On October 27 1966, CBS debuted an animated family Halloween special based on Charles Schulz’s syndicated newspaper comic strip, “Peanuts”. While seemingly an innocuous children’s cartoon, the themes on display were disappointment, alienation, neurosis, delusion and despair.
These were concerns Schulz gnawed over daily for decades on the ‘funny’ pages of our nations leading newspapers, but here in the half hour animated ‘special’, they crystallized to a razor sharpness that 48 years later still cuts as cleanly and deeply as the first time it was unsheathed.
We watch it annually. We memorize it’s rhythms, we could almost chant along, and so by repetition we are desensitized to the childhood horror which is the “Great Pumpkin’s” true subject matter.
The story is made up of three character arcs; the events of a single Halloween night and following morning as experienced by Linus Van Pelt, Charlie Brown and the dog Snoopy. In this essay, I will examine each arc, arriving at some semblance of what Schulz intended to convey through the narrative.
Is Linus clinically insane? Certainly he is neurotic. He sucks his thumb, he carries a blanket, he is sickened by the Freudian image of his sister gutting a Pumpkin. These almost Ibsen-esque weaknesses are taken as given, but does his belief in the ‘Great Pumpkin’ indicate a diagnosable delusional state? How does Schulz intend us to see this? There are several distinct possibilities. Certainly, the great Pumpkin is a parody of Santa Claus. Millions of Children believe in a magical being in a flying sled, bringing an impossible number of gifts to an impossible number of people in a single night. Since this is a culturally endorsed myth, children are encouraged to engage it, and so the question of mental health never arises. Here, though, Schultz grafts a similarly bizarre myth onto Halloween. Every year the Great Pumpkin rises out of the Pumpkin Patch he finds the most ‘sincere’ and flies through the air delivering toys to good boys and girls. But beyond removing the Santa myth from its usual context to illustrate its absurdity, what do we make of this?
In Schulz’s universe, has Linus created the Great Pumpkin myth himself? Does he assume that since Christmas has Santa, than Halloween must have something similar? Or are we to believe the practice of writing to and waiting for the Great Pumpkin, while rare compared with the practice of Trick-or-Treating, is recognized? Is he engaging in a culturally sponsored make believe (Like Santa) or does Schulz intend us to see him as actively delusional?
If yes, his need to drag others into his belief system is disturbing. Linus exploits young Sally Browns ‘crush’ on him and tries to indoctrinate her into the quasi-religious practice of ‘waiting’ for the great Pumpkin. She in turn personifies childhood’s fear of societal rejection. By believing in him, she has opened herself to ridicule, missed the group affirmation of ‘tricks or treats’. Initially She offers her love, but this is soon replaced with blame and threats. Their status roles now completely reversed, Linus’s final emasculation comes in the form of a fainting spell when he believes he is having a religious experience and is witnessing the arrival of a god, but is in fact merely looking at a dog.
He will lie on the ground, alone and unloved, convinced of his own unworthiness. The ‘Great Pumpkin’ did not come because he allowed himself an instant of doubt, saying ‘if’ the Great Pumpkin comes instead of ‘when’. This hairline crack in his perfect faith is all it takes for him to be cast out and it is here he is found and taken in late that night by his sister. This would seem comforting, but think; Where are his parents? It is Halloween night and their child has not returned home, is in fact sleeping alone outdoors. Where are the police? Where is the amber alert? No. It falls to his sibling, a child herself, to care for him. In Schulz’s universe any appeal for adult succor goes unanswered. They exist, but are always unseen and non functional. Producer Bill Melendez exploits this alienation to advantage by rendering adult ‘voices’ as unintelligible bleats on a muted trumpet.
Charlie Brown, initially elated at having been invited to a Halloween Party is soon informed the invitation is a mistake. Not content to leave his alter ego isolated by simple exclusion, Schultz makes his singularity public through the ruse of a further ‘mistake’, his ‘costume’, a bed sheet ghost with multiple eyeholes. A self-inflicted wound, he had ‘trouble’ with the scissors. On a second level, as eyes are seen in literature as the ‘windows of the soul’, brown has externalized his vulnerability. His soul is raw, open, unprotected. Compare his shame to Pigpen. Similarly individualized by his omnipresent cloud of filth, his pride and obvious self-esteem serve to cast Brown’s self-loathing in high relief.
It is while Trick or Treating however, that we see the true depth of Brown’s predicament. At each stop, as the costumed children describe their ‘treats’ we learn Brown has received instead of candy, a ‘rock’.
What conclusions is Schultz inviting us to draw with these rocks? Are we to assume that the unseen, unreachable adults recognize Brown’s innate lack of human worth? Or is the universe itself casting him out? Does candy undergo a miracle of reverse transubstantiation, passing from food (the stuff of life) to rock (Un-life) inside his trick-or-treat bag? Where as Linus believes he is punished for sin and weakness, Brown is punished simply for existing.
Later, at the party, Lucy will use his head as a model for a jack-o-lantern, a concrete demonstration that Brown is a non-person. Think back to the opening scene where Lucy gutted a Pumpkin and Linus accused her of ‘Killing’ it. Is she metaphorically ‘killing’ Brown now? Or are we meant to see her use of Brown as model Pumpkin as a declaration that Linus’s moral inclinations are useless? And yet, it is Lucy, the ultimate denier of the piece, who alone demonstrates compassion when she later retrieves Linus from the Pumpkin Patch, delivering him from the place of his humiliation and failure to home and safety. Brown never even thinks to look for Linus, and perhaps this weakness is all the justification needed for his lowest of all tribal status.
In Snoopy, Schulz presents the classic Wise Fool as alternative. With this Dog there is no line between fantasy and reality. What he imagines (in this case that he is a World War One Flying Ace) simply is for as long as the belief suits him. When the time seems right, belief is abandoned without guilt. Compare this to the agony suffered by Linus over his crisis of faith, or Brown’s utter helplessness. It is worth noting that the exact moment Snoopy abandons his hero fantasy is his kiss with Lucy, a kiss that utterly (if briefly) destroys her status mastery.
Snoopy is free of guilt, free from expectation, immune to claims of tribal status. But Snoopy is a Dog. He can ape humanity, but is not human. Linus and Brown are allowed to see the successful alternative he represents, but are barred from embracing it by their essential nature. Like Browns ersatz party invitation, Snoopy’s lifestyle is a reward that is never truly on offer.
In the universe of ‘Peanuts’ can one hope for growth or change? Sadly, no. In the closing scene, Brown assumes the experience in the pumpkin patch has caused Linus to abandon faith and embrace a more existential approach. Linus is insulted. His faith is, if anything, stronger. And why shouldn’t it be? Linus and Brown both come to the same unrewarding end. No toys for the unfaithful Linus, no Candy for the unlucky Brown. Why learn the lesson of experience if it yields us nothing? False hope trumps nihilism because false though it may be, it’s still hope. In the end, it is the struggle for sincerity and not the sincerity itself that makes the pumpkin patch truly worthy.