In 1982, while he was working as an animator for Disney, Tim Burton wrote a creepy little poem called “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” because of course that’s something that Tim Burton would do. About ten years later, he began production on an animated film based on the storyline of this poem. In 1993, the stop motion masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas was released to the world. It tells the story of immortal skeleton king Jack Skellington and his failed quest to run Christmas for himself. Having just discovered it several years ago and quickly turning it into an October movie tradition, I’ve begun to ponder whether there is more to this spooky story than just jack-o-lanterns and monsters.
When we first meet Jack, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, he is caught in a state of despair and ennui. As he declares in “Jack’s Lament”:
Yet year after year, it’s the same routine
And I grow so weary of the sound of screams
And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King
Have grown so tired of the same old thing
But is this just plain old boredom? Does Jack just need a career change? His song seems to reveal some deeper discontent at work:
Oh, somewhere deep inside of these bones
An emptiness began to grow
There’s something out there, far from my home
A longing that I’ve never known
Hold on—is Jack experiencing sehnsucht? C. S. Lewis describes the concept this way in Mere Christianity: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Jack’s own longings are reinforced once again in the closing lines of his lament:
Oh, there’s an empty place in my bones
That calls out for something unknown
The fame and praise come year after year
Does nothing for these empty tears
He seems to find himself in the same place as the Teacher from the book of Ecclesiastes: all is vanity. The acclaim and adulation he receives from his subjects in Halloween Town, and his esteemed position, are all useless in light of his unsatisfied desires.
Lewis says that such longing means that we are made for another world. Interestingly, it is only by falling into another world, Christmas Town, that Jack comes in touch with something that stirs his soul. As he stumbles around gaping at the lights and colors, he sings:
There’s frost on every window
I can’t believe my eyes
And in my bones I feel a warmth
That’s coming from inside
Jack has come into contact with what J. R. R. Tolkien calls, “Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world,” and the feeling begins to fill up the emptiness inside. Desperate for more, he sings:
I’ve never felt so good before
This empty place inside of me is filling up
I simply cannot get enough
I want it, oh, I want it
Oh, I want it for my own
I’ve got to know
I’ve got to know
What is this place that I have found?
Enthralled with his discovery, Jack returns to Halloween Town with the good news of Christmas, but his fellow ghouls and goblins simply cannot grasp what he has seen. They can only see things through their own scary point of view. In frustration, Jack retreats to his tower and locks himself away, determined to discover the secret of what touched his heart in Christmas Town:
Christmas time is buzzing in my skull
Will it let me be? I cannot tell
There are so many things I cannot grasp
When I think I’ve got it, and then at last
Through my bony fingers it does slip
Like a snowflake in a fiery grip
Something’s here I’m not quite getting
Though I try, I keep forgetting
Like a memory long since past
Here in an instant, gone in a flash
What does it mean?
What does it mean?
After some struggle, Jack arrives at a revelation, a moment of faith of sorts:
It’s simple really, very clear
Like music drifting in the air
Invisible, but everywhere
just because I cannot see it
Doesn’t mean I can’t believe it
Armed with such assurance, Jack embarks upon a well meaning but very misguided attempt to run Christmas himself, with the help of everyone else in Halloween Town. He sets them about making creepy presents, and instructs the mischievous trio of children, Lock, Shock, and Barrel, to kidnap Santa Claus and bring him back to Halloween Town. Instead, they betray Jack and hand Santa over to the evil Oogey Boogey.
Meanwhile, the rag-doll woman Sally, who secretly pines for Jack, has a bad premonition about this whole scheme, and tries to warn Jack, but he is so blinded by his enthusiasm that he ignores her warnings.
As can be expected, Christmas comes, and Jack’s plan to run Christmas turns out horribly wrong. Worldwide panic erupts as children encounter their scary presents, and the armies of the world shoot Jack and his sleigh out of the sky. But there is grace even then for Jack and his misguided vision. Caught in the arms of a graveyard angel (which in the poem is a stone cross), Jack laments his own blindness. He also realizes that he’s ultimately meant to be the Pumpkin King, and proclaims his desire to “give it all I’ve got” next year. He also realizes that he needs to set things right, and passes through the grave to save Santa Claus and Sally from Oogie Boogie. After grappling with the villain, Jack grabs a loose thread from Oogie’s burlap body, and shouting, “How dare you treat my friends so shamefully!” rips away Oogie’s shell to reveal a mass of bugs, which drop into the fire below. In a bit of Genesis 3 action, Santa even squashes the last bug from Oogie’s body under the heel of his boot. Jack apologizes for making a royal mess of Christmas, and Santa sets off to make things right. As a parting gift, he flies over Halloween Town and leaves a benediction of snowfall and Christmas lights. As the residents of the town discover these new wonders for themselves, Jack finds Sally out under the moonlight, where he sings:
My dearest friend, if you don’t mind
I’d like to join you by your side
Where we can gaze into the stars
And sit together, now and forever
For it is plain as anyone can see
We’re simply meant to be
Thus it is that a Pumpkin King of Halloween discovers Joy through Christmas, which leads him to everlasting Love.
Chris currently teaches writing and literature to community college students in Massachusetts. He is the author of six books of poetry, and can probably be found reading a book, drinking chai, and wearing flannel. In 2018 he and his wife Jen co-founded The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, hanging out in coffee shops, and poking around used bookstores.
Yes! So glad to see this film talked about at The Rabbit Room. It’s my favorite animated film and one that propelled me into the animation world myself. Jack is also my favorite animated character and one who I relate with as an ‘alter ego’ of sorts.
I’ve always seen Jack as a passionate spiritual seeker, and I love how this movie tells a story of discovering there is more to life and trying to make sense of it. There is so much going on in this story!
i love this.
Here’s a thought, though: What Jack feels compelled to do—pull Christmas into Halloween Town—is what we are meant to do—pull the Kingdom of G-d into this world. Realizing that our longings do point to a real, other world should change the way we live into this one—but how? We know that those around us will not always get it, that an earthly manifestation of the Kingdom will not be untainted. Yet our attempts can wake up longing in others, even if they don’t understand. Even if we don’t fully understand.
But what do we do with this? Jack’s discovery of joy helps him to be more what he was meant to be—the Pumpkin King—in the world where he finds himself. But what do we make of the fact that this discovery comes through a struggle where he learns not just to devote himself to what he was made to do, but where he also learns that Christmas and Halloween are not compatible?
Actually Laura, I think the end of the film, where Santa brings Christmas to Halloween Town, suggests a possible compatibility. I’m sure there’s a good way to develop a whole theological argument out of this part of the film, but I wonder if there’s this idea of Christmas Town and Halloween Town being necessary and mutual parts of the same world?
Oh, well, now i’m going to have to go rewatch it! 😉
i love the idea that the two might be mutually necessary. What does it mean? What does it mean?
I don’t think Burton or Selnick intend to make a theological point with the story. Personally, I’m just continually fascinated by how good stories point back to the Story in fragmented ways. But the fragmented part means not all the pieces are exact fits. We aren’t dealing with analogies. That said, it is a fascinating question to ponder, provided we don’t reduce the film to a prop for moralizing (which hopefully I did not do).
Oh, no, no worries. Same here.
I used to write movie reviews for Hollywood Jesus and wrote about this film several years ago, so I’m really excited that Chris has done the same….here’s a little bit of what I took from it…
“Often when we first come to know Jesus, we think it means we should go to seminary or become a missionary, some kind of ‘spiritual’ profession. God does indeed call certain people to change their lives in this way, but for many of us, He wishes us to remain where we are and apply our newfound faith to our present situation, to bloom where we are planted. We are all called to be witnesses, no matter what kind of occupation we have. We may already be where God wants us to be in order to serve Him. If we jump to conclusions and pursue a different plan than what God has called us to, we may no longer be serving God, but ourselves.
Jack makes this mistake by thinking that his calling lies somewhere else, rather than where he already is. Though his intentions are good, he misses the point and nearly ruins himself and the holiday he has come to love. Yet through his failure, he comes to this realization and sees who he is from a different perspective. Sometimes we also have to fail to discover who we are, and if that is the case, God uses our failure to bring us to Him, and the life He has called us to.”
Another thought I would add into this now is a parallel to how Celtic Christianity grew through merging the gospel with their mythological roots and saw it as a fulfillment of that they already believed in, rather than abolishing it altogether…..but that’s a whole other discussion in itself. 🙂
I had avoided “Nightmare Before Christmas” for years, but finally got shamed into watching it with my son. I was unexpectedly moved by the way that it touched the Story, but didn’t recognize the connection. Thank you for shining the light.
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