During the 1980s and early 1990s, it was difficult to avoid running into some holiday-themed TV programming, some even from Disney. The House of Mouse yielded its fair share of Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween-related content, most of it dug-up from material in their vaults, just re-edited with new narrations or introductions. They even cut together old cartoons just set to modern day songs of the era. Most of these quick and dirty specials never made it past their initial broadcast and/or VHS releases.
Case in point: DISNEY’S HALLOWEEN TREAT, a half hour special starring a talking Jack-O-Lantern who runs through various Halloween-related Disney clips, such as NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN from FANTASIA and the Headless Horseman segment from THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW. Nowadays, DISNEY’S HALLOWEEN TREAT would probably be deemed too dark or intense for younger viewers due its spooky atmosphere. It was made in a non-PC world wherein adults still enjoyed frightening children. Spooky specials like this not only helped shape young minds, but also made horror fanatics out of many of them.
Disney’s Halloween specials date back further than the 1980s, though. It all began on February 15, 1956 when an episode of the DISNEYLAND TV show, OUR UNSUNG VILLAINS, aired on ABC. It wasn’t a Halloween episode per se, but definitely a prelude of things to come. Hosted by Hans Conried playing the Magic Mirror from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, it highlighted several of Disney’s most famous baddies from their library of shorts and full-length animated features, including Captain Hook from PETER PAN and the evil queen from SNOW WHITE.
Another episode of DISNEYLAND called THE GREAT CAT FAMILY aired later that same year on September 19. Walt Disney, himself, partook in his usual hosting duties for this one, focusing on the history of cats from all over the world. The Halloween-related moments came when the focus shifted to how many folks in olden times feared cats in a very superstitious way. This was followed up with clips of cats from CINDERELLA and PINNOCHIO, amongst others. Some of this material was later reused for DISNEY’S HAUNTED HALLOWEEN.
A follow-up to OUR UNSUNG VILLAINS called DISNEY’S GREATEST VILLAINS aired on May 15, 1977 on NBC as a part of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY. Hans Conried reprised his role as the Magic Mirror highlighting many more members of Disney’s infamous Rogues’ Gallery, including Mad Madam Mim from THE SWORD IN THE STONE, Maleficent from SLEEPING BEAUTY, and The Queen of Hearts from ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Much of what became A DISNEY HALLOWEEN later on was culled from this special.
HALLOWEEN HALL O’ FAME was also a 1977 episode of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY, airing on October 30. This is really where the impetus behind what became DISNEY’S HALLOWEEN TREAT came from. Jonathan Winters stars as a night watchman who, while working at the Disney Studios on Halloween night, finds a crystal ball in the prop room which features a talking Jack-O-Lantern (also played by Jonathan Winters). This was all interspersed between segments from the Donald Duck cartoon, TRICK OR TREAT, Pluto in PLUTO’S JUDGEMENT DAY, and THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW.
Then came the fairest of them all: DISNEY’S HALLOWEEN TREAT, which originally aired on CBS on October 30, 1982 as a part of the WALT DISNEY show. Narrated by the aforementioned talking Jack-O-Lantern (now voiced by Hal Douglas), it was a brief compilation of many of the clips from past specials including THE SWORD IN THE STONE, FANTASIA, PETER PAN, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, and THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, as well as 101 DALMATIANS. The show featured a very memorable theme song set to Disney’s 1929 SILLY SYMPHONY animated short THE SKELETON DANCE. The special was later released on VHS in 1984 and featured in reruns throughout the 1980s. A common misconception amongst fans has always been that the longer version entitled A DISNEY HALLOWEEN came first and was later shortened, which is not the case at all.
DISNEY’S HAUNTED HALLOWEEN followed a year later, but was merely an “educational” short cut together for school projectors. While it featured many of the same elements of a Disney Halloween special from that period, it’s a bit unique in that it wasn’t meant for broadcast TV. As such, it draws upon a number of various Disney cartoons, long and short, and also includes live action footage from Disney’s The Haunted Mansion attraction. It also has the distinction of being the spookiest of all of the Disney Halloween specials, at least in my opinion.
Also released in 1983, this time on VHS and Laserdisc, was WALT DISNEY CARTOON CLASSICS: SCARY TALES. It wasn’t much more than a compilation of cartoons with Halloween in mind, such as DONALD DUCK AND THE GORILLA, THE SKELETON DANCE, THE HAUNTED HOUSE, and PLUTO’S JUDGEMENT DAY, but it fits the bill. Again, it was also never released in this form on DVD, let alone Blu-ray.
The hour-long special A DISNEY HALLOWEEN aired as a part of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY on CBS on October 29, 1983. A more or less extended version of DISNEY’S HALLOWEEN TREAT, even more cartoons and other Halloween-related subject matter are featured as well as an additional co-host (Hans Conried as the Magic Mirror, yet again). This special is the culmination of everything that came before it as it practically draws upon every Halloween special previously seen. Never released to home video, it constantly reran throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which is where I originally saw it. For many years, I simply thought that I had dreamed up a longer version of DISNEY’S HALLOWEEN TREAT, which is where part of my fascination on the subject took hold.
As previously mentioned, Disney (as well as Hanna-Barbera) also took to syncing up their cartoons to music, releasing them as DISNEY’S DTV. One of these specials, MONSTER HITS, aired on NBC on October 30, 1987. Hosted by Jeffrey Jones as the Magic Mirror this time around, it featured tracks from Michael Jackson, Rockwell, Electric Light Orchestra, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Parker, Jr., amongst others. Truth be told, it doesn’t take much of a genius to guess which songs were utilized for this show.
Although many other VHS compilations came along, there were only two other shows worth mentioning, which were MICKEY’S HOUSE OF MOUSE: VILLAINS, which was a direct-to-video movie released on VHS and DVD on October 30, 2002 and ONCE UPON A HALLOWEEN, another direct-to-video movie released on DVD on September 28, 2005 in the U.K. While the former is an adaptation of the Disney Channel show DISNEY’S HOUSE OF MOUSE and features very little material from past Halloween specials, it’s very much a part of ONCE UPON A HALLOWEEN at least in short bursts.
If you grew up during the 1980s and 1990s and some of these specials weren’t a part of your childhood, you really missed out on some good times. Many of these specials can be obtained through various means, but don’t look for them to make it to DVD or Blu-ray anytime soon. The sad part is that Disney, now more than ever, seems uninterested in these shows, which makes sharing them with new generations more difficult. But, the most important aspect of all is this: if you’ve never seen DISNEY’S HALLOWEEN TREAT before, you must program it into your next Halloween marathon. For both the young and the old, it’s a treasure.