Halloween means a lot of different things to people. Maybe it’s a chance to get out the pumpkin carving equipment. Maybe it’s a chance to watch horror films until you’re jumping at the fridge making noises. To the costume industry it’s a chance to make a slutty version of every conceivable costume. For television shows it’s a chance to make a Halloween special, and cartoons are no exception. Whether aimed towards children or adults, animated Halloween specials are the best, because you don’t need to use hokey special effects when it’s all animated anyway. So, sit back, turn off the lights and curl up with a good cartoon.
When Doofensmirtz’s Repulsinator accidentally works too well and creates a plague of Doofenzombies, it’s down to Phineas and Ferb and the gang to save Danville and the entire Tri-State area. The episode contains all the usual Phineas and Ferb elements that make the show so great: ridiculous science saving the day, a load of fourth-wall breaking jokes and a plot which manages to tie together every single plot point by the end. But that's not all. It's surprisingly tense at the end - of course they're not all going to die, but how can they escape? Oh, and like any good meta horror, it contains a whole host of references, quoting Aliens, spoofing The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost cameoing as Shaun and Ed and George R Romero appearing as the puntastically named Don Adaded.
It’s practically a law that any conversation about animated Halloween episodes has to mention The Simpsons. Starting in its second season, The Simpsons has celebrated the past 25 Halloweens with a special anthology episode made up of three short stories. It’s difficult to pick out one specific episode, because the individual stories can vary wildly in content and quality. The plots range from pastiches of famous films, to giving horror tropes a Simpsons twist, to straightforward adaptations of horror stories (see The Raven from the very first “Treehouse of Horror”). Everyone’s heard of “Treehouse of Horror”, and with both the sixth and twenty-third episodes nominated for Emmys, these critically acclaimed episodes are worth hunting down.
Adventure Time is full of unsettling imagery at the best of times. In this episode, six of the main characters are invited to a spooky castle by an anonymous host, who then leaves a note to tell them that he’s going to possess one of them to murder the others. As they’re slowly picked off one by one, the deaths are all pretty terrifying, with skeletons, melting bodies and turning up in paintings. There’s some twists and turns before it all turns out OK, along with the standard Adventure Time mixture of stupid jokes (“Randy Butternubs”) and meaningful life advice. But what probably stands out the most is the final ghost, the one Finn represses in his mind vault. We might not find out who she is for another two seasons, but she’s enough to make the episode horrifying and memorable.
No matter what time of year it is, Gravity Falls is all about the paranormal and supernatural. So, for a Halloween episode, it needed to up the game a bit. It did this by taking a leaf out of the Simpsons playbook, with a three-story episode centred around Grunkle Stan attempting to sell his merchandise. There’s a morality tale about stealing, Mabel’s pet pig learns to talk (and is voiced by Neil deGrasse Tyson, no less) and in probably the best segment, Mabel learns to deal with her fear of claymation. Any time a cartoon’s willing to mix it up and play with other mediums is exciting, and it makes the monsters properly monstrous to have them not fit in with the standard animation style.
OK, so maybe technically it’s not a Halloween special, but it aired around the same time and it’s really scary. Katara meets a waterbender who was tortured by the Fire Nation, and has been taking her revenge out upon innocent people by bloodbending and confining them. Bloodbending is possibly the scariest thing we see in Avatar. There’s something fundamentally horrifying about someone else taking over your body via your blood. But what makes this such a great (and terrifying) episode isn’t the bloodbending itself – it’s the way in which Hama’s been twisted by her past, and the utter despair Katara feels at having to use the same technique to save her friends. Katara’s the heart and conscience of Team Avatar, and by learning such a violating method of waterbending, she loses some of her innocence.