Over the Garden Wall is a (fairly) recent cartoon miniseries that feels very, very old. It specifically feels like the kind of ghost stories that were told in the late 1700’s/early 1800’s – stories like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “Rip Van Winkle”, and other things by Washington Irving and his peers. It’s not just the fact that it’s (sorta) roughly set in this vague era, either – it has a very gentle nature to it, like stories back then did, and mixes moments of whimsy, fantasy, and comedy with moments of deep soul searching and terror in a way that’s been lost in other modern ghost stories. It harkens back to old medieval folktales, but has a touch of the modern world’s humor to it.
It’s also very, very good.
Those old ghost stories I mentioned are prime examples of why I think the horror genre stretches farther than academics give it credit for. While some of them might not fit our current ideas of horror – “Rip Van Winkle”, for example, is generally considered a funny fairy tale, with most retellings omitting him visiting the faerie land of the dead entirely – they were called ghost stories in their own time, and are referenced by horror writers who came after them as a source of inspiration. They are part of the horror genre, if only because of historical precedent.
So while modern academics scoff at the idea of letting movies like Them! and Gojira be considered horror movies, well, are they really any more different in tone from standards like Dracula than “Rip Van Winkle” is?
I bring all this up because Over the Garden Wall has been advertised as a fantasy story, or an adventure story, but I think that’s miscategorization – or at least omission of the genre it has the strongest ties to: Gothic Horror. Specifically early Gothic Horror – stuff like The Castle of Otranto and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which mixes so much folklore and myth into it that it’s almost unrecognizable compared to more modern Gothic Horror pieces, and yet, to those who’ve done their research, is inextricably tied to those descendants.
It’s a shame we’ve grown so distant from those early horror stories, too, because they have something I think we miss. They weren’t written to showcase gore or have a body count – in fact, a good number of them are bloodless. No, old Gothic Horror was focused on humanity not only facing its fears, but defeating them. It’s never an easy task, but it’s an important one, and the stories that stuck around were the ones where the human characters – the protagonists – were not only well developed, but likable enough for you to root for their success. Maybe it’s the old grump in me, but that’s something that’s kind of rare in modern horror movies, isn’t it?
Over the Garden Wall has it in spades, though – and like any good ghost story, it has an equally effective villain to match.
There are a multitude of monsters, spectres, and weird things in Over the Garden Wall, but the worst of them all, and the most persistent threat, is The Beast. Everything about this monster evokes medieval devil folklore – he’s horned, of course, and “the Beast” is one of many common if archaic pseudonyms for Satan, but it goes deeper than that. In folklore (and in Early Gothic Horror stories, for that matter), the devil was often met deep within the woods where few men dare to tread. There the demon would issue a test to our mortal hero – sometimes it’d be physical, or mental, or even artistic, but it would always force the hero to reveal the quality of their soul. Failing the test would result in grisly and elaborate doom, while succeeding – though difficult – would help the hero overcome their faults and become a stronger person. The devil would stack the odds in its own favor as much as possible, but the test could be fairly won.
I’m sure most of you think that all sounds pretty appropriate for Satan… and yet you’d be surprised to realize how rarely it shows up in our modern devil stories. And it’s not like demons have fallen out of favor in our horror tales – it feels like I’ve seen at least a dozen recent horror movies in the last five years where some jackass paranormal investigator explains to two stupid new homeowners what a demon is, even though literally no one would ever ask what a demon is. We’ve just sort of filed off those personality traits to make something simpler and more vague because… because personality is bad I guess.
Well, The Beast brings them back, along with a great deal of clout to go with it. Like a lot of really good villains I gush about a lot (Dracula, Smaug, etc.), The Beast isn’t actually in Over the Garden Wall that often. He’s explained in detail to our heroes in the first episode, seen a couple times for the briefest of moments in later ones, and only truly encountered for a substantial amount of time in the last episode. For the rest of the special he’s only mentioned, albeit quite often – and at dramatically appropriate moments, and as a result his specter hangs over the entire show. This is helped by his simplistic, silhouetted design: with his shadowy form and horns that look like branches, it is easy to imagine him lurking in every shadow of the many, many, MANY background shots that take place in the woods. He could be anywhere – he could be everywhere. The paranoia is compounded by the second most significant villain mentioning that she works for The Beast, all while trying to enslave our child heroes.
When we finally meet the monster, he has a soft spoken voice that nonetheless trembles with power (his voice actor is an opera singer, which was perfect casting), and we see how he schemes and manipulates others so simply yet so effectively. He is more The Devil than any of the gray faced possessed women screaming obscenities in our modern demon movies – as he is truly a father of lies and devourer of life. The final confrontation with the Beast is filled with dread and suspense, eventually revealing what the fiend looks like beneath its cloak of shadow before the “battle” comes to an unexpected by incredibly satisfying end. It is, once again, the sort of ending that feels right out of the pages of Washington Irving.
Fan reaction to the Beast posits that part of his appeal is how refreshing and new he feels, which to me is so ironic because in truth this character is based on an archetype that’s very old – albeit one so old that it’s mostly forgotten. Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take from this wily devil is that monsters never truly die – they simply wait until we’ve forgotten them to rise again, as terrible and fascinating as ever.