‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’: Spooky Halloween spectacle or cautionary Christmas tale?

Jack Skellington and the beautiful world of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) were introduced to enthusiastic children and adults alike almost three decades ago, and they’ve never gone out of style. However, even after all this time, audiences are still divided on one particular question: Is it a Christmas or a Halloween movie? It seems that no one can agree upon the crucial query that plagues the wacky and inventive world of the movie, and the debate still runs hot. We may never be able to come to a conclusive answer, but if you keep an open mind, we may just be able to convince you one way or the other. So shake the dust off those bones of yours, light your tabletop jack-o’-lantern and get yourself a steaming cup of witch’s broth as you dive back into the magical world of “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Team Christmas

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is exactly what the title suggests: a creative narrative about the nightmare before “Christmas.” While the characters are figures associated with Halloween, such as skeletons, vampires and mad scientists, the focus of the film is the nature of Christmas. The film emphasizes how Christmas is unique, beautiful and adored by all, using Halloween Town as a lens through which the holiday is further bolstered.

In the beginning of the film, the audience watches Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, angstily ponder what his life is missing. Feeling listless and bored of Halloween, he stumbles into Christmas Town, where he is inspired by the beauty and purity of the holiday. He is completely infatuated with Christmas Town, dazzled by the snow, lights, smells and songs. In contrast to the unsanitary and chaotic opening scene of Halloween Town, the audience’s first glimpse at Christmas is stunning and awe-inspiring. The contradiction between the visuals used to depict the two towns suggests a certain bias toward Christmas. While Halloween Town is muggy, disorganized and off-putting, Christmas Town is welcoming and jubilant. One of the pivotal moments in the film is driven by how Skellington falls in love with Christmas, forsaking Halloween after just one look. 

Skellington’s desire to recreate Christmas mimics feelings of jealousy; after all, imitation is the highest form of flattery. Christmas quickly overshadows Halloween in the movie, infiltrating the town with jingles and decor. Although the Christmas symbols are Halloween-ified, Christmas’ impact on Halloween Town is palpable. Every ghoul, ghost and goblin works tirelessly to imitate Christmas, while Skellington falls further into his obsession. This segment of the movie captures the intoxicating nature of Christmas. There is never enough Christmas spirit to go around, as showcased by the obsession and greed of Halloween Town’s citizens. 

Unfortunately for Skellington, his plans to infiltrate the holiday do not come to fruition. While he intends to emulate Christmas joy, he wreaks havoc instead. However devoted he may be, the presents he naively leaves for children are terrifying, monstrous and often destructive. His entire plan goes awry, and although by accident, he nearly ruins Christmas. In the film’s resolution, it is none other than Santa Claus who restores order. Upon his rescue, he works at an inhumane pace to achieve a true Christmas miracle, despite being kidnapped by Skellington. The film’s conclusion emphasizes the concept of Christmas as inimitable and carefully executed. Skellington’s fascination with the holiday only further asserts the holiday’s prowess. After all, as Skellington suggests, even Halloween is jealous of Christmas.  

Team Halloween

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a Halloween movie to its adorably rotten core — and it begs us to, for once, let Halloween be about community and love rather than scares and screams.

The first order of business in the proof that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a Halloween movie is to lay out the facts. Although we do see Christmas decorations and Jack Skellington wearing his all-too-familiar Santa suit throughout a large chunk of the movie, the viewer only actually sees the world of Christmas Town for around five minutes of the film’s runtime. Almost the entire rest of the movie takes place in the spooky setting of Halloween Town, where almost all of the “Christmas decorations” we see on the screen are meticulously spook-ified (robot reindeer made by a mad scientist and jack-in-the-boxes containing scary clowns, for example). If all of this isn’t convincing enough, the film was released in theaters Oct. 29, 1993. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of a Christmas movie premiering just before the infamous Hallow’s Eve. 

Let’s talk tropes, shall we? It can be argued that in the movie, the main character goes through an arc of personal development and learns an important lesson about Christmas. However, this journey isn’t typical of Christmas movies but rather of lighthearted family movies, a genre-umbrella that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” undoubtedly falls under. But, while the movie seems devoid of classic Christmas tropes, it’s packed full of horror tropes that are layered and twisted in more lighthearted ways. There’s the creepy children that turn out to be diabolical in the form of Boogie’s Boys, the typical “outcast” who knows the truth but isn’t believed and even the cliche spooky music of a horror movie, but dialed down to more childlike intensity — ominous thumps, booming low-octave voices and werewolf howls alike. 

Beyond the facts of the matter lies the true meaning of the movie — and it simply isn’t about the magic of Christmas. What it’s really about is not getting so consumed with yourself and your own desires that you lose the feeling of what it really means to be a part of a community. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is by all means magical, but this magic is found in the inevitable warmth that comes with community, even a hodgepodge and oddball group like the silly citizens of Halloween Town. Where people go wrong is in assuming that the movie is a Christmas movie simply because it’s cozy and warm — why can’t Halloween be cozy and warm, too? Who’s to say that the turning leaves, full moons and cool-colored scenery of autumn can’t be both spooky and pleasant? After all, as the snowflakes flutter onto the wacky characters that populate Halloween Town in the movie’s final scene, it’s not the magic of Christmas that reverberates through the viewer — it’s the undeniable and often unsung magic of the camaraderie of Halloween.