The Big Picture

  • Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is a powerful poem about grief and madness, with a distraught narrator encountering a mysterious raven that only says “Nevermore.”
  • The first “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons features a faithful adaptation of “The Raven,” introducing viewers to Poe’s gothic moodiness and making it accessible through animation.
  • The segment is eerie and moody, staying true to the source material while incorporating humor and familiar Simpsons gags, making it one of the best segments in the show’s Halloween specials.

Edgar Allan Poe is known for his gothic horror literature, but movies and TV keep his legacy thriving off the page too. He appears as a character in The Pale Blue Eye and his works will be adapted in Mike Flanagan’s new series, The Fall of the House of Usher. This love for Poe isn’t new. In October 1990, his most famous poem, “The Raven,” is retold in the first “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons, dipping Springfield in a cauldron bubbling with scary pseudonyms, funny tombstones, and grisly animation. Poe’s writing gets a faithful adaptation, rather than being turned into a parody the “Treehouse” brand would frequently deliver afterward. This makes for a nifty introduction to first-time readers of the author. I should know. Watching the segment during a school day is why I’m a fan of the sitcom’s Halloween specials and the gothic moodiness of Poe, all thanks to the arrival of a mysterious, dark-feathered bird that utters one word and one word only.

Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ Is About Grief and Madness

Homer pointing at the Raven Bart in Treehouse of Horror

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,” is how “The Raven” begins. It’s about a distraught narrator who is grieving over their departed and beloved Lenore. His sorrow is suddenly interrupted by a surprising visitor when a raven flies into his chamber, perching itself on a bust. The narrator is baffled at the creature, and though he tries to be amused, he quickly becomes unsettled. No matter what the narrator says, the raven replies with one word: “Nevermore.” The man gets infuriated, with no clue if the raven might be related to Lenore or if the bird is mocking him, all of this driving him over the edge. When the poem ends, the raven sits where it landed, never answering why it came, the final stanza has the narrator accept defeat, “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted — nevermore!” Reading this in high school, especially when I wasn’t used to the Victorian-era style of writing, I was as baffled as the narrator.

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Freshman year in high school is hardly the best time for anyone to look back on, at least it wasn’t for me. In no way was my experience as onscreen depictions would have someone believe it to be. There was no one like the manipulative, toxic giant that is Nate Jacobs from Euphoria. While there was a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), it consisted of friendly conversations not bloodied noses like the queer fight club from Bottoms. For me, freshman year of high school was awkward and boring. At least with the Halloween season, there was a surprise in store. For several days in October, my English class got assigned to read the works of Edgar Allan Poe, from “The Black Cat,” published in 1843, to “The Raven,” published in 1845. Outside, the days were gray and cold, and inside the classroom setting was not too different. The room was placed in a sharp corner of the school building, with buzzing fluorescent lights that could irritate your eyes if you dared look at them. It could make everyone in my class, as Poe described his narrator, weak and weary.

The dates I mentioned (1843 and 1845) are notable not just to when they were published but to point out Poe’s older writing style. The prose can be difficult to visualize, compared to what I was used to. It was nothing like what I was used to reading, having grown out of R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps and gone on to Stephen King. To finish out the week of readings, my teacher prepared a special presentation to help my English class have a better understanding of “The Raven.” She pulled the projector screen down and clicked on the educational site, TeacherTube, to find the last segment of The Simpsons’ first Halloween special. From the thumbnail alone, there was the promise it wouldn’t be a tedious watch to sit through. Similar to the difference between when a teacher chose to put on 1968’s Romeo and Juliet or Baz Luhrmann‘s modernized rendition, The Simpsons took Poe’s lyrical words that were difficult to comprehend, animating them into accessible, evocative imagery.

What Happens in ‘The Simpsons’ Adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe?

Homer in 'The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horrors episode, The Raven. 
Image via Fox 

The first “Treehouse of Horror” opens on a frame story that takes place in a treehouse, a setting every other Halloween episode leaves out. Lisa (Yeardley Smith) and Bart (Nancy Cartwright) try to out-scare each other with stories, with Lisa turning to urban legends, while Bart makes up his stuff. He can’t scare her with a haunted house inspired by Poltergeist (1982) or with an abduction story where tentacled aliens have a cookbook that is either called, “How To Cook Forty Humans” or “How to Cook For Forty Humans.” So Lisa takes back the storytelling duties, going for classic literature to get her brother shaking in his sneakers. When Bart sees what Lisa is preparing to read he tries to put a stop to it, crying out, “Wait a minute, that’s a school book!” This distaste rippled across my class because while paper cuts are scary, having to read aloud is another kind of nightmare. Words get jumbled no matter who opens their mouths, especially in an attempt to keep up with the rhythm of “The Raven.” Having The Simpsons play on the projector screen, everyone could sit back, no school book needed or dreaded public speaking undertaken.

Homer (Daniel Castellaneta) is the narrator, grieving the loss of Lenore, or in this case, it’s Marge (Julie Kavner) who is in the role. Bart then swoops in as the raven, the bird design having the Simpson child’s recognizable head shape. The whole segment starts and ends as a faithful adaptation, excluding several cutaways to the treehouse where Bart interrupts his sister, annoyed at how Poe missed the chance for a jump scare. “He’s establishing mood!” Lisa says in defense. And this is true, the poem is moody, and so is the segment. The animation, like the early Simpsons, is not as smooth as it is nowadays, helping the visuals to come out eerie, whereas the colors are somber, full of blues and greens that fill in the walls and shadows. While it stays faithful to the source, there are traditional gags and jokes known to the animated sitcom that are slipped in.

‘The Simpsons’ First Halloween Special Had Its Best Segment

Homer and Bart in 'The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horrors episode, The Raven. 
Image via Fox 

There is a great use of comedy to tone down the doom and gloom, by returning to Bart and Lisa’s banter in their treehouse, or within the segment, Homer’s usual outbursts against Bart (“Why you little!”) enter the Poe tale. A bust the Bart-raven flies by is of Edgar Allan Poe’s head, easy to spot once you see illustrations of the author’s broad forehead. Marge as “Lenore,” is seen in two portraits, one featuring her body and the other to include Marge’s Bride of Frankenstein-like hair. When Bart-raven rushes out of Homer’s reach, the bird darts to a shelf and drops books over which are ones penned by Poe, including “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and The Pendulum.” What is definitely not in the original poem, is when Homer gets hit on the head from these books and slumps over, seeing the Bart-raven as stars circling his head, hearing them call out endlessly, “Nevermore, Nevermore, Nevermore.” The ending to “The Raven” segment is open-ended like the poem, for a chilling lack of resolution even with The Simpsons’ touch.

Bart is unimpressed, mentioning how it reminds him of, “Friday the 13th, part one. It’s pretty tame by today’s standards.” But the segment is effective! The orchestral music stirs up the desperation that erupts from Homer. Stuck inside the narrator’s chamber feels oppressive. There is the voice acting, giving intensity to the animation on the screen. The deep voice of guest star James Earl Jones shares duties in narrating “The Raven,” Jones never playing into the gags, doing his part to maintain the bleakness of the poem. Bart might have been unimpressed, but I became a fan of the Halloween specials and became just as fascinated by reading more of the gothic works of Poe. Nothing beats this early “Treehouse of Horror” episode, particularly “The Raven” segment, which is one of the best that the show has to offer. The humor of The Simpsons that you know and love is put together with the shadows of Edgar Allan Poe’s darkness.

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