I’m a believer in rhyming one’s recreational movie choices with the seasons—I also only drink IPAs in the summer, and stouts in the winter—and in fact I wrote a whole book with my wife about the possibilities therein (“Flickipedia”). Thus, in these weeks leading up to Halloween, a once sacred childhood holiday good for little as an adult besides watching movies, I’ll be filthy with recommendations that live outside of the axiomatic wheelhouse. But first, I must sing the hymn of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), a hand-sized piece of crude TV animation that instantly became, and remains, an American cultural standard. Now part of our collective DNA, it’s an achingly lovely ballade of a grade-schooler’s waist-high universe, complete with intimations of secret forces looming just beyond view in the autumnal dusk.
Halloween once had mythic significance, especially for anyone born before 1980 or so, when after four o’clock or so on this one day kids could still run amuck abusing each other with eggs and shaving cream, and sensible adults and their toddlers stayed indoors. There was always something else out there, some lurking and chilling possibility as the night approached, and if we never stumbled upon it in our dangerous roaming and candy collection, we never forgot its promise of otherworldliness. Not only does Bill Melendez and Charles M. Schulz’s little cartoon hit that nerve better than any film ever has, but it’s also a uniquely evocative tribute to the moods of October, to the capacities of the unsquashed imagination, to the yearning for some kind of mystical justice in a modern world where the gentle and ruminative and unlucky, the Charlie Browns and Linus Van Pelts among us, can get ground into emotional hamburger if they’re not careful.
In fact, this holiday “special” is the Passion of Linus, who spends it as an outcast, crying out in the wilderness against “hypocrisy,” for “sincerity,” and in the name of all things unlikely and visionary and hopeful. Linus is the John the Baptist here, a square peg kid in a round-headed world, poignantly compelled to follow his private star, howling against the mundane greediness of America (candy!) and holding out, alone in the night, for something better, something grander and more winged, a pagan god of his own invention. In a sense, the Great Pumpkin was Linus’s answer to the void of Halloween—the something we never found. But for his troubles Linus’s defiant stand marks him as a grade-school Galileo on the brink of the Inquisition. Charlie Brown’s tribulations are standard-issue social nightmares, in which his contemporaries insult him to his face and unglimpsed grown-ups actually throw rocks in his trick-or-treat bag instead of candy. Linus, though, is an apostate for whom the weedy lots of Middle American suburbia is the desert of the Old Testament, whipped by winds and glowering under a black-eyed sky. The show isn’t a parable of faith-vs.-greed so much as a paradigm of unorthodoxy; Linus is absolutely the hero Arthur Rimbaud and Johnny Rotten wanted to be. And, in the end, he is unrepentant.
Thus, there’s a tragic inevitability at the heart of the story. Linus does not surrender, even as the credits roll, and we all know what happens to uncompromising individualists in a conformist world, especially those whose dreams or art will not be relinquished however much they openly contradict the status quo. We should want Linus to give up and forget about his personal godling—for his own sake—but at the same time we hope he doesn’t. We hope he heroically grips his lunatic mythos with both hands and never says die. The cost of such a commitment can be, we know, extreme and even mortal, but when a child’s crazy, skylarking convictions get erased, we all lose a bit of our human fire.
Martyred or not in our imaginations, Linus’s courageous resistance in the pumpkin patch voices a universal plaintiveness—all children instinctively muster questions and fears about existence and God. “Oh, Great Pumpkin, where are you?” the child wails alone into the night, in a scalding moment of doubt—followed by a fade to ominous black and a commercial break – effectively asking the most fundamental of human questions. Linus’s triumph is not so much his indomitable faith—faith being usually a trust in received dogma—but his headlong act of creation, which is in the end the only thing that can save us.
Snoopy knows this, too, self-creating a haunting journey through the no man’s land and barbed-wire trenches of WWI, in what might be the single most mysterious passage ever animated for American television. Being a dog, though, his sacrifices are minimal. Linus is our true chevalier, the saint of heretics and daydreamers. Story may be meaning, but who controls the narrative? For Linus, the grandeur of autumnal Midwestern watercolor twilights and pumpkin patches demanded an epiphany, a confrontation with the unknown, and he was the boy who decided to make it happen, come hell or high water.
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times, Time Out Chicago, Fandor, Turner Classic Movies and LA Weekly. His latest books include FLICKIPEDIA and the novel HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT.