The Nightmare Before Christmas as a Spiritual Allegory: A Halloween Sermon

I woke up this morning with the strange idea that I needed to write a Halloween sermon. Never having done such a thing before, and unaware of any biblical texts to support the Halloween story, I turned to the only Halloween texts that I knew anything about: the movies. But even there, I found little to go on.

There aren’t a lot of really great Halloween movies. Hocus Pocus deserves a mention. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good. And after that we are left largely with with soft-core slasher porn and campy after-school specials–and movies that happen to be scary but I jhave ahave nothing else to do with Halloween.

But there is Tim Burton’s 1993 masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas-easily the best Halloween movie, and maybe the best movie about any holiday, ever made. It’s got it all: visually stunning stop-motion animation, an amazing musical score by Danny Elfman, a unique and interesting story, and a kidnap plot involving Santa Claus. So The Nightmare Before Christmas it is. Here is your Halloween sermon.

I have always seen The Nightmare Before Christmas as as an idea movie. Back in my professing days, I used it regularly to demonstrate different principles that I was trying to teach. It was, for example, part of my standard lecture on the Hindu concept of dharma,  or the belief that every organism has a role to play in a well-ordered social order and must play that role and no other. In a less-than-successful lecture on economics (one covers all sorts of things in Freshman comp), I once used it as a way to illustrate David Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage, or the idea that economies work best when producers specialize on doing the one thing that they can do best.

These allegorical readings of The Nightmare Before Christmas focus on the core arc of the narrative: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is the master of Halloween. Every year, he marshalls the forces of Halloweentown to produce an amazing fright-fest for the entire world. But then he stumbles into Christmastown and is infected with the joy of Christmas. He decides that giving people stuff and being kind and loving is better than scaring them. So he tries to do Christmas. And it totally sucks.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a sort of inverse Christmas Carol. Like Scrooge, Jack is converted by the Spirit of Christmas and dresses up like Santa Claus to deliver gifts. But Jack has to unconvert. He has to discover that, as wonderful a thing as Christmas is, it is not his thing. He isn’t good at it. He doesn’t do it right. And he can’t give up who he is for who he wants to be. He has to discover the inherent value of who he is instead of trying to be something else because it is a good thing.

This, I think, is an important spiritual principle. Paul refers to this principle as “The Body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 12, and it is the basis of the New Testament Christian community:

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?

And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?  If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. (1 Cor 12: 12-20)

What Paul is saying here–and I don’t think it can be emphasized strongly enough–is that people have different gifts and talents, and all of these talents can be used to build the Kingdom of God. It is not enough to tell people (or ourselves) that they must change their essential nature because some other essential nature is a good thing. That’s not how the Body of Christ works. We become part of that body as who we are. We consecrate our natures and make them holy at the altar of God.

I have been thinking a lot this week about the way that our community often tries to force people to change essential things about themselves as the price of fellowship. In the current historical moment, we see this most clearly with people whose sexual orientations or gender identities do not align with the ideal of the family that many people in the Church see–quite rightly–as a good thing. But the fact that it is a good thing does not mean that it is a good thing for everybody, or that somebody who has been made differently by God must sacrifice who they are to join the Body of Christ.

Does this mean that we are not all “called to put off the natural man or the natural woman and become Saints through Jesus Christ and His Atonement.” Why no, it does not. That is the cost of discipleship. But we must be very careful that we invoke it only when discipleship is really on the line, and not when we find ourselves uncomfortable because of the way that God made people other than ourselves.

This is the spiritual allegory of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The fact that something is a good thing–whether it is Christmas, the nuclear family, or pretty much anything else–does not mean that it is the only good thing, or that other things–things that strike us as scary or transgressive or deeply uncomfortable–cannot be good things too. It does not mean that we have to sacrifice what is most essential to our natures–or to require other people to sacrifice what is most essential to theirs–in order to become that which we have defined as good.


  1. While I agree with your central premise, I am feeling exactly the opposite pressure from worldly sources than that of the example you provide. I feel I am being pressured to accept the idea that gay marriage is acceptable and that in order for me or my Church to be acceptable, we must change.
    I fully accept gay and transgender members but I feel the Church leaders are the ones who must set the boundaries of their full participation, including exclusion of married gay couples.

  2. Harpoon Hannah says:

    Can you say more clearly what you mean?

    That a person in the church must embrace the ideas of a homosexual identity as immutablely who they are in their contribution to the church?

    Who decides what is and isn’t the natural man? My strong feelings? Organized identify politics groups?

    Put off the natural man that objectifies women (or men) but embrace the homosexual identity that wants to live outside a married male/female relationship? Who determined the former proclivity is to be overcome, but the latter is embraced?

    The body of the church analogy, like the Nightmare Christmas allegory can only go so far. Clearly we don’t apply every possibility of diversity as being an immutable characteristic like the foot, arm, and leg of the church — all different and all necessary.

    Do you believe moden notions of sexual orientation never change? Over generations or evening over a persons own lifetime?

    That it’s impossible for a person who never was attracted to a man to now become attracted them; and that a person who used to be attracted to men are now no longer attracted to them?

    I’ve seen both in my lifetime, so I’m not sure what to make of suggestions otherwise. I find it nearly impossible to escape the cultural frame of reference I’m in, but I do see there are legitimately other frames of reference in many years past that had entirely different perspectives about sex, attraction, reproduction, and so on. What to do about this?

    Insist the current perspective is the true one and will never change, when we only have it now because it’s changed from something else and is likely to continue to evolve? (Whether it be for good or evil I’ve said nothing on the subject)

  3. I hear what you are saying, Anya. It seems unfair for us to be judged for opposing same sex marriage and relationships. Especially when it comes from secular voices professing tolerance and love, their message doesn’t always seem to carry the spirit of those attributes.

    For me, it has been really enlightening to befriend and appreciate better the perspectives of gay and transgender members themselves. And to see, in particular, just how unsustainable and incomplete it is for us to say, on the one hand, that we welcome and love them, while also denying them the right or opportunity to create families of their own. I’m not sure what the solution is, but if we really are committed to helping these brothers and sisters feel a true sense of belonging in our communities, then our current policies are lacking.

  4. @Walker F.
    This is so necessary- to translate our policies and practices into practical consequences for our friends and neighbors, and owning those consequences for our beliefs (as my friend often says). Earnestly getting to know LGBT members and talking about their experiences, feelings, and impressions allows us to wrestle before God within our hearts and minds.
    “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest” (HC 6:248) I still feel that studying it out in our hearts and minds is a necessary prerequisite for divine direction.

    Thank you Michael Austin for this piece. I hadn’t yet watched Nightmare yet in my Halloween movie rotation. I shall watch it with increased thoughtfulness.

  5. This gets into the question of “What is perfection?” When we look at those who are exalted and perfect, how identical are they, and how individual are they? When casting off the natural man what exactly needs to be cast off?
    I know my parents believe that everyone in heaven is “white”. I also know other people who see the variety of “colors” of people here on the earth, don’t believe that there wouldn’t be so many if there weren’t at least as many in heaven.
    For lots of people their race makes up a large part of their identity. Are we supposed to give that up for righteousness sake or not? If you’re thinking “It’s perfectly reasonable to ask a black person to give up their ‘blackness'”, what if God asked you to give up your ‘whiteness’ and become black? Does that seem reasonable?
    We know that we need to cast off the natural man. I also don’t feel that we’ve been asked to cast off our individuality and become drones. This creates a natural tension between what is our natural man, and what can identify us as individuals beyond the identity number?

  6. Last week someone gave an EQ lesson based on Elder Oaks’s talk from conference and was downright hateful. I wasn’t there, but heard about it from four different people, three of whom spoke up with concerns in the class. (One of whom would never have said a thing if it wasn’t truly egregious.)

    Today I saw the teacher sitting out Sunday School with a few others so I told him (letting my anger show, and this is a quick summary, not word for word) that I heard about concerns with the lesson last week and funny thing: there’s nothing wrong with being gay. That’s how God made some people. He, sputtering: but the Proclamation on the Family says gender is eternal. Me: Not sure what you mean; gender is not the same as sexual orientation. His wife: His lesson was just fine. Him: I was just quoting Elder Oaks. Me: That’s not what I heard. I have friends and family who are gay, and they are true disciples of Christ. I told them that I have heard about these kinds of things being taught elsewhere but had hoped our ward was safe from such things. (That was not entirely accurate since something similar happened in Relief Society a few years ago, and I don’t know what’s being taught in the youth classes.) I kept my comments brief and had to leave to resume my duties, but wanted to go on record opposing the teaching of things not fit to be said in a church that carries the name of Jesus Christ.

    My conclusions from the short conversation: people are so ignorant that they don’t even realize their ignorance. I would second Walker’s suggestion about getting to know LGBT members, but I would also prefer to spare them from people who are vicious and cruel either from ignorance, malice, or a firm sense of conviction about what they (think they) know.

  7. I really like this. I never read that bit of 1 Corinthians in that way. I just felt — deep down in my core — that a church that teaches us to hate others (or make illegitimate or illegal or make to feel that way about themselves) just because they have feelings about their sexuality that I don’t experience (or for any other reason) is doing a tremendous disservice to society. And, when I look closely at the teachings of Jesus, I can’t find where he preached against homosexuality or in favor of rigid gender roles at all. (Perhaps I’m missing something.) But, the older I get, the more I realize that God doesn’t want me to let those in power tell me what’s right and wrong, no matter the form and nature of the hierarchy. God wants me to learn to do it for myself. Frankly, that’s all I have. I refuse to abdicate that right any longer.

  8. Kevin

    I’ve seen this movie close to 10,000 times. My son watches it daily year round. I’m a fan.

    So. I’ve often wondered something. Jack “gets” Christmas because he got to spend time in Christmas town. But his cohorts don’t get it because Jack’s second hand account of Christmas is just plain insufficient. Perhaps at the end they start to appreciate it because Santa Claus brings Christmas to them with Halloween town’s first snowfall.

    I guess where that leaves us non-Claymation folk is recognizing that I can’t do much. But I truly believe the changes I’ve seen in my lifetime in the church are simply a result of the members having their own experiences that broaden their perspective on the messages we grew up with.

    And I don’t mean that the messages we grew up with were wrong and now I’m enlightened; but perhaps the experiences helped me really appreciate how vast the exceptions are, and how important love and understanding are to merging these two worlds. And honestly I have the church to thank for this; my international mission ignited a thirst for learning about the journies outside of my culture.

    I can’t make it snow for others; I’m grateful those who can are finally being given a voice.

  9. Chadwick, that was lovely. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Michael.

  10. I am concerned that there are more subversive forces at work with regard to the information we find on the web with regard to homosexuality. Last week I listened to the 1000th episode of Mormon Stories, a two-part followup with Benji Schwimmer, a gay former Latter-day Saint. There were six comments at the bottom, three positive and three negative. I checked back later that day and all three negative comments had been removed, although reference to “Emily” and her comment remained in one of the positive comments. None of the negative comments were in any way out of line, although they did criticize John Delhin. I have tried several times in various places to post my own negative impressions from listening because of the graphic sexual nature of Benji’s remarks. I have posted on different days and from different computers, but none have appeared. New positive comments continue to appear. And one man whose comment had been removed, a comment that contained a pointed rebuke to John Dehlin, had a new, less critical comment removed.

  11. Correction to prior comment. Last word should be ‘posted not ‘removed. His replacement comment, far less critical, has been posted. All this gives the impression that the listeners find Benji’s interview brave instead of crude.

  12. Gina Holder says:

    You are correct about John Dehlin and Mormon Stories. He is very thin skinned and only professes impartiality and open reporting. We had a broadcast Sunday from Salt Lake that warned us to be careful about the sources we chose to believe.

  13. I always thought it was interesting that the folks in Halloween town can only see things from their perspective. When Jack tells them about “Santa Clause” they literally hear “Sandy Claws”.

  14. Oh, and I too have been “unposted” on John Dehlin’s blogs.

  15. I was working in an office where the manager was gay at the time gay marriage was legalized. Her loud public comment. “Now we are going to force the Mormon Church to allow gay marriage.”
    I believe the Church leaders are facing tremendous pressures right now and need our support. Which should not stop us from individually loving all God’s children.
    And John Dehlin, I was very naive about him for a long time. He is now trying to destroy the reputation of the Church. He makes over $80,000 a year for running Mormon Stories, so I assume he removes negative comments so his financial backers cannot see what the listeners truly believe about an interview.

  16. Sidebottom says:

    I, too, question your central premise. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a deeply flawed film – visually arresting, perhaps, but fraught with poor pacing and a string of overwrought and unmemorable musical numbers. The later Burton/Elfman collaboration – Corpse Bride – is the far superior film.

  17. I also question your central premise. The Shining is the best Halloween movie ever made. And yes, I know it takes place in the winter, and no, I don’t care.

  18. Christian says:

    Happy All Saints Day!

  19. Since John Dehlin is refusing to accept my criticisms about his interviews on Mormon Stories, I will publish them here.
    First, he lacks even rudimentary knowledge about LDS Church history. I listened to an old interview where he commented on President Hinckley’s revelation on Blacks and the Priesthood. It was President Kimball. This shows up in any interview where someone makes any Church history claim.
    Second, he is a poor interviewer.
    Third, he is willing to let his guests make any claim about a Church leader. That must immediately disqualify them from receiving revelation. But criticisms of him, those he pounces on and acts as if they are entirely out of bounds.
    Back on topic. I like the movie. I do not believe it can therefore be used to make a point about gay marriage or other LGBTQ issues. If people disagree with the Church position on LGBTQ issues, I wish they would just say so. I do not want these people excluded from the Church. However, I have lived long enough to realize Satan is wily. The meaning of the word ‘gender has been completely changed by court rulings during my lifetime, changing the meaning of laws passed that contain that word. Abortion has been redefined to be just another method of birth control. Same legal issues. Legalization of gambling on Indian reservations in California was painted as a way to help more Native Americans to have a way to earn a living in rural areas. The day after it passed, these tribes signed up Las Vegas casinos to run their operations and people tried to claim parts of heavily populated Oakland were tribal lands.
    I will trust the leaders of the Church on this. I believe Satan’s real goal is to shut down the temple work that is currently depriving him of influence over millions of souls. I do not think he cares at all about the LGBTQ people, except as he can lure them into decadent behavior and celebrate their despair when this behavior does not make them happy.
    In my mind, the point we should be making is that Satan is real and he hates us.

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