The magic of Halloween TV specials

Are holiday episodes a relic of the past?

Nick Porisch

More stories from Nick Porisch

The Highlight Reel
May 10, 2023

An all-time classic Halloween special — “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

Television is pretty cool. As a storytelling format, it has a unique structure compared to any other medium. 

The episodic nature of TV means stories can cover greater spans of time, and individual episodes can have their own themes, styles, and time settings than the rest of the show.

This is where the concept of the special comes in. Specials are, as the label suggests, special episodes of a TV show that branch off from the themes, structure or setting of the rest of the show.

Specials might include clip shows, crossovers or episodes where characters travel to a new locale.

One of the most common, and memorable, types of TV specials is the holiday special, and one of the most popular holiday specials is the Halloween special.

Halloween specials are opportunities for traditional comedies or dramas to inject an extra spike of spookiness into their formula, and sometimes an opportunity for more serious shows to get a little more silly.

A common format of Halloween special is to structure the episode around our familiar cast of characters telling scary stories, providing a neat framework to explore a handful of non-canon spooky vignettes.

Regular Show” uses this format every season with their “Terror Tales of the Park” anthology, allowing the creators to give a slightly more spooky spin to the show’s usual wacky antics.

The most iconic example of this style of Halloween special is “The Simpsons” “Treehouse of Horror” anthology, which has been running for over thirty years now. Some of the most iconic moments from one of the most influential TV comedies of all time come from that anthology.

Not all TV shows use that format, though. “Brooklyn-99” structures its Halloween episodes around an annual tradition among the titular precinct’s staff, in which they compete to prove their detective skills by stealing a crown from one another.

Other shows avoid a recurring theme or only sporadically feature Halloween specials at all.

Community” features four Halloween specials over the course of its six season run. 

The season two episode “Epidemiology” features the show’s characters facing off against a zombie epidemic after the college’s dean uses contaminated army rations to fill out a buffet and save money, only for all the characters’ memories to be wiped at the episode’s conclusion.

The Cartoon Network miniseries “Over the Garden Wall” is renowned for its fall vibes, being centered on two brothers’ journey through an aesthetically pleasing autumnal world and featuring allusions to Halloween throughout. 

The Halloween special is a classic television tradition, but one that is becoming arguably antiquated as more and more shows become streaming exclusive.

Holiday specials became a tradition in the era of live TV, where episodes were scheduled to be aired the same week as Halloween.

Now, when shows are released in season-long blocks on streaming services, holiday specials seem more and more counter-intuitive. Watching a Christmas or Halloween special feels weird when you’re seeing it in mid-July.

As some streaming services move back towards a weekly release schedule for new episodes, there’s still hope for a renaissance of Halloween specials. Maybe this classic television tradition will find a place in the modern streaming world.


Porisch can be found at [email protected].