Literary Influences on The Nightmare Before Christmas

Nightmare Before ChristmasHalloween is just around the corner, and you know what that means—time for one of your bi-annual viewings of The Nightmare Before Christmas! Wow, I can’t believe we’ve gotten this far into October, and I haven’t even mentioned Halloween on the site. But The Gothic Library is kind of like Halloweentown—every day is Halloween, here! It was hard to think of how to do something different to commemorate my favorite holiday. But today I’ve decided to explore the literary roots in one of my favorite movies, Tim Burton’s spooky Halloween classic. Some of the allusions are obvious, like the one in the title, but as I began digging, I realized that The Nightmare Before Christmas has a much greater literary wealth than I would have imagined. Read on to learn about the five major literary influences I noticed in Jack Skellington’s story:

1) “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore

 This poem is better known by its opening line, “’Twas the night before Christmas…” and is the obvious inspiration for the title of Tim Burton’s movie. The poem was first published anonymously in 1823 and is still often recited around Christmas time.

2) How the Grinch Stole Christmas! By Dr. Seuss

 Although he doesn’t share his maliciousness, Jack Skellington in many ways resembles Dr. Seuss’s character known as the Grinch. Both are outsiders who observe a community celebrating Christmas and through their actions, threaten to ruin Christmas for that community (although Jack thinks he is improving it). The Grinch steals all the presents from Whoville, while Jack goes straight to the source and kidnaps Santa Claus. Both stories end with a moral about the true meaning of Christmas—which for the Grinch, is that the holiday is more about love than presents, a concept Jack also struggles with while he tries to figure out what makes Christmas so great.

3) “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving

 The reference is slight, but Jack occasionally calls to mind the Headless Huntsman of Irving’s spooky tale. In this short story from the early 1800s, Ichabod Crane encounters a cloaked horseman who carries his detached head on his saddle. At the end of the story, it is heavily implied that the apparition was merely another character playing a prank and using a pumpkin to imitate the severed head of the legendary Headless Huntsman. In the opening scene of The Nightmare Before Christmas, during the famous “This is Halloween” song, Jack is dressed as a scarecrow with a pumpkin for a head, much like Irving’s would-be Huntsman. In another scene, Jack is later shown removing his own head while singing “Jack’s Lament,” showing that like the Huntsman, he can remain animated while his head is unattached to his body and carried in his arms.

Headless Jack Skellington

4) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Another fairly obvious allusion: Jack’s love interest, Sally, is the stitched-together creation of a mad scientist. If that didn’t tip you off to the connection with Frankenstein’s monster, the fact that Sally’s father is named Dr. Finkelstein helps to drive home the point.

5) The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

 The forest in which Jack finds the door to Christmastown is reminiscent of the Woods Between Worlds depicted in the Narnia series. The Woods appear in The Magician’s Nephew—the sixth published, but chronologically first, book in The Chronicles of Narnia. In this book, Polly and Digory find themselves in a forest containing many little ponds, each of which apparently lead to different worlds, such as Earth and Narnia. It is unclear whether the creators of The Nightmare Before Christmas had this scene in mind, but the resemblance is striking. Though, of course, in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the portals exist as doors set in the trunks of the trees rather than as pools of water.

Nightmare before Christmas forest

Bonus: In the scene where Jack is studying up on Christmas, trying to figure out how it works, he can be seen reading a copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Jack Skellington Reading A Christmas Carol

Did you catch any of these references during your last viewing of this classic Halloween movie? Have you found any references I missed? Let me know in the comments!

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