The Nightmare Before Christmas: Lessons From an ‘Afterlife Crisis’

A holiday film BOGO!

Yes, you read it right. A Halloween movie and a Christmas movie rolled into one.

As the kids would say, YASSSSSSS!

Enter The Nightmare Before Christmas, a world where every holiday has it own town where its citizens are tasked with preparations for their own respective dates. Most prominent of all in Halloween Town is our “hero,” Jack Skellington – The Pumpkin King! – voiced by Chris Sarandon (The Princess Bride – HUMPERDINK! HUMPERDINK! HUMPERDINK! *ahem* Sorry) with singing done by composer Danny Elfman.

Joining Jack is a cast of colorful characters… maybe colorful isn’t the right word, but they certainly are memorable… each introduced through the delightful opening earworm of a tune, “This is Halloween.”

The story chronicles the efforts of Jack to bring the more festive December holiday to his community. But when he tries to cross into the “real world” and take on the role of the Man in Red himself – the Jolly Old St. Nick – things have natural… complications. The only person possibly standing in the way is his friend and potential ghoulfriend Sally (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), who experiences premonitions of…. *gulp*…. DOOM.

Nightmare is like an inverted version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Whereas the Grinch tries (and fails) to ruin Christmas by seeking its destruction, Jack’s potential ruin lays in misguided efforts to improve it!

Cult Classic

The movie was born from the mind of eccentric Tim Burton when the young filmmaker was working in the animation division of Disney, based off a poem he had written.

Disney initially declined, deeming it too dark for its brand, but the House of Mouse eventually relented, particularly after Burton gained his Batman clout, and released it under its Touchstone Pictures banner.

Good thing, too, because although it failed to scare up big money back in the day, over the decades that followed, and many, many, many Hot Topic t-shirts later, it has grown into a Halloween (and Christmas!) classic!

Burton was busy putting together his Batman sequel, so he enlisted the help of his friend Henry Selik to direct, and stayed on as producer. Selik went on to direct other memorable animated fare, including the equally dark and delightful Coraline.

STOP, Collaborate and MOTION

The animation is stop-motion. Remember Gumby? Wallace and Grommit? Yep, all stop-motion. In this technique, the characters are not drawn but literally CONSTRUCTED with clay or some other substance and then moved little by little, frame by frame, being photographed, leaving the illusion that they are moving. Imagine all the work that goes into something like that.

Did you know you can easily do stop-motion animation from the comforts of your home? It makes a great family activity. Click here to learn how!

Nightmare had 19 sound stages worth of 230 model sets, with trap doors built in so that puppeteers can more easily manipulate the armatures of characters and swap out faces to convey the various emotions as required. Jack Skellington alone had more than 400 heads!

The movie was shot at 24 shots per second, for 110,000 frames total. One minute of the film took one week to shoot and a total of three years in all.



Okay, take a minute to put your brain back together because we still have to talk about the lessons from this movie………………………… you good? Great. Let’s get our move on!

‘What’s This? What’s This?’

What’s this? It is a story about mid-life crisis… wait, can a ghost be in mid-life crisis? Mid-afterlife crisis? Ahhh, I digress. Tired of his life of scaring and the same old routine, year after year, Jack goes out searching for an entirely new direction. Surely that will lead to happiness… right?

The search takes him to a series of doors. He accidentally falls through one and finds himself in a strange land full of wonder. Why, the world doesn’t revolve around Halloween, after all??? Jack’s song, What’s this?, perfectly kicks off his journey of discovery.

The lyrics illustrate Jack’s captivity to the lights, sounds, and festivity. It reads:

What's this? What's this? 
There's color everywhere 
What's this? There's white things in the air 
What's this? I can't believe my eyes I must be dreaming Wake up, Jack, this isn't fair 
What's this?

What's this? What's this? 
There's something very wrong 
What's this? There's people singing songs

What's this? The streets are lined with little creatures laughing Everybody seems so happy Have I possibly gone daffy? 
What is this? What's this?

There are children throwing snowballs here instead of throwing heads They're busy building toys 
And absolutely no one's dead

There's frost on every window Oh, I can't believe my eyes 
And in my bones I feel the warmth that's coming from inside

Oh, look What's this? They're hanging mistletoe, they kiss 
Why that looks so unique, inspired 
They're gathering around to hear a story Roasting chestnuts on a fire What's this? What's this?

In here they've got a little tree, how queer 
And who would ever think And why?

They're covering it with tiny little things 
They've got electric lights on strings 
And there's a smile on everyone 
So, now, correct me if I'm wrong This looks like fun This looks like fun Oh, could it be I got my wish? What's this?

Oh my, what now? The children are asleep 
But look, there's nothing underneath 
No ghouls, no witches here to scream and scare them Or ensnare them, only little cozy things Secure inside their dreamland 
What's this?

The monsters are all missing And the nightmares can't be found And in their place there seems to be good feeling all around

Instead of screams, I swear I can hear music in the air 
The smell of cakes and pies are absolutely everywhere

The sights, the sounds They're everywhere and all around I've never felt so good before 
This empty place inside of me is filling up I simply cannot get enough

I want it, oh, I want it Oh, I want it for my own I've got to know I've got to know What is this place that I have found? What is this?


Christmas Town? Hmm... 

-Music and lyrics by Danny Elfman. 

Mid Life Crisis Doesn’t Have to be Scary

Things didn’t go right for Jack while trying to do Christmas. He and his friends got it all wrong! But with hilarious results. At least he (and we, the audience!) had lessons learned.

Have you ever felt like Jack? Whether it is early, mid, or late in life, all of us have (or will) probably felt the “crisis” at one point or another, feeling squeezed by the monotony of routine. Time to shake things up. If only, I had ____________ in my life or I went to _____________ or if I did __________, instead of __________. I would be soooooo much happier.

Happiness was right under Jack’s nose, errrr, skull. Sometimes we take for granted the people around us and the things we have. We can easily miss it if we are constantly in pursuit of the next person, pursuit or shiny new object. Rather, look around you, and take stock of everything in your environment that contributes to your happiness and well-being.

Psychologist Vivian Diller recommends handling any midlife crisis with self evaluation, pointing to the following steps:

  1. Recognize and identify your anxiety
  2. See the signs that a crisis may be coming
  3. Avoid problems by exploring your options carefully and thoughtfully
  4. Share your experience with others and
  5. Get help if you need it.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try new ideas and endeavors. Just because Jack’s pursuit went up in flames, sometimes literally, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. As illustrated by our review and analysis of Palm Springs, doing new things can be a healthy endeavor. Also, trying and failing is brave and Jack learned from it, emerging as an even better spirit, so can it really be seen as a failure?

Don’t kidnap Santa Claus, kids.

Notice how Sally was the one character in the movie who recognized that Jack had a bad idea and told him so! Again…. and again…. and again. That said, find your Sally. Listen to your Sally. We all need that someone who really knows us to provide proper perspective and pull us from the brink of doing something truly foolish! You know, like, I dunno, KIDNAPPING SANTA CLAUS?!?

Don’t kidnap Santa Claus, kids. It never ends well.

Let’s Move

Let’s recap:

  • Make a list of things in your life that contributes to your happiness and wellbeing.
  • Turn mid-life crisis into opportunity through self evaluation, instead of reacting reflexively.
  • Find your “Sally,” that friend knows you and helps to provide proper perspective.

Where to Watch

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is currently streaming on Disney Plus and can also be found through Hulu’s Live TV service add-on.

What do you think? Also, just for kicks and giggles, do you consider this more of a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? Tell us in the comments below!

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Director: Henry Selick

Screenwriter: Caroline Thompson, based on idea and characters by Tim Burton

Cast: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Ed Ivory

Rated: PG


  1. April

    I haven’t seen this movie since I was a teen, and I had completely forgotten the storyline. We are definitely adding this to our family movie night lineup. I bet the movie will be meaningful to me in a completely different way now that I’m an adult (in comparison to when I watched it as a teen).

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  2. Kat

    I love this movie! I like your analyzation of it. Very accurate. One of my favorite thing about family and kids’ movies is that there is always a lesson about life. Sometimes I think the lessons are really put there for the adults watching it with their children.

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  3. Michelle Faler

    The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorite films from childhood. I never thought about what Jack goes through as a mid-life crisis, but it totally makes sense! This is such an enjoyable analysis of a classic movie. You infuse your writing with so much humor and personality. I like how you show us what we can learn about self-care from our favorite films. I can’t wait to see which movie you write about next. Take care!

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  4. Unwanted Life

    Nightmare Before Christmas was a great film, but I don’t think I would have the patience to ever film something in stop motion, it must be so incredibly tedious. Although I love the film I’m not like some other Goths and metalheads who really embraced the merchandise ha ha ha. I wonder when I’ll have my own mind life crisis?

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