By: Ariel Everitt
The animated television series Over the Garden Wall takes place around Halloween, on nights just like these. The show follows two half-brothers, Wirt and Greg, as they explore the eerie woods (“The Unknown”) in which they are lost.
This near-Halloween autumn setting is particularly conducive to both feelings of horror and wonder in the viewer, as is Halloween itself, along with the peculiar chill and thrill of death and change that autumn carries. In the penultimate installment of the ten-episode series, titled “Into the Unknown,” it is revealed that hijinks on Halloween night led the brothers to become lost in the woods; they fled a Halloween party in a cemetery and tumbled unconscious into this strange space.
The feelings we derive from Halloween are naturally complicated: we are scared of the horrors with which Halloweentime presents us, but we are also in awe of it all — even that which most terrifies us. The feelings of wonder that both Halloween and Over the Garden Wall spur are not complete without horrific imagery. Further, Over the Garden Wall induces both horror and wonder in the viewer for very similar reasons that Halloween does, and these evocations of wonder and horror rely on eachother, like the two young brothers in the show, in order to make their own unique, yet deeply connected, impacts.
Halloween is the one day a year when it is ordinary to see many people so openly subverting social norms, masquerading as others. For a day, this shatters the facade of our world of strict social rules. In this way, Halloween can be seen as part of a ritual, creating a liminal space in which children and adults alike can bask in the wonder of a temporary world with fundamentally different rules.
The wonder, then, facilitated by the rather inherent awe of a liminal space, is manyfold: we stand in awe of the freedom to dress in ways our social norms usually forbid, we find it wondrous to pretend for a day, and we enjoy the power that these disguises give us (whether it be the power to frighten, sexual power, the power of the monsters we embody, or simply the power to be noticed).
In Over the Garden Wall, these feelings are channeled into the mysterious forest world in which the brothers Greg and Wirt find themselves lost. They wander woods that do not obey traditional standards of conduct and reality, and they do so in their Halloween costumes which represent the creation of an awe-inspiring liminal space, no less.
The boys encounter people who reveal clearly that ordinary social order is not in place here. They come across a tavern in which each member of the town plays a specific role in their society and shows this by singing a tune about it. The people of the town try to place Wirt in one role (as the young romantic or the pilgrim), but fail to because Wirt is a product of different social norms that encompass different complexities of a person, but also (as Wirt believes) reject him for being “weird.” Thus, our social norms are shucked off in these woods, and this is disorienting, terrifying, and wondrous to the brothers.
Contributing further to their sense of being lost in a faraway land that does not abide by the rules of their homeland, the brothers also encounter and respond to many horrific images. These horrific images include: a giant black wolf with protruding rainbow eyes and a ravenous demeanor, a cultish group of undead skeletons who don pumpkins as costumes to celebrate the harvest, a misshapen old women named Auntie Whispers who eats squirming black turtles live and speaks of children being eaten, the face of a sweet young girl marred with the features of an empty-eyed demon, and a beast in the form of a shadowy wendigo whose soul lantern is fueled by oil from the trees that grow and feed upon its dead victims.
This horror functions extraordinarily well (with the jarring emotions it engenders) to represent a shucking off of traditional rules of safe reality (related to Halloween and its liminal space), as well as to lead both the viewers and the characters to feel utterly lost, afraid, and in awe of the power of this free place called The Unknown.
These horrific images show that the world these boys wander is not what our world seems to be, and a space separate from traditional reality is created, where any number of horrors and wonders are possible. We marvel at the freedom and power of this space in the woods, unbound by the laws we feel ourselves to be bound by — perhaps on every day of the year besides Halloween night.