While Christmas might have beaten out Halloween in sheer quantity of televised specials, in my eyes, it was always the latter that reigned supreme in quality. Chief amongst my October rituals was plotting out what nights I had to be planted firmly in front of our television set to make sure I caught all my favorites. Whether it be Charlie Brown, Garfield or simply a themed episode of a sitcom that happened to be on, regardless of my familiarity with the thing, if it was Halloween oriented, I was in.
Those were days devoid of streaming options, my viewing habits dictated entirely by the TV Guide and sporadic trips to the video store. Still, it was the convenience (or inaccessibility) of any given program’s airtime that had the biggest impact of what I was or wasn’t able to see. As we didn’t have a VCR that could record, if something was on past my bedtime or while I was at school, that title was lost, swallowed in an analog void until my hopeful eyes might spot its cover at Blockbuster or catch it after dinner with a well-timed rerun.
The dance could be a difficult one, fraught with painful decisions about which channel to choose, which special to leave unseen. On occasion, however, the rewards could far outweigh the sacrifices so required. This truth came into sharp focus one year in particular, when my family received word that our cable provider would be offering the normally costly Disney Channel for free for one full weekend in the midst of their October programming slate. And as my eyes feverishly scanned the TV Guide, planning out my Saturday in thirty minute intervals, one title in particular caught my eye as a non-negotiable must-see: Disney’s Halloween Treat.
I had no idea what it was or what it entailed, but that hardly mattered. All I knew was that it was slated for an hour and seemed to be a celebration of all things spooky and fun.
Originally airing on October 30, 1982, the special was a Halloween themed entry in the Wonderful World of Walt Disney series. It was aired periodically thereafter and eventually transformed into an altered special called A Disney Halloween. Somehow or other I had missed it for years, never stumbling upon it in syndication or finding the VHS tape it apparently had on one of my countless trips to the video store. It may have been almost a decade in age when I finally found my way to it, but discovery has a way of making the old seem new.
The peppy opening credits feature a slew of spooky clips, like the dancing skeletons from Silly Symphonies and Huey, Dewey and Louie trick or treating in the Donald Duck short Trick or Treat. The ever shifting imagery is all set against a song with a refrain that matches the special’s name as a chorus of voices sings about tricks, treats and spirits flying high. That’s when the talking Jack O’ Lantern puppet is introduced. Voiced by legendary voiceover actor Hal Douglas, the pumpkin speaks in quips, puns and all manner of Halloween-isms as he shepherds the viewer from segment to spooky segment.
A clip show pulling from the full spectrum of Disney shorts and movies, Disney’s Halloween Treat repurposes their eeriest moments and houses them under one roof. It’s a Halloween party where the guests are demons, monsters, ghosts and ghouls, much to the chagrin of the Mickey Mouse crew. While I had seen some of what was being shown, many of these segments were new to me. In a time devoid of Disney Plus, there was no easy way to watch every moment from every classic Disney property, so a compilation such as this, distilling moments of the weird, unearthly and uncannily sinister was something special and even exciting.
Admittedly, some of the bits selected hardly screamed to be included in a celebration of October the 31st, such as the wizard’s duel between Merlin and the Mad Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone (1963). But even that battle of various animal transformations takes place against a stark landscape of craggy trees and scattered bones, which serves as more than serviceable Halloween territory. Of course, when that scene is followed up by the iconic Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia (1940), with its flying skeleton warriors and giant, black demon presiding over the whole affair, it’s hard not to fall ever deeper into the Halloween spirit.
The greatest hits of Disney’s scariest moments continued with scattered sections and re-edits of some of their older theatrical shorts. At the time, these were difficult to see and generally new to my young eyes. It took years for me to realize that a sequence showcasing the infernal judgment of Pluto’s crimes against cat-kind was actually an amalgam of three separate shorts, Puss Café (1950), Cat Nap Pluto (1948) and Pluto’s Judgement Day (1935).
The most fun short featured in this vein is Donald Duck and the Gorilla (1944). Once again, not specifically a Halloween cartoon, the story plays out as though Donald and his nephews are trapped in a haunted house with one significant alteration: instead of a ghost, an escaped gorilla is doing the haunting. Jump scares, mistaken identities and plenty of creeping around a dark manor by candlelight abound, allowing this short to contextually transform into a Halloween special. I had seen plenty of Looney Tunes but without the Disney Channel, the studio’s early work had been hitherto lost to me, an egregious oversight I was then bent on resolving.
The latter half of the special delves into Disney’s more recognizable villainy, reveling in stand out moments from some of their biggest films. Captain Hook and his band of pirates joyously expound on the virtues of piracy while he plots the demise of his nemesis in Peter Pan (1953) and Cruella De Vil chases down escaping dogs before being run off the road in the climactic moments of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961).
Even the Evil Queen from Walt Disney’s first theatrical masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1955) turns up, as the viewer is informed by the talking Jack O’ Lantern, to make an exciting Halloween for Snow White. While the holiday of Halloween takes no part in her trickery and subsequent demise on a storm engulfed cliff, it’s hard not to see the macabre connections the two might share. Along with a poorly aged segment from Lady and the Tramp (1955) featuring the nefarious cats Si and Am, this portion of Disney’s Halloween Treat further solidifies how so many events can be plucked from the rather versatile Disney canon and playfully highlighted to capture any chosen tone.
The special concludes with what served as my first introduction to one of the holiday’s most important and revered pieces of entertainment: Ichabod Crane’s run in with the Headless Horseman in the finale of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). Beginning with a catchy song sung by Brom Bones by way of Bing Crosby detailing the legend of the horse mounted ghoul without a head, the clip follows Ichabod from a crowded party to the shadowy depths of a deserted wood.
Rapt by the ever imposing tree branches, reaching out to Ichabod’s quivering form as sharp skeletal hands which glowed in the moon’s light, I was certain I had discovered one of my new essential Halloween time watches. When the Headless Horseman finally appears, galloping ever forward on his red eyed horse, his cloak billowing and sword sweeping through the air to claim yet another skull, my excitement skyrocketed, like Ichabod’s fear, one hundred fold. I always thought of Disney as the epitome of kid entertainment, but until then, I had never thought of their work as a potential destination for spooky fun.
The pumpkin reappears one final time to say that he’ll see us tomorrow, before pausing and adding an offhanded, “maybe”. The credits roll and clips of duck trick or treaters and shots of The Haunted Mansion ride at the Disney parks fill the screen, while the theme song again kicks in. My eyes remained glued to each image until the final shot faded to black and the commercial break broke the spell.
I had watched a multitude of specials that year and would continue to, but few left an impact like Disney’s Halloween Treat. Certainly some of my elation was born out of being exposed to much of Disney’s spookiest fare for the first time, like Ichabod and the Horseman or Pluto’s run-in with the deceased cats of Hell. The special was fun and varied, a window into some of the best parts of hard to find properties and provided just the right dose of autumnal oddities to satiate my hunger for all things Halloween.
My annual ritual never did change, my drive to seek and find Halloween specials old and new a foundational component of each passing year’s Halloween celebrations. I continued to look out for Disney’s Halloween Treat, catching it here and there and eventually even acquiring a copy of my own many years later. And while its usefulness and impact may not resonate in the same way now as it did in the days before the endless streaming options afforded by Disney Plus and the like, there’s a charm to its patchwork presentation. Its quilt-like nature bestows a nostalgic warmth hard to capture anymore, and rather than a relic of the past, I see it as a reminder of what makes Halloween specials so, well, special.
And, if it’s any indication, perhaps there’s still room in today’s ever expanding media world for things like Disney’s less-than-ghastly anthology. For along with Charlie Brown and Garfield, not a Halloween goes by where my kids don’t excitedly ask to watch Disney’s Halloween Treat. They may have seen everything it features, but, sometimes, context is everything, and when the spirit strikes you, it’s nice to have it all in one place.