The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Five, “Treehouse Of Horror IV”

My approach with these essays is to connect disparate observations and feelings across the episode into a singular, unified whole, and that always fights with my instincts to follow the lead of the “Treehouse” episodes and divide the essay into thirds, analysing each story individually. The producers have freq uently noted that the anthology structure of the “Treehouse” episodes leaves very little room for anything other than jokes and plot (from this perspective, it’s amazing that the framing devices lasted as long as they did), and that extends to my analysis in that all the emotions and ideas have to be up on the surface and don’t have the room to play out with the nuance they normally do. I feel like I can get one or two insights into each section, and they’re usually pretty obvious. So I’m gonna try somethintg new, and divide this essay into thirds.

“The Three Segments Individually”

I always liked how wide the scope for stories is in the “Treehouse” episodes. “The Devil And Homer Simpson” takes the classic and extremely broad idea of a ‘deal with the devil’ and asks ‘what deal would Homer make?’, and obviously he’d be willing to fork over his eternal soul just for a donut – I love that he nearly scarfs the whole thing down before getting his idea to save it. The problem is actually solved with a genuine short-story-esque twist, rooted in the real relationship between Homer and Marge. “Terror At 5 ½ Feet” is another direct parody of a Twilight Zone episode, and it ups the sincere horror; as a kid, I was freaked out by Bart’s dream, the gremlin’s design, Bart’s eventual entirely unfair fate, and the incredibly bloody sight of Flanders’ decapitated head talking to Bart. “Bart Simpson’s Dracula” eases up on the horror and embraces being a cheesy vampire B-movie the way “Dial Z For Zombie” was a zombie movie, with many cornball effects (my favourite being the three-times cut of Bart breaking through the window).

“The Episode As A Whole”

It’s incredible just how good the animation has gotten. There are many big moments of course – Homer getting chopped up in Hell, Bart’s final attack on the gremlin (so many great gags out of treating the bus like a plane), and Burns’ shadow on the wall – but there’s so many details, even in things that didn’t need it, little things that accent the moment. When Bart walks into the kitchen at the start of “Terror”, Maggie is throwing her milk in the air, like a real baby would. When Marge says “No! I’m the head vampire!”, the camera zooms in when she laughs and her eyes glow red. My favourite of all is on Lisa’s line “Uh, Dad? That’s his crotch”. She leans in very slightly on the word ‘crotch’, and it adds a little emphasis on the word, as well as putting in an extra layer of exasperation. Like so many of the animation flourishes, it’s unnecessary but it breathes so much life into the story.

Of course, we also have the comedic stylings of the show, much of which draws on its mythology – not just “what if this fantasy trope happened in Springfield?” but often “What if this fantasy trope happened in Springfield, and everyone took it for granted?”, with the ‘cops waiting for Donut Homer’ joke being the cheapest and funniest variation, though I also love Marge not having enough chairs for the jury of the damned. Just like the animation, it’s the offhand little flourishes that crack me up, too, like Flanders-Devil’s exasperated “This is always so much easier in Mexico.”

“The Role Of The Treehouse Episodes In The Series”

The “Treehouse” episodes are even more playful than normal for this show. The lack of room means the little stories are always moving forward at an intense pace; the fantasy element means the ordinary rules don’t apply, and the end result is an even more anarchic anti-authoritarian tone than ever, the effect of good rock’n’roll. It’s interesting to consider, though, that this is something that it can only do once a year. It’s more fun to destroy a big house of cards than it is to crush an ant (“Oh, what the hell, I’ll crush him like an ant.”); if the show were like this all the time, it wouldn’t necessarily be bad (in fact, “Treehouse Of Horror with continuity” pretty much describes Rick & Morty) but it wouldn’t be the show we know and love.

Gravestone Gags: “ELVIS: Accept it”, “A Balanced Budget”, “Subtle Political Satire”, “TV Violence”
Couch Gag: The family are zombies that climb out of of the floor.

This episode was written by Conan O’Brien, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Greg Daniels, Dan McGrath, and Bill Canterbury, and directed by David Silverman. This is O’Brien’s last writing credit, and his main contribution was in the wraparound.

The wraparound is a parody of Rod Serling’s segments in Night Gallery. “Terror” is a parody of “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” from The Twilight Zone. The title and majority of the plot of “Bart Simpson’s Dracula” is a parody of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, and it’s peppered with references to Nosferatu, The Lost Boys, and Salem’s Lot. The ending references A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the end credits play the Simpsons theme in the style of both The Munsters and The Addams Family themes. When trying to torture Homer with donuts, the demon remarks “James Coco went mad in fifteen minutes!” and the sequence as a whole is a parody of the cartoon Pigs Is Pigs. The Devil’s design is a reference to Fantasia. Bart makes several references to The Three Stooges when frightened (“I’ve seen your stupid Shemp! I’ve seen your Curly too!”).

Iconic Moments: “I watched Matlock in a bar last night, the sound wasn’t on but I think I got the gist of it.” | “I’m riding on the bus because Mother hid my car keys for talking to a woman on the phone. She was right to do it.” | “Thank goodness he’s drawn attention away from my shirt!” [WANG Computers] | “Kill my boss? Do I dare live out the American Dream?” isn’t iconic, but I always feel like it should have been.
First Appearances: Uter!
Biggest Laugh: