Halloween is one of the only truly universal holidays in America: Secular, commercialized, agreed-upon. For television shows, it’s a convenient tentpole date: Falling between November sweeps and the winter break, it gives writers something to build a schedule around — and the most popular shows turn this annual event into a ritual all its own.
But mining the meanings of Halloween, both historically and socially, is a curational task: We all have a sense of what commonly lies within the boundaries of family-friendly content and what lies beyond. The annual “American Horror Story” Halloween two-parter has its particulars (ghosts are free to walk the earth regardless of the year’s anthology theme), while comedies like “Modern Family” and “Brooklyn Nine Nine” — and obviously “The Simpsons” — have created internal, sequentially numbered chapters in their own unfolding Halloween traditions… And don’t exactly feature the same graphic content or legitimate scares.
Along with the ubiquitous musical episode, the seemingly SAG-required “underground fight club,” and the “Christmas Carol”/”Wonderful Life” dream-redemption setup, the most common trope — and the one we see the most this time of year — is the ghost episode. In a dreamlike setting, characters from even the most mundane TV worlds experience an encounter with the beyond which is almost never referenced again.
Ghosts in literature — in movies, on TV — are a physical manifestation of what we’ve lost. And of the dramas we’re highlighting today, there’s no coincidence to the fact that loss, as a concept, defines a lot of their storylines anyway. Halloween means a magical season, that gives writers the fantasy leeway to make that feeling concrete, and more often than not offer the characters — and maybe us — a little relief.
This year it started early: “Empire’s” Season 3 premiere (Sept. 21) introduced a ghost character — the formerly living Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) — for an extended stay. Like all of the best nighttime soaps, “Empire” features a powerhouse cast, nonstop OMG plot twists, and legitimately banging original songs — all with costumes and sets rivaling “Versailles” in their beauty and attention to detail. It’s is a show that’s never met a plot twist it didn’t love, regularly dropping 2-3 OMG moments per episode… but Rhonda’s spectral return is its first foray into the full-on supernatural.
The first few shots of undead Rhonda were presented at slight Dutch angles, highlighting things weren’t business as usual (and also “Can you believe we got away with this plot twist?”) but in short order, it became apparent that while Ghost Rhonda is real to grieving widower Andre (Trai Byers), she is not visible or tangible to others. It’s clear by at least the third episode that Andre, whose struggles with mental health have formed the majority of his storylines, has created the ghost — but that doesn’t make her any less real, to him or to us. Plus, it lead to this heartbreakingly camp moment: TV’s probable first ghost threesome.
Whether “Empire” believes in ghosts — and given the show’s reliance on Shakespeare and classic opera for its stylized storytelling and gracenotes, the point could be moot anyway — doesn’t matter: Andre’s in pain. And like so many before him, he finds some kind of comfort with Rhonda’s return.
(Whether her presence will remain comforting, who can say? The ghost of Kristin Davis’s Brooke turned “Melrose Place” absolutely upside down, making Andrew Shue’s Billy a slick American Psycho at D&D Advertising with the immortal line, “Every step you take, every bridge you burn, will be because of me!” …Which is honestly still less melodramatic than anything Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon has ever said anyway.)
Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” outlines it so beautifully, the way we keep the dead alive “in order to keep them with us… [but] if we are to live ourselves… we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”
But in the hearts of everyone who’s ever lost is that surreal first 24 hours, 30 days, 10 years without your loved one. If life can end so suddenly, if reality is that strange, then it only takes a minor flex of the imagination to call up or accept the presence of a ghost. Whether a hallucination, smoke and mirrors, or the real thing, how many of us would react just like Andre: Sad, happy, resigned, only too ready to believe.
Perhaps this is why ghosts, of all supernatural creatures, keep finding their way onto otherwise non-supernatural TV shows. (Beyond, of course, the budgetary ease of at most slapping on some creepy pancake.) Part of the appeal of narrative threads like Ghost Rhonda is our delight, momentary or otherwise, wondering: Is this really happening? Is the show really going there?
Other shows may offer us one-off Halloween mysteries, spooky hints and unresolved twists — “The Simpsons” earlier this year brought longstanding “Treehouse of Horror” (and election year) stalwarts Kang and Kodos into a non-“Treehouse” episode, sending up its own too-clever-by-half self-commentary by twisting its continuity all the way around itself — but “Empire” joins a long line of dramas that tease us with a descent into Gothic intrigue only to pull up short at the last minute with “Scooby Doo” reassurance: Of course, it’s just a man in a mask.
Case in point: “Pretty Little Liars” has spent seven seasons creating a heightened reality where psychiatric institutions are easily made over into luxury hotels, teen girls dating adult men is really not a problem, and the existence of an infinite series of nested-doll omniscient cyberstalker/murderers is the status quo.
This show has always danced along the line of the supernatural, notably with the mysterious seeming-returns of the thought-dead Alison on a number of occasions. But by the time she made her Totally Not Dead return in Season 5, those appearances were explained as far from ghostly in origin. In one episode, Alison is visited by the apparent ghost of then-thought-dead Mona, but it was explained to be a dream sequence.
For a brief time, Caleb (Tyler Blackburn) moved to “Ravenswood” — a supernatural soap spin-off where ghosts were all too real, reincarnation was an everyday annoyance, children were sacrificed to bring soldiers home safe, psychic old ladies kept their ghostly daughters trapped in the A/C for company, and so on — but when he came back he got a few pensive looks, a short-lived emo storyline, said goodbye to a jar full of fireflies and that was it.
So in a world like Rosewood, where everything is just a little magical and just a little mundane, and even strange nearby magical towns like Brookhaven and Ravenswood are treated like forgotten nights lost to hangovers — what then to Ashley Marin (Laura Leighton) and her Season 2 visit from an actual ghost?
The ghost, Alice, is a tiny blond twin on a show that is chock full of tiny, haunted, blonde twins. But she isn’t anyone Ashley knew from before, nor was she a friend of Ashley’s daughter, Hanna (Ashley Benson) — and in true urban legend style, Ashley enters conversation with the ghostly Alice presuming she’s an errant trick-or-treater.
By episode’s end, Alice has wound up in an upstairs bedroom, sharing stories of her evil sister in an I See Dead People voice. Ashley touches her cold, cold hand and wraps a blanket around her, and when she turns her back, the blanket appears folded on the bed in an otherwise empty room: Is that because Alice is a good little dead-looking houseguest? Maybe, but probably it is because she is a ghost.
Ashley, used to her own daughter’s frequent high-key adventures, takes this in stride (and with a long slug of white wine), casually asking her boyfriend if he believes in ghosts. One of the things about TV ghosts is that the one who experiences them is always the perfect person for the situation. Nobody loses their minds, or runs screaming — they just react as we might: With a mixture of wonder, terror and relief.