Every year since its second season, The Simpsons has given fans a Halloween special under the classic “Treehouse of Horror” title (this has actually made the numbering very confusing, because the Halloween special is always one behind the season, which has become more obvious now that we’re past 30 seasons).
The episodes are a three-part anthology with segments that either tell a creepy version of a regular Simpsons episode or offer a parody of an iconic scary movie. With 29 “Treehouse of Horror” episodes and three segments in each one, we have a total of 87 Simpsons Halloween stories so far. Naturally, there have been strong ones and weak ones. So, here are The 5 Best (And 5 Worst) Simpsons Halloween Stories.
10 Worst: “Don’t Have a Cow, Mankind”
In the “Treehouse of Horror XX” segment “Don’t Have a Cow, Mankind,” Krusty Burger introduces a new burger made of cows that have been fed other cows and the burgers turn the residents of Springfield into zombies.
The disappointing thing about this one is that it’s a rehash (with diminishing returns) of the season 4 segment “Dial Z for Zombies,” which gave Springfield a much more entertaining uprising of the undead. If you’re going to do something that’s been done before, you have to do it better than the previous time or there’s no point. In this case, it’s far worse.
9 Best: “Lisa’s Nightmare”
In the season 3 episode “Treehouse of Horror II,” the framing narrative is that all three Simpson kids are having a nightmare on Halloween night. Lisa’s nightmare revolves around Homer buying a monkey’s paw that grants wishes from a mysterious vendor on their vacation to Morocco.
It’s an obvious parody of W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” but once the setup is out of the way, it becomes a surreal take on a typical Simpsons episode, with the family’s wishes being very in-character and having dire consequences. For example, Lisa wishes for world peace and that leads to aliens invading a defenseless Earth and enslaving humans.
8 Worst: “Wanted: Dead, Then Alive”
In recent years, The Simpsons has relied pretty heavily on marketing gimmicks that Fox can use for promos to draw long-time fans back in, whether it’s killing off a character or letting an audience poll decide Flanders’ next wife. In season 27, that gimmick involved Sideshow Bob finally killing Bart in a “Treehouse of Horror” segment.
After Bart is dead, Bob finds himself without a purpose, so he resurrects Bart and kills him again. And he does this again and again and again until the segment is thankfully over. It’s a dull, repetitive installment that doesn’t live up to the hype drummed up by its premise.
7 Best: “Terror at 5½ Feet”
This segment from season 5’s “Treehouse of Horror IV” deftly spoofs The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which starred William Shatner as an airline passenger having a nervous breakdown after seeing a terrifying creature out on the wing of the plane. The Simpsons’ version sees Bart witnessing a gremlin taking the bus apart on his way to school.
As he tries to tell everyone about it, they think he’s crazy. The segment balances genuine terror with the usual dose of absurdist comedy in spectacular ways, while the animation sells Bart’s paranoia beautifully with a dull, dreary visual palette.
6 Worst: “The Diving Bell and the Butterball”
In this terrible, mostly humorless segment from season 23, Homer is bitten by a venomous spider, leaving him paralyzed. Then, he starts to communicate with Lisa through farts. Then, he discovers that he can shoot webs out of his butt, so he dons a superhero costume and begins swinging around the streets of Springfield from his butt like a crude version of Spider-Man. Yikes.
It’s the kind of juvenile, uninspired idea that a crass teenager would come up with in a creative writing class. There’s nothing scary about this segment, making it feel out of place in a “Treehouse of Horror” episode, and even worse, there’s nothing funny about it either.
5 Best: “Time and Punishment”
While trying to fix the Simpson family’s toaster, Homer accidentally sends himself back to the prehistoric era and discovers the downside of the butterfly effect as he keeps changing the present day. They range from the absurd (a timeline where Bart and Lisa are giants bent on crushing Homer) to the unsettling (a timeline where Ned Flanders rules the world with an iron fist).
Eventually, Homer settles in a world where everything is the same as it was before, except everyone has a long, pointy tongue like that of a lizard. He just shrugs it off and decides it’s close enough.
4 Worst: “Oh, the Places You’ll D’oh”
It feels disingenuous to have a “Treehouse of Horror” segment that has absolutely nothing to do with horror. In the season 25 installment “Oh, the Places You’ll D’oh,” the stories of Dr. Seuss are lampooned without a hint of spookiness.
It’s called “Treehouse of Horror,” not “Treehouse of Generic Parody.” The segment’s only saving grace is Homer’s “Fat in the Hat” character saying that his only fear is that he’ll one day be played by Mike Myers. It’s a shame this was such a disappointing episode, because it had that breathtaking opening couch gag directed by Guillermo del Toro, wasted on a subpar episode.
3 Best: “Nightmare Cafeteria”
Sometimes, “Treehouse of Horror” episodes don’t take their storylines from scary movies or short stories, and they just tell a genuinely spooky story about the characters of The Simpsons. These are easily the most effective segments, because the whole point of these Halloween specials is to tell non-canonical tales of the macabre featuring familiar Springfieldians in dark, grisly circumstances.
“Nightmare Cafeteria” is the epitome of this, as the staff of Springfield Elementary find the detention halls overcrowded and decide to start eating students. When Skinner and the teachers realize they enjoy the taste of human flesh, they make a habit of it. It’s as funny as any Simpsons episode, but it’s also pretty unnerving.
2 Worst: “In the Na’vi”
Despite having a delightfully punny title, “In the Na’vi” is a pretty disappointing retelling of James Cameron’s Avatar. For starters, when a “Treehouse of Horror” episode parodies a movie, that movie is expected to be a horror movie, not a sci-fi adventure with an environmentalist message.
All of the jokes about Avatar were too obvious to be funny, and given that this embarrassingly late parody aired a full two years after the movie was released, the jokes had all been made before. It’s one thing to spoof a horror classic from the ‘70s, but another to offer an extremely dated take on a 2009 movie in 2011.
1 Best: “The Shinning”
Yes, all three segments from “Treehouse of Horror V” are in the “best” section of this list, because it’s easily The Simpsons’ finest Halloween special. In this spot-on spoof of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – quite possibly the greatest horror movie ever made – the Simpson family heads up to Mr. Burns’ remote mansion to look after it while he’s out of town, and Homer is driven into a Jack Torrance-style murderous rage when he realizes there’s no beer or TV in the house.
The movie’s most memorable moments aren’t just recreated in a hilarious way; they’re recreated in a way that feels true to the characters of the show. The segment’s comic crown jewel is Homer’s “Don’t mind if I do!” breakdown in front of Marge.