This year, a spoof of Godzilla turned into a fourth-wall breaking story about Hollywood remakes of foreign horror films, and the episode ended with aliens Kang and Kodos bemoaning their lack of story time and getting squeezed into an old-fashioned square aspect ratio as punishment. “Just because it looks like season four, doesn’t mean it is season four,” Kodos told the audience, a common refrain in The Simpsons’s later seasons.
Early “Treehouse of Horror” episodes were particularly avant-garde in their lack of emphasis on laughs. Though The Simpsons was a ratings smash, in its early years it was first and foremost a family sitcom that hadn’t yet developed the larger world of Springfield. After a successful debut season, the show tried out its first Halloween special in the second season, inspired by Halloween anthology comics of the 1950s, The Twilight Zone, and the thrill of telling a story “out of canon”—allowing the show to kill off characters or turn them into monsters without harming The Simpsons’s larger continuity. The first “Treehouse of Horror” has two straightforward horror-comedy segments (the family in a haunted house; the family getting abducted by Kang and Kodos), and ends with a surprisingly straightforward adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” which has Bart in the titular role but otherwise mostly adheres to Poe’s text.
I’ve written about the audacity of “The Raven” before when discussing the legacy of Sam Simon, one of the show’s developers. He insisted on doing the segment despite the creator Matt Groening’s fears that it’d come off as too pretentious, and produced a lovely six-minute piece of animation that summarizes Poe’s famed tale for a family audience without sacrificing its dark core. Perhaps no other “Treehouse of Horror” segment would ever be as artful, but the episode’s success allowed the writers to continue pursuing nightmarish little tangents once a year, with enough jokes to keep the creepiness in check.
In “Nightmare Cafeteria” (from “Treehouse of Horror V”), Bart and Lisa find out their school is cooking misbehaving children and serving them as lunch; the episode is intense enough that it has them wake up at the end of it, dismissing it all as a horrible dream. As they wake, Marge assures the kids there’s nothing to be afraid of, “Except for that fog that turns people inside out.” Said fog seeps through their windows, and within minutes, an inside-out Simpsons family is doing a number from A Chorus Line to close out the episode—a brilliant example of how the show’s horror could turn on a dime from unsettling to funny and back again without inducing whiplash.
The following year’s “Treehouse of Horror VI” had a particularly bizarre dream-like quality that the show never equaled. In the first segment, giant advertising statues come to life and start rampaging through the streets of Springfield. The second, a spoof of A Nightmare on Elm Street, featured several scenes actually taking place in the dreams of Bart and Lisa, and embraced their unsettling lack of logic. The last was the then-revolutionary “Homer Cubed,” fully rendered in 3-D animation, which saw Homer venture into a peculiar CGI world and then the real world. Jokes became fewer and farther between, and each segment always managed to cram a traditional three-act story into a six-minute piece, retaining an old-fashioned campfire story vibe.