Halloweek: Death, Grief, and Identity in Over the Garden Wall

By: Eli Duah-Mensah

Autumn is my favorite season, and there is no contest. The vibrantly colored leaves beating across the sunlight, as they fall and snap under your feet. The cool, windy weather juxtaposing the scorching heat of summer. With the cooling weather comes the opportunity to break out the fur boots, and that cute light jacket without feeling too hot or too cold. And as you’re walking down the street in that autumn clothing, you can witness and participate in the whiplash of every restaurant and food brand releasing their pumpkin spice lattes, their caramel apple chocolates, their apple cider donut cakes, their salted maple kettle corn. But for many, more than anything, autumn rushes in the holiday season. There’s Thanksgiving — one of the most well-liked holidays, depending on who you ask — which can be regarded as a sort of mini-Christmas. Yet for many others, with autumn comes one of the most fun holidays, most favored by seventeen million people, Halloween. Halloween is one of the best opportunities to dress up — to cosplay, as many regard it — as a favorite character, or mythological creature, or spirit. For me, it brings about a unique sense of community that other holidays can’t compare. And, best of all, with Halloween comes the opportunity to binge watch Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Coraline and lots, lots more. 

Though I love so many of these movies, my all-time favorite during the autumn season would have to be Over the Garden Wall. I remember my first time watching the show at nine-years-old, simultaneously awestruck by the whimsical music and the wonderful art style, yet terrified by the creepy mood, the idiosyncratic side characters. Yet I couldn’t be pulled away from the TV, even as I was running terribly late for choir practice. From the first episode with the Woodsman, all the way to the end, I was stuck rocking back and forth on my bed in anticipation for the next moment. When the screen faded to black, I couldn’t fathom a fall season where I didn’t watch the show again. So I’ve watched it essentially annually for the past five years, give or take. And yet, after all this time, the show never gets old. 

What is Over the Garden Wall?

Over the Garden Wall is a ten-episode miniseries that was first aired on Cartoon Network, but is now available on Hulu and HBO Max. Following the story of half-brothers Wirt and Greg through the mysterious Unknown. As they travel through the forest, they become acquainted with a bluebird named Beatrice, the three discovering a menagerie of zany, colorful characters. This is a world where animals speak and go to school, where lost souls come to play, where anxiety-ridden citizens and freakish meetups are the norm. Through this, the uncanny, fearful tone of each episode truly shines through, with a strange mood being present in every episode.

From the first scene, the show’s ghoulish aesthetic is outstanding. Between the enrapturing reds, oranges, yellows and browns fusing to form a vibrant, rustic, fairy-tale like style, it almost feels like one has been plopped into a landscape painting. That blinding soft yellow light strewn across the trees as Wirt and Greg are walking through the forest can entrance a viewer, begging them to watch more. One underrated facet of Over the Garden Wall that often goes unsaid is the gorgeous animation style. The animation is simplistic, yet charming and fresh — I can’t quite compare it to any other show. Well, the closest thing I can compare it to is Gravity Falls, but it’s not exactly that either. It’s got this warm, cozy style, perfect for the autumn season. Yet in keeping with the creepy tone, the composition, staging, and character’s motifs perpetuate the show’s uneasy nature. My favorite example is in “Songs of the Dark Lantern,” with the Highway Man’s little song. That small snippet shocked me as a kid, but this sinister style sets us up perfectly for what the show has to offer.

What’s more, the show is alluringly spooky. I can recall nearly screaming at the multicolor-eyed, toothy dog at nine years old. Eight years later, I suppose that scene still makes me curl up in my blanket, but the fear factor balances out with Greg yelling “You have beautiful eyes!” From this same episode, we are treated to Greg’s “rock facts” and his dilemma in naming his new pet frog. Humor like this, combined with the musical numbers do keep this show from getting too creepy. Nearly every episode contains a musical number, each jazzy, folksy and fanciful in their own wonderful ways. The earthy singing of the frog’s baritone voice in “Over the Garden Wall” sounds as safe and comforting as a warm apple pie. The cutesy-sounding “Potatoes and Molasses” actually makes me want mashed potatoes and apple pie. 

 This homey, soothing style oscillates between the ominous air present through each episode perfectly. Returning to “The Old Grist Mill,” the overwhelmingly threatening energy is shortly dialed back, returning to its calming state. Though it may seem formulaic to older audiences, this striving for homeostasis works for a show intended for younger audiences. Yet, this comforting-ominous state is flipped in “Lullaby in Frogland,” where the betrayal on Wirt’s face when the half-brothers become trapped in a cone of yarn. 

 I suppose that can be a nice thing about Over the Garden Wall: it never exactly gets less interesting as a viewer grows up. Though some argue that the humor doesn’t land as well as you get older, other aspects of the show, such as the animation and the story, can still be appreciated. Although, this is another thing some fans criticize: the story not being as developed. To some extent, because Over the Garden Wall is more akin to a fairytale, it tries to get as many side stories as it can. But combined with the short run time, this can make many stories feel underdeveloped. Though all criticisms are valid, the criticism of the run-time can be attributed to binge-watching. When we have the ability to eat up a show in under two hours, this can naturally leave us hungry for more. This may skew our judgment of how much we should be able to watch, and how long a show should run for.

What are the themes?

Like many shows, there are so many interpretations for Over the Garden Wall. One interesting interpretation is that Over the Garden Wall is a retelling of Dante’s Inferno.  Another popular interpretation is grief and death. To some extent, death is scattered across every episode, orbiting our main characters like a dark cloud. From “The Old Grist Mill,” the half-brothers stumble across a woodsman and his grist mill, the woodsman frazzled and afraid. Quickly, we are introduced to “The Beast,” the fear of death. As Wirt and Greg are ushered into the mill, the character’s personalities are highlighted: Wirt, an orderly rule follower, and Greg, a rambunctious free-spirit. When Greg steps out of the house to find his frog, he is unfortunately greeted with a wild beast dog! This wild beast dog could be interpreted by a possible mischaracterization: a scary ravager that will come to meet you in any circumstance. With the dog being shrunk by the end, it can characterize both the soul and death not being as terrifying as it’s claimed to be. 

“Hard Times at the Huskin Bee ” has one of the most explicit death messages. Through Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice’s wandering, they find themselves in a cultish ritual town, Pottsfield. To their shock, under the pleasant looking barn are pumpkin people, who don’t take as kindly to two boys and a bird interrupting their ceremony. Though, as they haul the trio over to the leader, Enoch, rather harshly punishing the three with“a few hours of manual labor.” As the half-brothers go on about their labor, the town of Pottsfield grows increasingly stranger. The townspeople make strange remarks and spectacles of the boys. Their work culminates in them digging up shallow holes, what they nervously interpret to be graves. As Greg and Beatrice escape in the midst of Wirt hurriedly explaining their delay, two skeletons hop out of their pits and sport a pumpkin head with pumpkin bodies. Their souls get to live on in these pumpkin suits; to some extent, they are given a new life. When Wirt finds this out, he is awestruck, yet still hesitant. As Enoch asks if he’d like to stay any longer, Wirt politely declines, revealing one of the more telling statements in the show: “Oh well, you’ll join us eventually.”

Reincarnation and reanimation are some ways to interpret the repetition of new lives throughout the show. All animals have the capacity to learn through observation. But in Over the Garden Wall, animals take on a society of their own, with aristocratic frogs and talking horses. In “Schooltime Follies,” there exists a whole school for animals, with some animals even playing hooky.  Through “Schooltime Follies,” another theme emerges: the struggle for an identity  For most of his life, Wirt appears to have followed what has been laid out for him, not necessarily out of aimlessness, but perhaps believing that’s the way it should always be. As seen later with Greg in “Mad Love,” there exists a struggle between being good or bad. With the show being marketed for younger audiences, this could make sense, with younger kids just carving out an identity for themselves, finding out what is right and what is wrong. 

Yet the rush to find an identity can lead to a separate struggle; most direly, it can lead to people feeling their lives are meaningless without one. A less extreme example could be “Songs of the Dark Lantern,” where the tavern goers desperately try to impress a role on Wirt. It can be emblematic of the roles and jobs we try to impress on ourselves and others through life, devaluing someone who we perceive as “aimless” or “directionless.” If we don’t have a role, or something that we can point to and say we’re talented at, one can feel as though their life is a waste. To some extent “Songs of the Dark Lantern” reminds me of Soul. Though Wirt does have things that he cherishes, those things have currently not been translated to something palpable. Though, Wirt’s poetry both shows us his passion, and his current feelings. Lines like “we are but wayward leaves/ scattered to the wind” can not only highlight his lost identity, but his acceptance that one day he will be scattered to the leaves as ashes.

As the series goes on, we encounter more spirits, more symbols of death, and more run-ins with the Woodsman. In “Babes in the Woods,” we find allusions to the afterlife, a saccharine paradise, but also a way for Greg to watch over his loved ones. The Woodsman is a total representation of grief. Even before the revelation of what the lantern is for, the Woodsman’s frequent encounters with the Beast highlight his bargaining to keep his daughter’s memory alive. His frequent denial of death is perhaps his manifestation of not wanting anyone, much less two young children, to experience the grief he is going through.     

In addition to these themes, the presentation of these messages is superb. Though our protagonists are encountering these during the autumn season, the messages this show brings can be applied anywhere. By marketing to younger audiences, it allows them the opportunity to see that death is a facet of life. But rather than fear it, it should make life, and the people in it, more valued and cherished. There was a book I once read, Duck, Death and the Tulip. I wish I had read it when I was younger. The poignancy and beauty of Duck’s friendship with Death was so bittersweet. Death-positive media is so important, for all audiences. Over the Garden Wall can be interpreted as the enabling of these death positive themes into something cohesive and beautiful for children. And for that, the show will always have my admiration.

Happy Halloween! Stay safe! May your voyages through the Unknown be pleasant and full of valuable lessons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s