Why the Best Hey Arnold Halloween Episode Isn't Arnold's Halloween - VRGyani News and Media

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why the Best Hey Arnold Halloween Episode Isn't Arnold's Halloween

Steven Spielberg once referred to Rugrats as “the TV Peanuts of our time,” but Hey Arnold! has always seemed the more logical successor to Charlie Brown. Its ensemble cast is almost as large, its range of recurring situations and gags as broad, and its emotional core as deep. Except for Avatar: The Last Airbender, no other Nicktoon traded comedy for drama and pathos as often, and Hey Arnold! did so at a scale that was more readily applicable to real life. The inner-city neighborhood and its wild collection of residents put Arnold and his friends through all the highs and lows of the fourth grade age. Cartoons about childhood rarely portray their young characters literally, and I’ve certainly never met a nine-year-old as wise as Arnold or as (dementedly) poetic as Helga. But the various exaggerations of the cast helped the show capture the spirit of childhood experiences in a way very few series have managed before or since.

The holiday specials are a case in point. The lengths Arnold goes to in his search for the perfect Christmas gift for Mr. Hyunh in “Arnold’s Christmas” may be outside what any kid could realistically achieve, but his embrace of the selfless intent of the season and his hope for a holiday miracle are genuine rites of passage as we grow and realize that Christmas is more than an excuse to get toys. And who hasn’t struggled to come to terms with the eccentricities of their family at a time like Thanksgiving, even if they aren’t as extreme as a grandmother who’s mixed Thanksgiving up with the Fourth of July? Holiday specials can easily become cheesy, or cynical grabs for ratings, but most of the Hey Arnold! holidays are among the most heartfelt episodes of a show already full of heart, and they’re among the most popular episodes with fans.

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“Arnold’s Halloween” is among that beloved collection. It puts Arnold and Gerald up against the residents of Arnold’s boarding house, who exclude the boys from planning the annual Halloween party/prank twofer on account of their being “too young.” Produced in an earlier stage of the show’s production, before Arnold became the saintly childhood sage of the neighborhood, he isn’t above getting back at his family for the snub. When he and Gerald learn that their classmates are planning to hit the streets as a pod of aliens for tricks-or-treats, they concoct an elaborate radio prank a la Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds. Unfortunately, Douglas Cain, the pompous and overzealous host of a local Ufology program (voiced by Maurice LaMarche with his notorious Welles impersonation) intercepts their broadcast, and when the prank escalates to the point of blowing Hillwood’s power, Cain stirs the entire city into a panic.

It’s another reality of growing up; pranks rarely spiral that far out of control, but kids do run into the butterfly effect. Each ingredient in Halloween’s cocktail of masquerade, candy handouts, parties, pranks, and willingly induced frights gets celebrated in the episode. Helga’s father sees a bit of expansion, and with him, some of the local neighborhood characters. While I rather like Arnold’s later role as the conscience of his city, there’s a degree of imagination and ingenuity to him in these earlier episodes that’s easy to miss. But call me a killjoy, a spoilsport, or a big, pompous windbag – “Arnold’s Halloween” doesn’t measure up to the rest of the series’ holiday specials. It may be a well-done parody of Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, but it’s one of a litany of such parodies. This is well-trod cartoon territory, not easy to bring a new angle to. Hey Arnold! doesn’t even go as far with it as something like The Simpsons. That’s not to say “Arnold’s Halloween” isn’t a good episode, but compared to the Christmas and other holiday specials, it isn’t a great one.

But “Arnold’s Halloween” wasn’t the only time the series tapped into the spooky stuff that is the heart of the holiday. One of the recurring premises for episodes was the kids testing the truth behind the urban legends and superstitions handed down to them. Some of these legends were variations on reliable old themes from sleepovers and campfire stories, but Hey Arnold! often put more of a unique spin on these than they managed for their Halloween special. Sometimes they were showcases for a character’s personality – see the times the manic worrywart Sid convinced himself that he killed the principal with a voodoo curse, or that his friend Stinky was a vampire (I managed something similar around that age, except I believed in werewolves). Episodes like “The Headless Cabbie” and “The Ghost Bride” let the kids work as an ensemble in struggling through a series of coincidences that echoed signs of a local haunt. “Four-Eyed Jack” expanded on the history of the boarding house (though not in the way you’d expect). But of all Hey Arnold’s forays into ghost story territory, the most successful has to be “The Haunted Train.”

Kids scare easily. When you’re short, uneducated, and dependent, it’s easy to end up terrified of the world around you, and easy to fall for crazy stories. But it’s also easy, once we grow up, to forget that kids often like to be scared, and sometimes want – choose – to believe in the stories they hear. Arnold’s grandpa is one character who knows this well. When the neighborhood kids gripe about being bored, he springs on them the legend of a mad engineer who drove off the tracks, to return every year as a ghost train ferreting unsuspecting souls to the waiting devil in the fiery underworld. In later seasons, Arnold would play the role of skeptic to yarns like that. But “The Haunted Train” came early in the series’ run, and Arnold is a believer. Not from paranoia a la Sid, or from gullibility. Arnold and Gerald choose to take the haunted train as true.

Helga plays the skeptic of the episode, her demands for proof motivating the kids to go to the old train station. The ghostly engineer they wait on is probably the most grisly spirit designed for Hey Arnold!, with decaying skin, scars across his face, and yellowed eyes. Grandpa’s story about Engine 25’s otherworldly features, culminating in a dive into Hell (under a ratings-friendly pseudonym) is one of the strongest builds any urban legend enjoyed on the show. When a train does arrive in the station, and the kids step aboard, each of the signs appears in turn. Urban legends and ghost stories stop being fun when the terror behind them appears real. The stakes of the legend being clear – and significantly higher than your average haunting – makes the kids’ growing panic during the ride all the more palpable (and in Helga’s case as her skepticism withers, hilarious). And Arnold, being a resourceful and bold kid, manages to cobble a hasty plan to meet the devil when the train doors open.

It’s not necessary, of course. Seeing urban legends punctured by reality is another part of childhood. Still, Arnold’s ride on Engine 25 is the most intense of his excursions into the mythology of Hillwood, and a great episode to watch in the Halloween season. And it’s not as if it’s all a put-on by Grandpa Phil; a coda extending into the end credits (boosted by a catchy tune from series composer Jim Lang) implies that more than old conductor’s bones remain of Engine 25.

KEEP READING: The Best Horror Movies for Kids (and Scaredy-Cats)



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