The Nightmare Before Christmas straddles the thin line between being a spooky Halloween movie, and a festive Christmas movie. While there is much debate about which category the gorgeous stop-motion animated movie falls into, the truth is that this offering from King of Gothic Tim Burton, is a Christmas classic. Yes, it’s spooky enough to watch on Halloween night, but at its core, the story is about Christmas – albeit a rather creepy take on the holiday.
The Nightmare Before Christmas follows the journey of the aptly named Jack Skellington as he plans to usurp Christmas with his devotion to all things macabre. Over the course of the movie, Jack becomes ensnared in a romance as he’s slowly taught to appreciate the heart and meaning of Christmas.
That might not sound too remarkable, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually a mythic examination of innocence and the strength it can require to learn from mistakes. Heavy heapings of imagination help it along , and while the movie’s mainstream appeal is (sadly) limited, it aches with atmosphere and emotion. This has been enough to ensure the movie’s status as a cult classic, but even some of the dark Christmas movie’s most devoted fans are unaware of the origin of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Coraline’s Henry Selick, and was the director’s first movie. However, the film was wholly inspired by a menacing story devised by Tim Burton. Long, long before he ever directed a Batman movie or a ‘live-action’ Disney movie, Burton was an animator at Walt Disney Production, and it was at this time, in 1982, when the idea for The Nightmare Before Christmas was first formed.
While working as an animator, Burton was inspired to write a deliciously dark Christmas-themed poem about a skeletal Santa with a skeletal sleigh who sought to bring his own twisted Christmas to the world. Perfectly normal.
The poem itself, which can be found in its entirety online, is long and enchanting. It is much the same story as the movie it would go on to inspire and explores the story of Jack Skellington, his dog Zero, and his encounter with Santa Claus.
With creeping, curling mists and eerie gravestones, the poem is overflowing with the same kind of Gothic imagery that makes The Nightmare Before Christmas movie so distinguishable and delightful. It makes for the perfect pre-Christmas reading for anyone who appreciates the darkness in life, much like the movie it inspired a decade later.
Of course, there’s also a lot that distinguishes the poem from the movie that it would go on to be adapted into. For example, the poem has a much shorter cast of characters, and the romantic subplot is a new addition which was created specifically for the movie.
The biggest surprise, though, is that Burton didn’t direct the movie after writing the poem that inspired it. Instead, the director was too deep in the superhero movie Batman Returns and was hesitant to get involved in the stop-animation process, which could be notoriously difficult. Burton did work as a producer on the movie, and this (along with the fact that he was the man behind the film’s story) is why The Nightmare Before Christmas is so often attributed to him, despite him not being the director behind it.
So, The Nightmare Before Christmas’s creative process and story has many more twists and turns than you might expect. The movie is an adaptation of a Tim Burton poem, but not directed by Tim Burton himself. Despite its unusual path to creation, The Nightmare Before Christmas remains essential Christmas viewing, especially for those with a penchant for the sinister.