Intertextuality in 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'

From clowns with tear-away faces to werewolves with teeth ground sharp and glowing red eyes, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas creates a bizarre sense of Christmas spirit. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with this holiday staple and by now the film seems so part of the holiday vernacular that the nuances are no longer as evident. The Nightmare Before Christmas is Tim Burton’s macabre, gothic Halloween themed Christmas movie that follows the story of a lost Jack Skellington as he seeks to fill the void left by repeating Halloween endlessly, with Christmas. This 90-minute stop motion Christmas epic was released in the 1993 holiday season and shared many of the ideas Burton sought to create in earlier releases like Beetlejuice.

Alongside Burton throughout this process, was the notable film composer Danny Elfman. Elfman, from original fame with the band Oingo Boingo, provides the score for the movie and also plays the role of the lead character Jack Skellington. It is for us that Danny Elfman’s role is important. The music of The Nightmare Before Christmas is intentionally timeless - with Elfman desiring to obscure any relation to musical era in this score. With inspiration being taken from all corners, Elfman’s score presents an interesting piece for the consideration of intertextual musical styles. It is through this score, we will (rather festively) look at how Elfman crafts a musical work that uses earlier musical styles and topoi to create a disorientating and enticing musical sound world for the Burton film.

In writing the score for this film, Elfman intended to make the music timeless. The score uses ideas ranging from the musical styles of Oingo Boingo to Cab Calloway and 20th Century Broadway. There are significant influences from earlier styles, with Wagner and Gilbert & Sullivan being key influences on the resulting score. These concrete influences are underpinned by musically ideological influences, such as ideas of ‘medievalism’, ‘Christmas-ism’ and others. Each song in the score, and each setting they depict is littered with these influences which dissociate the musical style from that of the 1990s. It is for this reason the score sounds as fresh and ‘different’ today as it did in 1993.

Medievalism is a key concept that runs through the score to move the viewer into Halloween town. Film music acts as a key into an environment for the listener. Think of the Jaws theme, the ascending semitone alludes to a hidden creeping in the deep of the ocean. Elfman uses a similar idea in the construction of the music centred in Halloween town. The music at the opening of the film, and that when Halloween town is at its most ‘halloweeney’ plays on our preconceived notions of medieval music. ‘This is Halloween’ is the top number of the musical following the overture, and this is our first key into this world.

‘This is Halloween’ is a march-like song that develops the opening narrative. In this song the inhabitants of Halloween town return from a successful night of scaring to rejoice in their terrifying nature. Each of the key members of the community take a portion of the song and this is helped to familiarise the listener with the sort of environment where the opening of the film is set. Although this appears as a march and there is a strong feel of two beats in the bar, the rhythm is lop sided. ‘This is Halloween’ follows a two and a three patter, as if spoken aloud - this can be heard through the chorus of the song. In this march we are pulled to the two strong beats, but the uneven subdivisions destabilise us and create an alien atmosphere. Almost suggesting a decaying procession, a march of the dead.

Instrumentation is a further key element of this song, and all of the music of Halloween town. In all of the music set in Halloween town, the string section is largely absent. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the string section has an affinity with emotion, neo-classical composers avoided the string section for this reason. The second reason is that heavy use of the double reeded instruments and percussion, is our key into the medieval. Halloween town is pitched as a member of the dark ages, something scary and full of terror. To compliment this, a suitably medieval soundscape is appropriate. The subtle hints of chains and the dance like, uneven march transports us to an imagined medieval period. Similar methods have been used in Harry Potter, in The Philosopher’s Stone particularly.

Making Christmas is the second key medievalist song in this musical, and this uses a far more concrete example of the medieval to give us our key into the sound world. The Dies Irae.

The Dies Irae is a common musical idea that has been used to signal death since the thirteenth-century. ‘Dies Irae’ meaning the 'day of wrath’, is based on a thirteenth-century plain chant and is the short melodic fragment used for the line ‘Making Christmas’. This song is entirely based on this short melodic fragment, used continuously through each (minor) tonality. This, coupled with the instrumentation, presents musical medievalism in a very pure form.

Not all of the inhabitants of Halloween town are necessarily medievalist at heart. Oogie Boogie, our very own Cab Calloway is presented not only as an outsider in the narrative but also musically. The song opens with a clarinet section, very much in a Cab Calloway style. Oogie Boogie’s vocal style and the thumping rhythm section moves us out of the middle ages straight into a nightclub in the 1950s. The call and response sections that come toward the middle of the song, are reminiscent of Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher. In fact, the whole chart is very much reminiscent of this Calloway number. No surprise Elfman sites it as a key influence.

Finally, the main number of this musical ‘What’s This?’ presents one of the most interesting cases for the score’s depth and breadth. In a swift movement away from Halloween town, Christmas town is a place full of lush orchestration and driving jingle bells. This song moves Jack away from being an undead minion of terror, to a very much alive child. The mixture of polysyndetic and asyndetic in the libretto, highlights Jack’s childlike wonder in Christmas Town. The constant interruptions of ‘What’s this’, cut the long thoughts and move the narrative forward. The driving sleigh bells create this very immense sense of Christmas spirit that has made this song a staple of the holiday play list. Jack’s wonder is indicative of the childlike joy of those watching the film, the movement away from the dreadful Halloween town, to the wonderful christmas town can only be enhanced by the shift change in dynamic of the score.

Elfman’s soundtrack is truly spectacular. Elfman’s use of earlier ideas is vital in this score’s sound but also its ethos. Elfman’s total involvement in this on some level acts as a reminder of the gesamtkunstwerk.Furthermore, the heavy role of narrative of these songs almost forces this musical to act as an anti-opera, whereby the arias develop the narrative while the recitatives just ponder the environment, however, this could be an essay all on its own. Earlier styles underpin and permeate this score and are as vital to the score’s success as the typically Elfman sound that we are all familiar with.

Jonathan Davies, December 2020

Links added for extra information


Dies Irae:

Jonathan has also written:

The Mask of Orpheus: The ENO Issue

What's Wrong with Isolde? A Feminist Critique of Wagner

Conlon Nancarrow / Studies for Player Piano (1948-1992)

Keeping it Gay: Are Stereotypes Still Okay?



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