If You Don't Watch This Show Guille's Ghost Will Haunt You
Whenever I come across an analysis or review written about Patrick McHale’s miniseries Over the Garden Wall, the adjective ‘creepy’ is thrown around almost nonchalantly. Let me be clear, Over the Garden Wall is not precisely creepy, as that would mean the show suffers from a general feeling of unpleasantness and unease. I believe this descriptive trend mostly comes from a mis-association of the show with its Halloween aesthetic. In the modern 21stcentury world, Halloween is scary, creepy, gory and full of unpleasant horror; this is what the tradition has evolved into through its extreme commercialisation and the popularity of horror movies that characterised the holiday as such in the 1970s and 1980s. But this is a fact more than it is an opinion. I would rather like to define Over the Garden Wall as a show rooted in traditional American celebrations of Halloween and Thanksgiving. Yes, you heard that right, Thanksgivings.
Before I go any further, it is pertinent to state that this article will include spoilers from the show. I’ll give a very brief, spoiler-free synopsis now but, if you continue reading past this point, you HAVE to promise me that you will go watch Over the Garden Wall! PROMISE! Anyway…
Over the Garden Wall follows Wirt and Greg two stepbrothers who are lost in a forest. We find out that these boys are not familiar with this setting, which we later find out is called the Unknown. The brothers seem to follow the fairy tale stereotype of lost-kids-in-the-woods-are-trying-to-find-their-way-back-home, and the show follows their magical journey through the Unknown.
Now that you know what the show is about, let’s turn to a brief run-through of the historical tradition of Halloween in the United States of America. As most of you might be aware, Halloween is rooted in Celtic traditions that celebrated the last day of autumn and the beginning of winter. Celts would typically dress up as ghosts in order to avoid being possessed by demons. Then, as it often goes, the Catholic Church appropriated and incorporated the celebration of Halloween into their own ever-growing collection of traditions once it started to become the mainstream religion in Europe. By then, the 31st of October had come to be known as All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints Day, when the dead would traditionally be celebrated, followed on the 1st of November. Whilst All Saints Day was a separate Christian tradition, the Catholic Church assimilated many Celtic and Gaelic practices associated with Halloween, including those about keeping evil spirits away and giving out food or treats. Now let’s contextualise this within the United States. When British colonizers started settling in New England and the East coast, the tradition of Halloween was not wildly celebrated because – yes, you probably guessed it – most colonizers were puritans. And let’s just say puritans did not like to party or celebrate much. However, guess which tradition puritans did carry through into the Americas? Yes, Thanksgivings. I suggest you put a pin on that.
Going back to Halloween, the tradition was not truly incorporated into American culture until the 1850s, when a wave of Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine arrived onto the shores of the United States. The tradition then began to take root in the American mainstream, with many families who celebrated it being inspired by the poem ‘Hallowe’en’, written by Robert Burns in 1786 – in a nutshell, it footnoted many ways in which you could throw a sick Halloween party at the time. Back then, these tended to be for adults only, and many of the games invitees would play centred around romance, with most having matchmaking implications. Apple bobbing, for example, implies kissing, and anything that is even slightly sexual in the 1800s was considered romantic. Go figure.
Surprisingly to us 21st century people with our yard skeletons and trick-or-treating, the practice of dressing up and going out to knock on doors for food was not a Halloween thing back then, but a Thanksgivings thing. Thanksgivings was the busiest time of the year for costume and face masks shops during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and movies like Frankenstein (1931) were marketed as Thanksgivings specials. Sadly, this creepier version of Thanksgivings eventually lost traction and, by the late 1930s and even earlier, eerier Halloween traditions had already started to be widely adopted in the US, with Thanksgivings shifting into something closer to the holiday Americans celebrate in the present day. But even then the whole blood, gore, and creepy stuff that we often associate with the holiday now did not begin to take hold until the 1970s and 1980s, with the release of Halloween (1978) cementing horror as the epitome of the celebration.
Now… where does all this leave Over the Garden Wall? Well, the short answer is that the show bases its Halloween aesthetic on a marriage between the old American tradition of Thanksgivings and modern notions of Halloween. But this leads us to the next question, how exactly does Over the Garden Wall manage to bring both of these aesthetics together? The answer to this second question requires us to delve deep into the show’s artistry.
It is safe to say that Patrick McHale’s series takes inspiration from a large variety of different genres, from old American folk tales to the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, counting also with Victorian influences. Within the show there are plenty of references to nursery rhymes, Dante’s Divine Trilogy, and many old cartoons, building a framework for what the story and setting are trying to embody: Right from the get-go, the audience (as well as Wirt and Greg) are thrust into the world of The Unknown, a place where everything seems familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time.
The magic of this illusion boils down to how the creators have used old Americana stereotypes to embed this fantastical story. Theories about what the Unknown is are varied in nature, although the consensus among fans is that it represents the middle ground between life and death (which is a pretty deep theme to include in a “kids’ cartoon”, just saying). But what stands out about Over the Garden Wall is that it does not actively seek to make its audience understand how, what, or when the Unknown is, nor how it coexists with the real world. We know it exists in real life because we see Lorna’s bell still inside of Greg’s pet frog in The Unknown, the final chapter of the show, but we are not given that many clues as to how these two worlds interact with one another throughout the run of the show. The illusory nature of the Unknown starkly contrasts late 20th and 21st century fantasy storytelling trends, with popular works like The Lord of the Rings trying to be as self-explanatory as possible. The fact that Over the Garden Wall rejects this allows the Unknown to evoke a feeling similar to that of fairy tales, as it taps into older storytelling traditions in which there is little explanation of the world around the characters.
The Unknown is roughly planted somewhere in the American psyche of colonial New England, and often depicts pastoral autumnal landscapes similar to what you can still find in states like Vermont or Massachusetts. The landscapes are highly idealised, and it almost feels like you are staring into postcards, lending the show’s atmosphere a pastoral Americana feel. Whilst there is a lot of fluctuation between time periods in the Unknown, they range from the 1700s to the early 1900s. Thus, it is safe to say that the show builds itself on an idyllic depiction of colonial United States. Every episode we see introduces its own little society that is explored within the episode, with each having their own unique identity. However, because they are all rooted in familiar assumptions and stereotypes of traditional American life, the viewer does not have to create assumptions of how this fantasy world works and thus accepts the Unknown as a place where the unfamiliar is familiar. Therefore, Halloween, Thanksgivings and New England all become intrinsically fused into the same core aesthetic of early American folk and fairy tales.
Fall (as Americans call it) is quintessential to the identity of early American colonizers and New England, with the celebration of Thanksgivings being closely intertwined with how we think about the roots of the United States’ identity. Over the Garden Wall explores this relationship throughout the show, and does so most prominently in its second chapter,Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee. In this episode, Wirt, Greg, Beatrice and Greg’s pet frog arrive at a strange town of pumpkin-people named Pottsfield during a local celebration. Pottsfield represents any traditional small town in New England and, whilst the episode injects an eery feel into this setting, it is later revealed their celebration is a blend between the day of the harvest and All Saints Day. At the end of the episode, Wirt and the rest discover that the townsfolk are all skeletons dressed up in pumpkins, and that they are waiting for their other skeleton friends to ascend from their graves and dress up in harvest crops too.
This episode shows how Over the Garden Wall blends old Halloween traditions, like the community harvest games the pumpkin play, with modern Halloween iconography – after all, the pumpkins used by the townsfolk are basically Jack-O-Lantern costumes. This episode definitely has an eery tone to it in certain moments, but it never taps into downright creepiness or horror, which allows it to depict a perfect blend between older notions of what Halloween was (an almost romantic holiday) with contemporary ideals of what the holiday has become: a time of the year filled with pumpkin iconography and mysterious overtones. Furthermore, in line with how Celtic celebrations of Halloween represented the end of Autumn and the beginning of winter, the show itself begins in the middle of an idyllic New English fall and ends after the start of winter, with everything covered in snow and ice as the show reaches its climax.
Over the Garden Wall embodies the spirit of American Halloween to its core. Although it might be scary at times, the show taps into a different type of fear, one that is not related to the gore and horror that have permeated the holiday in the last couple of decades. One of the highlights of the show is hands down the music, which grounds the show further into traditional American ways with folk songs like ‘Send Me a Peach’, as well as the gypsy-folk song ‘Over the Garden Wall’ and the soul inspired title theme ‘Into the Unknown’, all of which contribute to the idea that the show is meant to make the unfamiliar feel familiar. The musicality of the show is reminiscent of old America and so it leads back to the idea that 1800s celebrations of Halloween in America tended to focus on matchmaking and romance. With a wide range of genres present in the show, Over the Garden Wall offers its best depiction of Halloween by creating an aesthetic that is rooted in the past yet feels modern and relatable to the viewer.
I could go on and on talking about how great Over the Garden Wall is. Simply said: it is the perfect show to watch leading up to Halloween. Trust me. It is so fascinating to see how such a short show can be so well constructed and rooted within American storytelling traditions. Patrick McHale and his team made something that is truly outlandish, yet they rooted it in so many familiar influences that it is almost ordinary. Are the best things in life those which make us feel at home rather than alienated or shocked? I don’t know, but I can confidently say that I will revisit Over the Garden Wall every Halloween, if only to remind myself of what a truly perfect show looks like, and how homey and snug it feels.
Guille Fernandez is a music lover who studied the cello for almost 10 years before moving to the UK to study English literature at King's College, London.
This article was edited by Ainhoa Santos Goikoetxea (pronounced "I-know-ah"), a culturally confused Creative Writing postgraduate student from the Basque Country, Spain. She is passionate about film, music and politics, and she should probably know more than she does about all three.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales.