Halloween is over and Christmas is still several weeks away. So that means you can find some retail store with greatly discounted skeleton Halloween decorations and costumes on clearance shelves just a couple aisles away from skeleton Christmas ornaments.
The latter are very specific — representing Jack Skellington, the mayor of Halloween Town in Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The 1993 puppet animation feature directed by Henry Selick was released by Touchstone Pictures, the Walt Disney Studios label for their adult productions, owing to its PG rating and potentially scary images for younger children. When it was rereleased in Digital 3D in 2006, though, it went out as a Walt Disney Pictures release. And it has become something of a perennial family Christmas classic and a marketing bonanza for Disney at Christmastime.
But if Disney has made skeletons a recognizable part of Christmas ornamentation in the last couple of decades, it may also have helped make them a regular part of Halloween 90 years ago. That’s not so obvious, though, because Jack Skellington is a specific skeleton figure and thus copyrightable and exploitable, but a generic skeleton is neither.
Ambulatory skeletons have figured in western art for centuries, often representing Death personified (usually as the Grim Reaper with scythe and often hood and cape), but they showed up rarely in the first three decades of the cinema. Skeleton costumes would generally be too expensive to make look really convincing, and all those bones would be too difficult to draw for animated cartoons. Ghosts, of the sheet with eye holes variety, would be far easier to draw.
According to animation historian Jeff Ryan (in his 2018 book “A Mouse Divided” on Walt Disney and his early partner and animator, Ub Iwerks), Halloween in the USA before the late 1920s featured black cats, bats and jack-o-lanterns but no skeletons. But then in May of 1929, the Disney Studio’s first Silly Symphony, “The Skeleton Dance,” appeared and changed all that. Iwerks, who had done some intensive research on the history of skeletal iconography going back a couple of millennia, animated it almost entirely by himself to a score by Carl Stalling (who would later write the music for 600 or so Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies for Warner Bros.).
Disney and Iwerks had skeletons rising from their graves and dancing around the cemetery or playing their comrades’ rib cages and spines like xylophones. Distributors and exhibitors were wary at first, thinking it too gruesome and preferring Disney’s incredibly popular mouse cartoons instead. But audiences loved it, and subsequently skeletons and skeleton costumes became regular components of Halloween.
Later that same year, Disney combined more skeletons with his star, Mickey Mouse, in another Iwerks cartoon, “The Haunted House.” This time, a storm drives Mickey into the title edifice where a hooded skeleton forces him to play the piano while other skeletons dance and do the xylophone gag again. And in 1933, Mickey, drawn by David Hand this time, encountered threatening skeletons in the laboratory of the title villain in “The Mad Doctor.”
Iwerks left Disney not long after “The Haunted House” (in part because of creative differences with Walt that began with “Skeleton Dance”) and eventually set up his own studio. There he made “Spooks” in 1932, wherein his Flip the Frog character encounters skeletons in a haunted house during a storm. Flip even dances with a lady skeleton, though her top and bottom halves keep separating,
In 1937 Iwerks did a Color Rhapsody cartoon (all the previous cartoons mentioned here were in black and white) for Columbia entitled “Skelton Frolic.” Skeletons rise from their graves, dance around the cemetery, make music (including treating rib and spines like xylophones), and repeat other gags from “The Skeleton Dance.”
In the mid-20th century, the best known appearances of animated skeletons turn up in live-action adventure fantasies by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. His 1958 hit “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” faced its hero off against a skeleton warrior, and audience reaction to that scene was so positive that five years later Harryhausen upped the ante in “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963). Jason and two of his Argonauts confront seven sword-wielding skeletons in the film’s climactic scene, which has come to be regarded as a classic example of this sort of animation.
And in Sam Raimi’s 1992 “Army of Darkness,” Bruce Campbell’s time-travelling character has to defend medieval Britain from revivified skeletons bent on murder.
In this century, Tim Burton once again gave viewers more congenial and tuneful skeletons in his 2005 stop-motion animated fantasy “Corpse Bride.” More recent, more colorful computer-animated films have explored the osseous imagery of the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition. “The Book of Life” (2014) from 20th Century Fox and producer Guillermo del Toro and Pixar’s 2017 “Coco” both visited a Mexican-themed afterlife populated by the ossified departed (who play a lot of music but don’t, if I recall correctly, resort to the ribs/xylophone gimmick).
A live-action film with a real-life bony bonus is also celebrating a significant decadal anniversary this year — William Castle’s campy horror classic “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) starring Vincent Price. Castle, an inveterate showman, loved to enhance the appeal of his films with in-theatre gimmicks. For the initial run of “House,” selected theatres set up elaborate pulley systems so that when a skeleton rose out of a vat of acid in the film, a life-size plastic skeleton would float out over the audience up to the balcony.
But for the most part, you have animated films — and originally Walt Disney’s — to thank for the influx of skeletons into popular culture and in particular the extended holiday season. But so far, Disney has not found a way to capitalize on merchandise exploiting the skeletons of Thanksgiving turkeys.