These genre-spoofing episodes are a scream.
A few decades ago, TV was oversaturated with episodes that promised to be special, from crossovers to Very Special Episodes to annual holiday shows. Despite marketing that proclaimed their difference from everyday television (“special” was basically the ‘80s word for “event television”), most weren’t at all memorable. Eventually, most types of special episodes fell by the wayside, but–luckily for fans of parody and schmaltz–the holiday special never really left us. This isn’t exactly survival of the fittest, however; if everyone had a dollar for every lazy take on “A Christmas Carol” that’s graced our television screens, we’d all be richer than Scrooge McDuck.
For some reason, Halloween specials and horror parodies have largely evolved past the cliches that still befall other holiday episodes. Perhaps these specials better than expected because of the creative leeway afforded by the unspoken Halloween episode dictum laid down by specials of holidays past–be weird, be scary, and in if you’re really feeling bold, don’t even worry about staying within your own show’s canon. Plus, horror more than any other genre is fertile ground for homage, deconstruction, and jokes made at its own expense, giving shows room to riff on their own characters and the genre simultaneously. Below, check out ten great TV comedies that have taken horror homage to new levels.
The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror V”
If any series can elevate animated vivisection and horror-pun end credits to an art form, it’s The Simpsons. The Treehouse of Horror specials started in 1990 and have had 29 installments and counting, each of which includes at least three gory, creepy, or otherworldly short stories–all featuring the signature humor one would expect from Matt Groening’s classic comedic odyssey. Dozens of segments deserve recognition, but “Treehouse of Horror V” is a standout for embracing the surprisingly whimsical gore that would soon become a Treehouse of Horror standard, and for its pitch-perfect parody of The Shining–or as Bart’s told to call it for copyright reasons, “The Shinning.”
Community, “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps”
No show in recent history has embraced meta-comedy as recklessly and (on a creative level) successfully as Community. Over the course of the show’s six seasons, there are four Halloween episodes, each of which–in keeping with the trajectory of the show itself, and with the exception of the Dan Harmon-less fourth season–is more comedically precise and self-referential than the last. The standout comes in season three when wannabe psychologist Britta forces the study group to tell scary stories in order to weed out a potential psychopath. The results are as hilarious as they are varied, with each story endearingly reflecting its tellers priorities and interests. While Troy’s Top Gun/Human Centipede mashup and Shirley’s underdeveloped rapture tale draw belly laughs, it’s Abed’s well-informed, hyper-logical home invader story that will be most comically satisfying to horror fans.
You’re the Worst, “Spooky Sunday Funday”
A nuanced storyline about Gretchen’s depression took an extreme turn in this episode of FXX’s relationship dramedy–just not the way you’d expect. Boyfriend Jimmy tries to shake Gretchen out of her funk by taking her to one of those extreme haunted houses, but after the group is informed that there won’t be any safe words, things get out of hand. In a dizzying, unreal extended sequence, Gretchen, Jimmy, and friends get trapped in Saw-like torture devices, chased by demonic creatures, and forced to endure extreme pain and fear that ends with projectile vomit and tears. If this sounds unappealing, it’s because it is–the show does a great job sending up the torture porn genre in just a few minutes, gross-outs and all. Then, amazingly, what seemed like it would be a simple montage calms down and stretches into an entire episode, as one character has a heart-to-heart about developing personal agency with her Buffalo Bill captor and another heads to the next haunted house to meet “a real-life Babadook.” The cleverest moment comes near the end when hipsters horror fans lament the downfall of the genre before encountering a pricelessly disturbing bit of irony.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “The Maureen Ponderosa Wedding Massacre”
Somehow a successful send-up of both zombie movies and non-chronological crime stories, this extra-bonkers Friday the 13th episode of Always Sunny finds the gang attending a backwoods wedding from hell. We learn early on that Dee and the bride–Dennis’ ex-wife Maureen–are both missing, while the guys are at the police station following an apparent zombie outbreak. This episode has tons of weird stuff going for it: an extended look at the incestuous, off-putting McPoyle family, an encounter with a vampire bat and some bath salts, and breast implants getting in the way of important paperwork. Though the stakes are high (the episode opens with Blair Witch-like night vision footage of the bloodied gang screaming and running) it’s the inexplicable asides, like when Charlie and Mac’s urgent discussion of rabies leads to a tangent about Batman and the Academy Awards, that make the episode memorable.
Black-ish, “The Purge”
The main story of this Black-ish Halloween episode isn’t great–Dre attempts to prank Junior to get him back for embarrassing him, and the results are darker and less funny than expected–but its B-plot is golden. Clueless white neighbor Janine stops by in a terrible Beyonce costume (it’s not blackface, it’s bronzer, she tells Bow) and asks grandma Ruby if she can touch her hair, before declaring a “Mischief Night” for local kids to blow off some steam with harmless shenanigans. Of course, with the help of a gung-ho Ruby, the night devolves into a full-blown Purge–and not just an homage; the film is mentioned by name several times. There’s plenty of comedy here, especially when it comes to 9-year-old Diane’s gleeful participation, but it’s also satisfying to see Ruby–a middle-aged Black woman with an anarchic Purge-type mask–stick it to Janine for her repeated offenses and general ignorance.
Bob’s Burgers, “Tina and the Real Ghost”
Bob’s Burgers is another series which could have taken up several spots on this list; the show has several adorable Halloween episodes, plus a competent Shining parody episode of its own. “Tina and the Real Ghost” gains points for taking a concept that’s been done to death–the Belchers are being haunted!–and completely revamping it in a weird and endearing way. It turns out the ghost in the restaurant is named Jeff, and he wants to date boy-crazy Tina. She and her ghostly beau (captured in a shoebox, of course) become the school’s new it-couple, while the restaurant also gains popularity from its haunted reputation. Like Bob’s Burgers at its best, this episode is silly and warm-hearted despite its strangeness. In fact, “Tina and the Real Ghost” takes a horror plot, complete with a Ouija board and ghost hunters, and turns it into a gentle lesson on supporting one’s family and loving oneself.
Psych, “Heeeeere’s Lassie”
USA channel’s phony detective show had a knack for–if not an obsession with–parody. During its eight-season run, the show spoofed everything from Friday the 13th to Clue to Twin Peaks, often even bringing on guest stars from the source material. But only this episode paid homage to at least three different classic horror movies while maintaining an original mystery that was independent of any of them. When Detective Lassiter moves into the discounted apartment of a man who recently committed suicide, he quickly suspects he’s being haunted. A pregnant neighbor named Rosemarie, a creepy bowl-cutted kid on a red tricycle, and Poltergeist-like furniture rearrangement are just a few of the pop culture references to crop up in Lassie’s new place. Shawn and Gus respond with their regular antics, and while the conclusion isn’t particularly memorable, Gus’ Shelley-Duvall-at-her-most-emotive impression is impossible to forget.
Be Cool, Scooby-Doo, “Where There’s A Will, There’s a Wraith”
No one on earth asked for a twelfth Scooby-Doo show, which might be why this exceedingly clever, laugh-out-loud series has flown under the radar since its 2015 premiere. It’s worth your time for a lot of reasons, just one of which is this House on Haunted Hill-style episode that infuses a classic Mystery Inc. story (the gang must stay the night at a haunted mansion, glowing phantom and all) with kooky humor and new-generation ethos. This iteration of the franchise features lots of unexpected delights, from an ever-curious, deeply weird Daphne to a more talkative, droll version of the titular pooch. Where past series’ relied on a comfortable formula, this one takes the basics–clues, a chase, the big reveal of the villain’s identity–and adds in tons of running gags and random bits, along with an exemplary voice cast including Matthew Lillard and Kate Micucci, for a show that’s addictive to Mystery Inc. fans of all ages.
Boy Meets World, “And Then There Was Shawn”
In the episode that inspired a thousand Disney channel imitators, Shawn’s detention-room daydream is a near-perfect construction of suspense and humor. Though the title is a riff on the classic Agatha Christie novel, this central murder mystery is a more direct parody of Scream, which was released two years before this episode. The episode is framed around Shawn’s stress over Cory and Topanga’s recent breakup, but thanks to a stellar script, it works just as well as a half-hour standalone. Shawn plays the film buff role, trying to predict the killer’s moves based on genre tropes, and it’s a testament to the episode that his running joke about horror movie titles (“The killer is one of us.” “Just like in The Killer is One of Us!” ) doesn’t even crack the top five funniest bits.
Cougar Town, “Free Fallin’”
Okay, this episode of the wine-mom-friendly sitcom isn’t related to Halloween at all, but it does feature a uproarious, mystifying B-plot that could’ve only come from the mind of Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence. The less that’s said, the better, but it’s worth mentioning that the cul-de-sac crew meets their match–a group that’s blonder, younger, and infinitely creepier than they are.