Ten Scary Simpsons Moments

– By Andreas

“Cool, she’ll be a freak!” – Bart

To have an annual Halloween episode is one thing. To freely cram shocking, ghoulish imagery into otherwise normal episodes of a family sitcom is another. But then, The Simpsons’ writers and animators never had much interest in following formulas or obeying TV conventions, preferring to meld their own savagely satirical experiments with an emotionally naturalistic representation of family life. This, and the fluid nature of its animation, meant that the show could veer from mundane reality to nightmarish fantasy in the blink of an eye.

Here, then, are ten of the most WTF-inspiring, pants-wetting moments from Simpsons continuity. They’re all bizarre, deeply terrifying digressions, but each one still adds depth to its episode. I give you the crème de la crème of The Simpsons’ out-of-nowhere scares…

10) “The Day the Violence Died”

This episode’s ending introduces Lester and Eliza, doppelgängers for Bart and Lisa who save the day, ominously pass by the Simpson house, and are never seen again. They’re drawn roughly in the same style as the Tracey Ullman shorts, but their appearance isn’t nostalgic so much as an eerie, never-resolved non sequitur. As Bart says, “There’s something unsettling about that.”

9) “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”

Homer’s visit to the land of the Space Coyote—a blocky, stylized version of the American Southwest—is probably the series’ most effectively sustained foray into the surreal. Most of his hallucination, however, is more psychedelically beautiful than it is scary. The exception is when Homer spots a faceless statue of Marge which, as he begs it to talk to him, blows away in the wind. It’s a disturbing visual metaphor for the failure to communicate.

8) “Lisa’s First Word”

When Homer’s shoddy woodworking skills meet the automatically scary concept of “clown,” it’s no surprise that this monstrosity is the result. It’s such a dead-on evocation of how frightening the world is to a child and how oblivious parents can be, all summed up in one meme-generating sentence: “Can’t sleep… clown’ll eat me…”

7) “Itchy & Scratchy Land”

Countless I&S episodes and their respective mutilations could’ve fit in this slot, but for some reason I find this excerpt from Scratchtasia to be the worst of all. When an army of microscopic Itchies hack Scratchy up from the inside, this grotesque diversion transcends its Fantasia-parodying roots and sends shivers up my spine. Eww!

6) “The Old Man and the Lisa”

On the whole, this is one of season 8’s weaker episodes, and its interplay between Lisa and Mr. Burns lacks any real subversive bite. Still, the finale is gross and traumatizing enough to compensate for all of that, as Burns perverts Lisa’s ecofriendly idealism into a plant that “recycles” all sea life into a repulsive slurry. His scheme is so vile and implausibly evil that it’s impossible to watch without a severe cringe.

5) “New Kid on the Block”

Yeah, it’s just a quick cutaway to literalize Bart’s heartbreak, but it’s also scary in its own right between the narrowed palette of red, black, and blue and the malice in Laura’s voice as she says “You won’t be needing this!” It viscerally captures the power of preteen angst with, in effect, a very short and vivid horror movie. The heart sliding down the wall and into the trash bin is the perfect final touch.

4) “Selma’s Choice”

Nothing good can come of little kids visiting a beer-themed amusement park and, sure enough, Bart badgers Lisa into drinking the mysterious, hallucinogenic “water” of Duff Gardens. As Lisa descends into a hellish trip, her aunt transforms into something out of Ralph Steadman’s worst nightmares, complete with a monster growing from her shoulder. The finishing touch? The pale, naked Lisa shouting, “I am the lizard queen!” before being heavily medicated.

3) “Brother from the Same Planet”

This episode’s whole opening sequence is a brutal glimpse into the emotional dynamics of abandonment and irresponsible parenting, as Homer forgets to pick Bart up from soccer practice. Homer lies in the bathtub, dreaming about finding his son’s skeleton, while Bart waits in the rain, seething with rage. Eventually Homer goes to retrieve his son, but by then he’s so intensely furious that he imagines his father melting amidst plumes of hellfire.

This brief fantasy goes straight into the deep end of unmitigated horror. I don’t think any other episode (Treehouse of Horror included) has a single image as disturbing as Homer’s flesh bubbling and his eyes turning back into his head as he leans in to say, “How ’bout a hug?” The image draws us into the depths of Bart’s resentment, motivating the rest of the episode while chilling us to the bone.

2) “My Sister, My Sitter”

This is the rare Simpsons episode whose main goal is to inspire fear rather than laughter. It’s still very funny, but as it approaches its climax beneath the harsh Squidport lights, any comedy is overwhelmed by the raw terror of Lisa’s waking nightmare. It’s a precocious child’s worst-case scenario: saddled with a small responsibility, she (through Bart’s ADHD-exacerbated behavior) has lost control and is wandering down the highway—her unconscious brother in a wheelbarrow and her baby sister in a cat carrier.

And somehow, with every turn, this worst case grows even worse. When the hazy, mud-soaked Lisa gazes up at the judgmental townspeople, it paralyzes me with vicarious anxiety. Every childhood has at least one or two events this bad, and “My Sister, My Sitter” is a painful reminder of how easily they can come about.

1) “Bart Sells His Soul”

I’ve written extensively about this episode over at Pussy Goes Grrr; suffice it to say that Bart’s dark night of the soul, as he scrambles through downtown Springfield in spiritual peril, is easily among the series’ scariest moments. It’s hard enough to see Bart quivering in fear throughout the episode, but when he begs a terrified Ralph for “a soul… any soul—yours!” it crosses over into another territory altogether.

It becomes deep, dark, and disturbing. It’s stomach-churning horror that organically emerges from the show’s perceptive vision of childhood. That organic quality is exactly why The Simpsons contained such great, spellbinding moments of horror. If you look hard enough into the minds and souls of its inhabitants, Springfield can be a very scary place.

20 Responses to “Ten Scary Simpsons Moments”

  1. 1 Derp
    30 June 2011 at 3:42 pm

    How can you possibly omit Lisa taking advantage of Bart while he’s knocked out in the truffles episode? Honestly, it’s possibly worse than all of these due to the manipulation of the character.

    Great list, though.

    • 30 June 2011 at 3:45 pm

      Truffles episode? Are you sure you mean the Simpsons? I am not aware of any such episode in proper Simpsons canon.

      • 3 Charlie Sweatpants
        30 June 2011 at 3:54 pm

        It’s not in “proper Simpsons canon” as far as I’m concerned, but there was an episode in Season 22 where Bart could smell truffles for some reason and Lisa took advantage of him for some other reason. It was bad, and creepy (but lame, out of character creepy, not the good kind of creepy like when Homer runs around Marge and she doesn’t have a front during his insanity pepper hallucination).

        • 4 Andreas
          30 June 2011 at 5:19 pm

          Yeah, I went mainly for creepy moments that didn’t suck, and contributed to the episodes they were in. So while Season 22 is often very disturbing (the truffles thing, Bob’s face as noted below, the eyes popping out in the Werner Herzog episode), all these incidents are really poorly written and conceived. They made no sense, weren’t character-based, and ultimately weren’t all that scary.

          So I restricted myself to non-Zombie Simpsons and it’s BEST, scariest moments. I hope that clears things up!

  2. 30 June 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Laura ripping Bart’s heart off is one of my favourite scenes ever.

  3. 7 Member of the Bonerland Medical Association
    30 June 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Behold! The ravages of age!

  4. 8 Patrick
    30 June 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Thank goodness you only chose stuff from the classic simpsons coz if i ever see any faces being peeled off from ‘the bob next door’ i will puke in horror :|

  5. 30 June 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Again, lots of stuff from recent episodes are just unimaginably creepy (the aforementioned Bob Next Door episode), but the Scorpion’s Tale took the cake. For some unimaginable reason (ie, lousy writing), every old person’s eyes pop out due to mood medication. But since they’re so mellow, this doesn’t phase them at all. Gah!

    But going back to the classic stuff, the only notable non-THoH omission I can think of is that whole B-Story in “Team Homer” where the kids becomes emotionless thanks to their uniforms. Speaking with the same tone as HAL, blinking in unison, playing tag with absolutely no enthusiasm, and it even has Nelson forgetting his catchphrase.

  6. 10 Mr. Incognito
    30 June 2011 at 7:57 pm

    I was creeped out when Laura pulled Bart’s heart out and kicked it onto the wall and into the wastebasket, and the clown bed is the kind of stuff my childhood nightmares were made out of.

    But, being older, I always get a kick out of the Clown Bed when it first shows up. I, as well as many other guys, can also relate to Bart whenever a girl I know tells me she has a boyfriend.

    Just goes to show just how well The Simpsons were written and how well the early years’ episodes have aged.

  7. 30 June 2011 at 9:52 pm

    I thought Krusty trying to do the ventrilaquist bit where the doll head breaks from Krusty Gets Cancelled was a bit unnerving.

    • 12 Member of the Bonerland Medical Association
      1 July 2011 at 3:16 am

      The dummy can’t hurt ya! It isn’t even alive!

  8. 13 kokairu
    1 July 2011 at 5:02 am

    I realise it’s dodgy territory, but the episode that springs to mind for me is season 9’s ‘The Joy of Sect.’ For the years following, atypical and surreal situations would become normal for the show, but when this one aired I found it incredibly unnerving seeing my favourite TV characters dragged into such a weird, dystopian world. It feels very hopeless and despairing from Marge’s point of view, especially when they manage to break Lisa.

  9. 14 blah
    1 July 2011 at 6:45 am

    thanks for this great list; your # 1 is my favorite episode ever, to boot… there are so many creepy moments in that episode… “Say your PRAYERS, Simpson… since the schools can’t force ya!”

    I always thought the “…join us, Lisa.. room for one more” thing at the couch in the episode where Lisa thinks she’s going to be stupid as she gets older is extremely creepy, but not in an obvious or easily-explainable way.

    Thank you SO MUCH for the “Lester and Eliza” mention, btw. Those kids really did creep me out.

    Another honourable mention is the Cape Feare “HEY BART WANNA SEE MY NEW CHAINSAW AND HOCKEY MASK?” Yeah, it was for comedy, but I remember it freaking me out when I was younger.

  10. 15 D.N.
    2 July 2011 at 4:55 am

    The Homer’s-melting-face bit from “Brother from the Same Planet” is the first thing I think of when it comes to scary Simpsons moments. I still think it’s pretty amazing that the show got away with something so terrifying and grotesque 20 years ago.

  11. 16 Andreas
    3 July 2011 at 3:50 pm

    These are some great additional suggestions!

    @Jake: The falling-apart dummy is terrifying. And it works great in context to show how desperate Krusty is.

    @kokairu: I also agree about “The Joy of Sect.” It didn’t really have a single, especially scary moment I could point to (as with the episodes on the list) but it is a good sign of how Season 9 could get really eerie at times. I was considering the end-of-the-world hysteria in “Lisa the Skeptic,” too.

    @blah The “Cape Fear” one came close to making it, but ultimately it’s just too funny to really leave me shivering. Anyway, it’s a near-perfect mesh of scary & funny, and a great joke.

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