This remains, over forty years later, the best of television’s Halloween shows, and arguably the best holiday special of any sort, period. Do I even need to describe the action? The Peanuts go trick-or-treating, and Charlie Brown ends up collecting a great big collection of — all together now — rocks. Later there’s a Halloween Party where Lucy, Violet and Patty (not Peppermint Patty, the original one) draw graffiti on Charlie Brown’s head. Snoopy, suffering from a bout of Post Traumatic Combat Syndrome, has a flashback to the War. Linus awaits the coming of the Great Pumpkin in his sincere pumpkin patch. Then he makes a fatal grammatical error, ruining his chances for visitation by his pagan god. Sally misses “tricks and treats” and gets pissed off at Linus, predating themes of 1991′s Thelma and Louise by over two decades. Linus vows greater fealty to his vegetable deity the next year.
All this is baby boom folklore. However, few people remember, or were ever aware, that the special was originally telecast as a late-night, full-length animated horror movie. It seems that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was a closet Hershall G. “Blood Feast” Lewis fan. With the help of macabre cartoonist Charles “Addams Family” Addams, Schulz wrote the screenplay as an homage to Lewis, using the Peanuts characters.
CBS was horrified by the violent and graphic scenario, but was also frightened of losing the rights to broadcast the other lucrative Peanuts specials. They agreed to a one-time showing of Schulz’s concept, and promised to run it as a yearly prime time special, as were the other Peanut cartoons, providing the telecast did not provoke any “unusual outcry from the public.” Schulz, apparently much overestimating the black humor capacity of his fans, agreed, and even offered to allow CBS to recut the cartoon in accordance with the other Peanuts specials if the feared reaction occurred.
Did it ever. CBS, who had discretion of the time slot, ran the show unpublicized at midnight on Tuesday, October 30th. Though an incredibly small amount of viewers saw the show, fully titled It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown…Worship It Before It Destroys You, the viewer reaction was overwhelmingly negative and virulent. This prompted Schulz to vow never to stray from the traditional focus of the Peanuts again. The public reaction was so negative, in fact, that in spite of the fact that not more than a couple of thousand people nationwide were estimated to have even seen the program, CBS still almost chose not to re-edit it and rebroadcast it as the show we all know and grew up with.
The original storyline of the show was amazingly prophetic in terms of the plot structure used in most splatter films of the 1980′s. This is less surprising, though, given that bootleg copies of the original script have been floating around film schools for decades. (Indeed, only the vigilant copyright attorneys of the Schulz estate have kept it off the web.)
The first portion of the show pretty much follows the cartoon we know and love. The major split occurs during the party scene at Violet’s. Charlie Brown’s name gets on the ‘invite’ list by mistake, and so Lucy and Violet decide to make Charlie Brown the butt of one of their cruel jokes. First, as in the subsequent version, Lucy and Violet ‘model’ a Jack O’Lantern on Charlie Brown’s head, using a wax pencil.
This is where the two versions part ways. In It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown…Worship It Before It Destroys You, Charlie Brown is then led to the apple-bobbing tub. This is supposed to be spiked with a chemical that will turn his entire head orange, except for the black Jack O’Lantern marks on the back of his head. However, after forcing Charlie Brown to bob for the apples, and then dunking his head deep in the tub, Charlie Brown rises screaming from the contaminated water with horrible smoking scars and the flesh melting from his face. He runs to a window and, mad with pain, smashes through it into the night. It turns out that acid had mistakenly been added to the water instead of orange dye.
After a search by the Peanuts gang fails to turn up any sign of Charlie Brown, Lucy calls them together. Yelling “I’m not going to prison for that blockhead, Charlie Brown,” Lucy swears the others to silence. A few protest, but Lucy gives them “five good reasons” not to go to the police. After Charlie Brown fails to make an appearance in the next few days, it is concluded that, frenzied from his agony, he jumped into the river, where he drowned and his body was carried out to the ocean.
The action then switches to the next year, again Halloween night. At this year’s party the various Peanuts are one by one attacked by an enshrouded assailant (whose sheet features a bunch of “eye holes” cut out, like Charlie Brown’s ghost costume from the previous year) and killed in the types of horrible manners that teens in the ‘80s were to become all too accustomed to. Violet has a machete smashed into her face. Pigpen is garroted. Sherman is pinned to a tree with a pitchfork. Patty is stabbed with a butcher knife after finding Pigpen’s head in the refrigerator.
The numerous deaths were surprisingly gruesome, though Schulz’s script provided just enough dark humor to make them watchable – the best bit had Freida scalped alive after more of her interminable preening and boasting about her “naturally curly hair.” Then after she’s scalped, her brains were scooped out, in a macabre reenactment of the show’s opening scene (which remains in the regular version) where Linus watches in horror as Lucy “kills” the pumpkin he brought home from the pumpkin patch.
Finally, only Schroeder, Lucy and Sally are left, hiding in the party room with Schroeder’s piano where the whole thing started. Sally is a complete basket case, crying and screaming the “Big Brother is coming to get us, he’ll kill us all!” Lucy agrees that Charlie Brown is the culprit, but insists that “no blockhead like Charlie Brown will get Lucy Van Pelt!”
However, Schroeder has a confession to make (told in flashback). Last Halloween, when the gang was searching the woods for Charlie Brown, Schroeder found his horribly disfigured corpse and dragged it down to the river and disposed of the body. The killer isn’t Charlie Brown after all! Just as Lucy remarks that “I knew Charlie Brown was too much of a blockhead to kill everyone like that,” they notice that the crazed-with-fear Sally, having heard her name whispered, is unlocking the door to the room, crying that “Big Brother won’t hurt me!”
Schroeder and Lucy yell out a warning, but it’s too late as a sword penetrates Sally’s torso. As the killer stands looking down at Sally’s dead body, Schroeder grabs his piano stool and smashes the maniac in the back of the head. As the maniac totters, the hood falls from his bloodied head, revealing the face of Linus! Though horrified, Schroeder prepares to bludgeon the prostrate Linus before he can recover. However, just as he’s raised the stool for the death blow, he’s strangled from behind by Lucy with one of his own spare piano wires.
Lucy explains to Schroeder’s dead body that she knew the murderer was Linus all along, but that nobody was going to hurt her little brother. Particularly someone “who didn’t buy a pretty girl a present on Beethoven’s stupid birthday.” Linus had killed them all because he believed that the Great Pumpkin would never appear while so many “heathens” were around. Lucy calls the police, pretending to be hysterical, and blames the killings on Schroeder. She then drags her out-of-it brother home and puts him to bed, another scene that remains in the present show, although the scene was recolored to remove all the bloodstains that originally marked the siblings’ clothes.
The last scene shows Linus leaning on a stone fence, talking to a decayed apparition of Charlie Brown, predicting that “next year, I’ll get them all, and the Great Pumpkin will appear unto me, and reward his faithful one!” One assumes this is supposed to be a dream, at least the living corpse of Charlie Brown part. Strong stuff. Though only shown once, and then destroyed, filmmakers from John Carpenter to Sean Cunningham to John Landis have cited this as a inspiration for their later work.