actually examine Homer’s drinking problem.
In "The Shinning," Homer’s drinking problem is the basis for his spiral into madness. His isolation from the rest of the world isn't the problem, as it was for Jack Torrance in The Shining; it's his obvious withdrawal from it. Left sober and without any form of entertainment, Homer must confront the demons in his life. Surrounded by nothing but his family and in a constant state of annoyance, he turns into a monster. Early in the segment, an apparition of Moe, Homer’s good friend and bartender, says give Homer a beer but only if he kills his family. Homer is horrified by the idea, but as time wanes and he becomes more desperate, he becomes a man who will do anything to get to quench his thirst.
Alcoholism isn't the only concern addressed in "The Shinning." Homer’s couch-potato syndrome is another element of the series frequently used to present a joke — just think of the episode where Homer has to work on getting his butt groove back. In this Treehouse of Horror segment, Homer must confront the fact that television is as much an addiction as a source of entertainment. This may sound ludicrous, but it’s important to remember that this aired in the 1990s, during a cultural conversation about the physical and emotional reliance that comes from watching too much TV.
A study published in 1990, four years before "The Shinning" aired, posited that for some, "television viewing habits may constitute psychological dependence." The paper argued that while only "only 2 percent and 12.5 percent of adults in two separate surveys believed that they were addicted, 65 to 70 percent believed that others were addicted." This is addressed multiple times in The Simpsons through comments that Lisa and Marge make about Homer and Bart’s viewing habits, but "The Shinning" is the first time Homer understands just how much he relies on television in his day-to-day life. Without it, and without the daily intake of beer, he begins to lose his mind.
Homer doesn’t just get sullen and sink into himself. He gets angry and violent, looking for a way to get his hands on some kind of alcohol or television. His family runs from him, terrified of the man that he is when he’s not sedating himself. In context, "The Shinning" is one of the most horrific Treehouse of Horror segments and a perfect Halloween special.
None are as important — or as downright clever — as "The Shinning"
The most important part of "The Shinning" happens at the very end. In The Shining, Jack Torrance dies by freezing to death while chasing his family from their winter lodgings in the Rocky Mountains. In "The Shinning," it’s not just Homer who dies, it's the entire family, wrapped around him and watching a small, portable television. In their frozen, deathly states, they’re smiling, their eyes focused on the small piece of shimmering light in front of them. It doesn’t matter that they’re dying because they’ve found something to watch on television, and the anxiety of everything that they’ve gone through melts away.
The finale of the "The Shinning" is the saddest part of the episode, and not because we see The Simpsons perishing. It’s sad because this is the first time that Homer is truly happy in the entire segment. His addictions got the better of him. His family may be surrounding him, but only when he has a TV in his lap and can watch something on it is he at ease
"The Shinning" has everything a Halloween special of a TV program should. It’s scary, it’s full of pop-culture references and it ties in nicely to the holiday. But "The Shinning" goes one step further and uses the idea of horror to address the problems in its characters' lives. It’s not just a filler episode.