The Halloween classic still gets high TV ratings
Almost fifty years after it first aired, the 1966 Halloween classic, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, remains popular. Despite the simple plot and rudimentary animation, it gets higher television ratings than more sophisticated shows. Its humor and pathos, which communicate some realities of human behavior and experience, may account for the cartoon’s appeal.
The plot is straightforward. Linus believes in a Great Pumpkin, a Santa Claus like figure who rises up from the most sincere pumpkin patch on Halloween to drop toys to faithful believers. The rest of the Snoopy gang mock and insult him. Even little Sally, who adores Linus, abandons him after waiting in vain for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. A secondary plot line deals with the bullying of Charlie Brown, by both his peers and the unseen adults who put rocks, instead of treats, into his bag on Halloween night. The show ends with Charlie Brown and Linus working through their disappointment, and with Linus vehemently asserting his belief that next year the Great Pumpkin will come and everything will be different.
Belief and doubt are bedfellows in the cartoon
The cartoon touches on a variety of themes. One of these themes is the relationship between belief and doubt, and it anchors the story. In “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, belief and doubt are bedfellows, existing in relationship, not in opposition, to one another.
Linus holds fast to his belief in the Great Pumpkin despite the overwhelming evidence that refutes its existence, and the crushing disappointment he experiences annually when the Great Pumpkin fails to appear. Yet, Linus moves back and forth between certainty and uncertainty as he struggles to overcome the doubt that threatens to swallow up his faith every Halloween. The letter Linus pens to the Great Pumpkin sums up his painful struggle to reconcile his belief and doubt, “If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
"True faith is about doubt negotiated..."
Linus is not alone in the struggle to reconcile belief and doubt. From the great prophets to doubting Thomas to Pope Francis today, spiritual seekers have always recognized the presence of doubt and its importance to the spiritual life. To quote author and social psychologist, Diarmuid O’Murchú, “True faith is about doubt negotiated, not doubt avoided.” And as Pope Francis has said, it is important to leave room for doubt in the quest for God; there are dangers in certitude.
The cartoon probes the foibles of adult behaviour
The cartoon also uses the actions and frequently comical dialogue of its child characters to subtly probe the foibles of adult behaviour.
There is the example of Sally, who blames Linus for her decision to join him in the pumpkin patch. Angry and disappointed because she missed the fun of Halloween, she threatens to sue Linus, shouting at him, “You owe me restitution!” While her reaction is comical given her tender age, it pokes fun at the adult world. Sally’s desire to get even, through the courts if necessary, mimics a litigious adult society as well as our reluctance to take responsibility for our actions and to consider the ways in which we may have contributed to a problem.
Linus and Charlie Brown, like Sally, have great expectations that quite literally fail to materialize. Linus comes away empty handed from the pumpkin patch; there’s no reward for his sincerity, belief or good behavior. Charlie Brown ends the night with a bag of rocks, although he had every reason to expect a bag of candy. In their disappointment, we might recognize our own feelings of disillusionment when life treats us unfairly, and when our actions fail to produce the desired results.
We have packed around that bag of rocks
In Charlie Brown’s bag of rocks, we find a symbol for rejection and bullying. Everyone can relate to Charlie Brown’s experience of standing on ‘the outside looking in’. We have packed around that bag of rocks. Or, maybe we have thrown rocks into someone else’s bag.
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” holds a mirror up to human behavior and experience in an understated, sensitive and often comical fashion. This may explain, in part, its enduring appeal despite its straightforward story and rudimentary animation in an age of superior technology and elaborate plot lines.