Or just your pots and pans, because this is a celebration! These past few days, Over the Garden Wall turned two years old! Happy birthday to one of the greatest shows to come out of the American animation industry in the past decade!!!
Originally airing over the course of five days starting on November 3, 2014, Over the Garden Wall is a Cartoon Network miniseries following the lives of Wirt, Greg, and their frog as they journey through the Unknown. Along the way, they meet a woodsman with a lantern, a lovesick schoolteacher, a kleptomaniac horse, frog police, Auntie Whispers, and the Old North Wind. The two lost kids push their way through the woods, guided by bluebird Beatrice, hoping to find their way back home. Along the way, they’re pursued by the Beast, a Wendigo-esque creature that lurks in the trees waiting for them to lose hope so that he can consume their souls (albeit in a roundabout kind of way). This series is an Emmy award-winning modern masterpiece, and so much has been written about it and explored already, particularly on YouTube. Channel Frederator’s Cartoon Conspiracy series has tackled Over the Garden Wall three times, and they’ve also dedicated a 107 facts video to the show. (Spoilers, btw)
A couple days ago, I rewatched Over the Garden Wall in its entirety, which was a delight, but also got me thinking about what it is that makes this show so fabulous. I love animation, but I don’t actually go back and rewatch many things. But Over the Garden Wall is one of the few series that I could watch over and over again and never get bored. In fact, when the last episode ended, I almost immediately started the first again and had to remind myself that that was kind of crazy. Every time I watch this show, I become completely absorbed in it. And while I definitely wouldn’t want to make it any longer, I never want it to end.
A large part of what makes Over the Garden Wall so successful as a story is its terror. I say terror, not horror, because the majority of the scary situations are frightening because of their existential roots. The Beast isn’t out to eat the brothers’ flesh, but more complexly he watches and waits for them to lose heart so that he can claim their souls and turn them into edelwood trees. This creates a looking-over-your-shoulder kind of tension for Wirt, which leads him to lose hope all the more quickly. Turning into a tree is a horror, but the real fear is rooted in the terror of losing your soul to despair. Similarly, what is menacing about Adelaide isn’t so much her desire to turn Wirt and Greg into child servants as it is her declaration that she will stuff their heads with cotton so that they will obey her. She will destroy their minds. And again, with the demon possessing Lorna, it is horrifying that the demon eats people and leaves only their bones, but it is even more terrifying that such a demon possesses an obviously kind and gentle girl like Lorna.
Choosing to value existential terror over the more physical horror elevates the fear moments from cheap jump scares to the deep questions of metaphysical dread that are always creeping at the edges of human consciousness. These moments are scary for children, yes, but they are also scary for adults. In this way, Over the Garden Wall shows a great amount of respect to the emotional intelligence and comprehension of its viewers, regardless of age.
It also keeps itself tied into the older traditions of children’s fairy tales. In several of the Brothers Grimm original fairy tales, a beautiful woman marries a king or a lord, and is given a specific command, like “Do not open this door and go into this room.” When she does, she encounters a room of blood (or something equally horrifying) and discovers the wickedness of the man. She may or may not be able to defeat him. However, if she had followed the rule, she would have been safe. Fairy land and magic have rules, those rules are arbitrary, and breaking them can result in chaos and peril (a theme well-explored in George MacDonald’s Phantastes). We see this time and again throughout Over the Garden Wall.
Fairy tales have been famously sanitized in the late 20th century, so much so that if a child were to read the originating tale of any 90s Disney Princess film, they would not necessarily recognize what they were reading. Apart from removing a lot of death and body horror from these fairy tales, some of the sanitization comes in removing simple wickedness from the villains’ motivations (this is why Doctor Facilier is so much scarier than any other modern Disney villain; he has no reason and receives no benefit from messing with Naveen). Over the Garden Wall does not remove the wicked. True, the Beast must keep the lantern lit because that is where his soul resides, but he has no reason and gains no real benefit from tormenting the Woodsman. He does so to be wicked. Adelaide wants to kidnap children to be wicked. The demon eats people because it is wicked. The rules of the Unknown include real evil, real terror, real fear as consequences.
Over the Garden Wall manages to achieve its tone by steeping itself in the traditions of fairyland terror while balancing them throughout with sugar cubes of humor. Just as memorable as Auntie Whispers ringing the bell is Miss Langtree singing her lament over Jimmy Brown. The Beast is an omnipresent threat, but the banter between Wirt and Beatrice is just as constant. And Greg, well, Greg is the eight-year-old we all wish we were, immune to a sense of danger and impervious to fear. He’s the best and most frustrating kind of Cloud Cukoolander, which might be why his dreamland travels take him to Cloud City. Ultimately, it’s Greg’s self-sacrifice that snap Wirt out of his stupor and get them both home, in true Cukoolander fashion.
On this most recent viewing of Over the Garden Wall, these are the artistic strokes that most left an impression on me as a repeat viewer and devout fan. As a fairy tale, as a folk tale, as a Halloween story, Over the Garden Wall works because it’s fear comes from a place of wickedness and internal terror. As a series, it works because it uses that fear softly, creeping around the edges of the mind, while simultaneously sweetening life like potatoes and molasses.
If you are now dying to watch Over the Garden Wall, it is available on Hulu.