Design by Michelle Kim

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Fears come back from the dead and walk in the day. Goths thrive at midnight showings of “Rocky Horror” and vandals throw eggs at houses. And the Film Beat?  We’re popping popcorn and crawling under blankets to watch some of our favorite scary (or just vaguely spooky) films. ’Tis the season for tricks and treats — whether we’re jumping in our skins or howling at the moon. Join us as we walk through films that remind us of the dark night of Halloween.

The first installment of the Halloweentown series premiered on Disney Channel on Oct. 17, 1998. I still had a month left before leaving the comfort of my mother’s womb. On Oct. 12, 2001, “Halloweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge” premiered. At two-going-on-three, I had yet to enter my Disney phase, and I was honestly more preoccupied with my newfound sisterhood thrust upon me six days prior. Fast forward to 2004: On Oct. 8, “Halloweentown High” premieres, and Lucas Grabeel (“High School Musical”) is making a name for himself on the Disney circuit before his debut as the beloved Ryan Evans. Meanwhile, I started kindergarten.

Finally, “Return to Halloweentown” came, and the surprising recast of our beloved Marnie. While 7-year-old me might not have understood the Hollywood politics behind trading Kimberly J. Brown (“Bringing Down the House”) for Sara Paxton (“Aquamarine”), I was only happy to ignore the continuity issues and, to this day, choose to believe that Marnie dyed her hair and got some work done before she went to college. After all, don’t we all deserve a chance to reinvent ourselves in the final film of our franchise?   

What’s most surprising about “Halloweentown,” outside of the skeleton casually driving a taxi, is how ingrained it is into my youth. Every year since my childhood infatuation with Disney began (in 2006 with the introduction of the beloved “Hannah Montana”), I have watched the “Halloweentown” films with absolutely no hipster irony driving my inevitable enjoyment of a Hauntoberfest movie marathon.

It’s completely understandable why “Halloweentown” has remained a staple in the Disney Channel Original Movie Halloween lineup. The franchise offers 5.5 total hours of runtime, with each film lasting a little under 80 minutes, and a litany of Halloween-themed television events meant to entice kids into watching cable television instead of streaming the latest Hulu series. Consider, maybe, playing a “Halloweentown” film four days out of the week, leading up to a marathon of a new Halloween episode of your favorite wacky sitcoms on Friday. Or what about on Halloween itself: All four movies playing in the background as you and your friends put the final touches on your group costume (all the BTS members, complete with wigs and the best K-Pop merchandise). Clearly, “Halloweentown” and its sequels have and will continue to offer serious commercial value to Disney Channel, propping up its status as one of the premiere Halloween DCOMs. 

The film’s financial promise, though, is not the only reason we see it play every year come October; the nostalgia of “Halloweentown” only serves to enhance its staying power. On a laptop’s screen, the film is grainy, and the vintage hues create a warmth that only the ’90s can invoke. As a kid, I was entranced by the idea of ogres and goblins and witches and warlocks and adventure, and now? I long for the years where my only worries were why I hadn’t encountered any ghosts floating outside of school, trying to get an important message to me. “Halloweentown” also riffs on the age-old belief that the barrier between the mortal and whatever lies beyond is weakest on Halloween. In the case of classic family-friendly entertainment, this means All Hallows’ Eve is the one night a year when a portal between Halloweentown and the mortal world opens and the Cromwell-Piper children can see their witchy (in the most literal sense of the word) grandma (Debbie Reynolds, “Singin’ in the Rain”).

Once “Halloweentown” establishes Marnie and her siblings as witches, the next three films take on the ever-interesting question of what happens when you give a 15-year-old girl magical powers. Will she tell the cute boy from school about her newfound identity in hopes that he’ll notice her? Or broach the centuries-long rift between the mortal world and the human world by telling everyone to just be friends? Or will she be the key to unlocking a power that could destroy the world as we know it? The answer to all these scenarios, of course, is yes. “Halloweentown” showcases Marnie as the kind of well-wishing, earnest and just a little bit sassy main character that Disney favors in all its creative endeavors. As one of the quintessential Halloween films of our generation, the Halloweentown franchise offers the mid-October hug of fall nostalgia we all need when the weather starts turning, midterms are looming and Halloween costume ideas are brewing.  

Daily Arts Writer Emma Chang can be reached at emmacha@umich.edu.