When posting the theme and rules for each year of the Halloween Horrors series, I always eagerly await the one contributor who will circumvent those rules, submitting an entry that goes outside the box and does something a little different (sometimes, drastically different). That’s not to say that these entries are better or worse, more or less important than the others. Truth be told, each post is always different than the others, each providing their own unique perspective
Robert Freese first joined our Halloween Horrors series last year with his look at 1994’s Plankton, aka “Creatures from the Abyss”. For those not familiar with the film, let’s just say that it is one of the most batshit insane spectacles I have ever witnessed (on MULTIPLE occasions)… and I’ve done a lot of acid in my time, so I’ve seen my share of crazy shit, most of which didn’t actually exist. For this year’s entry, Robert will be taking a look at not only one Halloween episode from a television sitcom, but 2 different episodes from 2 different shows, both dripping with Halloween imagery.
A prolific film historian and author, Robert’s work has graced the pages of numerous magazines (listed below) over the years, with new contributions and writing appearing regularly. While I have much admiration and respect for his career and passion for film, more importantly, he’s just a really nice guy! I welcome him back to our series, and I hope you will as well!
ORIGINAL AIRDATES: October 30th, 1999/November 1st, 1982
Halloween. We could easily sit here and talk for six or seven hours about all the things we love about the Halloween Season and still barely scratch the surface. One of the most wonderful little treats of the season was always the Halloween episode of my favorite TV shows. I say “was” only because I watch very little TV these days, usually opting for movies. Before my family bought our first battleship-sized VCR and I started programming my own Halloween night Hell-O-Ramas procured from Village Video, it was the Halloween-themed TV shows and specials that delivered my holiday fix.
The easiest way I can relive those sweet memories of my own youthful Halloweens is to watch one of those aforementioned seasonal specials. The Freaks and Geeks episode “Tricks and Treats” from 1999, and the Square Pegs episode “Halloween XII” from 1982, are two special Halloween-themed shows I absolutely adore.
To most, these shows probably seem similar as they deal with the lives of teenage high school students dealing with growing up. Both take place in the early ’80s. To anyone who actually grew up in the ’80s, the difference between the two shows are obvious.
I love the dynamic of these shows because they are both striving to achieve the same goal – depict real teens on Halloween night in the early ’80s. Watching them, especially back to back, you get a good sense of the difference between the shows. The biggest difference is that Freaks and Geeks paints a nostalgic look back to the ’80s, while Square Pegs is a product of the ’80s.
The Freaks and Geeks episode “Tricks and Treats” strives to trigger the nostalgic vibe in those of us who remember our youth, especially if we grew up in the ’80s. The show begins with geek friends Sam and Neal offering goofball Bill ten bucks to drink any concoction they can come up with, as long as it is food stuff. This immediately calls to mind all those weird kids we grew up with who would drink or eat anything for ten bucks (or less).
The Weir family is getting ready for Halloween and mom, Jean, is excited to dress up and hand out treats with daughter Lindsay, as per their annual tradition. Lindsay, the older of the Weir siblings, looks dismayed at the prospect. Jean asks Sam if he is going out trick-or-treating, but Sam says he is too old. Instead, he and his friend, Bill, plan on going to the movies to see The Nude Bomb.
At the bus stop, Lindsay’s friend, Millie, asks if she wants to come to the Halloween dance at her church. Lindsay uses the excuse of handing out treats with her mom for not accepting. When the “cool kids/freaks” pull up, it is obvious Lindsay wants to hang out with them.
In English class, Sam, Bill, and Neal are chastised for the books that they have chosen for their book reports. The teacher deems them all inappropriate. (The titles all seem reasonable to me and are Al Jaffe’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”, the novelization to Star Wars, and “Yes, I Can: The Autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr.”, respectively.) The teacher assigns “Crime and Punishment” and tells her students in no uncertain terms, “It’s time to grow up.”
The expression on Sam’s face says it all. It is obvious this young man is struggling with the concept of having to “grow up”. (Instinctively, we all know how this is going to end, as we all made that same face a time or two.)
During lunch, Sam talks Bill and Neal into having one last trick-or-treat blowout before they have to “grow up”. Neal is reluctant, as he wants to go to the Jaycee’s haunted house and try to talk to the girls from the “Hotdog on a Stick” from the food court in the mall. He agrees when Sam says it may be the last time he can ever dress up as Groucho Marx. Later, friend Harris asks if he can come along too.
Meanwhile, Lindsay gets invited to hang out with the freaks, couple Daniel and Kim, and Nick, who likes Lindsay. Lindsay decides to totally blow off her mom and go hang out with her new friends. (That night, friend Ken is in tow too after his plans fall through.)
It is a long night of disappointment for everyone. Sam and his friends are hassled all night by unimpressed neighbors who continue mentioning they are too old to be trick-or-treating.. The night culminates in a butt-whooping by school bully Alan and his boys, who steal their candy and then Sam’s ultimate moment of humiliation comes from the hands of… Lindsay, his sister. (Neal is also humiliated when the classy “Hotdog on a Stick” girls drive by, see him beat up and in costume, and laugh at him.)
All night, Lindsay has been reluctantly partaking in the bad behavior of her new friends, smashing pumpkins and playing mailbox baseball, but when she starts launching eggs out the car window, caught up in the moment of “being cool”, she and Kim unknowingly peg her little brother.
At the Weir home, what Jean had looked forward to has been destroyed, first by Lindsay blowing her off from their annual tradition, and then finding out the mothers won’t let their kids keep the homemade cookies she’s been passing out all night, dumping them on her lawn instead. She reluctantly sends her husband to the Farmer Jack to pick up bagged candy. She gives up and at one point says, “The world is such a different place than the one I grew up in. Everyone seems so much meaner these days.”
When Sam gets home, Jean is half-hysterical when she sees her son dejected and resembling an undercooked omelet. The dialog in this scene is priceless. She asks her son who did this to him. Sam looks accusingly towards Lindsay, who is also now home, but tells his mom, “Some freaks did it.”
His mom says, “Freaks” Like circus freaks?” To which, Mr. Weir says, “Jean, I don’t think there’s some bearded ladies going around throwing eggs at kids. He means hippies.”
It is not the night that anyone was anticipating. Lindsay’s ideal night of hanging out with what she perceived as the “cool kids” ended badly. Sam, trying to hold on to his childhood for one more year, brutally loses the fight that we all eventually lose. Mrs. Weir struggles that she faces a new challenge, her family is growing up and life continues to change. It never stops changing. Mr. weir sums it up best when he says, “I’m so glad we all decided to celebrate Halloween. Last time I had this much fun, I was pinned down in a foxhole by the North Koreans.”
Except for some of the minor details, everything about this episode works for me. Everything about this series works for me, but this episode is my favorite. It speaks of how Halloween changed for me, more likely all of us, when we went from trick-or-treating to suddenly being “too old” to trick-or-treat. I fought it and just like Sam and his friends, I lost. Now, I find myself dressing up, handing out candy with my wife, and muttering under my breath, “The world is a different place now than the one I grew up in.”
Concerned with delivering a nostalgic thrill, however, there is a lot of stuff about this episode that drives me nuts. Just tiny insignificant moments that most people probably don’t even notice. (I know, it’s artistic license, things are going to be wrong, but when they are wrong, they really crawl all over me.)
At the bus stop, Millie is chowing down on a Lick-A-Maid Fun Dip, a candy I remember as being kind of useless and boring. It was an edible stick that you licked and jabbed into flavored sugar. The candy is mentioned a lot in the short time the scene lasts, carrying over to multiple characters, calling attention to it, as if waiting for someone in the audience to yell out, “Hey look! Lick-A-Maid! I remember those!” before the episode can continue.
The costumes of Sam and his friends include: (Sam) Gort the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, (Bill) Jaime Summers, the Bionic Woman, (Neal) Groucho Marx, and then Harris just has a fake knife stuck in his head with blood. In 1980, I’d say Harris was probably the closest on point, as slasher movies were popular at the time. A homemade C3PO would have been the robot of choice for Sam, especially after the summer ’80 release of The Empire Strikes Back before it ever would have been Gort. (For the record, in the 1980 I grew up in, everyone had a Ben Cooper costume of their favorite Saturday morning cartoon character or Star Wars character.)
There are two movie references that always stop me dead in my tracks with this episode. The first is in the beginning, when Sam says he and Bill are going to see The Nude Bomb. The Nude Bomb came out in May of 1980 and by October of 1980 it would have not been anywhere in sight. Yes, successful movies of the time would have been held over forever, but not The Nude Bomb. (They would have had a better chance of catching the second-year re-release of Halloween.)
The other film reference comes from Lindsay, as she’s trying to sway her new friends into doing something safer than driving around and vandalizing the neighborhood. She suggests going to a movie. “There’s a new Friday the 13th movie playing,” she offers. No, girl, there’s not. In 1980, the first Friday the 13th had just come out in May and Part 2 was released the following year. I admire they didn’t reference Halloween II, as that was released October of ’81, but that would not have stuck out as much as this Friday the 13th sequel mention. (A double mention of the Halloween re-release and we wouldn’t even be talking about this right now.)
Hence, this is the problem I have with films and TV shows that play for nostalgic purposes. They get as much wrong as they get right. For the people who did not live during the era, everything is presented as fact, as history. Don’t get me wrong. I love the show for all it gets right, but the stuff it gets wrong, for me, drives me nuts.
On the other end is Square Pegs, the show Freaks and Geeks is trying to be, or Freaks and Geeks with a laugh track. In the “Halloween XII” episode, an obvious reference to the slasher movies of the time, the Halloween dance at Weemawee High has been cancelled, so class snob Muffy suggests the girls all gather at single teacher Ms. Loomis’ house for a Halloween party, which then turns into a sleepover. (This is established after Principal Dingleman, who was previously a grade school principal, shows his high school assemblage a Halloween safety slide show geared toward younger kids that features Stanley the Safety Elephant. Eyes roll, sure, but this more or less reminds the student body that they are “too old” to trick-or-treat and with the dance cancelled, there is not much for them to do, so remember to be safe while you do whatever.)
Lauren and Patty are excited, as it is their first party with the “popular kids” Jennifer and LaDonna, who only agree to go when Jennifer’s boyfriend, Vinnie, like, blows her off to go out getting into trouble with his friends. Their only desire in life is to hang out with the “popular kids,” at any cost.
As Vinnie and his friends are out rolling the neighborhood on Halloween night, we see the point of view from someone nearby (a familiar POV), watching through the eyeholes of a mask. We hear heavy breathing on the soundtrack as this figure watches silently.
At the party, Ms. Loomis makes everything super awkward by introducing a game where each person writes something they don’t like about the other people in the room, to be read out loud for all to hear. The teacher says, “Look at it as a growth experience. where other’s opinions can show us our own foibles and lead to character building.” (What?!)
The lights flicker during the game and we keep seeing the point of view from a mask in the bushes. Nerd Marshall shows up dressed as Bob AND Doug McKenzie, with surfer friend Johnny Slash, who is a sheeted ghost with his hat and his trademark sunglasses and Walkman.
A Ouija board is pulled out, the lights go out and then Vinnie shows up to scare the girls. Yet, someone is still watching from just outside the window, stalking.
The prowler is revealed to be Principal Dingleman, who has been following Vinnie and his pals all night, watching all the destruction they have caused. Detention awaits Vinnie and friends Monday when they return to school. Lauren and Patty barely clicked with Jennifer and LaDonna, their efforts to infiltrate the clique of popular kids a failure. Their Halloween is, like, a major bummer. Totally.
The differences between these Halloween episodes are epic, especially since Square Pegs was made in the moment it is depicting. There are no overly obvious attention-grabbing references to candies or movies to push any nostalgic buttons. Marshall’s reference to Bob & Doug McKenzie is spot on, as everyone in 1982 was familiar with the SCTV characters. (He also references a TV showing of The Horror of Party Beach, which would also be reasonably authentic to the era.)
The running gags referencing the then popular slasher movies is perfect for the show, speaking to the target audience of both. When LaDonna flips through a stack of record albums she brought to the party, she does not focus on drawing attention to any particular “pop culture” title. (Unlike the Freaks and Geeks episode, which has a long (fun) montage of Lindsay and her new friends’ bad behavior to the tune of Cheap Trick’s “Gonna Raise Hell”.)
For as silly as Square Pegs is no doubt seen today through the eyes of younger generations, it is the more comfortable of the two Halloween specials for me. Again, I love them both, but in different ways. Square Pegs depicts a world I clearly remember, as it is a product of its era, awkward uncomfortable humor and all. (LaDonna tells Jennifer, “I don’t know, girl. Halloween. To me, white people in sheets is not a good time. I hate this holiday.”)
I easily identify with Square Pegs. I remember watching each new episode and wondering what high school would soon have in store for me. (Spoiler alert: it sucked.) I still remember my first big, sophisticated 8th Grade Halloween soiree, an invitation to a party where all the “popular kids” would gather. What did I dress as? You’d be disappointed if I didn’t tell you I took a tip from the Marshall Blechtman playbook. I actually came dressed as Bob AND Doug McKenzie. Yup, that was me. (This was 1983, a month or so after Strange Brew had been released. It made perfect sense to me.)
As much as I love Freaks and Geeks, it suffers from the curse of trying to recreate a moment in time as remembered by different people. Once the idea of the story goes through the blender of so many memories and gets whipped into a story, it is now more an idealized memory of the time than an honest recreation, artistic license aside. It’s 1980 from one perspective. It succeeds in cramming in all the bittersweet moments of being young and having to grow up, and the heartbreak the characters experience is expertly scripted, and dang if those little details don’t trip me up every time I watch.
What both shows nail down perfectly, regardless of their telling, is that wonderful awkwardness of adolescence, of being stuck in that sweet purgatory between childhood and adulthood. You can tell things are different, but you can never quite put your finger on the reason why until it’s done and gone.
Freaks and Geeks covers more ground by including the parents. The admission by Jean that the world has changed is a sobering moment, as change is also affecting an adult character in a different manner. Not only are the carefree Halloweens of her youth, some twenty-five years past, gone, but now the Halloweens she enjoyed with her children are also gone. She changed with her life, grew up adapted, figured out a way to still connect and enjoy the holiday with her family, and now, it is time to change and adapt again.
My trick-or-treating days are long behind me, but still the memory of those wonderfully chilly autumn nights, running from one door to the next with my brother and our best friends from up the street, dressed in whatever costumes we put together, are still some of the most cherished memories in my damaged brain. Both the Square Pegs and the Freaks and Geeks Halloween episodes tell the same story and tap into those sweet memories. They are exactly the same, but extremely different. Where they both succeed is in recreating a moment in time long gone, but not forgotten, when we all came to the realization that we were too dang old to go out trick-or-treating and had to figure out something else to do on Halloween night.
Robert Freese recently contributed the feature article highlighting the Golden Age of Italian Cinema for the 23rd Anniversary Halloween Edition of Rue Morgue (Sept/Oct 2020, #196). Future issues of The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope magazine will include his interviews with Italian screenwriter Elisa (Zombie) Briganti, Italian writer/director Luigi (Star Crash) Cozzi, slasher directors Bud (The Mutilator) Cooper and Richard (Splatter University) Haines, cinema psychos Timothy (Final Exam) Raynor and David Howard (Terrifier) Thornton, and Something Weird Video honcho Lisa Petrucci. He also contributes to the zines Drive-In Asylum and Grindhouse Purgatory, and the website Lunchmeat VHS, as well as the Italian language film magazine Nocturno.
He recently began co-hosting the Two Librarians Walk Into a Shelf podcast for the Huntsville Madison County Public library system so he could have one more venue in which to praise the merits of writers like Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, as well as slasher and ninja flicks. It can be found at: https://anchor.fm/hmcpl/episodes/01—Books-and-Movies-that-Scared-Us-ehql82.
On October 31, 2020, Robert will celebrate his second wedding anniversary to his amazing, talented, and beautiful wife Sherri.