With Christmas just around the corner, families will soon be coming together with a warm cup of cocoa to watch a classic, possibly for the umpteenth time. A Nightmare Before Christmas was originally released in 1993, but has since gained an almost cult following during Halloween and Christmas alike. But this year, I encourage you to think about what this film can teach us about science.
The film starts out with Jack Skellington the Pumpkin King feeling bored and disappointed by Halloween. So Jack leaves the ghoulish dancing and monstrous songs of his home. He happens upon Christmas Town, a land of winter joy, that inspires Jack to attempt his own takeover of the holiday. Instead, he creates a disastrous Halloween-Christmas hybrid that terrorizes the children of the world. With the help of a friend, Jack then saves Santa from a plan of Jack’s own creation and saves Christmas in the “Nick” of time.
I would have been happy to leave things there, except for a key series of scenes between Jack discovering Christmas Town and devising his fiendish plan. Because how does Jack go about his investigation of Christmas? By consulting the mad scientist of Halloween Town and borrowing some of his equipment! There is even a scene where Jack reads a book entitled “The Scientific Method.” That changed the movie for me entirely.
Suddenly it dawns on me that Jack Skellington is an expert in the field of Halloween who sees the discipline failing to innovate. He goes out looking for inspiration and finds an entirely new paradigm—Christmas. He is filled with joy exploring this new land and brings back artifacts to study. He then goes to a scientist, borrows his tools, and proceeds to attempt “science” to make discoveries about the artifacts. With new insights from his research, he devises a plan to completely overhaul Halloween, actually making it Christmas. Jack directs the towns people to change their work, creating the Frankenstein Christmas we know and love in the film. But the people of the world do not like Jack’s new holiday and he is literally shot out of the sky. Realizing his error, Jack returns to Halloween town to free Santa Claus and set everything right.
But what insight does that bring into the practice of science?
First, Jack’s primary mistake was that he never actually consulted anyone from Christmas Town about his plan. Instead, he purposefully kidnaps the expert in that field and hides him away so as not to disrupt the holiday takeover. Jack assumed that his own expertise in Halloween prepared him to also be an expert in Christmas.
Second, Jack seriously misuses all the equipment he borrows from the mad scientist. He breaks microscope slides and says things like “Interesting reaction, but what does it mean!?”, all without having any real understanding of the scientific method. The equations he writes on the board are utter nonsense that he toils over alone. He never consults his peers or even the mad scientist about his discoveries. It completely invalidates any of the findings he made from the artifacts he brings back from Christmas Town.
Finally, because Jack does not fully understand the paradigm he is trying to teach, he is forced to communicate Christmas in terms of Halloween. This causes the towns folk to create Halloween interpretations of Christmas that eventually lead to the horrible gifts that terrify the children to whom they are given.
But in the end, we see Jack, dressed in the tattered remains of his Santa costume with the skeleton suit peeking out underneath, held in the arms of an angel. Jack tells us then that he was mistaken, but what a joy to have explored the realm of possibilities that opened up when he came across a new way of thinking. His conclusion from that is not to try again. Instead he reiterates “I, Jack the Pumpkin King!”, realizing that this whole adventure has only lead him back to himself, the expert in Halloween.
I find A Nightmare Before Christmas to be a cautionary tale about the role of science in society. And while I believe that everyone should strive to think scientifically, not everyone has to be a scientist who actually does science. For me, the villain of this movie is not just Jack’s hubris, but actually the mad scientist who gave Jack the tools without ensuring that he actually knew how to use them.
It also makes me wonder who was consulted in the making of this film—clearly not a scientist. But for such a popular movie about holidays and adventure, who would think to consult a scientist at all? Even so, the film relies on what people think they know about science to propel the plot. For that reason, I think we need more people with scientific training helping to shape public perceptions of science. Because I don’t want anyone thinking that Jack Skellington was a scientist.