We remember it like it was yesterday … except that it wasn’t yesterday. It was October 29, 1993.We had been dropped off (by our loving mother) at the Embassy Theater in San Antonio, Texas, to see the latest animated marvel from Disney: The Nightmare Before Christmas. We had been obsessed with the movie, mostly because of its pedigree (producer Tim Burton was coming off a run that included two amazing Batman movies, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands), its purposefully creaky stop-motion animation style, and because a fairly elaborate preview of the film, featuring a nearly completed version of the “What’s This?” musical number, had appeared on VHS copies of beloved Disney films in the years preceding The Nightmare Before Christmas’ release.
It was opening day (we went right after school) and the theater was showing The Nightmare Before Christmas in the kind of auditorium usually reserved for art house movies: a smaller one, where the seats were kind of off-center. And this somehow made the movie feel more special. It was something secret that we had stumbled upon, outside of the approval of the mainstream. A few weeks later, when a traveling exhibit of the movie’s props, sets, and characters was displayed at a local art museum, we remember walking into a mostly empty room. This cemented the fact that it was too esoteric, too refined, too unusal, to appeal to everyone. (We would later learn that the film premiered at the New York Film Festival earlier in October.) This was a movie that appealed to smaller, passionate fan base.
Over the years, though, this sentiment started to change. And while The Nightmare Before Christmas might have started out as a boutique film, it has since grown into a genuine cult phenomenon, spawning video games, theme park overlays, and a steady stream of awesome merchandise.
The process of The Nightmare Before Christmas becoming one of those seminal favorites was a slow one. The film was first released on VHS almost a year later, with a DVD coming out in 1997. Home video is how most were first exposed to the film (it was nominated for two Academy Awards but didn’t win either), and it was, in fact, the ideal format. Not only could you slow down, pause, and rewind, soaking in every delicious frame of the film (and every darkly-tinged note of the Danny Elfman score), but you could also watch it again and again. This is a movie that rewards multiple viewings.
Steadily, its exposure increased. Merchandise for the film began appearing in places like suburban mall staple Hot Topic. New toys and videogames were steadily released. In 2001, a seasonal overlay for Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion began. Dubbed Haunted Mansion Holiday, it transformed the popular attraction, with brand new narration, audio-animatronics figures, and tons of elaborate props. It has become a yearly tradition that continues to this day (with additions like a gingerbread house being besieged by zombie gingerbread men), a hallmark of both the Halloween and Christmas seasons at the park. In 2006, a 3D re-release of the film was launched, accompanied by a special edition of the soundtrack album with songs performed by artists who were initially inspired by the film (a full-on cover album was released in 2008).
These days, walking into any Hot Topic in any mall, you’ll see tons of new Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise including toys and costumes. There’s a store at Disneyland near both Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion that sells Nightmare Before Christmas stickers, tees, and headwear year round. Jack is a playable character in Disney Infinity and featured heavily in Kingdom Hearts. Every Halloween, countless fans dress up as characters from the film. The Nightmare Before Christmas is now considered an undeniable classic.
But what turned it into such a smash?
Well, one: the movie is really, really great. It’s got a streamlined narrative that is both exciting and emotionally resonant. The script, which is credited to Caroline Thompson but heavily influenced by Tim Burton’s original treatment, includes contributions from genius story man Joe Ranft, director Henry Selick, and Elfman, manages to have the sing-song-y quality of a children’s bedtime story, but is thematically rich and structurally sound. It’s also beautiful to behold, with the stop motion animation giving the story an eerie, timeless quality. But more than that, the movie’s undercurrent of being an outsider wanting to capture something beyond what life has allotted is incredibly powerful, especially to adolescents. These themes are applicable to every generation and it’s a testament to the movie’s power that it still resonates today. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a technical achievement for sure, but it’s an emotional triumph as well. That’s the real reason why its fan base grows with each passing year. It’s the Halloween treat that keeps on giving.