Who knew what began thirty years ago as a three-page poem penned by a lowly Disney animator would become a cult movie hit? Yet twenty years on The Nightmare Before Christmas is still every goths favourite animated movie, with new fans being introduced to the film each year. That minor animator, Tim Burton, is now famed director of gothic films like Sleepy Hollow and Sweeny Todd. Inspired by the more traditional festive tale ‘The Night Before Christmas’ he created his own alternative, altogether more spooky, holiday story encompassing love, adventure and the desire to find ones place in the world.
The film revolves around the King of Halloween Town, our hero Jack Skellington, a pinstripe clad skeleton dedicated to making each October 31st scarier than the last. One day, while out walking his ghost dog Zero, he stumbles upon another holiday town. In this picturesque place everywhere is covered in snow, everyone is happy and, to his surprise, “absolutely no one’s dead”. It is ‘ruled’ by a jolly, fat man dressed in red who delivers presents to all good girls and boys on Christmas Eve. Jack falls in love with the place and wants the Christmas holiday for himself, but after taking the place of Santa Claus he discovers it is not quite as easy as he first thought. On his journey of self-discovery Jack discovers Sally, a stitched-up doll created by a mad scientist, who has loved him from afar and tries to help him when things go wrong.
The original Nightmare Before Christmas poem was written after Burton had completed the short stop-motion film ‘Vincent’ back in the early Eighties. Hammer horror actor Vincent Price had narrated his namesake mini-movie and Burton had him in mind to read his new Halloween tale too. After pitching the idea to various production studios the raven-haired director received countless false enthusiasms and empty promises. One of the initial hang-ups the major studios had was that the main character had no eyes. They felt it would be harder to convey emotion and to connect with the audience, but for Burton it was important Jack be kept strictly to his original concept sketches. He had begun his career as an animator for mega-studio Disney, contributing to traditional children’s films like ‘The Fox And The Hound’ where classic animation styles still reigned. “A lot of the characters (in Nightmare) either don’t have any eyes or their eyes are sewn shut…So, after drawing all those foxes with their wet drippy eyes at Disney, there was a little subversion in having these characters with no eyes.” Anyone who did seem genuinely positive towards the project didn’t meet with Burton’s style and vision so the whole idea was buried “but always with that feeling that I would do it some time. It was weird, some projects you feel more like, ‘Oh, I’d better do this now or never’, but I never felt that way about Nightmare.”
Almost ten years after the birth of Jack and Co, Burton returned to his Halloween Town to try and bring it to life once more. The only problem was that since he had written the story while working for Disney, they owned the rights. “There’s this thing you sign when you work there, which states that any thoughts you have during your employment are owned by the thought police.” To his surprise though, Disney were open to his ideas on the animation style and direction, something he attributes to his preceding box office success with Edward Scissorhands and Batman. “I’ve been lucky enough to be successful. That’s really the only reason it got made.” In the summer of 1991 work on Nightmare had finally begun. Animator Henry Selick was brought in to direct – Burton was already tied up with Batman Returns, and due to the nature of the stop-motion process, progress on his spooky festive tale was beyond time consuming. At this stage the film was still just a film, there were no plans to incorporate songs. It wasn’t until things didn’t work out with the script writer that Burton turned to long-time collaborator and friend Danny Elfman for help and Nightmare became a musical. The songs that the pair wrote for the film were to become such a part of alternative culture that big names like Marilyn Manson and Korn produced their own versions years later to celebrate the films fifteenth anniversary.
Burton’s creepy characters included a band of vampires, a swamp monster, a werewolf and a boogie man. They had the depth of personality to appeal to adults and the mischievousness to appeal to the spooky child in all of us. While not a box office smash on its release in October 1993, Jack Skellington, girlfriend Sally and nemesis Oogie Boogie were to become cult heroes in the years that followed. Halloween Town and its residents encapsulated everything that is goth. On the surface, a fascination with the macabre, the undead and all things dark. Just barely below the pale skin and dark eyes, an obsession with tragic romance and unrequited love (who hasn’t shed a tear when Jack and Sally finally embrace on the hill silhouetted by the moon?) and finally, buried deep inside, the feelings of someone who doesn’t quite fit in and who just wants to be loved. Nightmare connected with the gothic community more than any other. It was a fairy tale through gothic eyes, for the children who thought Cinderella was too unrealistic, Snow White too much of a goody-two-shoes. Burton himself puts it perfectly. “When things connect with people, maybe not a large group, but with some, it’s really wonderful to me. A lot of people and critics don’t get that there is an emotion underneath these weird, stupid-looking things. Some people do, and that probably means the most to me: that people get the emotional quality underneath the stupid facade.”
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas celebrates its 20th anniversary this Halloween. Many happy returns Jack and here’s to the next twenty years.
(Quotes are taken from ‘Burton On Burton’ Faber & Co. Originally written for Gothic Beauty Magazine, 2013)