With Halloween arriving in just a few weeks, no doubt film buffs everywhere are dragging out their favorite scary movies to get into the mood. Cider will flow, candy will munch, and a scream or two will pierce the air. For some fans of a certain age, though, this Halloween will lack a once-staple of the season: the Halloween Special.
In the days of three networks and syndicated stations, before the days of satellite and on demand TV, stations would cobble together specials to attract viewers during the holiday season. Some became seminal classics, while the scariest thing about others was that somebody, somewhere in a position of authority actually green lit some something of such questionable quality. The titles here encompass a bit of both varieties: campy and downright ridiculous, while still evoking the seasonal spirit. So then, get ready for a nostalgic journey through Halloweens of yesteryear, and relive the magic of the 15 Best Halloween Specials Ever!
15 Are You Afraid of the Dark
Kids who grew up on the programming of Nickelodeon will no doubt remember this show which both revisited the creepiness of The Twilight Zone and foreshadowed the late '90s phenomenon of the Goosebumps book series.
Are You Afraid of the Dark first aired as a Halloween special on Canadian network YTV before finding its way to Nickelodeon. The pilot episode reimagined the popular short story “The Monkey’s Paw” as “The Tale of the Twisted Claw,” resetting the story to contemporary times with two adolescent boys who find a magical claw that will grant wishes—with dark consequences.
Are You Afraid of the Dark would go on to become one of Nickelodeon’s most popular series to date, airing for seven seasons and picking up a good number of awards. The enduring popularity of the series led it to a DVD release, and to enduring cult status. It helps too that a number of actors who would later become stars also appeared on the series, including Ryan Gosling, Hayden Christensen and Charles S. Dutton.
14 Ghostbusters Halloween (AKA The Halloween Door)
The animated Real Ghostbusters TV series had become a major hit by 1989, spawning first an after school cartoon, and later, a Saturday morning staple. Given their genre, naturally the Ghostbusters had to get in on the Halloween game. The show actually featured a number of episodes that tied in to the seasonal creepiness, though most notably, the show got a primetime special in 1989 with “The Halloween Door.”
The episode featured the bustin’ boys, along with fledgling team members Janine, Louis Tully and Slimer, encountering a mad scientist who wants to rid the world of Halloween forever. When said scientist uses a machine to destroy Halloween, demons from another dimension invade New York, leaving the Ghostbusters to set things right again. The busters even got their own musical number for once!
“The Halloween Door” originally aired on prime time as a testament to the popularity of the Real Ghostbusters series. It also happened to coincide with the announcement of all the hot Christmas toys of 1989, prepping kids to write letters to Santa… which might be the scariest twist of all.
13 Marc Summers Mystery Magical Tour
Nickelodeon didn’t have a whole lot in the way of home grown celebrities in 1986, though with its gameshow Double Dare becoming a national phenomenon, the fledgling cable channel did have at least one: Marc Summers. Summers hosted Double Dare and became the face of Nickelodeon in its early days. To help grab some Halloween ratings, the network hooked him up with this gem of a special which would air throughout October for years to come.
Mystery Magical Tour combined the talents of Summers with moppet actors Jonathan Brandis (of Seaquest DSV fame) and Shiri Appleby (of Roswell), as well as veteran John Astin for this campy, creepy romp. Taking a page from the classic haunted house movies of yesteryear, the special finds Summers and his young companions having some car trouble outside a creepy mansion. Filmed at the Los Angeles landmark The Magic Castle, the series also featured the talents of magician Lance Burton as Summers and the kids try to find their way to a phone. Nickelodeon doesn’t run the show anymore, though faithful fans have posted it to YouTube for a dose of seasonal nostalgia.
12 It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown and Peanuts specials have become part of Americana, though in 1966, only A Charlie Brown Christmas and Charlie Brown All Stars had graced TV screens. It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown would become the third Peanuts TV special, and, after A Charlie Brown Christmas perhaps the most iconic outing for the Peanuts gang.
It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown finds the titular character (Charlie Brown, not the Great Pumpkin) prepping for Halloween alongside his friends. Linus tries to convince the gang of the coming of the Great Pumpkin, Halloween’s answer to Santa Claus. Most of the kids ignore Linus, except for Sally, who humors him in an attempt to win his affections. The show also includes the famous gag of Charlie Brown going Trick-or-Treating, and getting only rocks in his candy bag.
2016 marks the 50th Anniversary (!) of It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, and that the special has aired every year without fail since its debut in 1966 should testify to its classic quality, and to its enduring popularity.
11 The Halloween that Almost Wasn’t
The 1970s were a weird time, and the 1979 special The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t might epitomize that weirdness. Starring Oscar nominee (think about that one) Judd Hirsch as Dracula and popular television actress Mariette Hartley as a Witch, the show envisioned Dracula as the leader of the world’s monsters on the eve of Halloween…which is about to be cancelled. Dracula calls the classic monsters of the world together for a meeting to discover the reasons for the holiday’s cancellation. As it turns out, the Witch must fly over the moon once a year for Halloween to begin. This year she refuses because she’s long become the brunt of Dracula’s jokes!
Hijinks ensue as Dracula tries to redeem himself in the eyes of the Witch. Of course he succeeds, Halloween comes, and the show ends with a bizarre (even by 70s standards) disco number that has Dracula dressing like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
The Halloween that Almost Wasn’t enjoyed status as a seasonal standard for a number of years before falling into obscurity. It still has a cult following today, and though never released on DVD, nostalgic viewers might find a copy on YouTube.
10 Monster Mania
Cable channel AMC produced this series of retrospective specials in the 1990s, first hosted by Jack Palance, and later, by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. The lady in black hosts all three in DVD form, which curious viewers can procure via Amazon.
Monster Mania examines the horror and monster movie genre from the earliest days of film to the (then) present. Occasional actors and actresses, as well as writers and other talking head pundits pop up to discuss the psychological implications of movie monsters, and why they became so popular. The analysis isn’t nearly as fun as the extended clip show, showing off some of horror’s most iconic movies, and a few forgotten gems. The second entry, Bride of Monster Mania looks at the role of women in horror, while the third Attack of the 50 Foot Monster Mania examines the more sci-fi based horror creatures, with an emphasis on atomic age monsters. Nostalgic and fun, the Monster Mania series posts a love letter to horror films, and to lovers of the season.
9 Disney’s Halloween Treat
Disney’s Halloween Treat comprised of little more than an extended clipshow devoted to Disney villains and some of the more macabre cartoons produced by the company. The show featured a talking jack-o-lantern celebrating Halloween by looking at some of Disney’s creepier animated outings. Featuring a broad array of villains, the special also featured some of Mickey, Donald & Goofy’s creepier adventures, including one where the trio open a ghost hunting business, and another where Donald gets stalked by a killer gorilla. The show re-aired in 1983 with new segments, incorporating another Disney clip show Disney’s Greatest Villains. The special featured a great opportunity to see some of Disney’s animated greats in a pre-video release era. Nowadays, it plays quaint if fun. Long a staple of the Disney Channel on Halloween, the show has since fallen into obscurity, though determined viewers might find a copy on YouTube.
(An aside: I first saw Disney’s Halloween Treat at age five, rented the BETA video on a regular basis, and have been able to sing the theme song ever since. Just saying.)
8 The Paul Lynde Halloween Special
As if The Halloween that Almost Wasn’t didn’t prove the weirdness of the 1970s, this special certainly would! Snarky and sexually ambiguous comedian Paul Lynde hosted the show, which united him with—of all people—actresses Margret Hamilton and Billie Hayes, better known as The Wicked Witch of the West (from The Wizard of Oz) and Witchiepoo (from H.R. Puffinstuff) respectively. A weird variety show of sorts, Hamilton and Hayes reprise their witchy roles alongside Lynde, grating him wishes which allow him to showcase other guest stars like KISS, Florence Henderson and Donny & Marie Osmond. The show also has plenty of '70s hallmarks, including a disco number and plenty of polyester.
Considering that The Paul Lynde Halloween Special aired only once, it should come as something of a surprise that the show endures in popularity after all these years. A DVD release helped restore the special to prominence, and it has since become a nostalgic, if bizarre, curio of a bygone day.
7 The Worst Witch
Fairuza Balk made an early screen appearance in this Halloween special, one which would ironically foreshadow her later success as a crazed goth witch in The Craft. The Worst Witch starred Balk, along with Tim Curry, Charlotte Rae and Dame Diana Rigg in a merry Halloween adventure based on the popular kids’ book of the same name. The plot followed Balk, as Mildred, a young witch attending magic school who just can’t seem to cast a good spell. Mildred runs afoul of a witch plotting to take over the sorcery academy. Mildred finally gets to put her magic to good use to protect her fellow students and save the day.
Something of a precursor to Harry Potter, The Worst Witch spawned a series of popular books published throughout the 1970s, though sadly, only this single gem of a TV movie. First aired in 1986 and featuring songs by Charles Strouse (the composer behind Bye Bye Birdie and Annie), the special gained a cult following thanks to seasonal airings on TV, and later, VHS and DVD releases.
6 Mr. Boogedy
Disney was at it again, this time producing Halloween TV movies for the popular Sunday night TV program The Wonderful World of Disney. Mr. Boogedy aired in 1986, and featured popular TV actors Richard Masur, David Faustino and John Astin. The story follows a family that moves to New England to open a joke store in a small town. There, they encounter the legend of William Hannover, better known as Mr. Boogedy, a Puritan settler who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a magical cloak. The family begins to believe their new house is haunted by Boogedy, and must take steps to confront and defeat his demonic spirit.
More corny than creepy, Mr. Boogedy had more than its share of cheesy laughs and a few scares, enough to make it into something of a cult film today. At the time of its debut, Mr. Boogedy aired to strong viewership, enough so that Disney commissioned a sequel film.
Which brings us to…
5 Bride of Boogedy
Bride of Boogedy aired on The Disney Sunday Movie in 1987, and reunited most of the cast from its predecessor. Noted comedians Eugene Levy and Howard Witt joined the cast as well, helping to make this sequel actually better than the original movie!
One year after the events of Mr. Boogedy, the Davis family has successfully opened their joke shop in the town of Lucifer Falls. Unfortunately, though they defeated Mr. Boogedy a year before, the coming of Halloween invites more strange happenings around the New England city, and the family begins to fear his return. During the town Halloween festival (which looks set in southern California as opposed to New England…but nevermind), grumpy neighbor happens upon Mr. Boogedy’s magical cloak, and ghastly, goofy events begin to unfold.
Both Mr. Boogedy and Bride of Boogedy proved popular enough that Disney released the films on home video, which helped earn them a devoted cult following. Curious viewers can find the films on demand on YouTube today.
4 Elvira’s Halloween Special
By 1986, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark had helped popularize horror hosting again (thanks too in no small part to her real-world alter ego Cassandra Peterson), and become something of a phenomenon. That year saw the Mistress of the Dark make the logical move into starring in her own Halloween special.
The show ran on MTV more as a weird wrap around to the network’s music video runs. Elvira would pop up between videos to appear in short comedy sketches and to show clips from old horror movies. True to form, Elvira would offer Halloween tips loaded with puns, most of which referred to her décolletage.
Elvira’s Halloween Special aired only once, though devotees of the Mistress of the Dark have kept it circulating via bootlegs and the internet. Dated, goofy but none the less wacky fun, Elvira’s Halloween Special manages to make irritating jokes into charming quips, courtesy of the title mistress.
3 The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror
Audiences tend to think of The Simpsons’ many Halloween episodes as seasonal treats, and standard entries in the show’s canon. Way back in the second season (in 1990!), the show set a precedent by adding a so-called Halloween special to the season order. Consisting of three segments, the episode featured the show’s characters parodying popular horror and sci-fi stories from literature, TV and film. The first proved so popular with viewers, it spawned a sequel the following year, and the year after that. 26 specials later, “Treehouse of Horror” has become a standard for The Simpsons TV series, and of celebrating the Halloween season.
The first Simpsons Halloween Special featured a guest appearance by James Earl Jones, as well as the alien mutants Kang & Kodos. The show set the template for what would become the “Treehouse of Horror” series, each broken into three segments, with cameos by Kang & Kodos. Given the show’s long tenure, it should come as no surprise that some entries hold up better than others, though at its strongest, The Simpson’s Halloween Special/”Treehouse of Horror” ranks among some of the funniest things the show has ever committed to broadcast.
2 Garfield's Halloween Adventure
Famed comic strip cat Garfield got in on the Halloween special with Garfield’s Halloween Adventure. The special featured the title cat getting ready to celebrate Halloween, deciding on a costume and looking forward to eating his weight in candy. As Garfield and Odie embark on their trick-or-treat adventure, the two discover a dilapidated mansion haunted by ghost pirates. Garfield and Odie have to make their escape from the pirates and protect their own horde of candy.
Garfield’s Halloween Adventure featured a good mix of horror and comedy, and, as the third animated special to feature the character, helped promote Garfield as an animated superstar. He’d land his own animated Saturday Morning show three years later.
Garfield’s Halloween Adventure originally aired with It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown in 1985, which helped win the show strong ratings. It has since become a Halloween standard, and even took home an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.
1 Mad Monster Party
Studio Rankin-Bass broke out as a television treasure thanks to its holiday specials featuring stop-motion animation. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first aired in 1964, and a series of other Christmas specials—most of which remain holiday classics today—aired in the years thereafter. The studio tried to get in on the Halloween special market with this obscure 1967 outing, which combined stop-motion animation with the vocal talents of horror siren Boris Karloff and comedienne Phyllis Diller.
The plot follows mad scientist Boris von Frankenstein has he sets out to destroy the world. He convenes a council of famous monsters like the Werewolf, Dr. Jeckyll and The Invisible Man to witness his ultimate triumph, and plans to retire shortly after wrecking the planet. Boris decides to leave his destruction formula to his kind-hearted nephew Felix, which angers the other monsters. Felix plots to save the world from his uncle’s destruction, and escape the clutches of greedy monsters.
Though almost forgotten, especially compared to Rankin-Bass’ Christmas output, Mad Monster Party nevertheless developed a cult following and even saw a release on Blu-Ray. It remains a little-seen classic today, and warrants viewing alongside the other classic Halloween specials.
Did we leave out your favorite Halloween Special? Tell us in the comments!