Although Christmas time and ghost stories seem to us strange bedfellows, the two were commonly found lying together in the nineteenth century. Ghouls and ghosts, seances and mystics, changelings and revenants were all immensely popular among the Victorians – and their presence was felt year-round in high society. Christmas was especially fraught with the souls of the dead, as the Victorians were well-known for spending their Christmas Eves telling spooky stories around the fire amidst the gifts, candles, and cakes. Considering the majority of our current western Christmas traditions were founded in the Victorian era, it stands to argue that contemporary tales merging the uncanny with the holly-jolly would be second-nature to us, although the attention that Tim Burton garnered upon the release of his seminal holiday tale tells us otherwise. The Nightmare Before Christmas, although a contemporary text, is exemplary of the Victorian ‘Christmas Gothic’ present in A Christmas Carol through its didacticism, inversion of the heroes’ journey, and foregrounding of the elements of oral tradition that have so heavily influenced our collective construction of a holiday tale. 

The intertextuality of these two stories begins as many ghost stories in the oral tradition do  – with an appeal to the reader to pay heed to the narrative that will unfold before them. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol begins with a heartfelt invitation to embrace the spectral liminality of the holiday season by accepting the ‘haunting’ of the Christmas spirit(s). 

    I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

                                                                        Their faithful Friend and Servant,

                                                                                                                            C.D.

Not only does Dickens clearly address the Gothic elements of his tale, he uses them to establish the holiday mood of his novel, inviting the reader to not only consume the narrative, but participate in it as well. This mirrors Burton’s invocation of the direct-address, as Burton’s disembodied narrator also invites his audience to participate in the story world.

‘Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place 

that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams.  For the story that you are 

about to be told, took place in the holiday worlds of old.  Now, you’ve 

probably wondered where holidays come from.  If you haven’t, I’d say it’s 

time you begun.

(The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)

Both introductions merge the well-established campfire tradition of a direct audience address with semantics that suggest a distinctly Yuletide mode, foregrounding Victorian conventions of holiday past times whilst connecting with each other metatextually through narrative structures and modal deixis. 

Ebineezer Scrooge and Jack Skellington embark on mirrored iterations of the anti/hero’s narrative arc  (theorized by Joseph Campbell as grounded in Gothic traditions of transgression and the uncanny. Scrooge’s character development follows a familiar pattern, beginning as a cold, heartless, isolated old miser who wishes nothing more than to zap joy from others and remain alone with his money. In Dickens’ signature verbosity, he describes Scrooge as the archetypal Victorian factory owner – penny-pinching and sour-tempered – against a distinctly Gothic landscape. 

Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s-book, went home to bed. He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again. It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being all let out as offices. The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold. (Dickens) 

Establishing Scrooge as an unlikeable, lonely character paves the way for his redemption arc while simultaneously grounding the narrative in a distinctly Gothic landscape. Dickens’ narration is expertly written, creating descriptions that are easily read aloud. Despite its dark tone, Dickens immediately establishes this narrative as one that is meant to be told, and not simply read. 

Scrooge’s character development begins by grounding him firmly in his flaws at the onset of the narrative, whilst also establishing the beginning of his journey in the ‘real world’. Scrooge proceeds to be ‘called to adventure’ by Marley’s ghost, ‘refuse’, and ‘meet his mentor’ in this exchange: 

“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.” “You were always a good friend to me,” said Scrooge. “Thank’ee!” “You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.” Scrooge’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done.“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded, in a faltering voice. “It is.” “I—I think I’d rather not,” said Scrooge. “Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.” “Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?” hinted Scrooge. “Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!” (Dickens)

Scrooge moves through all subsequent stages of the hero’s journey with spirit mentors, completing his ordeal and returning to the real world a changed man. The threat of eternal liminality and spiritual torment illuminates Scrooge’s greed, while Dickens makes use of the Gothic landscape in foregrounding the didacticism of the narrative. 

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”… The bell struck twelve. Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him. (Dickens) 

The Gothic landscape lends itself well to deliver a message against greed, as the spirits in Dickins’ novel both terrify and educate Scrooge (and the audience) through their uncanny appearance and morbid implications. Due to the moral guidance of the narrative’s ghosts Scrooge reaps the rewards of his journey by circumventing his destiny to serve penance for his greed. He returns from his hero’s journey with the ‘elixir’ (his wealth) to the real world from which he began his journey through the Gothic liminal landscape. In delivering this didactic message through the ‘Christmas Gothic’, Scrooge completes the cyclical nature of a hero’s journey and ends the narrative on a positive note, avoiding any negative consequences for his previous actions – contrasting Burton’s Jack Skellington character.

Tim Burton’s expert crafting of Jack Skellington’s journey inverts the archetypal hero’s journey to further foreground the sins of greed against the Gothic backdrop. Beginning as a disenchanted idol, Jack Skellington’s characterization invokes elements of the Byronic hero at the onset of his narrative arc, as is demonstrated by the premise of his opening number. 

Yet year after year, it’s the same routine

And I grow so weary of the sound of screams

And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King

Have grown so tired of the same old thing

Oh, somewhere deep inside of these bones

An emptiness began to grow

There’s something out there, far from my home

A longing that I’ve never known.

(The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993

The liminal gothic space echoes the initial scene in Dickens’ narrative while Skellington’s exposition paints him as a weary, tragic figure as opposed to simply prickly. 

Jack answers his own call to adventure as he ventures through the Gothic liminality of the forest, stumbling quickly into the clearing of Holiday Trees and tumbling over the ‘threshold’ into Christmas land. 

Upon discovering Christmas town and sensing a potential path to a new identity, Jack withdraws and begins planning his ascent to power. Significantly, and in contrast to the archetypal journey, Jack lacks a mentor figure – and as Jack’s hubris begins to grow he stands alone as he is tested by friends, enemies, and allies while approaching his ordeal. Burton skillfully peppers warnings into the dialogue of other minor characters (namely Sally and Dr. Finkelstein) that acts in place of a mentor as the narrative progresses.

JACK: Dr. I need to borrow some equipment.

DR. FINKELSTEIN: Is that so, whatever for?

JACK: I’m conducting a series of experiments.

DR. FINKELSTEIN: How perfectly marvelous.  Curiosity killed the cat, you know.

JACK: I know.

(The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)  

Sally, especially, acts as liminal arbiter of Jack’s conscience as he approaches his Ordeal. Reinforcing the Gothic mode not only in appearance but in behaviour, Sally’s clairvoyance foregrounds Jack’s intoxicating hubris as his idealistic vision of Christmastime begins to unravel. 

SALLY: You certainly do, Jack.  I had the most terrible vision.

JACK: That’s splendid.

SALLY: No, it was about your Christmas.  There was smoke and fire.

JACK: That not my Christmas.  My Christmas is filled with laughter and joy and this–my Sandy Claws outfit.  I want you to make it.

SALLY: Jack, please, listen to me–it’s going to be a disaster!

JACK: How could it be–just follow the pattern.  This part is red, the trim is white.

SALLY: It’s a mistake, Jack. 

(The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)

Sally’s clairvoyance echoes the supernatural guidance in Dickens’ narrative while Jack’s arrogance, drive, and passion paint him as an increasingly manic person; establishing the underpinnings for the story’s ‘moral’ in Jack’s painful perversion of the hero’s triumph.

Instead of the ‘reward’ promised to the archetypal hero upon completing their ordeal Jack is met with fear and violence. As Jack is shot down by the residence of Christmas town and lies supine in the arms of a cemetery angel – surrounded by fog, tombstones, and gently falling snow –  the mise-en-scene of the cemetery not only reinforces the Gothic mode that runs throughout the film but demonstrates Jack’s (ego) death on his return to his original world. 

What have I done?
What have I done?
Find a deep cave to hide in
In a million years they’ll find me
Only dust and a plaque
That reads, ‘Here Lies Poor Old Jack”
But I never intended all this madness, never
And nobody really understood, well how could they?
That all I ever wanted was to bring them something great
Why does nothing ever turn out like it should? …
And for the first time since I don’t remember when
I felt just like my old bony self again
And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King
That’s right! I am the Pumpkin King!
(The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)

Jack’s final refrain is indicative of his fate as anti-hero, to return to his original role – re-energized in his isolation and his imperfection. Testament to Jack’s role as anti-hero (and not villain), he rectifies his errors with Santa Claus and returns to Hallowe’en town a refreshed (but nonetheless humbled) hero. Jack’s catastrophic takeover of Christmas is layered with didactic warnings of arrogance and hubris, and yet, similar to Dickens’ seminal Christmas tale, the narrative ends with a distinctly Gothic veneer – barren hills, cobblestone streets, wrought iron gates, mist and ghosts interspersed with lights and snow – resolving the narrative with a similar denouement – in aesthetic and in morality –  to A Christmas Carol. 

Both texts demonstrate mirrored inversions of the hero’s journey through Gothic Christmas modes, exemplifying didactic narratives that warn against hubris and greed. Both Burton and Dickens’ use of detailed visual imagery, disembodied narration, and cyclical narratives harken back to oral story-telling traditions steeped in nineteenth century Gothic motifs. Exemplary of the ‘Christmas Gothic’, both these narratives are immediately recognizable to us as holiday stories through their stylistic similarities, Gothic deixis, and unique invocations of the hero’s journey that we’ve come to associate with Christmas tales.

Works Cited

Cochrane, Kira. “Ghost Stories: Why the Victorians Were so Spookily Good at Them.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 Dec. 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/23/ghost-stories-victorians-spookily-good.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Urbana, Illinois, 2004. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm

Eschner, Kat. “Why Do People Tell Ghost Stories on Christmas?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 23 Dec. 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-do-ghost-stories-go-christmas-180961547/.

Selick, Henry, director. The Nightmare Before Christmas.Google Play Movies.

“Victorian Christmas – History of Christmas.” BBC, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml.

www.nuvotech.co.uk, Nuvotech Limited. “The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth.” Movie Outline – Screenwriting Software, http://www.movieoutline.com/articles/the-hero-journey-mythic-structure-of-joseph-campbell-monomyth.html.

Image: “Snow, Night, Moon, Cold, Winter” via Pixabay.  License: CC0 1.0 Universal.