Quoth the Raven, "Eat My Shorts!"
It's a Halloween Double Feature: The Simpsons Treehouses of Horror I and XVIII
This spooky season, I’ve been cherry-picking the Halloween episodes of several nostalgic TV series: Home Improvement, Roseanne, and, most notably, The Simpsons, whose Treehouse of Horror specials were a staple of my childhood.
The Simpsons will air its 31st Treehouse of Horror episode this year. Out of those 31 episodes, 18 contain a parody of at least one novel, novella, short story, or memoir. (Note that several Treehouse of Horror segments are based on films that were themselves based on a written work: for example, the Treehouse V segment entitled “Nightmare Cafeteria” is based on the film Soylent Green, which is based on a 1960s sci-fi novel called Make Room! Make Room!)
Tracking these distinctions can get complicated, so I made you a handy-dandy spreadsheet of all the literary references that the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episodes make.
But of the 18 Treehouses of Horror on the spreadsheet, you’ll notice that just two of these creepy episodes, in all their pop-culture glory, contain parodies of poems, specifically. Let’s revisit them!
Treehouse of Horror I
During the Season Two DVD commentary, series creator Matt Groening explained that he was worried that the very first Treehouse of Horror would be “too pretentious,” and a complete reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 poem, “The Raven,” lies at the black, feathery heart of that concern.
This episode is masterful and illustrates one of the many ways in which popular culture can meaningfully interact with poetry. Parody, by definition, imitates through humor. But this doesn’t always have the effect of lessening or denigrating the work being parodied. Parodies can comment on their source work, critique it, or even elevate it. Let’s not forget that a highly accessible piece of culture like The Simpsons parodying a more esoteric cultural product (like 19th-century poetry) can also draw attention to the latter and bring it to new audiences.
In this parody, the incomparable James Earl Jones narrates much of the poem in a voiceover. “The Narrator” (Homer Simpson, voiced Dan Castellaneta) also recites the sections of the poem that constitute his own speech (rendered in quotation marks). The cognitive dissonance of hearing a character who says things like “D’oh!” and “Oh boy, dinner time… the perfect break between work and drunk” recite lines of Romantic poetry is weird and wonderful.
To this day, I howl with laughter the first time the raven (a bird that looks and sounds like Bart Simpson, voiced by Nancy Cartwright) is supposed to utter his single, disconcerting line and instead says “EAT MY SHORTS!” (2:34 in the video below).
In this episode, both Poe and The Simpsons get their due: the poem maintains its integrity and The Simpsons’ characters still retain their attitudes and gags. As a textual medium, poetry (and narrative poetry like “The Raven” in particular”) can sometimes be made clearer or more graspable by certain audiences in a visual medium.
Having Bart act as the raven is a genius choice: in Poe’s poem, the bird terrorizes and haunts the narrator until he loses his mind. There is no peace in his soul as long as the raven continues his incessant refrain of “nevermore.” This dynamic has characterized Homer and Bart’s relationship since the show debuted in 1989.
Choosing this poem for the episode in the first place is similarly apt. In his 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe explained that in writing “The Raven,” he had set out to create “a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.” This is music to my ears: Addressing both popular and critical tastes is the fine line that I hope I’m walking on PopPoetry, and I admire immensely all art that can do both.
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“The Raven” (lines 85-90)
—EDGAR ALLEN POE
Though he was concerned about the highfalutin nature of a poem inside of an adult cartoon, Matt Groening need not have worried. Audiences ate up the Halloween special, either proving that Poe’s poem isn’t pretentious (just as the poet had hoped) or that audiences didn’t mind a little pretention. Though the Treehouse of Horror became a staple of the franchise, not all Treehouses use their source materially so thoroughly or faithfully.
Treehouse of Horror XVIII
The “Heck House” segment of Season 19 Episode 5 (Treehouse of Horror XVIII) is a parody of The Divine Comedy, at least in name. What’s interesting about this episode is how different the writers’ approach to the source material is: though funny and disturbing, the story of “Heck House” is a very simplistic shadow of the original work it parodies, whereas “The Raven” is more of a straight depiction of what the events that source poem relates.
Granted, Dante Alighieri’s 1320 book-length poem is 14,233 lines long compared to the 108 lines of “The Raven,” which means that only so much of the work can be referenced (a typical Treehouse of Horror episode runs 20-22 minutes and contains three minisodes or vignettes that are each just a few minutes long).
And so the writers went for the scariest and most iconic portion of the Divine Comedy: “Inferno.” While out trick-or-treating, Bart, Lisa, Milhouse, and Nelson discover that tricking is a little more fun than treating. When their flaming-dog-shit-and-toilet-paper pranks escalate into exploding jack-o’-lanterns that cause traffic diversions, explosions, and actual mayhem, the citizens of Springfield get pissed. The four kids, undeterred, continue to wreak havoc on the town, looting and tying up their neighbors. While marauding the neighborhood, the trick-or-treaters come upon Heck House and go inside.
Perhaps most disturbing is the other major referent of this episode: the cultural phenomenon known as the hell house. Hell houses are haunted houses run by evangelical Christian organizations that attempt to scare visitors (and young people in particular) into what they consider to be moral, upright behavior. Abortions, suicides, and drug overdoses are depicted by actors and with props, with as much grotesque realism as one would use in a secular haunted house. For more on this phenomenon, you can check out the 2001 documentary, Hell House (it’s also available to rent on Prime).
Though the episode pokes fun at religion, using the specter of the hell house as a modus operandi in the episode is one way of pointing more overtly at the deep religious content of Dante’s Commedia. By moving from inferno to purgatorio to paradiso, Dante suggests that by confronting and acknowledging sin, one can repent, be saved, and ascend to paradise and avoid an eternity in hell. “Hell,” of course, is too strong a word for Ned Flanders, and so the establishment that our four trick-or-treaters come upon is the titular “Heck House.”
Before me there were no created things,
Only eterne, and I eternal last.
“All hope abandon, ye who enter in!”
These words in simber color I beheld
Written upon the summit of a gate;
Whence I: “Their sense is, Master, hard to me!”
And he to me, as one experienced:
“Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned,
All cowardice must needs be here extinct.
We to the place have come, where I have told thee
Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
Who have foregone the good of intellect.”
—INFERNO, Canto III (Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
Once inside, they are treated to a lame exhibit of “sinful” behavior involving nudie magazines, at which they rightly scoff. Sensing that his message isn’t getting through (in Dante’s original, Virgil does want to save the sinful narrator, after all), Flanders transforms into the devil and sucks the trick-or-treaters into hell.
Devil Flanders is able to make much more graphic illustrations of the seven deadly sins: Homer’s sloth results in him being sliced into tiny cubes by his own hammock, and Groundskeeper Willie’s anger gets him decapitated by the lawnmower he was kicking in frustration.
Though the lustful Moe is kicked in the crotch after ogling a stripper (and stealing the bills sprouting from her g-string in an act of greed), these punishments don’t quite nail the Dantean contrapasso: In the Inferno, a sinner’s punishments is a kind of opposite of the sinful behavior itself. For example, in the poem, a man accused of undermining the head of state is decapitated; astrologers and soothsayers must walk with their heads on backward (unable to see what’s coming) because they claimed to be able to see the future. Because the Treehouse episodes do not conform to reality, it would have been nice to see even more wild contrapasso.
Ned-Flanders as a ripped-as-hell Lucifer is hilarious, if toothless. I tried to see if the trick-or-treaters might fit neatly into some of the character roles of the Divine Comedy (Lisa as Beatrice, Dante’s ideal woman; Bart as Dante, lost in the forest of sin at the poem’s outset; Milhouse as Virgil, the do-gooding shepherd who wants to redeem Dante’s soul; and Nelson… well, Nelson’s just sort of there, perhaps as an embodiment of pure, chaotic evil?) but in the end, the characters are more Groening’s than Alighieri’s. There’s no one right or wrong way to adapt or parody, and “Heck House” provides a nice contrast to the tonier adaptation of Poe. In both cases, I’m laughing.
Though there are no written works being parodied in this year’s Treehouse of Horror XXI (Toy Story, Russian Doll, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse are on deck), the Treehouse tradition itself is still going strong. As Devil Flanders reminds us at the conclusion of “Heck House,” everyone who watches Fox is definitely going to hell, so if you’re looking to save your soul this Halloween, pick up a copy of the Divine Comedy before you tune in on November 1.
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