While you can say what you want about the last 10, 15 or (if you’re a real snob) 20 years of The Simpsons, it’s hard to argue that the “Treehouse of Horror” episode the show airs each season is a Halloween institution.
Making its debut 30 years ago in 1990 means that the yearly special has had a lot of room to skewer, satirize and also pay loving tribute to a number of other institutions. From famous films by icons like Hitchcock and Kubrick to shows like The Twilight Zone and even newer pop-culture touchstones like Harry Potter and the Twilight series, television’s longest-running series has made its yearly episode a tradition of Halloween homage.
As we wait for this year’s installment, here are the 30 segments that stand out as our favorites over the last three decades of “Treehouse of Horror.”
30. “Dial ‘M’ for Murder or Press ‘#’ to Return to Main Menu” (“Treehouse of Horror XX,” 2009)
If anything, the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are an excuse for the team behind The Simpsons to pay tribute to some of the most iconic film directors ever. Here, doing their best Hitchcock, they deliver one of the best segments of the aughts.
29. “You Gotta Know When to Golem” (“Treehouse of Horror XVII,” 2006)
28. “Heaven Swipes Right” (“Treehouse of Horror XXX,” 2019)
A rare bright spot in the later seasons, this one gets its place on the list for being weird enough to show Marge hooking up with other guys, albeit other guys with Homer’s soul inside their bodies.
27. “Reaper Madness” (“Treehouse of Horror XIV,” 2003)
So they took on an episode of Family Guy, but also The Santa Clause, and gave it one of the best punny titles of the whole series? That alone gets it this spot on the list.
26. “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse” (“Treehouse of Horror XIX,” 2008)
If you watch enough of The Simpsons, you’ll find tributes to just about everything. This tribute to the Halloween classic we will watch year after year is one of the best, and ends with a very Simpsons-y twist.
25. “Married to the Blob” (“Treehouse of Horror XVII,” 2006)
Comic Book Guy doesn’t get enough love, but when he’s the center of the story, he shines. Like in this segment where a character that is known for being insufferable ends up showing his soft side. A reminder that even the supposedly darkest episode of the season can have some sweet spots.
24. “Bad Dream House” (“Treehouse of Horror I,” 1990)
“It chose to destroy itself rather than live with us. You can’t help but feel a little rejected.” — Lisa Simpson with one of the great quotes from the show. That alone gets it this spot on the list.
23. “Time and Punishment” (“Treehouse of Horror V,” 1994)
Classic Homer. He can’t stop himself from screwing up the timeline by sticking his hand inside a toaster over and over.
22. “Terror at 5 1/2 Feet” (“Treehouse of Horror IV,” 1993)
A classic Twilight Zone parody transported to Bart’s bus, but the debut of foreign exchange student Üter and his weird candy is the highlight here.
21. “King Homer” (“Treehouse of Horror III,” 1992)
In an all black-and-white affair, the cast reenact the original King Kong tale, with expedition leader Burns inviting Marge along to their voyage to Ape Island. They come to a group of Island natives, who take Marge hostage as bait for the great ape. King Homer himself wanders over and starts playing with Marge’s hair, until Burns and the crew try to capture Homer. Homer ends up eating Lenny and getting knocked out with sleeping gas, and gets transported into a variety show and attraction. The big ape gets rattled by flash photography, running around and eating Shirley Temple and others before starting to climb the Empire State Building. However, the big lug is too lazy and weak to climb, falling about four stories into the street, and Marge eventually marries him.
20. “Hex and the City” (“Treehouse of Horror XII,” 2001)
It makes the list for all the cereal and Star Wars guest appearances alone, but it’s actually a really good Simpsons take on a Stephen King story, so obviously it gets a spot.
19. “The Ned Zone” (“Treehouse of Horror XV,” 2004)
We’ve known Ned to possess, um, powers, but Flanders getting the ability to tell the future is actually more hilarious than it sounds because, really, Ned is low-key one of the best parts of the show.
18. “Stop the World, I Want to Goof Off” (“Treehouse of Horror XIV,” 2003)
The Twilight Zone provides so much inspiration for “Treehouse of Horror” episodes that there could be a sub list ranking the best Simpsons riffs on the iconic sci-fi show. Here, it’s the episode “A Kind of a Stopwatch” and the film Clockstoppers that gets put on the list.
17. “Homerzilla” (“Treehouse of Horror XXVI,” 2015)
A loving, hilarious take on the Japanese classic that, yes, is slightly better than the older take on King Kong from over 20 years earlier.
16. “Homer³” (“Treehouse of Horror VI,” 1995)
How far would you go to avoid your twin sisters-in-law? If you are Homer Simpson, the answer is into a Tron-like new world you can’t escape from where everything is in 3D. Funny as well as awesome looking, this parody of The Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost” was innovative when it first aired. Seeing Homer in the real world at the end of the segment comforting himself with the prospect of an erotic cake store is the icing on the, er, cinnamon roll.
15. “Nightmare Cafeteria” (“Treehouse of Horror V,” 1994)
In a move that our underfunded public schools may eventually consider, Principal Skinner goes from having Lunchlady Doris serve “Grade F” meat in the cafeteria at Springfield Elementary to asking her to dish up students who are butchered after being sent to detention. Any segment with this much Lunchlady Doris is a Grade-A watch. Also, the ongoing gag of Willie being stabbed in the back by an axe, in this instance by Skinner, continues here.
14. “Bart Simpson’s Dracula” (Treehouse of Horror IV, 1993)
“Treehouse of Horror IV” closer “Bart Simpson’s Dracula” combines Coppola riffs and conspiracy. The episode starts with Lisa being really concerned no one else seems to be weary of a bunch of victims found with bite marks. “Coincidentally,” Burns buys out the local blood bank, and invites the family for a meal — which leads to Lisa and Bart stumbling on a crypt. Lisa escapes, but Bart gets bitten by C. Montgomery; and to his credit, he’s stoked about how fun it is doing vampire stuff. But before he can turn Lisa into a denizen of the night, the family intervenes and Homer goes to plunge a stake in Burns’s heart, and gets fired. Unfortunately for Lisa, the rest of the family, including Grandpa, have given up their mortality for the night’s embrace, ending the episode with a “happy Halloween!” turn to the audience and a Christmas carol — the way Bram Stoker intended.
13. “Dial ‘Z’ for Zombies” (“Treehouse of Horror III,” 1992)
Long before everything got zombified, Springfield’s favorite residents got attacked by brain eaters.
12. “The Shinning” (“Treehouse of Horror V,” 1994)
It takes three days for the Simpsons to arrive circuitously at Mr. Burns’s remote lodge — no thanks to Homer. And Burns pretty much announces the evil within from the get-go. His home is built on an Indian burial ground and it was the site of both satanic rituals and witch burnings … as well as five John Denver Christmas specials. There’s also an ocean of blood from the elevator that greets the new guests, which Mr. Burns finds odd because “it usually gets off at the second floor.” From there, The Shining takeoffs — bombastic score, wide aerial shots, hedge maze, an unexplained mental power (shared by Groundskeeper Willie and Bart), redrum, the axes — are all on point.
11. “Bart’s Nightmare” (“Treehouse of Horror II,” 1991)
Whenever the show does a take on The Twilight Zone, it’s magic.
10. “Wiz Kids” (“Treehouse of Horror XII,” 2001)
The thing about The Simpsons is that the writers tend to wear their influences on their sleeves, and they lovingly figure out how to wedge references or base entire episode parodies on the shows or movies they love. In this case, something newer like the Harry Potter books could be ripe for all sorts of parody, but they actually churn out a great segment that we wish could be an entire episode.
9. “Hungry are the Damned” (“Treehouse of Horror I,” 1990)
The Simpsons’ first introduction to the intergalactic duo of Kang and Kodos happens after they get abducted during a cookout. Both aliens are polite, letting them know they’ve taken them along to a trip to Rigel 4 for a “great feast.” The family dig into all of their favorites while the alien makes sly references to this great feast, not the least of which is calling Marge a “quite a dish.” It doesn’t take long for Lisa to find the book How to Cook Humans, which the alien blows off to reveal it says How to Cook For Humans, and then How to Cook For Forty Humans. The aliens get offended at the Simpsons’ general Simpson-ness, and decide to ditch them back in Springfield.
8. “The Island Of Dr. Hibbert” (“Treehouse of Horror XIII,” 2002)
In this parody of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells, certain Springfield residents including members of the Simpson family are turned into animals by Dr. Hibbert. Following one late-night mutation, Homer has violent, animal sex with Marge — while she’s a blue panther. Might be wrong, but this may be the first and only incidence of bestiality in the history of the show. Homer eventually coming to the conclusion that being an animal who does nothing but eat, sleep and mate really isn’t too bad is something we all may want to reflect on, especially in these times.
7. “The Fright to Creep and Scare Harms” (“Treehouse of Horror XIII, 2002)
An anti-gun crusade by Lisa (Lou giving up his firearm: “This always made me feel like a man, you know? Now all I got is my enormous genitals.”) sets up a wild western/zombie/Terminator mash-up that, unlike almost every other episode past the show’s first decade, manages to coalesce into both a surprise and funny ending. The absurdity of time travel here was only recently matched by Rick & Morty’s somewhat similar “Rattlestar Ricklactica” episode.
6. “Lisa’s Nightmare” (“Treehouse of Horror II,” 1991)
Homer: “Come to think of it, the guy who sold me this thing did say the wishes would bring me grave misfortune. I thought he was just being colorful.”
5. “Citizen Kang” (“Treehouse of Horror VII,” 1996)
Just the fact that the show could parody an election year and make it funny seems like such a distant memory all these years later, but that’s what the show did during the Clinton vs. Dole election.
4. “The Raven” (“Treehouse of Horror I,” 1990)
It’s wild to look back and think of how controversial The Simpsons once was when it first made its debut. Maybe it’s hard to remember 30 years back, but the first “Treehouse of Horror” episode came with the characters giving a warning that what was going to be on the TV for the next 30 minutes wasn’t maybe appropriate for younger viewers, and then what do they do? They probably introduce an entire generation of viewers to Edgar Allan Poe with this excellent retelling of his famous poem — as important to a bourgeoning goth’s young education as seeing Edward Scissorhands or hearing The Cure for the first time. One of the most show’s most classic segments, Halloween or otherwise.
3. “Clown Without Pity” (“Treehouse of Horror III,” 1992)
We can argue about the single greatest line in Simpsons history (“To alcohol: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”) or the best episode (“Marge vs. the Monorail”) but the third season “Treehouse” opener has possibly the greatest befuddled Homer conversation of all time. It begins with the Gremlins-ish trope of a mysterious Asian shopkeeper (Hank Azaria) at the “House of Evil” selling Homer an evil Krusty doll. Warns the keeper: “We sell forbidden objects from places men fear to tread. We also sell frozen yogurt, which I call ‘frogurt.’” A hilarious, repetitive back-and-forth on curses and froyo follows.
2. “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace” (“Treehouse of Horror VI,” 1995)
Groundskeeper Willie doesn’t get enough credit as one of the best characters on the show, and he hardly shines as much as he does here in his turn as the Freddy Krueger stand-in, sans all the child killer backstory from the movie that inspired this segment. Here, Willie chases after the Simpson children and their schoolmates in their dreams, and we get one of the best riffs on a horror classic in the entire “Treehouse of Horror” canon. It relies just enough on the source material, but it’s as much of a loving and hilarious homage as you could possibly hope for.
1. “The Devil and Homer Simpson” (“Treehouse of Horror IV,” 1993)
Peak Homer, selling his soul just so he can have a donut. Then he fails up (down?) and finds himself in hell, happily being force fed an endless supply of his favorite snack. This one has everything you could ask for: Ned as the devil, Lionel Hutz (RIP Phil Hartman) and the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers serving alongside a not dead at the time Richard Nixon in the jury to figure out how Homer’s soul should spend eternity.
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