As I shared for Halloween, I’m not good at being scared. I’m a big baby that has to keep the lights on after every foray into the creepier side of films. Even when those films have stayed with me in positive ways for years, the fear is a constant, coursing tension in my body. Such is the case with Nightmare Before Christmas. This movie would eventually become one of my favorites, my high school bedroom decorated in orange and black and ghost dogs, but the thought of Oogie still gives me chills.
Spoiler warning and content warning: sick mom, abusive parents, and discussion of evil and death.
I was eight years old. It must have been the summer because I had nothing to do. Most of my life was spent in the wasteland known as South Florida, where it rarely dips below 80 degrees, so time often bleeds together in my memory without seasons as markers, but summer was the only time I wasn’t busily reading textbooks for fun. I was living with my grandmother while my parents sorted out some issues, and was soon to be whisked off to Ludowici, Georgia (population 1,440) to be homeschooled by my ill, prescription pill-addicted mother.
It was a great time of quiet, of beginning to recover emotionally from my mother’s bout of hospital trips. Then I got my period. My family couldn’t believe it. I was only eight after all—how could this be happening? I come from tall, thin, flat-chested stock. Most of them were far into their teens before puberty struck. My mother didn’t get her period until a year before she got pregnant with me. Like always, I was the misfit. Suddenly deeply depressed by my body’s newest betrayal, I was allowed to watch whatever movie I wanted and we got to order pizza even though my grandmother was already concerned about my weight.
My cousin suggested Nightmare Before Christmas (her favorite film, and over a decade later her wedding cake would be topped by Jack Skellington and Sally Finkelstein) and because she was cool and older, I agreed.
It meant many sleepless nights, and years of fearing the space beneath my bed. The movie supposes that each holiday is its own town, accessible to each other through a forest of portal-doors called the Holiday Woods. The Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington, has grown tired of performing the same routine over and over. After visiting Christmas Town he talks the Halloween inhabitants into mixing things up this year and celebrating Christmas instead of Halloween. However, the citizens confuse the purpose of the holiday, misconstrue all of the traditions, and turn everything merry into something scary.
But, of course: This is the only lens they had to view the world from, they lived in a land of terror. Every tradition they’d followed up to that point was meant to be frightening. Though I probably didn’t realize it at the time, this was very parallel to my experience. I saw things in terms of “scary” or “safe,” with “scary” being the norm. There are several characters that affected me. The Mayor, whose head was comprised of two masks, one happy, one sad, seemed so like my father, whose mood could flip in a second. The trio of cackling, malicious children were the bullies who hated me for being too smart, too fat, too scared. Sally was me, locked in the tower with a controlling, disabled parent.
The character that was the worst, the closest to home, was Oogie Boogie. I’m not sure if there is a way to describe the fear I felt when he came on screen. It was similar to the electrified-nerve feeling I experience now when I’m worried I’ve forgotten something important, but this was lasting and in every bit of my body.
Here’s Oogie’s song as a reminder:
The children, Lock, Shock, and Barrel, have delivered Santa Claus (Sandy Claws) to, basically, the devil who ties him up and threatens his life. Oogie Boogie is the breathing beneath the bed, the movement out of the corner of my eye, the creaking in the closet, the shapeless man following me in the dark. Oogie is the laughing, uncaring, looming figure of every bad memory. But worst of all I worried he was also me and my new foreign body.
“It’s hopeless, you’re finished
You haven’t got a prayer
‘Cause I’m Mr. Oogie Boogie
And you ain’t going nowhere.”
His body seemed so disgusting. He’s made of a canvas bag, paunchy. So similar to my pasty, chubby, uncomfortable adolescent body. I hated him like I hated myself. Jack kills him by ripping his seams open and the comparisons only seemed to strengthen:
There it was, Oogie Boogie was filled with bugs. He was nothing but an evil soul animated by insects in fabric. My own body, now entering “womanhood,” must also be filled with monstrosities. How vile, how grotesque, no wonder my family was so disturbed by my seemingly rapid aging, I must seem to them the way Oogie seemed to me. I cried and cried until my grandmother, convinced I was sad about the villain’s death, reassured me that he wasn’t really gone forever. This was most certainly not comforting.