Every Halloween since 1966, millions of people have watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. The perennial Peanuts parable is rightfully a classic of the Halloween season, but it does lack one essential element that makes the holiday so special: scares. Unless you count the bizarre Red Baron segments that eat up half the runtime, there’s nothing really horrific about Great Pumpkin. Which is why, in my oh-so-humble opinion, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (aka Garfield In Disguise) is by far the greatest Halloween special ever produced. Halfway through its short runtime, it becomes a full-blown horror movie. Charlie Brown would never dare to traumatize an entire generation of children.

garfield odie halloween

Oddly enough, Garfield has something of a secret history with the horror genre. Between October 23 and October 28 1989, newspapers ran a series of six comic strips that are now referred to as Garfield Alone. Humor is replaced with dread as Garfield wakes up to discover that Odie the dog, and Jon the owner, no longer exist. The cat is alone in a house that has long been abandoned, slowly going mad from isolation. Cartoonist/Garfield creator Jim Davis had intended to truly terrify his audience in a way that was unheard of in newspaper comics about funny felines. In his book Garfield’s Twentieth Anniversary Collection: 20 Years & Still Kicking!, creator Davis said, “During a writing session for Halloween, I got the idea for this decidedly different series of strips. I wanted to scare people. And what do people fear most? Why, being alone.”

garfield alone

In 2004, the Kennywood amusement park in Pennsylvania re-themed their “Old Mill” attraction as “Garfield’s Nightmare,” a psychedelic dark ride in which Franken Frankfurters, fanged pizzas, and mad doctors confront Garfield. It was a Garfield haunted house that lasted until 2020. While not official like the Halloween strip or the creepy attraction, horror artist William Burke created a series of grotesque images that reimagined Garfield and depicted the cat as an eldritch abomination not unlike the titular terror from John Carpenter’s The Thing. The images inspired a myriad of imitators and often appear on various social media sites.

brinke stevens garfield

There are more examples of Garfield’s macabre history (including an iconic episode of Garfield and Friends with Brinke Stevens playing a parody of Elvira). The point is that Garfield is no stranger to the strange. Davis intended for Garfield’s Halloween Adventure to “go somewhere that would at least scare 4-year-olds.” I’d say he more than achieved his goal, because a lot of the folks who grew up watching this one are scarred for life… and we can’t thank Jim Davis enough for that! It may not be Texas Chain Saw Massacre scary, but it’s at least as scary as those creepy old Disney cartoons that still cause nightmares.

The special starts innocuously enough: Garfield wakes to Binky the Clown (his longtime foe in his first animated appearance) to discover that it’s Halloween! The night when everyone goes out and gets free candy! Excited as can be, Garfield and Odie pick out some pirate costumes and go trick-or-treating. So far, it’s not that bad, right? Just a typical Garfield outing with wisecracks (some pretty good ones, too) and a few catchy little songs. If it had maintained this tone, it would have still been a minor classic. But it gets worse. Much worse.

garfield odie pirate house

By nightfall, Garfield and Odie take a rowboat across the river to find more houses. The two find themselves stranded on an island just as foreboding as Dr. Moreau’s. Their only refuge is an abandoned old mansion. Except it’s not abandoned. Inside, they encounter a mysterious old man (thunderously voiced by C. Lindsay Workman) who tells them a story. A ghost story. Exactly one hundred years ago, a band of pirates was pursued by government troops; unable to escape their fate, the cutthroats buried their treasure and signed a blood oath. They vowed to return at the stroke of midnight one hundred years later to reclaim their ill-gotten treasure. The only witness to this ghastly affair was a ten-year-old cabin boy, whom the old man reveals to be himself. (What a twist!) Our two heroes attempt to flee, but the old man disappears with their boat, leaving them to deal with the vengeful spirits of long-dead murderers. Yes, I’m still talking about Garfield.

At this point, the ghosts appear, and they certainly don’t disappoint. Like an animated version of The Fog, these bloodthirsty buccaneers appear in a swirling mist. They never utter a word, but they make an impression with their skeletal faces and ethereal bodies. Save for one well-timed expression, these ain’t silly ghosts. These are the kind that haunt you for the rest of your days. You’d think that the presence of anthropomorphic critters would soften the scares, but somehow, it’s all the more awful because it’s happening to characters who usually don’t experience this level of fear. Great Pumpkin could’ve used a few wraiths.

garfield halloween ghosts

What really sells this sequence is the shift in animation style. In the blink of an eye, the look of the special goes from Jim Davis to Bernie Wrightson. The old man is detailed to the point of repulsion, resembling a gargoyle more than a man. The ghosts are animated in a sketchy style that suggests supernatural evil. Garfield’s Halloween Adventure didn’t have to be this scary. It could’ve had some goofy Casper-style ghosts, and we would’ve accepted it. The fact that the team was this dedicated to scaring the wits out of children is something to admire.

Garfield’s Halloween Adventure seemed destined to be a staple at the same level as Great Pumpkin. In fact, it aired for the first time alongside Great Pumpkin on October 30, 1985. In ’86, it won the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. A tie-in comic was released (with an alternate ending that features more of the ghost pirates), and the special aired for many years. Its final airing was in 1999, now firmly in the shadow of The Great Pumpkin. Though unforgettable to those who grew up with it, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure is no longer the widespread tradition it once was.

I wrote this piece because I’ve talked to many people who had never even heard of Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, which is truly a tragedy to me. In my mind, this special is to Halloween what How The Grinch Stole Christmas is to its holiday. As pleasant as Great Pumpkin is, I firmly believe kids need a really scary Halloween special. Specials like this helped me discover real horror movies later in life. We need to let children experience the joy of being frightened by ghost pirates! Hopefully, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure will be rediscovered the way Hocus Pocus was. The Halloween season isn’t the same without Garfield. It just doesn’t get more festive than an orange-and-black cat risking his life for free candy, candy, candy, candy.

Garfield’s Halloween Adventure is now streaming on Peacock.

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