There is no better holiday to celebrate individuality and community than Halloween, a holiday that has its roots in the festival of Samhain and All Saints Day. Historically seen as a time in which the boundaries between our world and the ‘Otherworld’ are weakened, Halloween is when communities would come together to give offerings to the spirits and remember or reconnect with the dead. Today, Halloween is spent trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, watching scary movies, and attending costume parties along with other things. It’s a night full of appreciation for the strange, the creative, the ancient, the otherworldly, and the magical. In the wise words of Marnie Piper (Kimberly J. Brown) in the 1998 Disney Channel Original Movie Halloweentown, “Halloween is cool, nature boy.”
Halloweentown opens with Marnie’s mother Gwen (Judith Hoag) fighting with her about going to a costume party. Gwen refuses to let her children go out on Halloween, much to Marnie’s frustration in particular. And while her children are initially unaware of their mother’s heritage it is revealed that she left Halloweentown to live in the mortal world years ago. She met and married a human man one Halloween night who eventually passed away and has spent the last thirteen years raising their three children — Marnie, Dylan (Joey Zimmerman), and Sophie (Emily Roeske) — as mortals and living as one herself. Throughout the film, Gwen staunchly denies the magical part of herself and her relationships with the rest of her family, particularly her own mother Agatha (Debbie Reynolds), suffers somewhat as a result. It is only through re-affirming her own personal connection with magic that Gwen can truly connect with her family, working together to finally defeat Kalabar (Robin Thomas). While she lost touch with an important aspect of her unique identity for a time, Gwen’s acceptance of magic again in her life not only is central in bonding with her family but in saving all of Halloweentown.
13-year-old Marnie loves Halloween — with an avid interest in all things weird, the holiday was practically made for her or it would be if she was ever allowed to go out on Halloween night. It isn’t until her grandmother reveals that Marnie herself is a witch, however, that it starts to become clear where her inherent fascination with Halloween comes from. Marnie’s experiences throughout the course of the film are part of a larger journey to discover herself, starting with knowing her family’s history and the existence of her own powers within this context. Like her mother and grandmother before her, Marnie comes from a long line of powerful witches and warlocks. Even before she is aware of this lineage though, she has already connected with the concept of the ‘other’ and embraced the idea of her own unique self. As it seems like all is lost and Kalabar has won by magicking Marnie unconscious, she hears the voices of her mother telling her that she isn’t a witch, herself stubbornly proclaiming that she is actually, and her grandmother reminding her of their family legacy. While Marnie already feels connected to these ideas of the ‘other’ and her individuality, it is through feeling connected to her family history and as such, her own power too, that Marnie is able to save her mother and grandmother. Her adventure in the Disney-esque version of ‘Otherworld’, otherwise known as Halloweentown, is what allows Marnie to realize her full potential self.
Luke (Phillip Van Dyke), a young goblin who was given the appearance of a human by Kalabar in exchange for acting as his minion. He feels ashamed of the goblin part of himself, thinking that it makes him ugly. Luke chose to act on behalf of Kalabar solely because he could make him handsome. It isn’t until Kalabar unexpectedly freezes Agatha that he realizes the mistake that he has made. Luke chooses to help Marnie try and rescue her mother and grandmother, and whether it is largely out of guilt or not, by acting towards the collective care of the community even at the potential expense of his own safety and appearance, he helps save the town. After being returned to his goblin form, Marnie comforts Luke, suggesting that what makes someone truly attractive is not how they look, but how they choose to act. The collective care for the wellbeing of the community extends to everyone that lives within it, even those that have made mistakes. In choosing to act with care for the lives of others, Luke is given the grace to start on his own respective journey to feel more at peace with his goblin nature.
This immense regard for individuality and community during the holiday of Halloween is something that can actually be celebrated all year round and the perpetually strange characters in Halloweentown can certainly attest to that. As Agatha Cromwell once said, “I’ve always said the movies could teach us about life.” Halloweentown truly is a film for all ages, even 22 years after its premiere on Disney Channel.