I was told by several friends that I wasn’t a true child of the 90’s unless I watched Tim Burton’s classic film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. I hadn’t seen it as a child, as the trailer terrified me. This year I decided to give the movie a go–all those goth kids had to be on to something, right?
So far I’ve watched it twice, once at Halloween and again as I was making Christmas cookies a couple of days ago.
The synopsis of the film is that Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween town (“Pumpkin King” being kind of like the Grand Marshall of Halloween) discovers Christmas Town and, while he doesn’t quite understand the concept of Christmas, falls in love with the idea of the holiday and gets the residents of Halloween Town to help him put on the scariest Christmas the world has ever seen.
While those are the events of the film, that isn’t what the film is really about. It’s about one man’s (skeleton’s?) journey through depression.
The film begins with Jack finishing up Halloween and receiving adoration from the people of Halloween Town. Jack brushes off this praise and comments that it’s the same routine every year. He heads off into the graveyard adjacent to town and sings this little song:
In this song, Jack shows the classic signs of depression. He complains of feeling “weary of the sounds of screams” and “tired of the same old thing”, which indicates a loss of pleasure in things he used to enjoy. Jack goes on to talk about feeling an emptiness “that [he’s] never known” and implies feelings of sadness in his lines about longing and empty tears. Jack also shows irritability and frustration throughout the song, and has little outbursts throughout the movie. Before and after the song the audience sees Jack noticeably slumping and finding no joy in playing with his ghostly dog, Zero. Jack claims that the people of Halloween Town could never understand his feelings, and it’s visible how lonely that makes him. It is clear that Jack Skellington, despite having praise, adulation, and a variety of talents, is suffering from depression.
This is all well and good, but what does the movie have to say about depression?
Surprisingly good things, for a movie about a talking skeleton and the kidnapping of Santa Claus.
Jack finds something that he loves and that he’s passionate about, Christmas, and that helps him deal with some of his symptoms of emptiness and sadness, though he still shows frustration and anxiety over not being able to understand Christmas. After failing spectacularly at putting on his own Christmas (this movie is almost as old as me, that shouldn’t be considered a spoiler) Jack has a brief slide back into depression, singing about how no one understood his attempts at Christmas, showing loneliness once again. However, Jack goes on to sing that he’s happy that at least he tried, and that for the first time in a long time Jack feels more like himself and is excited for next Halloween. The film ends with Jack finding a kindred spirit in Sally, a sort of Frankensteined female who befriends Jack over the course of the movie.
The Nightmare Before Christmas says something that isn’t said enough in common portrayals of mental illness. It says that, despite Jack’s struggles and sadness, he was able to recover. This is a powerful message in a movie originally intended for children. Most movies that show mental illness show it as something that the characters suffering from it never get over, and terms degrading mental illness are rampant in films for all ages. What this movie says is that it’s okay to be mentally ill, and that it’s possible to get better.