Every October, television wears a costume. As the sun shifts and the leaves litter our neighborhood streets, living rooms across the world similarly take on a new glow. First, the ghoulish commercials arrive, then the networks roll out their creepy programming, and soon enough all you can see is orange, purple, and green across every station.
Looking around, it doesn’t take a die-hard horror fan to relish this part of the year. After all, with Halloween comes an easy excuse to indulge in the sweet part of life. This could be a bite-sized Reese’s Pumpkin, a breezy walk through an autumn day, or simply seeing your favorite characters dropped into a completely perfunctory, spooky situation.
By now, the Halloween Episode is a TV tradition. Hell, even the most serious shows find a way to carve their own pumpkins — and for good reason. The holiday affords writers an opportunity to shake things up creatively, which most of the time boils down to characters either being outside of their comfort zones or embellishing their own quirks.
More often than not, though, it’s about timing. Look at the calendar: Halloween arrives right as shows are beginning their annual stretch from Fall to Spring, and the Season of the Witch gives networks an easy event to sell. Needless to say, they’ve sold aplenty over the past few decades, and we’ve gathered 31 of our favorites in the pages ahead.
So, grab your McDonald’s bucket and trick or treat with us.
Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief
The Adventures of Pete and Pete – “Halloweenie”
Original Air Date: October 9th, 1994 via Nickelodeon
The Special: Pete & Pete holds a special place in our hearts because it took the stuff of childhood and transformed it into epic adventures and battles between primal forces with dire consequences. So, in the show’s Halloween special, Little Pete Wrigley isn’t just trying to set a local Wellsville record for the biggest candy score in trick-or-treating history; no, he’s searching for Immortality with a capital “I.” And his brother, Big Pete, isn’t just going through that awkward age where we start feeling too old for kiddie things like jack-o-lanterns, costumes, and trick-or-treating.
Nope, he’s going through an existential battle with the Spirit of Halloween itself hanging by a perilous strand of red-rope licorice. No, seriously, if a gang of Halloween-haters called the Pumpkineaters — who attempt to lure Big Pete into their sick clan — get up to their usual troublemaking, the powers that be will decree no more Halloween for Wellsville. Luckily, not even the letdown of missing “The Record” by a single house or the fear of getting roasted as a “Halloweenie” can stop the brothers Pete from doing the right thing and saving Halloween forever.
The Trick: Think of every movie, television episode, or story ever where someone stops believing in the things that make being a kid so magical. Oh, and seeing Iggy Pop call “Endless” Mike Hellstrom a “Stooge” tied in nicely to Pete & Pete’s rock-and-roll ethos.
The Treat: Fistfuls of traditional trick-or-treat loot from a giant canvas tote gag — preferably while dressed as an astronaut.
Aaahh!!! Real Monsters – “The Switching Hour”
Original Air Date: October 29th, 1994 via Nickelodeon
The Special: You know, for a series surrounding three anxious monsters, it doesn’t get more on-brand than premiering two days before Halloween with an episode set on Halloween. Such is the case for “The Switching Hour”, the series premiere of Klasky Csupo’s delectably spooky series revolving around the ever-lovable Ickis, Oblina and Krumm. For their first misadventure, the trio of critters break curfew and leave Monster Academy on Halloween night, only to stumble into a hilarious case of mistaken identity. This leaves Oblina and Krumm with a young boy dressed as Ickis and the real Ickis with, well, an unsuspecting family. Situational humor aside, it’s a genius idea that offers all the essential table setting for the show at large — and an easy POV.
The Trick: We’ve seen the trading places trope time and time again, though if we’re to think of any spiritual ties here it would be to the classic Fred Savage and Howie Mandell rental Little Monsters. Watching the kid tour the Monster Academy in the guise of Ickis should give youngsters of the ’80s plenty of flashbacks to this re-watchable gem.
The Treat: Something taffy and old fashioned. Maybe Werther’s caramel apple chews?
American Horror Story: Murder House – “Halloween, Part 1” & “Halloween, Part 2”
Original Air Date: October 26th, 2011 / November 2nd, 2011 via FX
The Special: Due to its October release schedule, American Horror Story’s Halloween episodes tend to fall early in the season. In its inaugural run, the “Halloween” two-parter occurs in episodes four and five, most of which is unfortunately dedicated to the marital difficulties of Vivien (Connie Britton) and Ben (Dylan McDermott) Harmon.
Thankfully, there’s some fun to be had in the introduction of Halloween decorating “fluffers” Chad (Zachary Quinto) and Patrick (Teddy Sears), a gay couple who previously owned the house. There’s also some genuine emotional beats surrounding Addy’s (Jamie Brewer) death in a hit and run and Constance’s (AHS MVP Jessica Lang) grief. “Part 2” also uncomfortably draws on real-life history with the reveal that Tate (Evan Peters) murdered his classmates in a Columbine-style shooting.
The Trick: The visual framing of Tate’s school shooting in “Part 2” is a nod to both Kill Bill, as well as the 1968 psychological thriller Twisted Nerve. The latter film is about a homicidally obsessed boy who kills anyone who comes between him and the object of his affection.
And, of course, S1’s stand-out character, a menacing figure in a gimp mask, is never not going to draw to mind references of the Man (Everett McGill) in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs.
The Treat: Considering poor Chad’s demise in “Part 1”, it only makes sense to dine on an apple — candied or bobbed.
Bob’s Burgers – “Teen-A-Witch”
Original Air Date: October 23rd, 2016 via FOX
The Special: Bob’s Burgers has had its fair share of Halloween episodes, but one of its best involves Tina (Dan Mintz) trying to win a Halloween costume contest by dressing up as a “sand-witch.” But with the influence of the consistently bizarre librarian Mr. Ambrose (Billy Eichner), Tina starts to imagine she’s a witch herself!
Like all the best Bob’ses, “Teen-A-Witch” knows exactly how to use Tina’s secret dark side. Once she thinks she has an inkling of occult power, it naturally goes to her head; then, when the tables are turned by a counter-curse from a local crossing guard, she’s paralyzed by fear. But even with its spooks and scares, it doesn’t lose the show’s essential warmheartedness.
The Trick: There aren’t a whole lot of obvious homages in this episode, but the notion of teen witches can be found everywhere from Sabrina the Teenage Witch to The Craft. Plus, the Halloween Costume Contest, with its hint of foreboding, has shades of Carrie to it.
The Treat: Take a break from all that candy and make Bob’s Special of the Day — the “Muenster Under the Bed” burger. Which, I presume, is pretty much just a hamburger with muenster cheese. Look, I just read what it says on the sign!
BoJack Horseman – “Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos”
Original Air Date: September 14th, 2018 via Netflix
The Special: What’s better than Halloween? Four Halloweens at once! BoJack Horseman once again opts for a dose of structural inventiveness, setting its special across multiple spooky shindigs held at BoJack’s (Will Arnett) house in 1993, 2004, 2009, and 2018. The story focuses on Mr. Peanutbutter’s (Paul F. Thompkins) relationships with his different wives and girlfriends over the years, while stretching running gags, continuity nods, and recurring relationship pathologies across the four different parties.
That leads to fun setups and payoffs like Jessica Biel’s bizarre mummy-phobia, cool mythology nods as several characters meet for the first time, and spooky delights via everyone’s then-contemporary/now-dated costumes. But most of all, the show’s sole Halloween outing uses the four distinct time periods to zero in on the real explanation for why Mr. Peanutbutter continually finds himself bringing a new date to each of these yearly celebrations — his inability to grow up. It is, in trademark BoJack style, a sobering dose of truth amid some creative and goofy hijinks.
The Trick: While this special hews closer to bits from other time-skipping sitcoms like Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother than to any traditional ghost stories, it’s chockablock with references to spooky season-appropriate works like The Mummy, The X-Files, and Beetlejuice.
The Treat: Enjoy some scare-tastic cupcakes and blueberry pie, in line with Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles’s (Hong Chau) “Tweed Feed” costumes.
Boy Meets World – “And Then There Was Shawn”
Original Air Date: February 27th, 1998 via ABC
The Special: Strangely enough, this Boy Meets World episode debuted in February but has since then been added in as a regular rotation for Halloween celebration because of its openly horror influences. In what turns out to be a nightmare, the main cast of the show find themselves trapped in the school and being killed one by one by a masked killer. The episode cleverly plays with slasher movie tropes as well as making a plentiful amount of pop-culture references (not one but two South Park callouts appear) and even features a special turn from Jennifer Love Hewitt as a new student. The episode actually manages to deliver creepy aesthetics and a handful of spooky moments before a rare final-boy showdown.
The Trick: Riffing on decades of slashers, this episode was made just barely half a year after the premiere of Scream and wears that influence on its sleeve. Shawn serves as our Randy Meeks as he guides the gang through their life turned slasher film.
The Treat: This is perhaps the most cinematic feeling episode of the show as it’s riffing film in general, so grab a bag of kettle corn and settle in for some fun.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “Halloween”
Original Air Date: October 2013 – 2017 via FOX
The Special: Brookly Nine-Nine has always taken an unconventional approach to the Halloween special, eschewing spookiness for a good, old-fashioned heist. Beginning in the first season as a way for Jake to prove he’s smarter than the criminals he arrests, these specials have evolved into a familiar format:
–The Challenge: The object to be stolen is identified
–The Teams: sometimes chosen at “random,” always with hurt feelings
–The Grand Distraction: an elaborate display in the bullpen,
–The Reveal: the victor gives an elaborate and hilariously condescending description of their plans complete with flashbacks and closeups.
–The Coronation: the winner is declared to be an “Amazing Human (Detective/Captain)/Genius.”
Despite this seemingly rigid formula, creators Michael Schur and Dan Goor always find ways to keep the action fresh. Though every episode is good, often a season highlight, the best Halloween special is Season Five’s “HalloVeen”. Kicking off with a hilarious cold open in which everyone is always one step ahead of everyone else even at 3 a.m., this episode features the Tramp Alliance, a Handmaid’s Tale distraction, a duplicate Cheddar, and multiple people sneaking GPS trackers into Terry’s yogurt. It ends on a sweet note as Jake proposes to Amy using the Heist Champion Belt/Cumberbund.
The Trick: There are no spooky elements aside from the terror of drunk Halloween partygoers and the horror of trendy topical costumes like Kim Jong Un and the Royal Baby. These episodes take their cue from Oceans Eleven, with their odd character pairings and elaborate plots, which keep even the audience in the dark until the details of the deception are revealed.
The Treat: A candy you could pair with vanilla yogurt. Just make sure there’s no ham in it.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Halloween”
Original Air Date: October 27th, 1997 via The WB
The Special: The sixth episode of Buffy’s second season takes place just a few episodes before the series would cement its watercooler status by turning Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) vampire boyfriend, Angel, (David Boreanaz) into the new Big Bad.
In some ways, “Halloween” is a regular stand-alone creature of the week episode: the Scooby gang dress up for the holiday, and, thanks to a spell cast by recurring villain Ethan Rayne (Robin Sachs), their personalities change to reflect their costumes.
This means bookish Willow (Alyson Hannigan) becomes a sexy ghost, incel Xander (Nicholas Brendon) becomes an army dude, and the Slayer becomes an 18th century noble woman. It’s a fun reversal that highlights how what you dress up as for Halloween is revealing of who – or what – you are on the inside.
The Trick: In addition to Ethan’s parting shot “Be seeing you” — a reference to iconic British cult television show The Prisoner — the closest horror influence may be Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, which features a nefarious costume provider whose products change the physical make-up of their customers to dangerous effect.
The Treat: Considering Buffy’s change in status and her staunch adherence to high-society norms, a miniature cake would seem appropriate.
Community – “Epidemiology”
The Special: Writer Katey Dornetto and director Anthony Hemingway’s wicked-silly satire episode of Halloween tropes and genre clichés was totally in-line with Community’s extra-textual goofing off. From the over-arching lampoon of brain-eater flicks to the characters’ in-jokes about costumes (Fast and the Furious, Lady Gaga, Star Trek, and Donald Glover in an Aliens costume to end all Aliens costumes), this episode was a mash. (Bonus points for a George Takei voiceover.)
The Trick: Technically, it’s a rabies outbreak, but “Epidemiology” goes for straight-up zombie flick with dashes of the contagious disease thriller. Think 28 Days Later scored to Abba.
The Treat: Does Taco Dip count as candy? Look, some people can’t have a lot of sugar, so a savory side — perhaps made to look like a spider web, you can Google these recipes — is most welcome.
Curb Your Enthusiasm – “Trick or Treat”
Original Air Date: October 7th, 2001 via HBO
The Special: It only took two seasons for Larry David to celebrate Halloween on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and yet “Trick or Treat” remains a top five episode in the show’s catalogue. Everyone’s favorite “bald asshole” is in top form as he argues through some of his most innocuous threats to date. There’s filmmaker Cliff Cobb, who not only spins a “bullshit story” about his father inventing the Cobb salad, but also suspects LD is sleeping with his wife; there’s Walter, the foaming Anti-Wagnerite, who just so happens to be his neighbor; and, of course, there’s the Halloween “hate crime” from two costume-less trick or treaters. In the end, the real Halloween trick is realizing that Larry is actually in the right all along, and the treat is watching him being a schmuck in the process.
The Trick: Any time Larry makes his way to the movies, one can’t help but remember Woody Allen in Annie Hall. For both parties, the theater is just that — a setting for the theatrical — and both Jews certainly have a penchant for the maudlin.
The Treat: Well, you’d be hard pressed to find a Cobb salad in the candy bowl. So, why not go with the whole bowl of candy and a roll of toiler paper to fire away when ready. Maybe leave the spray paint at home.
Frasier – “Halloween”
Original Air Date: October 28th, 1997 via NBC
The Special: The Crane boys never could resist a hoity-toity party, and Halloween was no exception. This episode took a sensitive and potentially explosive revelation in the form of Peri Gilpin’s Roz’s pregnancy and turned it into a whodunit. All the Frasier classics apply. Overtly literary and historical costumes make the comedy lovingly dorky (David Hyde Pierce’s Cyrano De Bergerac provides fine sight gag humor in the form of an attack-worthy nose). And the classic Frasier misunderstandings are at a level rivaling the old “Who’s on first?” chestnut.
The Trick: This is Agatha Christie made modern. And zingy.
The Treat: If you’re over 21, try a Sherry Zombie in line with the good doctor’s favorite spirit. One-part sherry, two parts rum, and a bunch of fruit juice to bring the stiff drink some freaky new life.
Freaks and Geeks – “Tricks and Treats”
Original Air Date: October 30th, 1999 via NBC
The Special: The cases for Freaks and Geeks are common knowledge at this point. Television has been hard-pressed for decades to wrangle hormonal lightning into such a well-designed bottle, and the series’ Halloween episode proved that holiday specials were no time to slack off. If anything, there’s a special layer added, as Halloween becomes the centerpiece of a bittersweet look at what the price of moving into adulthood means for the show’s characters. Sam and Lindsay stand on opposite ends of the spectrum between clearing the slate for life’s next step and impulsively jumping in headfirst, and it becomes quite clear that their stances are reflective of heavier millstones in their lives. Granted, it does navigate this with great levity, what with Sam’s crew’s choice of costumes and all, and it’s this effortless threading of amusing and affecting that exemplifies what this show could do in its fully-hit stride.
The Trick: While the episode is dedicated mainly to Paul Feig’s grade-A comedy-drama, the show’s referential tact brings viewers all the way to the original Day the Earth Stood Still of all things, with Sam dressing up as Gort — not the Tin Man.
The Treat: Smarties. A relic of childhood in its most chalky, discreetly uncomfortable form and gone far too soon. Best part? No peanuts.
Goosebumps – “The Haunted Mask (Parts 1 & 2)”
Original Air Date: October 27th, 1995 via FOX
The Special: Before R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps was the childhood-terrorizing media juggernaut it is nowadays, he had to get his foot in the door. The original Haunted Mask book was what really bared his chops for scares and sentimentality to the world, and its two-part TV adaptation — picked for the series premiere — has earned equally emblematic footing. The timid Carly Beth makes for a rich protagonist far beyond the sympathy she innately elicits, as the space between the tangible and metaphorical mask she desires to fit in makes for distinct horror visuals propelled by a sincere sense of emotion. Only in Goosebumps can an ode to teenage self-discovery feature a group of hideous floating masks who just want to be loved.
The Trick: The episode’s story has been traced to everything from Halloween III: Season of the Witch to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in regards to influences, but the ubiquitous summary of Stine as kid-lit’s response to Stephen King brings focus to the classic horror staples that the episode emphatically hits, such as the strange new town spot, the stranger owner, and the theme of ill-fated revenge.
The Treat: Spooky Nerds. Akin to the episode, the look and feel is undoubtedly tethered to its time, but the character it brings with it is quite sweet at its core — much like Carly Beth.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “Who Got Dee Pregnant?”
Original Air Date: October 28th, 2010 via FX
The Special: Never before had It’s Always Sunny managed to boast a legitimate mystery, show off some format-bending ambition, and provide jaw-dropping comedy all at once like this. The titular question of how Dee Reynolds (Kaitlin Olson) came to be with child leads The Gang to a series of Rashomon-style recollections, as each of Paddy’s Pub’s usual layabouts strains to remember the year’s raucous Halloween party.
The episode soars in its comic setups and payoffs, as each character’s jumbled memories of the night in question leads to amusing games of telephone and absurd escalations across the different segments (see: Dee as an actual bird). These gags build and build as more of the picture comes into focus, an approach that puts the structural genius of the always-adventurous comedy on full display. All the while, the creative team constructs a surprisingly solid whodunnit, with nice swerves in terms of costumes and mistaken identities to keep the audience guessing (and cringing) from beginning to end.
The Trick: The special is most indebted to multiple-account tales in the tradition of Rashomon but also pays tribute to spooky flicks as varied as Night at the Museum and Phantom of the Opera.
The Treat: In honor of the McPoyles, who play a prominent role in this one, we’d recommend a hearty helping of milk duds.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
Original Air Date: October 27th, 1966 via CBS
The Special: People hate it when you fuck with their traditions. Never mind that Apple TV+, who now owns several beloved Peanuts holiday specials, will make those programs, including It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, available for free around the holidays to stream. For some, it’ll be the first year since 1966 that they haven’t been able to watch the late Charles Schulz’s characters celebrate Halloween. It’s classic Peanuts, too.
Charlie Brown gets nothing but rocks for Halloween (kinda like coal for Christmas) and finds out he’s only invited to a party because his head is perfect for jack-o-lantern patterns. Snoopy survives another one of his classic Walter Mitty-esque flying skirmishes with arch nemesis The Red Baron. And poor Linus yet again keeps the faith in the pumpkin patch, this time bringing smitten Sally Brown along for the disappointment.
Some say Linus’ yearly pilgrimage to the patch is about faith or being an individual or just stupidity, but Schultz always chalked it up to just a funny concept. Whatever fans choose to believe, the special did double-down on and give us this classic line from Schulz’s strip: “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”
The Trick: Schulz famously had a weird window on the world, and it’s hard to believe that anyone ever had a worse Halloween than Charlie Brown before or since. We can however see echoes of Linus’ blind faith in future South Park character Kyle, who, enduring criticism and embarrassment, still believes in Mr. Hanky the Christmas poo.
The Treat: If this pandemic ever ends, bob for some apples with friends, but just make sure you get a red delicious and not a beagle.
The Last Halloween
Original Air Date: October 8th, 1991 via CBS
The Special: Hanna-Barbera is most known for its hand-drawn animation, but they tried CGI once, and only once, in this one-off CBS TV special from 1991. One look at it, and you’ll see why: the four Martians looking for candy (they call it “coobi,” which sounds dirty every time they say it) aren’t bad for the time, but they’re definitely the kind of slick, textureless beings we’d expect from the early days of the practice.
Still, they’re real enough to try to help a couple of lost kids save their struggling small town from the closing of the candy factory (you read that right) and the impending end of the holiday — hence the title. Throw in Rhea Perlman and Richard Moll as a couple of sniveling villains, and you’ve got enough sugary-sweet goofiness to last you a solid 22 minutes.
The Trick: The Last Halloween carries obvious, shameless proximity to E.T., shameless candy endorsement and all!.
The Treat: While no particular brands of candy (sorry, ‘coobi’) are mentioned by name in the special, it’s obvious the Martians love Chocolate, so might as well give them some M&Ms for their trouble.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – “Phone Home”
Original Air Date: October 31st, 2017 via The CW
The Special: Legends of Tomorrow’s long been the most irreverent (and therefore best) offspring of the CW Arrowverse, and its Halloween special is a cute example. Traveling back to 1988 to save the younger version of Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer from a baby alien known as a Dominator (whom he’s taken as a friend), “Phone Home” is a lovely little E.T. pastiche. But not only that, it manages to weave in some interesting character beats for Ray, who gets to recontextualize his miserable youth through adult eyes, and serves as a trial by fire for new crew member Zari (Tala Ashe).
The Trick: The E.T. comparisons come hot and heavy, from flying bicycles to the Dominator playing possum in a closet full of kids’ toys. But there’s also a bit of Singin’ in the Rain in there, since it was Ray’s favorite musical as a kid. The mind-controlling Dominator even gets the pursuing FBI agents to sing “Good Mornin’”.
The Treat: It’d be gauche and lazy to just say Reese’s Pieces because of the obvious Spielberg connection. So instead, I’ll just say that Young Ray shoplifts some off-brand candy bars called “Nougat Nummys” from the newsstand, so treat yourself to some 3 Musketeers.
Millennium – “The Curse of Frank Black”
Original Air Date: October 31st, 1997 via HBO
The Special: Glen Morgan and James Wong took over writing duties for Millennium’s second season, and the quality of the show improved tenfold as a result. The episode is a far cry from the serial killers and abusers that overflowed the series’ inaugural season and focused more on the supernatural. For Frank Black, it’s a reckoning of his past, present, and future as the demons he sees in his mind’s eye come to play tricks on him while he’s out gathering treats with his daughter, Jordan.
What follows is a mood poem — an episode that washes over you like a gentle, glowing fog on the bank of a long, haunted shore. The demons watch our hero from houses lining the block, capturing the mundane and the madness in one fell swoop. Lance Henriksen has never been better here: the lines in his face telling the tales of a gaunt, ghostly figure without ever saying a single word.
The Trick: If you’re in the mood for a creepy ghost story that takes a waltz down memory lane, revisiting the horrors of the past, check out Frank LaLoggia’s 1988 nostalgia trip, Lady in White.
The Treat: For a fall ghost story, one that is packed with chilly nights, dead leaves, and skeletal trees, the perfect accompaniment is a pumpkin spice latte, one that warms your bones even as they’re shivering.
My So-Called Life – “Halloween”
Original Air Date: October 27th, 1994 via ABC
The Special: On Halloween night, Angela, Rayanne, and Brian break into school to try to contact the spirit of Nickie Driscoll, a deceased student from the ’50s who has become an urban legend. After becoming separated, Angela sees ghostly visions of Nickie and his friends causing her to connect his reckless behavior with that of Jordan who is on the edge of getting expelled from school.
The unique character pairings are part of what makes this episode so special. With Brian and Rayann spending extended time together, Rickie and Jordan having a conversation, and Sharon realizing that she’d have more fun trick or treating with Danielle instead of letting her boyfriend drain all the fun out of her life.
Patty and Graham have been struggling with their own roles, Patty having recently fired Graham from the family business freeing him to pursue his dreams. Rapunzel and Pirate costumes, complete with an eye patch and purple tights, ignite fiery romance constantly interrupted by trick or treaters, reminding the couple that though some things have changed, their passion for each other remains.
It’s a beautiful episode about finding out who you are by being someone else, just for a little while. Everyone’s costume reveals something about them, but none is as poignant as Rickie’s. As a bisexual student who wears makeup and uses the girls’ restroom, he borrows clothes from Brian to “dress like everyone else.” It’s a quiet but heartbreaking reminder of the lonely strength required to be out in the ’90s.
The Trick: This episode was inspired by the death of Kurt Cobain earlier in the year with additional references to the 27 Club, famous musicians who died at 27 years old.
The Treat: Jaw breakers and suckers! You can trade them if you like.
The Office – “Costume Contest”
Original Air Date: October 28th, 2010 via NBC
The Special: Office Manager Pam has outdone herself this Halloween by organizing a costume contest with a highly sought-after prize: a coupon book worth $15,000. The only problem is you have to spend over $200,000 on crap to reap those rewards, a fact only “Reasonable Consumer” Oscar seems to understand. But the competition is steep, causing multiple employees to up their costume game throughout the day. Ironically, the winner is the barely trying Oscar as the recipient of everyone’s “can’t vote for yourself” throwaway choice. The real winner is Gabe dressed as Lady Gaga, proving that all the robot moves in the world won’t make you brave enough to stand up to your boss.
The C-plot about Pam’s two-date romance with new salesman Danny Cordray is cringeworthy at best, notable only as one of Timothy Olyphant’s two guest appearances and manufactured drama from Kevin and Andy. But the B-plot is fun when Michael learns that Darryl took a great idea over his head. It begins predictably as Michael lashes out with revenge costumes and a vitriolic ouija board. But it’s also a moment of growth for the character as the conflict is resolved quickly and leads to a classic description of the holiday: “Halloween is a time to honor monsters and not be mad at each other.” Words to live by.
The Trick: The episode itself is not referencing much, but there are several pop-culture-inspired costumes: Michael as MacGruber, Kevin as Michael Moore, Jim and Pam as Popeye and Olive Oil, Darryl as Dracula, and Andy as Bill Compton, prompting Stanley (and all of us) to ask how many vampires we’re supposed to care about these days.
The Treat: Apples! But remember, you can just bob for them, you don’t have to eat them under water.
Parks and Recreation – “Greg Pikitis”
Original Air Date: October 29th, 2009 via NBC
The Special: If you had to describe Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in one word, “determined” would do nicely. When she’s fighting for what she believes in, that determination is inspiring. When she’s fighting a scheming teenage prankster on Halloween, it’s hilarious.
The cat-and-mouse game between the eponymous high school trouble-maker on the one hand, and Leslie, her boyfriend, and her doltish co-worker Andy (Chris Pratt, making his debut as Burt Macklin, FBI) on the other, leads to an uproariously funny series of twists and turns. Leslie’s bitter vendetta against her young “archenemy” brings the laughs, and the looming threat of Greg’s yearly vandalization of a town landmark on All Hallow’s Eve adds a ridiculous but compelling sense of urgency to the proceedings.
The Trick: Despite its spooky season setting, “Greg Pikitis” has more in common with criminal pursuit movies like Catch Me If You Can and The Fugitive than with true horror flicks. But the prospect of some good, old-fashioned Halloween TP-ing gives the special the spirit of the season nonetheless.
The Treat: Join Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and chow down on some tasty mounds bars (but not almond joys!) to liven up your Halloween party, in case Tom Haveford (Aziz Ansari) isn’t around to do it.
The “Real” Ghostbusters – “When Halloween Was Forever”
Original Air Date: November 1, 1986 via ABC
The Special: “Real” Ghostbusters was a creep show weekly of pastel monsters. But whereas some creatures were purely imagined or just plain silly, “When Halloween Was Forever” features a fan favorite monstrosity with Scottish and Irish history. A caped Jack-O-Lantern named Samhain, named after the Gaelic festival, wants to make October 31 a forever thing, and only the fab four of the fire-house can bust him. Samhain was spindly, creepy, and popular enough to merit collector’s edition action figures by fanboys in recent years.
The Trick: Gosh, would this fall into horror-comedy given the source material. Yes, there’s a big haunting afoot, but the Ghostbusters still have time for quips and the cartoons offers tons of sight gags like talking clocks and mail boxes. Kids, hehe.
The Treat: To match Samhain’s bulbous orange pumpkin head, watch this with a plastic pumpkin bucket full of candy.
Rugrats – “Candy Bar Creep Show”
Original Air Date: October 6th, 1991 via Nickelodeon
The Special: The first of only three Rugrats Halloween segments, this one finds the Pickles setting up a homemade haunted house for trick or treaters to go through. After Angelica loosely details the Rugrats on how Halloween works, they babies spend the episode trying to get candy to no avail. Screaming, alone or in unison, only sets them further back from their goal and they finally decide to brave the haunted house in search of the candy. The episode captures all the wonder and charm of that homemade haunted house aesthetic and plays with classic slapstick hijinx as the babies unknowingly become part of the show and scare unsuspecting trick or treaters.
The Trick: The bit is really more of a play on real-world activities than film as it taps directly into those neighborhood haunted houses we all grew up with and love. Yet, with the babies themselves getting involved and scaring the participants, it does have slivers of The Haunting of Hill House and even a little bit of Abbott and Costello monster mash fun.
The Treat: If you put in the legwork, you can actually find a Reptar bar, but it’ll cost you some time bidding on ebay. If you want a similar effect, find a Snickers nut bar, which still has the caramel, nut, and chocolate but no “green stuff” for tongue dyeing effects.
Samurai Jack — “Jack and the Haunted House”
Original Air Date: May 17th, 2003 via Cartoon Network
The Special: There’s three sides to Samurai Jack’s scariest adventure. The first is the usual haunted house setup, with a mysterious little girl and a house with shifting geometry that tells him something’s wrong here. The second is a cozy scene of domestic bliss that slowly but surely reveals a skin-crawling, chilling secret lurking beneath the surface. The third is an art-shifted confrontation with a terrifying demon, with the spirits of the poor lost souls who’ve crossed this threshold before on the line.
Each piece of the episode builds on the others to spook and even unnerve the viewer, steadily unveiling the escalating horrors at play minute-by-minute, until all you can do is grip your seat and hope that you and Jack (Phil LaMarr), can make it out alive before the dark things emerge to get you both.
The Trick: The special plays on movies like The Shining and The Innocents with a manor seemingly possessed by past traumas suffered there. But there’s also a Lynchian sense of quiet domesticity hiding something sinister underneath, before a Poltergeist-like showdown erupts.
The Treat: Why not try a cookies ‘n’ cream bar to match the enjoyably messy, black-and-white art style the special transitions to when Jack faces down the dark spirit haunting this crumbling abode?
The Simpsons – “Treehouse of Horror XXVI”
Original Air Date: October 18th, 2015 via FOX
The Special: After twenty-six seasons, the writers and producer Matt Selman finally decided to give everyone’s favorite animated nuclear family their own “traditional” Halloween episode. As zany as the show has gotten in its sunset years, “Halloween of Horror” is relatively grounded. It all starts when Lisa is so frightened at the faux horrors she sees at the Krustyland Halloween Horror Nights that the family rally around her and tear down their annual Everscream Terrors decorations that they decorate their domicile with. The episode does a number of things very well – namely letting Lisa be a kid at heart, despite her preternatural intelligence.
The family also rallies around each other: Homer, Marge, and Bart aren’t mad at Lisa, rather they’re annoyed that they’ll end up being the dreaded “Halloween skippers,” those curmudgeons who draw the curtains and shut off the lights. Couple that with an eager “Bart wants to go trick of treating mini-storyline,” (complete with an ET who has to say your name, even if it’s a swear), an old-fashioned Simpsons freak-out musical number, some tense scares, a genuinely touching Homer and Lisa story, and you’ve got a golden-era episode buried in the show’s latter years.
The Trick: Since Homer and Lisa spend the latter part of the episode fending off masked baddies who have broken into their house to get revenge on Homer who got them fired from Apu’s Halloween “pop-up store,” you’d do right to queue up the thrilling 2006 French home invasion horror film, Ils (Them).
The Treat: The vibrant fall colors of Springfield at Halloween, plus the sweet personalities on display means that a bag of candy corn might be the treat to accompany this delightful autumnal jaunt.
South Park – “Pinkeye”
Original Air Date: October 29th, 1997 via Comedy Central
The Special: Back in 1997, there was no telling what South Park would do next. At the time, fans were still getting a read on creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who had been giving us anal probes, beefcake quotes, and elephant and pig fucking set to faux Elton John ballads. With “Pinkeye”, the two really laid their cards down, giving us a sendup on George A. Romero’s zombie films chock full of references both on-brand (Adolf Hitler, Michael Jackson, Chewbacca) and completely left field (Tina Yothers, Edward James Olmos, Worcestershire sauce). Looking back, it’s admittedly quaint stuff for a series that has since offered up multi-season arcs and timely pandemic specials, but it does make you relish the days when South Park could be epic by being bizarre.
The Trick: Too many to name, but Romero’s Dead series, Dan O’Bannon’s original Return of the Living Dead, and Michael Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” music video are easy and obvious connective tissue here. Family Ties, too.
The Treat: Cheesy poofs, but hold the Worcestershire sauce.
SpongeBob SquarePants – “Graveyard Shift”
Original Air Date: September 6th, 2002 via Nickelodeon
The Special: Halloween-non-specific as it may be, the eyelash-raising terror of the Hash-Slinging Slasher pervades a lasting front-runner among the picks for Bikini Bottom’s greatest stories, regardless of fear factor. The spooky tale of “Graveyard Shift” thrives where many have before — the dead of night, and what it brings out of the weary mind. When the minds in question belong to SpongeBob and Squidward, and the weariness is onset by a 24-hour shift, the unmatchable chemistry between the two makes for a perfect foundation to bring the paranoia of seclusion to life. With some of the series’ most unforgettable imagery and a premier mix of comedy and horror, the episode makes for one of modern animation’s finest odes to the primal fear of the after-hours. A whole lot can happen … “at night.”
The Trick: With its unexpectedly wide coverage of horror lineage, “Graveyard Shift” is a lasting example of the degree to which classic-era SpongeBob was truly a show of culture. The episode gives a healthy spin to its classic ghost story setup and picks up on some horror trope mainstays along the way (namely that creepy phone call). However, its intertextuality shines in one of the most bizarre endings the show’s ever seen, revealing just who was flickering those lights by introducing many an unwitting child to German Expressionist horror. When it comes to the show’s most memorable images, nothing sears into the mind quite like the Photoshopped smile of Count Orlok (not Nosferatu).
The Treat: With the drawbacks of you not being a sponge and well-accumulated societal disdain preventing you from devouring your own arms, you can treat yourself to the next best thing, which is Trolli Tiny Hands. Do I even have to say at what time you should eat them?
Supernatural – “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester”
Original Air Date: October 30th, 2008 via The CW
The Special: For a show so focused on ghouls and ghosts, you’d think that “Supernatural” would revisit Halloween more often than not, but thankfully this isn’t the case. The brothers are lured to town to investigate a case where a guy gets killed after unknowingly eating candy that had razorblades in it. Turns out it’s a witch who wants to summon the legendary demon Samhain (which Sam hilariously mispronounces), which will cause one of the 66 seals keeping the villain Lillith contained to break, which cleverly ties the episode into the mythology of the season thus far and introduces another antagonistic deity to the bunch, Uriel. The episode also features a terrific, subtle scene where Dean gazes upon frightening masks in the arts-and-crafts class and is immediately reminded of his time in Hell. We don’t need to see just how horrifying the images are that are tearing around in his brain, because the writers trust the audience to use their imagination.
The Trick: If you’re looking for the perfect movie to pair with “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester”, it’d be Gregory Widen’s 1995 war-torn archangel thriller, The Prophecy, starring Christopher Walken and Virginia Madsen.
The Treat: Considering that one of the episode’s victims gets boiled alive while bobbing for apples, a nice, caramel-coated, teeth-shattering candy apple would go down quite nicely with this wicked Winchester tale.
Stranger Things – “Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak”
Original Air Date: October 27th, 2017 via Netflix
The Special: Halloween is only the second episode of Stranger Things S2, which dropped in its entirety in late October. The episode is primarily concerned with (re)establishing the relationships between the two sets of teen and pre-teen characters, all of whom are working through the trauma of the S1 finale from one year before.
As Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) recovers at Hopper’s (David Harbour) cottage and flashes back to the interceding year between S1 and S2, the boys invite new girl Max (Sadie Sink) to accompany them trick or treating. Meanwhile, Nancy (Natalie Dyer) kinda/sorta breaks up with Steve (Joe Keery) because he doesn’t feel guilty enough over the death of (fan favorite) Barb.
The Trick: Steve and Nancy are memorably costumed, though channeling Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay from Risky Business is uncomfortably adult given that film’s risqué content. More appropriately adorned are the boys, whose Ghostbusters outfits were heavily featured in the season two promos — and for good reason: that look is iconic.
Considering the series’ ’80s setting and its penchant for nostalgia, the most suitable imagery is Eleven’s attempt at a costume. The use of a basic white sheet to emulate a ghost can easily be read as a homage to Spielberg and Amblin’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which used a similar disguise to hide the identity of its otherworldly protagonist.
The Treat: Two options depending on your preference: marshmallows for the boys’ Ghostbusters costumes or Reese’s Pieces for Eleven’s E.T. costume.
That ’70s Show – “Too Old to Trick or Treat, Too Young to Die!”
Original Air Date: October 26th, 1999 via FOX
The Special: A Hitchcock Halloween movie marathon kicks off this Halloween episode as the gang finds themselves trapped in iconic movie scenarios from the master of suspense. Eric suffers from VERTIGO, Fez looks out a REAR WINDOW, Kitty and Laurie feed some BIRDS, the paperboy thinks Kelso is THE WRONG MAN, then he’s attacked by a plane traveling NORTH BY NORTHWEST meaning he has to take a shower like a PSYCHO … Let’s just say Kelso’s doing a lot. This is an imaginative episode that sacrifices narrative logic to cram as many references into its 23-minute runtime as possible. Not all plot threads are successful and some (namely Fez spying in hopes of spotting a naked Midge) have not aged well.
In fact, the same could be said about the show as a whole given Danny Masterson’s assault allegations, Lisa Robin Kelly’s tragic death, and several cast members involved in Scientology. But this episode mostly holds up as it reaches for Simpsons levels of spooky reimagining. Most successful is the Psycho sequence where Laurie surprises Kelso in the shower. Why is he taking a shower in her house? It doesn’t matter. The joke pays off as Laurie hits him with a back scrubber, tortures him by flushing the toilet, and laments her spilled shampoo, red liquid familiarly swirling down the drain. It’s a time capsule within a time capsule clearly having fun with the campy silliness.
The Trick: Playing the hits of Hitchcock, this episode references Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, North by Northwest, The Birds, and The Wrong Man. Fez is dressed as Rocky Horror’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter, and the episode title is a spookified version of Jethro Tull’s Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!
The Treat: This episode is best paired with movie theater popcorn. In the mood for something sweet? Make it a classic ice cream sundae with plenty of chocolate syrup, å la the bosco Hitchcock used as fake blood in his infamous shower scene.
The Venture Bros. — “A Very Venture Halloween”
Original Air Date: October 28th, 2012 via Adult Swim
The Special: “A Very Venture Halloween” has it all: grown men betting on whether kids can overcome the compound’s security system to win king-sized candy bars, nerdy teens trying to act rebellious and rabble-rouse because it’s Halloween, a group of sorcerers showcasing their talents for necromancy as part of “the Brimstone Assembly”, and a young man learning the dark secret behind his creation from a mad scientist. Throw in guest stars like J.K. Simmons and H. Jon Benjamin, and The Venture Bros.’s classic conversational, reference-heavy humor, and you have a spooktober classic.
But the thing that puts “A Very Venture Halloween” over the top is Dr. Orpheus’ (Steven Rattazi) speech at the end. His oratory grazes profundity, with the idea that the magic of Halloween comes in how the holiday allows us to project, through the fun-house mirrors of horror and revelry, who we truly are. It’s a lovely sentiment nestled within a truly hilarious Halloween special.
The Trick: This is The Venture Bros., so there’s homages to everything from classics like Hellraiser, The Crow, and The Craft to oddities like The Thing with Two Heads.
The Treat: If you can make it past an elaborate series of trick-or-treat death traps, then treat yourself to the king-sized candy bar of your choice! Otherwise split a packet of smarties with a friend.