Let’s talk Tim Burton not directing for starters.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a confusing movie because of that hybrid effect. It’s sort of about Christmas but mostly it’s a Halloween vehicle and yet also there’s Santa... what’s a person to do? Watch it several times a year is probably a safe bet, and revel in the Jack Skellington-ness of it all. The 1993 movie is one of those classics that everyone has watched so many times they think there couldn’t possibly be a surprise left. They’re wrong.
Tim Burton’s musical tale of the svelte Pumpkin King Jack Skellington who wants nothing more to go off script and spread Christmas joy is one for the ages. It’s just spooky enough for kids to feel like they’re getting a little thrill without being terrified, and exactly the right amount of entertaining for parents to actually like it too. While little ones might get a bit freaked out when Santa Claus gets abducted, everyone else loves it. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the movie, “this is the kind of movie older kids will eat up; it has the kind of offbeat, subversive energy that tells them wonderful things are likely to happen.”
That holds true. But what don’t we know about the story behind the story?
#2. It’s based on a poem
The movie The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually based on a poem of the same name written by Tim Burton himself when he was an animator for Disney. In 2013 director Henry Selick told The Daily Beast that Burton wrote the poem as a reimagined version of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. Burton tried to pitch the idea of a stop-motion movie based on the poem to Disney in 1983, but obviously it never happened. The poem featured Jack Skellington, his dog Zero, and Santa Claus, and Burton even drew up designs for the three characters as we know them now.
#3. The hybrid movie came from hybrid holiday shelves.
If you’ve noticed that Halloween decorations and Christmas decorations are basically taking up the same shelf space, you’re not alone. Tim Burton noticed too, and that mash-up of holidays is one of the things that inspired him to come up with The Nightmare Before Christmas. He explained in the DVD commentary that growing up in Burbank, California meant he didn’t really experience seasons, so he looked to holiday shelves in stores to mark the passing of time. And he couldn’t help noticing that there was a real overlap of decorations. So he decided to write a story where those two world collide.
#4. It was initially meant to be a stop-motion TV special.
The Nightmare Before Christmas was created with stop-motion animation, the same form of animation used in TV specials like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, two movies that greatly inspired him. In fact, Burton admitted in the DVD commentary for the movie that his original idea was for The Nightmare Before Christmas to become a TV special much like those Rankin-Bass created originals. He pitched the idea to networks and was rejected, eventually pivoting to book publishers to also be rejected. In total, Burton estimated that this movie took 20 years to come to fruition.
#5. The songs were actually completed before the script was ready.
When production started on The Nightmare Before Christmas, the script was not yet completed. But legendary composer Danny Elfman was already knocking it out of the park with the now-iconic songs from the movie, basing his score on tidbits Burton told him about the story. "Tim would show me sketches and drawings,” Elfman told the Los Angeles Times in 2015, “and he would tell me the story, describe it in bits of phrases and words and I would say, 'Yeah, I got it.' Three days later, I had a song.” Because of Elfman’s ingenuity, the songs were actually completed before the script was ready.
#6. Danny Elfman was the singing voice of Jack Skellington.
Whenever Jack Skellington sings in The Nightmare Before Christmas, you’re actually hearing Danny Elfman. The famous composer, who has collaborated with Burton on 16 films over the years, didn’t expect to be the voice of Skellington at all. But that’s just how things worked out. Elfman explained on The Score podcast in 2020 that he “hadn’t started out” thinking the role of Skellington was for him, but “by the end, I was getting this mindset that was like ‘if another singer gets this part, you really better watch out for mysterious accidents.”
In an effort to keep potential singers safe, Elfman got the part.
#7. A few all-star collaborators were part of the movie.
Elfman wasn’t the only longtime collaborator to be hired on to help make The Nightmare Before Christmas a reality. Paul Reubens of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure voiced Lock, while Catherine O’Hara, who had previously starred in Beetlejuice, voiced both Shock and Sally (because Burton knows as well as the rest of us that her talent knows no bounds). Burton himself voiced Zero the dog, while Glen Shadix, also from Beetlejuice, voiced the Mayor of Halloweentown. Word to the wise; if you do a good job working with Tim Burton once, he’s bound to ask you to come back for another movie.
#8. It’s full of Disney Easter eggs.
There were hidden Mickey Mouse Easter eggs in the movie.
Now that The Nightmare Before Christmas is a seriously big deal, Disney loves to flaunt its involvement with the movie. But at the time, there was a struggle from the media giant to be fully included in what some could definitely call an avante-garde piece of animation, Burton noted in the DVD commentary. The company did allow a few little Disney Easter eggs in the movie, however, including a scary toy that is clearly Mickey Mouse left under a tree who attacks children. The little girl being attacked is wearing a Mickey print nightgown while the little boy is wearing Donald Duck pajamas.
#9. Don’t expect a CGI sequel.
Tim Burton has no interest in Disney churning out a straight-to-streaming sequel of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Or any other type of sequel to the movie, for that matter. “I was always very protective of [Nightmare Before Christmas], not to do sequels or things of that kind,” Burton told MTV. “You know, ‘Jack visits Thanksgiving world’ or other kinds of things, just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it. Because it’s not a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it. I try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible.”
#10. Check out Jack’s podium.
Halloween Town is nothing if not consistently on brand in all things spooky. For reference, please have a quick look at Jack Skellington’s podium during the Town Meeting where he tells everyone about Christmas and Sandy Claws. Of course it’s in the shape of a coffin. Much as his eventual sleigh will be made to look like a coffin. Also of note; Jack’s tie is shaped like a bat, and his doorbell at home is an eyeball. When you pull on the pulley, which is a dead spider attached to a string, a woman screams. The doorbell is apparently a nod to a similar one from The Addams Family.
We get it guys, you’re spooky.
#11. Vampires played hockey with Burton’s head in a deleted scene.
If you pay close attention to a scene in The Nightmare Before Christmas where vampires are playing hockey, their puck is actually a Jack-o-Lantern. As if that’s not dark enough for you, there was a thought to go even further. A deleted scene from the film shows the vampires skating around looking elegant with their capes and hockey sticks, and they are passing a version of Tim Burton’s severed head around on the ice.
It was cut from the final edit, but you know Tim Burton himself would have been more than pleased to see his head passed back and forth between vampire hockey players.
#12. There are seven holiday doors.
Jack Skellington arrived at the Hinterlands to find the seven holiday doors, and of course this is how he made his way to find Christmas Town and his new obsession of taking over. But what’s behind those other doors? Obviously Jack Skellington is behind the Halloween door where he rules his own town as Santa Claus is meant to rule his, while there’s also an Easter egg door for Easter, a red heart for Valentine’s Day, a green four-leaf clover for St. Patrick’s Day, a turkey for Thanksgiving... and a firecracker on the seventh. For American Independence Day?
So does this mean this world only exists in America? Strange.
#13. Vincent Price was the first choice for Santa.
Selick and Burton’s top choice for the voice of Santa was Vincent Price, a legend in the world of horror movies (and of course we all remember him from the Thriller video). Price signed on to be a part of the movie, but sadly lost his wife Coral Browne in 1991. According to Selick, Price was left so grief-stricken that his voice was simply “too sad” for Santa Claus, he explained in the DVD commentary, passing the role on to Edward Ivory instead. Burton did work with Price in Edward Scissorhands, however, and had actually worked with the director back in 1983 on his stop-motion short Vincent, an homage to the man himself.
#14. A crafty witch is featured in the movie.
When the townspeople of Halloween Town gather to hear about gift-giving and Christmas Town, one witch stands out. As does the smaller witch under her hat and then the smaller witch under that hat. This is one crafty witch with an eye to becoming an entrepreneur, it seems, because when the town decides to start making toys to distribute for Christmas, that witch is seen making witch nesting dolls. Taking inspiration from her own life and turning into perhaps one of the greatest toy ideas from The Nightmare Before Christmas. This witch knew what she was doing and hopefully has her own Venmo account for orders.
#15. Disney wanted Jack to have friendly eyes.
It’s no secret that The Nightmare Before Christmas is rather off-brand for the generally cheerful and colorful world of Disney, which is perhaps why the studios made the film through their Touchstone branch. Six degrees of separation in case the film soured the viewer and all that. Still, even though Touchstone was responsible for the movie, Disney did step in and try to insist that Jack Skellington have friendly eyes instead of empty sockets. Tim Burton and Henry Selick bravely fought to keep him as creepy as possible, and somehow won against the media giant. Impossible to picture Jack any other way now.
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