Which Halloween specials are the best?
Frankly, which specials are the "best" depends heavily on which ones make you feel the most nostalgic. If you go back and watch a few that you haven't seen since you were ten, you'll find that most of them weren't exactly great works of art.  But some of them ARE pretty fantastic, and my own list of "essentials" would include:

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Halloween is Grinch Night
Witch's Night Out
The Halloween That Almost Wasn't
A Disney Halloween
Garfield's Halloween Adventure
The Halloween Tree
Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman

Most of these, of course, are the specials I watched as a kid. Your mileage may vary.

Who are you, anyway?

This guy. By night I'm a tour guide (and sometimes a ghost investigator) for in Chicago, currently running ghost tours for Chicago Hauntings, and by day I write books for a living. These days I mostly do Chicago history and ghostlore books; on October 1st I'll have a few new ebooks out via Llewellyn. I also do young adult novels, such as I KISSED A ZOMBIE AND I LIKED IT, a satire of the paranormal romance genre that had taken over YA literature. I had a bunch of Halloween specials on tape as a kid, and in college I started trying to fill the holes in my collection.

When I was a lad (in the 80's), many of these specials came on every year, and Halloween was a big deal around my town - we all wore costumes to school on Halloween, read ghost stories from Alvin Schwartz's seminal Scary Stories series in class throughout October, and planned our costumes for weeks. My hometown, Des Moines, has a peculiar custom in regards to trick-or-treating: before you can say "trick or treat," you have to tell a joke. Nothing elaborate - usually something along the lines of "whats's the largest pencil in the world," "why did a man put his car in the oven," or one of the other riddles we learned from The Floppy Show. It wasn't until years later that I learned this was uniquely Des Moines-based custom; when I moved to Atlanta as a teenager and heard kids simply saying "trick or treat," I thought "No jokes? What are these kids? Savages?"

Halloween was not as big a deal in the south;  the schools didn't dare have Halloween parties for fear of trouble from the religious groups, many of whom are under the impression that Halloween is a Satanic holiday. I heard stories about how trick or treating and jack-o-lanterns came from Druidic celebrations that involved sacrificing virgins and stories that witches sacrificed kids to the devil using razor blades hidden in candy. All of this was nonsense - the whole story of kids getting razor blades in candy is largely an urban myth(certainly no one ever died because of it), and, while Halloween has certain similarities to various other holidays (Day of the Dead, Samhain, All Saints' Day, All Hallows' Eve, Purim, and so on), most Halloween traditions have distinctly 20th century origins with few traces of any religion. There are a lot of stories about the origins of trick or treating, but the truth is that it was started up by school boards in the 1930's as a way to keep kids out of trouble on Mischief Night, the traditional night to soap up windows and overturn garbage cans. Sure, Halloween customs may be similar to certain pagan traditions, but no more so than your average Christmas or Easter customs. I think the similarities are mostly coincidental.

But the horror stories of Satanism persist, and I can't help but wonder if they're part of the reason that they just don't put many Halloween cartoons out anymore. That's probably a stretch, I know, now that the "Satanic Panic" of the 80s and early 90s has died down, but in this age of 500 channels, you'd think more would find their way onto the air every year. Instead of putting on Halloweentown 10 years a year, why not put it on 9 times and air Mr. Boogedy once? One day, perhaps they will. Until then, we'll always have youtube.

What determines what makes something a halloween special, vs a tv movie or halloween-themed episode? Why not just lump them all together?

I'd rather list specials like "Witch's Night Out" and "Halloween is Grinch Night," which existed apart from a weekly series as a separate genre from, say, the episode of Pound Pupppies in which they go trick-or-treating. But the line, I must admit, is blurry. I qualify things as "specials" on the following criteria:

1. They are the length of a "special," (30-60 minutes) not a TV movie.
2. They exists outside of a regular weekly series OR were released in some way other than just as a regular episode of a series (ie: special prime-time airings of Saturday morning shows, hour-long specials of half-hour shows, straight-to-video episodes that weren't aired on TV, etc).

Some may disagree with my classification of some shows, but hey, that's okay. It's not exactly life-and-death here. I'm pretty flexible on #1, especially on things made starting in the late 80s, when the home video market really took off. As tapes got cheaper to buy, producing full-length TV movies, instead of half hour TV specials, made better economic sense for most companies, since movies were an easier sell than shorts on the home market, and feature-length "specials" became the norm.

When I first compiled a list of specials in the late 90s, I thought my list was fairly complete. By the time I first put this version of the page together in 2006, I really thought I'd covered just about everything. But more specials keep appearing out of the sands of time, and I've started being a lot more lenient on adding "made for TV movies," especially considering that The Disney Channel treated their TV movies as regular Halloween specials for years.

Why don't you put up links to the Halloween episode of Cheers/Dharma and Greg/Friends etc.

I'm trying (mostly) to keep the Halloween-themed episodes of weekly shows to the cartoons, at least for now. Ever since Roseanne started doing a Halloween show every year, a great many sitcoms have followed suit (Roseanne didn't START the custom - it was standard practice in the radio days - but she revived it). I have my hands full with just the cartoons, and I'd rather focus on them. A few live action standalone specials deserve notice on here, like the Paul Lynde one, but that's different. If you want to see more Halloween-themed TV that doesn't really fit in around here, check out the Ghosts of Halloween blog.

Will you sell me a copy of _____?

I don't sell these things, and I don't do much trading. When I can (ie, when it exists and the copyright holder doesn't contact me to object), I've put up links to places where you can get the shows - quite a few are even on youtube nowadays. That said, I do need the following:

-The Wickedest Witch (late 80s TV special, live action)
-Anything on the list of Long Lost Specials.

If you remember a show that I don't have here, by all means, let me know! Plenty of people have sent me emails asking about shows that sound terrific, but that I've never heard of, and that no one can quite identify them (many of them were probably local productions, a relic of 20th century tv that barely exist anymore). Add a comment to the list if you have any information about these.

That said, I DO occasionally get requests to take things down, and sometimes things get removed from youtube. I always comply. It's the copyright owner's right. I get annoyed when people post torrents of my books with a text file saying "I don't own this;" that's not how copyright works, guys. If you want to find these shows, it isn't that hard anymore. I will take down any comments with torrent links, link to copies for sale, etc.

Why all the WRITING? Why don't you just put up the videos?

When I started the page, streaming video hadn't come into its own. Practically none of these specials were online when most of these reviews were first written. Now, I sort of use this sort of writing as a warm-up for work. In other words: I just like to. It gives me a chance to write about the role of nostalgia in how we judge art, my annoyance with ghost hunting TV shows, the things I love most about October, and other stuff about which I like to ramble.


dmp270 said...

Do you remember a halloween special from sometime in the 70's with a security guard who works in a lab and a jack-o-lantern...kind of a creepshow where they tell short scary stories...at the end the jack-o-lantern ends up ad the security guard's head? if it helps I remember it was on WNYW channel 5 in New York

Adam Selzer said...

I've had a couple of people ask me about this one - I'm not sure what it was, but I'm working on it!

I believe one of the stories was the Disney version of Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Anonymous said...

That special was called "Halloween Hallo O' Fame," and it aired on The Wonderful World of Disney in 1977. Jonathan Winters played the security guard and jack o' lantern characters. It is currently available on YouTube (March 2009):


Anonymous said...

Slight correction:

The title is "Halloween Hall O' Fame."

Anonymous said...

Hi, I have a question.
I am looking for a late 80's early 90's cartoon. It has the same feel of "The Halloween Tree" All I remember is that there were 3 or 4 friends and they went to a halloween party at a house/haunted house. There were 2 or 3 witches at a couldren. Any Help?

Unknown said...

I'm curious what the picture you have in the banner is from. I have a vague memory of a cartoon special where kids went out in costume and either they turned into monsters or one of them was a monster. That picture seems to be familiar to it

Chris Heffernan said...

Rob, that picture is from that special. It's titled "Witches Night Out".


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