In ENGL 801 “Graduate Studies in English,” a required course for incoming M.A. students, we have always asked our graduate students to develop an original contribution to a current scholarly conversation about a literary or cultural text.
Starting last year, we added a final writing assignment: we asked our graduate students to create a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words), tailoring their academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.
Students followed the guidelines shared by Irene Dumitrescu in her essay “What Academics Misunderstand about ‘Public Writing’”: “you should follow Horace’s advice for poetry: Aim to instruct or delight – ideally, to do both. Tell your readers a story, and give them the basic information they need to take it in. Avoid jargon for the most part, but teach your readers a key term when it will help them understand your topic better.”
During the next week, we’ll be featuring the pieces of public writing selected for publication here following anonymous review by three faculty members. Today, we start with “Over the Garden Wall is Trying to Scare Your Kids, and That’s Not a Bad Thing” by Ben Trickey (MA ’23). Enjoy!
— Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 (Fall 2021)
A forest of hollow trees with twisted faces…
A monstrous dog with sharp teeth and glowing eyes…
A mysterious stranger carrying an axe…
These descriptions probably don’t seem like they would make for a good children’s TV show, but Patrick McHale and his team would disagree. Not only do all of these images appear in a show that aired on Cartoon Network, but they all appear in the eleven minutes of the first episode alone.
Welcome to “the Unknown,” the mysterious setting of the 2014 animated miniseries Over the Garden Wall. The series combines elements of comedy, mystery, fantasy, and horror to tell the story of our protagonists — uptight teenager Wirt and his care-free, younger brother Greg — as they find themselves lost in a forest that can only be described as “a haunting dream world that was a cross between a Germanic fairy tale and colonial America” (McHale 7). In the ten episodes of the show’s limited run, Wirt and Greg attempt to navigate the Unknown and find their way back home without being kidnapped by the series’ shadowy antagonist: The Beast.
You might be thinking at this point, “Over the Garden Wall sounds surprisingly scary for a kid’s show,” and you are absolutely correct. However, this choice to integrate horror elements into the series is not simply a shallow attempt to shock its young audience. Rather, the show’s dark tone pays homage to the fairy tale tradition made popular by the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen.
The fairy tale media we experience today often achieves two varieties of tone: the bright, hopeful quality of Disney films like Tangled and Moana, or the postmodernist satirizing of films like DreamWorks’ Shrek series. But traditional fairy tales were dark, violent, and scary. Over the Garden Wall recreates this tone in its grim and bizarre world, the characters that live there, and our protagonists’ journey through the woods.
In the first episode, “The Old Grist Mill,” our protagonists hear the sound of someone chopping wood in the distance. Wirt asks, “Do you think it’s some kind of deranged lunatic with an ax, waiting out there in the darkness for innocent victims?” Within the episode’s first two minutes, one of its main characters suggests they might be killed by an axe murderer. In this moment, the creators of the show are letting the audience know that this series is going to try to scare you, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
While some might argue that horror elements are not appropriate in a TV show for children, I think it’s important we understand the way horror can be a valuable experience for a child’s emotional growth.
In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim explores the psychological effect of fairy tales. He explains that these stories can allow children to experience fear in a controlled setting where they are physically removed from any actual danger. Bettelheim highlights the way that removing the risk from an audience’s experience of fear creates an environment in which they can confront more difficult anxieties that exist within their conscious and subconscious minds. Though Bettelheim would have never been able to see the show, Over the Garden Wall continues in this fairy tale tradition by placing its young protagonists in the face of horrifying danger, allowing the audience to experience that fear with them from the safety of their own homes.
If the creators’ message was unclear in the first few scenes of the show, they use the rest of the episode to reinforce the idea of visceral terror being a reality for Wirt and Greg as they travel through the Unknown. Only a few minutes after they come face to face with the axe-wielding stranger Wirt was trying to avoid, a giant, monstrous black dog with glowing eyes tries to attack Greg. In a scene of pure nightmare fuel, the monster corners Greg at the bottom of a barrel and opens its jaws to eat him. Though the boys end the episode unharmed, Over the Garden Wall demonstrates a real sense of danger that the young protagonists will face. Where Disney movies may only hint at ideas of violence and death in a musical number, the show demonstrates that it is willing to make it characters grapple with these ideas head on, reflecting the grim nature of traditional fairy tales.
Yet Over the Garden Wall does more than just scare it audience. The characters share jokes, sing songs, search for ghosts in haunted mansions, and play in a band of anthropomorphic frogs. The show is a fantasy adventure, a comedy, a family drama, a fairy tale, and a horror story. The scary elements of the show are just one aspect of its value, but this aspect heightens the complexity of the show by placing it among the works of the fairy tale canon. Over the Garden Wall is definitely trying to scare your kids, but it’s also trying to make them laugh and explore and sing and think. The series acknowledges kids’ capabilities for emotional growth and asks them to feel along with Wirt and Greg as they wander the woods, trying to return home.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. 1st edition., Knopf, 1976.
McHale, Patrick, and Sean Edgar. The Art of Over the Garden Wall. Dark Horse Comics, 2017.
“The Old Grist Mill.” Over the Garden Wall, created by Patrick McHale, season 1, episode 1, Cartoon Network, 3 Nov. 2014.
— Ben Trickey (MA ’23)
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