Happy Halloween: Metaphysics in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
Watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is an October tradition. It’s undoubtedly the best of all the Charlie Brown specials and it tends to get better as you get older. Part of this is the side-splitting notary and restitution jokes, but the best part is complemplating the weird metaphysics at work in the life of Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown might appear to be a normal boy with miserable luck, but watch carefully and you’ll realize that the universe changes its very rules to give him the worst experience possible.
The scene where the gang makes ghost costumes by cutting holes in sheets is a perfect example of reality bending to afflict Charlie Brown. First we see Sally, Charlie’s younger sister cutting eye holes in her sheet. She has multiple scraps of fabric around her feet, suggesting that she’s cut multiple holes. However, when we see her put the sheet on, her ghost costume has only two holes, placed exactly right over her eyes.
We don’t see Charlie cut his sheet. When we first see it, he’s holding it next to Violet and Lucy and there are exactly two visible holes, exactly where they should be. His sheet looks identical to Violet’s. Sally joins the group and Charlie again scrunches up and straightens his sheet, revealing only two holes. He looks distressed and folds up the sheet again. Violet puts on her sheet and Charlie stretches the sheet, but now there are four holes. When he finally unfurls the sheet and puts it on, it is riddled with holes! Hilarious! But also troubling from a metaphysical sense. There are two possible options as to how this happens. One is that Charlie failed the simple task of cutting two holes in the sheet and it was always that holey. The other is that the holes multiplied while we were watching. That second explanation would require the sheet to bend the rules of time and space, but it’s the most likely answer. Charlie isn’t holding the sheet scrunched up in a ball where we wouldn’t be able to see the holes. He’s holding it draped towards the floor. We see not one, but two glimpses of his sheet looking perfectly normal. The third reveal of the sheet shows only four holes in an even square pattern, but these don’t even match up to the final costume! The final costume has at least twelve holes distributed randomly across the front of the costume. They actually multiple as we watch. This is embarrassing compared to the other children, but it’s extra humiliating compared to Sally’s perfect costume which apparently healed itself in order to make Charlie’s look worse. It would be one thing to see several children with poorly cut ghost costumes, but having only one child with a spectacularly poorly made costume among multiple perfect ones is clearly just a personal insult.
The universe has more tricks for Charlie’s Halloween. When the kids go trick or treating, everyone else gets tons of candy, gum, and money but Charlie only gets a sackful of rocks. Every time we see them trick or treat, we see the same scenario: they all chorus “trick or treat,” a small box or candy is thrown to Lucy or another child, and a rock is propelled directly into Charlie Brown’s bag. The children stand around comparing their treats and everyone else gets something good and Charlie “got a rock.” Let’s look at the possibilities of how this could happen:
- Adults hate Charlie Brown specifically and have a vast conspiracy to only give him rocks. This would mean that they identified which costume Charlie was wearing, communicated this information to each other, went outside to find a single rock, set the rock aside to await his arrival, tossed the other children candy and without pausing threw him the rock. This happens at every house Charlie visits.
- Charlie Brown receives the rocks as the result of an astonishing string of coincidences in which the adults are unwilling participants. This would mean that at every house Charlie visits, a rock would have accidentally found its way into the candy bowl. Then, as the adults distribute candy to the children, when it comes to Charlie’s turn, the adult absentmindedly grabs the rock and throws it to Charlie. The adults are completely unaware that this has happened.
- Adults intend to give candy to Charlie, but the candy metamorphosizes into rocks as it leaves their hands and propels towards Charlie. In this case, adults fully intend to give Charlie candy and are actively doing so, but some mysterious force causes the candy to actually change into rocks. This would put Charlie into the realms of cursed beings like Midas or Medusa where matter actually contorts in their presence.
Which of these is the most distressing? The first option doesn’t seem all that likely given Charlie’s other attributes and situation. Charlie’s not personally repugnant or violent. He’s not seen as a character who is off putting in any particular way. Other children are clearly allowed to play with Charlie Brown and visit his house, so it seems likely parents have any particular problem with him. We don’t see his sister Sally trick or treating because Linus has convinced her to stay with him in the pumpkin patch, but it feels reasonable that if she had, she too would have gotten candy, so it doesn’t appear like there’s any onus towards the entire Brown family. Such conspiracy seems awfully well organized and comprehensive to be waged against a seemingly unremarkable child. His situation doesn’t even leave open the possibility of a sympathetic adult who deliberated decides to give him a treat, an adult who is unaware of the conspiracy, or an adult who fails to recognize his costume. Given the lack of organization among humans and the lack of strong motivations, I’m inclined to rule this explanation out.
The string of coincidences theory is certainly possible, if unlikely. It cements Charlie Brown as just being phenomenally unlucky. No one has any particular malice towards him, but he is just the victim of the worst possible turn of events. The probability of this happening all night, assuming that the children trick or treat at at least ten houses, is astronomical since it requires a foreign object not usually even found inside a house to be distributed in exactly the same way multiple times. In some ways this is the most depressing of the three theories. If Charlie were the victim of neighborhood maliciousness, he could potentially move away and be free of it. If Charlie were cursed magically, he could possibly figure out a way to break free. If Charlie’s problem is truly terrible luck without any kind magic or human intervention involved, it could mean that no matter what he does in his life, no matter how much he follows the rules or works hard; he will always meet with hardship in the most unlikely of ways. This theory does fit quite well with Charlie Brown’s general character in the strip as a long-suffering individual.
Personally, I believe the third theory. Sure, it’s technically impossible, but this is Halloween. If Linus can believe so zealously in the Great Pumpkin, so can we believe in the magical transformation of candy into rocks on this particular night. The transformation theory feels right in combination with the earlier scene with the ghost sheets. There’s not really a logical explanation why Charlie’s sheet suddenly seems to develop so many holes, so why would there be a realistic reason why he only gets rocks instead of treats? Charlie is under a temporary curse that only affects him on this particular night put on him by unseen forces (unless Lucy is a real witch, which I would readily believe). Clearly, he can receive other food and not have it turned into rocks, the curse only happens while trick or treating. Just as the universe bent the rules of time and space to trick him with a unreasonably terrible costume, it bends the rules of time and space to give him a sack full of rocks.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is a joy to watch. It’s a metaphysical trick on the audience. We’re led to believe that Linus will have the metaphysical experience. He’s done everything right and found the most sincere pumpkin patch. His belief in the Great Pumpkin is unshakeable, but it isn’t rewarded. Linus doesn’t get the treat of seeing the spirit of Halloween rise up out of the pumpkin patch. Instead we see Charlie being repeatedly tricked in ways that are subtle enough that they can almost be explained away. He doesn’t even meditate on the strangeness of his Halloween. This is, however, completely in keeping with both the special and the holiday. After all, the first thing we see is Lucy tricking Charlie by pulling away the football, so why should this spirit of irritating but ultimately harmless japes not continue? After all, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown premiered in 1966, so the memory of Halloween being a time of throwing eggs, soaping windows, and smashing pumpkins must have been fresh in the minds of the makers. Why should we expect only sweetness from this season? Ultimately, Linus, Sally, and Charlie Brown are all tricked in the special, but the treat? That’s ours for getting to watch it all play out.
Happy Halloween, vampire boys and girls! Stay safe! Avoid rocks.