In Which I Direct All My Anger at Jack Skellington
Halloween is my favorite time of year. I am glad when the season rolls around because for a brief moment my world view seems to match up with everyone else’s. It’s probably something to do with whatever mental disorder I have (Schizophrenia? Bipolar? A normal, sane woman in a batshit crazy, scary world?). I don’t say this flippantly, because battling inner demons is a full time job for me that doesn’t end once everyone else moves on from this month of celebrating our shadows and fears.
This year the demons I’ve been up against are very much of the toxic and masculine persuasion. Actually, they’ve been that way for a while. I did create a web-series with the ever-so-catchy title, “Shitty Boyfriends” after all. Still, I have found being angry at every man ever to be kind of exhausting. For one thing, while I am generalizing here, in my experience guys tend to be very sensitive to generalizations and quick to point out that not all men are a part of the problems I’m raising. “A few rotten tomatoes spoil the bunch!” they say. Well, yeah, isn’t that the point I’m making too? The bunch has been spoiled? Also I thought the phrase was “apples,” but yeah, whatever. Your collective denial is overwhelming me.
“Not all men are in denial!”
My head explodes.
I am seeing a lot of general discomfort and shame in the response to the recent “me too” conversation women are bringing to light. We’re not saying you, specifically are terrible (though you might be), all we’re saying is that you’ve grown up in an environment that encourages you guys to be pieces of shit.
I get it. It’s uncomfortable. I had to do similar self-analysis where my whiteness is concerned. It’s very rarely about you, the individual. It’s about systemic and cultural conditioning that has brainwashed us all in different ways into adopting behaviors and beliefs that are harmful to marginalized populations. For example…
“The thing I don’t think you’re understanding is that you’re making it seem like all guys are evil but there are a lot of really good guys. I’m not a bad guy. My dad isn’t a bad guy. My grandpa isn’t a bad guy. I’m a good guy. You obviously have issues with men.”
AAHHHH!!!!! Okay!!!! FINE!!! Yes, I do have some issues with men. You know what, yeah. It’s my deal. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to shit on Jack Skellington instead. Can you get on board with me tearing this fictional character a new asshole, except I don’t think he even has an asshole because he’s a skeleton? Maybe you can’t, but I’m gonna do it anyway.
I love the Nightmare Before Christmas, and I even love how angry it makes me now because all this frustration has to go somewhere. I listen to the soundtrack all year long. As Jack would say, “I know the stories, and I know the rhymes.” I can recite “Town Hall Meeting” by heart, including all of Jack’s various inflections, and often perform it while driving in my car like a psycho for whoever is stopped next to me at red lights, especially in June.
Hell, I can relate to Jack Skellington. Last Halloween I remember feeling very much like Jack as he laments what an abject failure he is in the cemetery, as I too had lead a team of people who had trusted me into what felt like a death trap. (In my case, I assembled a team to create a web-series to support Hillary’s 2016 campaign, which I will always believe in with my whole heart, but I had been volatile in the process of getting the project made.) Jack gets over his failure a lot more quickly than I did, probably because he’s an entitled white guy. Super white.
Sure, at first he kind of gets that he’s at fault.
“What have I done?
What have I done?
How could I be so blind?”
But his remorse is short lived, and the song itself is called “Poor Jack” not “Poor Small Children Who Were Traumatized By Large Snakes and Toys With Sharp Teeth”. In fact, Jack even turns the disaster into something of a positive for himself.
“Well, what the heck, I went and did my best
And, by God, I really tasted something swell
And for a moment, why, I even touched the sky
And at least I left some stories they can tell, I did.”
Stories they’ll be working out in therapy for the rest of their lives, asshole.
So while I do relate to some of Jack’s mis-steps and naiveté, I also envy what remains the distinct difference between his character and myself, which is that he is a man and I am a woman. Men generally seem to be able to make terrible mistakes which affect the lives of many and then move on pretty quickly from the aftermath. They dust themselves off and then they’re like:
“I just can’t wait until next Halloween
’Cause I’ve got some new ideas
That will really make them scream”
Whereas women like myself carry the burdens of the world, my own personal mistakes and then everyone else’s, all the time. Sally, the one woman in Nightmare Before Christmas, serves as little more than a meek love interest who barely gets to speak and is primarily the property of some scientist guy, Dr. Finkelstein. She seems to share my frustrations of no one listening to her or giving a shit about what she has to say:
“I sense there’s something in the wind
That feels like tragedy’s at hand
And though I’d like to stand by him
Can’t shake this feeling that I have
The worst is just around the bend.”
Yeah girl. That’s called your intuition. But of course, no one listens to Sally, and this is again due to the lack of respect or authority that Sally has as a woman. Sally attempts to warn Jack that he’s about to embark in a really awful venture.
Jack, totally self-obsessed, thinks she’s talking about herself and her abilities to sew him a “Sandy Claws” outfit.
Sally herself has been so brainwashed by the patriarchy of Halloweentown that she has difficulty identifying her own personhood (rag-dollhood?) beyond her relationships to the men in the town, specifically Jack, who barely notices she exists because, again, he’s so obsessed with himself.
“And does he notice my feelings for him?
And will he see how much he means to me?
What will become of my dear friend
Where will his actions lead us then?
Although I’d like to join the crowd
In their enthusiastic cloud
Try as I may, it doesn’t last
And will we ever end up together?”
No Sally, he won’t notice your feelings for him, at least not until he fucks up so spectacularly that he’ll let go of his personal ambitions long enough to scoop you up as his trophy for “doing his best”. His actions will lead to Christmas almost being ruined forever, and you will end up together but ugh, why do you even still want him?
Remember when Jack was feeling all sorry for himself for scarring small children for life? In that same soliloquy he says:
“But I never intended all this madness, never
And nobody really understood, how could they?
That all I ever wanted was to bring them something great
Why does nothing ever turn out like it should?”
This is where my blood really starts boiling. NOBODY UNDERSTOOD!? No, I guess they didn’t understand. Jack is in total denial about his complicity in creating an utter disaster. In “Town Meeting Song” my favorite song of the bunch for reasons that again don’t totally make sense because it’s not as whimsical as “What’s This?” or as iconic as “This is Halloween,” Jack attempts to explain Christmas to the citizens of Halloweentown:
“This is a thing called a present
The whole thing starts with a box”
No one gets it.
Is it steel?
Are there locks?
Is it filled with a pox?”
Jack corrects them.
“If you please,
Just a box with bright-colored paper
And the whole thing’s topped with a bow”
It goes on and on like this. Jack is desperately trying to explain to them why he loved Christmasland.
What’s in it?
What’s in it?”
“That’s the point of the thing, not to know…
Listen now, you don’t understand
That’s not the point of Christmas land.”
I’ll refer back to “What’s This?” to remind Jack of what it was about Christmas land that he loved so much in the first place.
“The monsters are all missing
And the nightmares can’t be found
And in their place there seems to be
Good feeling all around
Instead of screams, I swear
I can hear music in the air.”
Jack isn’t a complete idiot, but I’m not exactly sure if he has a brain or not because he definitely doesn’t seem to have any other organs. Nonetheless, he seems to be a smart guy on some level. He loves the peacefulness of Christmas land in contrast to Halloweentown. He loves how joyful it is, and longs to recreate this newfound kind of magic in his own life. But the good monsters of Halloweentown just aren’t getting it. They’re limited by the scope of the only world they’ve ever known, and can’t comprehend this new paradigm Jack is trying to convey to them. Jack is discouraged, and relents to their interpretation.
“Everyone, please now, not so fast
There’s something here that you don’t quite grasp
Well, I may as well give them what they want.
And the best, I must confess, I have saved for the last
For the ruler of this Christmas land
Is a fearsome king with a deep might voice
Least that’s what I’ve come to understand
And I’ve also heard it told
That he’s something to behold
Like a lobster, huge and red
And sets out to slay with his rain gear on
Carting bulging sacks with great big arms
That is, so I’ve heard it said
And on a dark, cold night
Under full moonlight
He flies into a fog
Like a vulture in the sky
And they call him Sandy Claws
Well, at least they’re excited
Though they don’t understand
That special kind of feeling in Christmas land
Jack has literally no one to blame except himself for everyone not understanding that special kind of feeling in Christmas land. He gave them what they wanted and compromised his original vision. He described Sandy Claws in Halloweentown language, “fearsome,” “bulging sacks,” and a “vulture in the sky.”
So back to the Jack that failed, the “Poor Jack” sitting in the cemetery whining about how unfair everything was for him, again, he says:
“Nobody really understood, how could they?”
It’s true that Jack’s task of conveying a world the monsters of Halloweentown had no basis of conception for was difficult, but he gave up so quickly and easily. They didn’t understand because he deliberately “gave them what they want” to maintain their excitement. The fact that he takes no responsibility for this irritates me now, mostly because I am irritated by the general population of men who act in this same way all the time. And yes, I’m generalizing, but only because this is a MAJOR TROPE in which we as an American white patriarchal culture are so afraid of taking personal responsibility and admitting we haven’t always been perfect players that instead we perpetuate abuse by ignoring our part of the story.
Then there’s the real kicker. Jack also claims:
“I never intended all this madness, never”
But then, if you turn to “Jack’s Obsession,” a segment in which he locks himself in a tower and broods over pointless Christmas-related experiments he says:
“You know, I think this Christmas thing
It’s not as tricky as it seems
And why should they have all the fun?
It should belong to anyone
Not anyone, in fact, but me
Why, I could make a Christmas tree
And there’s no reason I can find
I couldn’t handle Christmas time
I bet I could improve it too
And that’s exactly what I’ll do
Hee, hee, hee
Eureka! I’ve got it”
Jack’s been obsessing over Christmas because he loves Christmas, and wants to recreate the magical, peaceful feeling he got the first time he accidentally fell in that world. But like his fellow citizens of Halloweentown, he is inadequately prepared to really understand the magic of a world so different from his. This is where the cultural appropriation comes in, obviously.
Anyway, instead of owning his inadequacies and limitations, Jack plows ahead. It’s rather as if Jack wants to “improve it too” because Christmas land is making him feel like he has a small dick, if he has a dick at all, which I’m pretty sure he doesn’t because he’s a skeleton.
You DID intend this madness, you goddamn asshole. You were exposed to a world that highlighted everything you lack. You’re scary, but Christmas land is peaceful. You can take off your head and recite Shakespearean quotation, but Santa Clause can go around the world in one night and deliver presents to every single kid. You didn’t steal and improve Christmas for anyone’s benefit except your own. You couldn’t accept and reconcile your own self-hatred and inadequacy, so you ruined everyone else’s life in a completely selfish attempt to gain control and worship.
So, in any case, I think Jack Skellington is super full of shit and infuriating for taking zero* responsibility for his choices and actions.
Then he hooks up with Sally because they were “simply meant to be,” aka Sally was a character designed as a trophy wife for his benefit, because we all know when white men fail and ruin everything they should still be given prizes in the form of the sentient women around them.
All that said, I do love the Nightmare Before Christmas, a lot. I saw Danny Elfman perform Nightmare Before Christmas live. I saw Nightmare Before Christmas at the El Capitan theater one Halloween. I went to a pumpkin carving party where we watched the Nightmare Before Christmas. I’ve seen it on Netflix, I couldn’t tell you how many times. My latest viewing was this September, but also just now to write this. I prefer the Nightmare Before Christmas version of “The Haunted Mansion” at Disneyland over the original version. I spent hours making this out of perler beads last year. In fact, it’s only because I’ve obsessively watched this movie in the same way that Jack obsessed over Christmas that I even noticed Jack’s inconsistent bullshit.
In the soundtrack, there’s a “Closing” track narrated by none other than Patrick Stewart. It’s one of my favorites for, again, reasons I can’t convey, which seems to be something Jack Skellington and I have in common — deep obsessions we barely understand.
“I asked old Jack, ‘Do you remember the night
When the sky was so dark and the moon shone so bright?
When a million small children pretending to sleep
Nearly didn’t have Christmas at all, so to speak?
And would, if you could, turn that mighty clock back,
To that long, fateful night. Now, think carefully Jack.
Would you do the whole thing all over again,
Knowing what you know now, knowing what you knew then?
And he smiled, like the old pumpkin king that I knew,
Then turned and asked softly of me, ‘Wouldn’t you?’”
Only two years ago, I used to listen to this track and tear up. I thought it was romantic and true. I too, never regretted anything I had ever done, no matter how stupid and terrible. Isn’t that what life is all about? Messing up horribly and looking back on it all fondly?
I hope this isn’t the takeaway anymore. Jack Skellington is emblematic of a bigger phenomenon. It’s really, really hard to take an honest look at your own imperfect actions and to not want to curl up in a ball and die. Shame and remorse are heavy emotions. Even if we have all at one time or another done things we regret or feel awful about, there is courage and humility required to admit our shortcomings and the pain we have caused others. I have way more respect for the few guys I’ve seen who admitted specifically the ways in which they have perpetuated a culture of harassment than the ones who leave it at “well, not all guys are harassers.” I’m not glad they’ve harassed, but I understand how difficult it is to do the kind of self-reflection this moment in our culture is asking us.
We have to be willing to admit we stole Christmas and ruined it for everyone while maintaining compassion for ourselves, and still not letting ourselves off the hook. Maybe we did shitty things because we didn’t know better, but at some point it stops being an excuse. Then you’re just actively shitty, not even inadvertently so. We don’t deserve praise for admitting to our abuse, but we should also acknowledge it’s a step in the right direction.
Jack Skellington sucks, but especially because of how he fails to take responsibility or admit fault. He shouldn’t wish he could do it again, honestly. He’s learned nothing, except to re-inflate his own ego and sense of self-importance. He’s still infantilized. He’s also a fictional character in a children’s movie. The rest of you are adults. You’re technically men. Men are strong, emotionally. They don’t need to be protected from their own feelings. Men especially shouldn’t need women to deny their own stories in order to baby them from their personal discomfort and shame. Men confront their difficult pasts, the messages they absorbed from other men, and their own challenging emotions head on. They take responsibility for themselves and their actions, with a resolve to always be better. That’s what makes men men. Otherwise, you’re still a little boy. Otherwise, you’re as good as a fictional skeleton in a kid’s movie with no dick or brain or asshole.
Oh, my bad, I guess never stopped making this a generalization of all men. At least I’ll admit it.
*Zero is the best character in the movie