What better way to kick off spooky season than with a deep-dive into one of the most iconic Halloween films of all time? (Or maybe it’s a Christmas film? We’ll let you make the call.) That’s right, we’re talking Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas!
The Disney stop-motion animation film celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. To honor the movie’s legacy and explore its growth into a cultural phenomenon, writer and journalist Emily Zemler wrote Disney Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas: Beyond Halloween Town – The Story, The Characters & The Legacy.
The coffee table book is perfect for casual and die-hard Nightmare Before Christmas fans alike, exploring the cultural history of the film from its inception to its hold on modern pop culture. Featuring interviews with animators, voice talent, sculptors, and musicians, as well as a forward by Burton himself, Beyond Halloween Town dives into the origins and inspiration behind Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, the incredible journey to bring the film to life, and the lasting impact it made on media and fans.
We sat down with Zemler to discuss her book and The Nightmare Before Christmas’ 30th anniversary. Read our full interview below.
THS: Let’s start at the beginning. What do you remember about your first experience watching Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas? What drew you in or stuck out to you?
Emily Zemler: I don’t remember the exact first time, but I know I did not see it in the theater. I would’ve rented it from Blockbuster. I was very obsessed with Tim Burton when I was younger. Really I was obsessed with film in general, but he in particular was really fascinating to me. And I read Burton on Burton, which obviously was a source for this book.
I remember seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas, probably around Halloween, and just thinking ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this.’ I’d never seen anything that looked like it, that sounded like it, that had these types of characters. And I think it’s really striking when you see and feel something so unusual. It sticks with you and it lingers.
And of course, I also loved the songs, which get stuck in your head for the rest of your life, probably.
THS: What made you decide that it was time to revisit Nightmare Before Christmas for this book?
EZ: Well, the obvious thing is that it’s the 30th anniversary. But I had done a book called Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiara, and that was looking deeper at Disney Princess and their cultural legacy. So I wanted to do something similar. And I realized there actually hadn’t been a lot of books written about Nightmare Before Christmas, looking not just at how it was made, but the inspirations and the impact it made on pop culture.
This book is really meant as more of a cultural history of the film. It started as this very vague idea, but then the extent of the [film’s] legacy, how much it imbued itself into pop culture, even if we don’t notice it on a daily basis… You start to walk around like, ‘There’s Jack Skellington, oh and there’s Jack Skellington…’ He’s everywhere. He’s everywhere you go.
THS: When you were doing all of this research – finding these little Jack Skellingtons – was there anything that surprised you to learn about the reach of the film? The extent of the fandom, the merchandise, the other media drawing inspiration from Nightmare?
EZ: It surprised me, but then it didn’t surprise me. Do you know what I mean? Like you’re surprised by how far it’s gone. And then you think about why, and you realize how impactful the film has been, especially on this generation.
I think what’s always really cool in a book like this is looking at that original merchandise and realizing that they actually didn’t really release a lot around the film, because there wasn’t a ton of marketing done when the film first came out. They didn’t fully know what to do with it or what it was gonna be. So figuring out what those early pieces of merch were is really interesting.
But then speaking to the people who are involved with creating the merch at Disney now, it’s just mind blowing how far it goes and what people want. I mean, there are themed picnic baskets, there’s a crockpot, there are beach accessories like chairs and coolers. So if you wanna take Jack and Sally to the beach, you can. One of the most popular things is the lawn inflatables, that wave their limbs in the breeze.
Overall, it was just really striking to me to see how the merchandising has expanded beyond just Christmas and Halloween. It’s not just Christmas stockings or Halloween costumes. It’s in every part of your life. The beach accessories and the cookware and the candles and the jewelry. You can make Nightmare Before Christmas a part of your life 365 days of the year.
THS: Even doing a quick flip through of this book, there’s so many cool pictures showcasing that wide range of merch.
EZ: Oh, for sure. That had to be paired down for the purpose of the book. I mean there’s far more merchandise just through Hot Topic alone.
THS: How did you decide which ones to include?
EZ: Some of it was like…we have to show the crockpot because I just find that fascinating, that there is a Nightmare Before Christmas crockpot. I could tell you it exists, but it’s not the same as seeing it yourself. You also want to show people the more obvious things, like the Christmas ornaments and stockings.
And I think the reason you have a coffee table book is because people want to read about this stuff, but also see it. It’s a difficult process to pull these sorts of books together, because there’s folders and folders full of images to choose from. But they have to fit the layout, they have to be approved by Disney and Burton’s team, and ultimately they have to illustrate what best reflects the film. It’s a process for sure.
THS: What are some of the key traits of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas that you believe make it such a popular and enduring film?
EZ: In the book, different people have different theories on why it has endured. For me, I think one of the key things is how tangible it is. Today we’re used to seeing animation that’s CGI or that’s drawn. [Nightmare] was actual things on a stage that they were moving around and you can feel that through the screen. So the characters feel real because they were real.
I think that resonates with people. You feel connected to something because it’s more immersive, like you could reach out and touch it. You believe the character’s emotion. But I think also Nightmare Before Christmas has this really relevant story about a misfit. Whether you were a cool kid or not growing up, I think we can all relate to that feeling of ‘I don’t quite fit in. I don’t quite know what my purpose is. I’m gonna try this other thing because maybe that’ll work.’ And then ultimately you do realize what your path is gonna be.
It’s such a short movie, too. It’s 70-something minutes, but it tells this really familiar tale of someone who doesn’t feel like they fit in and is able to figure out where they do fit in. That resonates with people really strongly. Whether you relate to Jack or you relate to Sally or any of the characters, I think. It has this very strong connection to relatability that maybe not all movies have had.
But I also think it’s just down to the uniqueness, which is also down to Tim Burton’s style, and then the way in which the artists have interpreted his style. Like…it’s just cool. Jack Skellington is cool. He is really cool looking.
THS: He is! And everything about the world of Nightmare Before Christmas is so specific and detailed. It’s really mind blowing when you realize how much work went into this movie.
EZ: Yeah. It’s mentioned in the book, but I would really encourage people to find the podcast that Kat Alioshin and Todd Lookinland do, “We Know Jack.” They interview different people involved with the movie. And since they were there on set, they’re able to ask about these really specific details that maybe another interviewer wouldn’t know about. [Editor’s note: Alioshin served as an assistant production coordinator on the film; Lookinland was a set builder.]
The podcast was a great resource for me for this book, and Kat helped connect me to a lot of people. I would definitely say anyone interested in the making of the film should check out the podcast, too.
THS: Now the question of all questions… Do you personally watch the movie at Halloween or Christmas?
EZ: So to me, it’s a Halloween movie. It’s a very divisive question and a lot of people watch it for different reasons, but I feel that the iconography and the spirit is very Halloween.
THS: As we wrap things up, let’s give the fans a tease for what else they can get excited for with this book. What type of fun facts, secrets, or unknown trivia bits can people look forward to when they pick up a copy?
I think there’s a lot to look through in the book. And the beauty of a coffee table book is you can just flip through it and find something you think is interesting. That’s why we themed the chapters around certain aspects, like the music or the merchandise or the fandom.
I think one of the more interesting bits that maybe not everyone knows about is in the music chapter. Looking at the ways in which the Nightmare Before Christmas songs have been reinterpreted over the years and talking to some of the different bands who have reinterpreted them, who have been inspired by them. I think that’s really, really fun. And maybe not everyone realized that was happening at the time. I think you kind of had to be a certain age and into the emo pop punk scene to get into those songs. That’s really fun because then you can go listen to them on Spotify.
I also think the fandom chapter is really fun. My favorite bit is about the weddings. There’s a huge industry of Nightmare Before Christmas themed weddings, which I didn’t know about before writing this book. Stuff like that is in this book, things that people probably don’t already know about unless they’re a super fan. If you’re a casual fan or feeling nostalgic for seeing the film 30 years ago, you can learn about so many different aspects of it that you never realized existed.
There were things I couldn’t even find that I had heard about, like apparently there was once a Nightmare Before Christmas nightclub in Tokyo. Danny Elfman had mentioned it in an interview years ago. But then when I asked around, no one knew about it. So there’s even more that’s not in the book, if people want to use this to start digging around themselves for all those Nightmare Before Christmas secrets.
Zemler’s book Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas: Beyond Halloween Town is available now on Amazon.
More from THS Fright-A-Thon
We’re big horror and Halloween fans at That Hashtag Show. So, starting September 1, we’re launching this year’s Fright-A-Thon – a celebration of all things spooky, scary, and supernatural. Check back here for more exclusive interviews, reviews of horror films, recommendations for your spooky season and more, all the way up to October 31.