Monday, December 22, 2008

Making Christmas...slightly morbid

Since Nora can’t read yet, I think it’s safe to write about one of her Christmas presents. We bought her a Jack Skellington plush. She loves The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s her favorite movie (and by favorite, I mean she’s so obsessed with it that she wakes up in the morning asking to watch it, and she carries the video case around the house with her and gives us a panicky “Where’s Jack?” when she’s misplaced it somewhere, and at night she throws a fit because we’ve only let her watch the movie twice instead of the 17 times she’s begged for it). Yes, it’s an odd choice for a two-year-old’s favorite movie, but we’re all a bit macabre around here.

Nora wants me to sing “Jack songs” to her at bedtime. This has proved difficult since the lyrics are extremely tricky and even now that I have finally looked them up, I’m not sure they make the most soothing lullabies:
I am the one hiding under your bed
Teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red
I am the one hiding under your stairs
Fingers like snakes and spiders in my hair
But Nora loves Jack. And frankly I think it’s a great movie. We try to watch it every year between Halloween and Christmas. But only once.

My sister told me this week that her daughter Juniper also loves The Nightmare before Christmas, so now I’m wondering what it is about the movie that appeals to children. You’d think it would scare the bejeebers out of them. I’d like to suggest that we all have an innate taste for the macabre, for the images of death and gore. Cases in point: the inevitable rubbernecking at freeway wrecks, the popularity of horror movies, the fact that every time I turn on a news channel lately, I’m met with photographs of Caylee Anthony’s skeletal remains. But honestly, I suspect Nora has no clue what the movie’s really about. She certainly doesn’t have a clue about death. I think she just likes the music. And Jack.

Detail from Brueghel, Triumph of Death
I’ve decided that The Nightmare Before Christmas is the modern equivalent of Pieter Brueghel’s Triumph of Death. You’ve got the dancing skeletons. The corpses. The morbid themes treated with a twisted sense of humor. It’s all there. I remember being fascinated by this painting in the Prado when I was a little girl. I also loved Bosch’s gruesome hell scene in his Garden of Earthly Delights. They were just plain cool. Of course, I had very little appreciation for the concept of death at the time. Now that I have children, I fear death in giant, parental proportions. But I also have such a respect for the reality of death that the painting amuses me more than scares me. I know that death is not likely to show up at my kitchen table with a lute in one hand, an hour glass in the other and an army of friends behind him. I also suspect that death doesn’t have a pinstriped tux, a bat-shaped bowtie and the voice of Danny Elfman.

So as Jack would say, “what the heck!” I can let Nora enjoy the movie despite its darkness because she sees only the light. I still think it’s better than the other syrupy, sparkly drivel out there marketed at preschool girls. And when requested, I will attempt to sing “Making Christmas” to my daughter without worrying about the fact that the melody comes from the Dies Irae, the medieval chant for the dead.


Annette Lyon said...

I've personally never "gotten" that movie, but I like plenty of other morbid things. And it always surprises me what kinds of things will and will not give a kid nightmares. It's never what that smart adult thinks.

TARA said...

Funny, I've never had a desire to see the movie before now. I guess if Nora endorses it, that's good enough for me!

Great to see a classic mental tesserae post! I'm glad you made it through all that grading and can devote a few minutes to your blog!

NorahS said...

Yes, great post. I, however, have never seen the movie. I may, now, on Nora's recommendation!

Melinda said...

Great post. I agree that we all, but especially children, have a fascination with the morbid. My older daughter's (now retired) preschool teacher would read books like Clay Boy and Abiyoyo to the kids, on the grounds that our modern outlook left children with an intense need to discuss the mechanics of death, fear and other morbid subjects. It was so interesting to watch their reactions... most were transfixed.

Tangent Woman said...

I have to confess, I have seen the movie enough that I can quote most of it.
Every year I watch it at Halloween and Christmas (while wrapping presents) and it usually sneaks in once or twice during the year.
My favorite holiday moment this year was Christmas Eve when Thom (Nora's uncle) borrowed her Jack doll and started quoting and acting out scenes from the movie with the doll - all the nieces and nephews were absolutely transfixed. So Nora's not the only one in the family who loves Jack.