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TV Legends Revealed: How Congress Inspired an Extra-Violent 'Treehouse of Horror'

TV URBAN LEGEND: The fifth “Simpsons” "Treehouse of Horror" was intentionally extra-violent because of complaints about the series' depictions of violence.

Sunday saw the airing of the 27th edition of “The Simpsons” annual Halloween special "Treehouse of Horror" (although it wasn’t officially called "Treehouse of Horror" until the fifth installment; before that it was simply "The Simpsons Halloween Special"). These episodes have become as much of an institution as the Simpsons themselves. Because they’re "out of continuity," anything can happen to in them, including rather violent deaths of key characters.

Because they are a lot more violent than a typical episode, the Halloween specials initially included warnings that the content might not be appropriate for younger viewers. However, that was soon dropped. It’s amusing in retrospect, as the earliest specials are relatively tame not only compared to more recent Halloween episodes, but compared to television in general 25 years later. But one of the earliest (and most acclaimed) “Treehouse of Horrors” intentionally included even more violence due to an odd reason: the U.S. Congress! Read on to see how Congress led to the creation of "Treehouse of Horror V.”

A great deal of the humor in the early days of “The Simpsons,” and even to this day, is a response to the over-involvement of outside sources in the arts. Meddling networks have often been parodied by the show, a testament to the unique arrangement “The Simpsons” has with Fox (which has been ridiculed numerous times itself).

A particularly juicy source of satire is people who complain about the Simpsons. President George H.W. Bush made a relatively mild negative comment about the show, which result in an entire episode making fun of him (leading to a controversial "apology" from First Lady Barbara Bush). Justin Timberlake complained about the dialogue when he guest-starred on the show and, well, it didn’t go well for him.

One surprising area where “The Simpsons” received a lot of early criticism was violence, specifically in the "show within a show" “Itchy and Scratchy,” a parody of Tom and Jerry. Itchy and Scratchy follow a cat and a mouse who go back and forth trying to kill each other, with the cat typically dying in horrific ways. The favorite show of Bart and Lisa, it’s a parody of how children react to cartoon violence: Kids love watching the Coyote explode or fall from a cliff while trying to capture the Roadrunner, so what if the violence that occurred to the Coyote was made more realistic and kids STILL laughed? However, parents groups had a problem with the show, and in 1994 tried to convince Fox to step in and remove “Itchy and Scratchy” from “The Simpsons.” Even a few members of Congress made statements against the show’s violence.

However, the complaints only made David Mirkin, who was beginning his second (and final) season as showrunner, dig in his heels. People want to get rid of Itchy and Scratchy? In the fourth episode of Season 6, he devoted an entire episode to Itchy and Scratchy:"Itchy and Scratchy Land," one of the all-time classics (it's a parody of the film “Westworld”).

People think that the show is too violent? Mirkin decided to fill the fifth "Treehouse of Horror" with as much blood and guts as he could. The episode opens with the last warning a “Simpsons” Halloween special would receive, with Marge telling the audience Congress doesn't think anyone should watch it.

The first story, a parody of “The Shining,” with Homer in the Jack Torrance role, begins the episode’s recurring joke of Groundskeeper Willie getting killed with an ax in his back.

The second story ("Time and Punishment") is a parody of the idea of the "butterfly effect," in which any small change in the past could have great impact on the future. Homer keeps making minor changes in the past that have dramatic effects on the present. Eventually, he goes nuts and just starts slaughtering everything he comes into contact with in the past.

Finally, in "Nightmare Cafeteria," the teachers at Springfield Elementary begin to kill and eat the students. It's all very bloody.

In the final sequence, just to rub the whole "blood-and-guts" theme into the ground, the Simpsons turn their skin inside out and begin singing and dancing with their literal blood and guts seeping out.

It's all a very public warning not to ever tell David Mirkin what to do.

The legend is...

STATUS: True

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of television and check here for more legends about specifically “The Simpsons”!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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