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The Nightmare Before Socialism

The Nightmare Before Christmas is more than a holiday favorite. It is an allegory of capitalist modernity.

Jack Skellington and his ghost dog, Zero, in Touchstone Pictures animated film ,"Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas." Joel Fletcher / Online USA / Getty

There has been little film criticism of The Nightmare Before Christmas, a childhood favorite and now a staple of American popular culture. The 1993 stop-motion animated movie is based on Tim Burton’s original poem of the same title, which centers on an all-powerful leader seeking to re-enchant his realm with the spirit of Christmas.

And it happens to be a story that tells us something about life under capitalism.

The Nightmare Before Christmas begins in Halloweentown, a place inhabited by witches, vampires, ghosts, and other fiendish (though mostly friendly) creatures, but which otherwise contains virtually no magic. It runs and operates like any other town, with a diverse population, an urbanized downtown, an ineffectual and two-faced mayor, and research and development offices run by the creepy Dr Finkelstein. However, it is Jack Skellington who wields the real power, represented by Burton as a Steve Jobs–style CEO, rather than a feudal-lord.

Jack is seen as a visionary by the townsfolk, a creative politician who wants to make the very state he controls into its own unique work of art. This figure of the demiurgic captain of industry mirrors others from Burton’s films, such as Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Burton as a director seems obsessed with the dictatorial powers of these entrepreneurs.

But while Jack is praised for his “brilliant leadership” in organizing each year’s Halloween — for making “walls ooze,” “flesh crawl,” and the “very mountains crack” — Jack is soon bored of the whole scary affair. His life doesn’t excite him anymore, and after another successful Halloween is over, he sings his famous lament in a graveyard. The civilization that Jack has built seems exhausted, and Jack cannot justify its existence anymore. As he puts it, this Halloween was “Just like last year and the year before that and the year before that.”

After Jack sings his Weberian lament of disenchantment, he wanders with his trusted ghost-dog Zero into the woods. He falls asleep, and in the morning wakes, encountering a circle of holiday trees. Each represents a portal into another dimension. At first, he sees a Valentine’s tree, then a shamrock tree, an Easter egg tree, and a Thanksgiving turkey tree. But the tree that catches his attention is the Xmas tree. As he turns the knob on the Christmas tree, he is sucked into the world of Christmastown.

Jack is astonished: in the midst of the polar landscape is a little town of vibrant red and green, warm colors that contrast with the orange and black of Jack’s land. In contrast to Jack’s dead and undead citizens, the elf workers are alive, jolly, and lovingly cared for by Santa Claus. Santa appears to Jack as a strange towering red monster, who is happy and full of laughter. Jack is absolutely in love with this idyllic paradise, the living antithesis of the urbanized nightmare-scape of Halloweentown.

A Monstrous Christmas

Jack returns to Halloweentown in awe of Christmas, and he undertakes a scientific research program in order to better understand the source of its enchantment. He contacts Dr Finkelstein for lab equipment, and with the artifacts he gathered from Christmastown, he starts to cut, dissect, and even ground up these Christmas trinkets in order to understand.

But while Jack understands the forms and appearances of Christmas, he cannot understand its special something — its content and soul. Conducting his research in isolation from the townsfolk, Jack is a parody of instrumental reason: he dissects in order to understand, but such blinkered rationality cannot account for what is unique about Christmastown. The scientific enterprise is destined to fail.

Eventually, he resolves that Halloweentown will do Christmas this year, and Jack embarks on the new project with all the energy of a corporate takeover, even transforming himself into Santa Claus after an abduction of the real Father Christmas.

Jack cannot rely on mere legality to pressure Christmastown, so he hires “Halloween’s finest trick or treaters,” Lock, Shock, and Barrel, to kidnap Santa. Jack realizes that they are his enemy Oogie-boogie’s henchmen, the most infamous gangster of Halloweentown, but Jack needs Oogie’s mercenaries to carry out this crime. Jack does not want complications, so he asks the trick-or-treaters to keep this mission a secret and to ensure that “no good Oogie-boogie” stays out of it. But the evil trick-or-treaters lie to Jack, and drag the kidnapped Santa Claus to Oogie’s lair, where Oogie tortures him.

Meanwhile, Jack ignores what his friend Sally tells him: that she has had visions of this plan ending in disaster and death. Instead of heeding Sally’s warnings, he conscripts her to make his Santa Claus outfit.

Jack redesigns the whole concept of Christmas to fit in with Halloweentown. To fulfill his grandiose vision, he enlists the townspeople as helpers, exploiting his labor force in an effort to speed up production and circulation of the Halloween commodities he now repackages as Christmas gifts.

With strong Elon Musk vibes, Jack wants to reengineer Christmas, to make it more tech-savvy: instead of real reindeer, he builds mechanized deer-like robots; instead of simple children’s toys he manufactures sleek (but terrifying) creations. Instead of grasping the spirit of Christmas, Jack kills it, turning it into a corporate monstrosity.

Jack descends on the houses of a sleepy and unsuspecting suburbia as the new Santa. But people are shocked by this version of Christmas. Families run in horror from a r-imagined Santa Claus that now takes the form of a dead skeleton. Children are frightened by the gruesome Halloween-themed toys. Eventually, Jack is gunned down by the military, and his mechanized reindeer and sleigh are shot out of the sky.

Jack gives up his ambition to take over Christmas. He endeavors to restore order in Halloweentown and seeks to return the real Santa Claus to his rightful home. The movie ends on a Thanksgiving-like theme (the holiday that is between Halloween and Christmas), and the nations of Halloweentown and Christmastown agree to a status quo ante bellum.

The Nightmare Before Socialism Is Capitalism

At one level, Jack’s attempt at overcoming his malaise through exoticism leads to the brutal accumulation and expropriation of another country. But the violence Jack represents is also that of generalized commodity production, of knocking down the walls of the sleepy dreamland of Christmastown. In Jack’s hands, all that was sacred about Christmas is profaned. Jack’s narcissism is the narcissism of the bourgeoisie, as he tries to create a world after his own image.

In appropriating Christmas for himself, Jack destroys its religious, sentimental, and feudal character. Jack’s project conjures Marx’s famous description of capitalism: like capitalism, Jack has “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” In substituting Santa’s toys with his own “improved” creations, the children are confronted with the monstrosities of a market that is “shameless and direct” as Marx puts it.

But if Jack ultimately puts an end to his hybrid experiment, the film’s resolution only serves to mask the problematic social relations between Santa and his exploited worker elves. In keeping this realm magical, Jack helps to reify Santa’s exploitation as a wonderful thing.

Jack consistently exoticizes Christmastown throughout the movie, first as a new and enticing commodity, and then as something precious to be protected at all costs. But what remains is this “othering”; of not seeing Santa’s elves as workers, but as exotic fixtures in a faraway world. Jack starts the movie as a plundering neoconservative, trying to refashion the other for profit. He ends up as a sentimental paleoconservative, hoping to stave off the globalizing forces of his own city.

The very antinomy between Halloweentown and Christmastown presupposes other basic contradictions of capitalism that Marx said will fester “until its blessed end.” This is the contradiction between reason and values, or between instrumental rationality and what has intrinsic worth. Marx argues in the Grundrisse that it is the limited forms of bourgeois reason, or positivism, that give birth to its own romantic antithesis. Within the limits of the market, one cannot see beyond the contradictions of capitalism. The hollowed-out forms of reason that we see in liberalism, from Mill to Habermas, cannot provide bourgeois society with its own purpose and meaning. With such gnawing spiritual emptiness, bourgeois society must latch onto an external and extralogical kind of faith to keep it going, and this is why Marx saw clearly the link between positivist rationality and romanticism that looks back to the past.

Jack’s quest to appropriate the mystical aura of Christmastown is the same dialectic of a hollowed-out reason looking for justification. In attempting to re-enchant his world, he fails. All he can do is preserve the dualism between reason and faith, since if he attempts to cross these streams, it will end in destruction. Reason and faith must be seen as nonoverlapping magisteria, and everyone must know their place in this world. If reason does not know its limits, then it will try to actualize itself in history, and all such attempts to “immanentize the eschaton” (as conservatives will tell us) will end in totalitarianism.

The limitations of Jack’s reason are the same as bourgeois society writ large. Jack’s yearning for some mysterious other is itself a flight from the problems he faces in modern Halloweentown. An archaic magical realm such as Christmastown will not solve Jack’s problems. Jack is looking for his Holy Family in Christmas while ignoring his own Earthly Family back home.

Towards a Marxist Halloween

As Hegel and Marx have shown, one can have a dialectical conception of reason that can redeem what is relevant in art and religion for human life. In other words, it can extract the rational kernel of a tradition from its mystical shell. The aim of criticism for Marx was to translate religious and political struggles into their “self-conscious human form.” Dialectical reason, as a substantive form of rationality, can determine what human needs and interests are without superstition. But those who see reason as only instrumental will be condemned to Jack’s dilemma of looking for archaic values for answers, instead of looking to the “poetry of the future” (as Marx put it).

Jack’s dilemma is twofold: he is looking for something beyond reason to sustain his existence and he is also looking for something beyond the mass society of Halloweentown. The people of Halloweentown had to be convinced by Jack to go along with his Christmas plans, but they were already quite happy with practicing the holiday as a mass festival. Yes, they do praise Jack as their king, but they do not see any problem with the holiday. They do not see their world in the Weberian terms that Jack does, as dreary and disenchanted. Halloween for them is self-justifying as a form of entertainment, and it does not need a supernatural supplement from Christmastown to make it better.

This may be seen as too commercialized, but the masses here have the right idea compared to Jack. They have accepted Halloween on secular terms, as most people do: a holiday that can sublimate all our primordial terrors and fears as forms of entertainment. What is wrong with Halloweentown are not its festivals and entertainment, but Jack’s attempt to commodify them, in order to better subject consumption to exchange. Jack’s pessimistic view that his world and its citizens are not good enough is the excuse he needs to exploit them.

This secularizing edge of Halloween can be found in Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). Irving strongly implies the Headless Horseman wasn’t real, and that the local hero Brom Bones dressed up like the undead Hessian to pull a prank against the very superstitious schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. The story is a striking example of demystification and fun, taken at the expense of what is supposedly supernatural and horrific. As befitting an earlier phase of bourgeois culture, it can be read as a vindication of reason and critique of superstition.

The difference between Irving’s story and Burton’s 1999 adaptation starring Johnny Depp cannot be starker: instead of Irving’s demystification, the Burton version enshrines mystery and horror at the expense of reason. Not only is the Headless Horseman real, but Ichabod Crane is now cast as a detective, fighting real paranormal and satanic forces. Burton turns Irving’s early rationalism into a gothic supernaturalism.

As for us, we do not need to celebrate Halloween because we believe in something supernatural or mysterious. The point of a Marxist appreciation of Halloween as a universal holiday is to see it as a secularizing force: to resolve what is horrific and terrifying into what is entertaining and even funny.

Of course, some horror will be difficult to integrate, simply because it is so terrible. But dialectics is the art of seeing reason in the seemingly irrational, and it is no wonder that Hegel and Marx saw comedy as a higher form of reason than mere tragedy. And like the teeming masses of Halloweentown, we should celebrate Halloween as fun. If the elitist Jack doesn’t like that, then these ghoulish masses can run their own town without a skeleton king.