The Truth About “Nightmare Before Christmas” Film’s Jack Skellington is Terrifying. And Heartbreaking.

jack skellington disney's nightmare before christmas
Credit: Disney/Canva

Though it has already amassed a cult following in recent years, there’s more buzz than ever about Disney’s 1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas as the film celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall. And part of that recent buzz includes a second look and a deeper dive into the main character of the film, who reportedly suffers from the “worst” mental illness in all of psychiatry.

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Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween-themed stop-motion animated musical dark fantasy film directed by Henry Selick and conceived and produced by filmmaker Tim Burton. The film stars Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, the late Paul Reubens, and Glenn Shadix and is based on a poem written by Burton during his tenure as a Disney animator in the early 1980s.

The Nightmare Before Christmas tells the story of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, who becomes bored with the same old Halloween routine and discovers something called “Christmas” that instantly intrigues him. Jack wants desperately to spread the joy associated with the new-found holiday, but his best intentions endanger Santa Claus and put into motion a new kind of nightmare for good girls and boys.

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Halloween or Christmas: Which Fits Jack Skellington More? – The Oarsman

Credit: Disney

The story is decorated with Tim Burton’s trademark macabre style–even when it comes to icons from the Christmas holiday season. But there’s more to the story than Jack’s obsession with a new holiday. Unbeknownst to them, there’s so much more to the film than fans might have thought for the last 30 years, and it has to do with the truth about Jack Skellington’s mental well-being.

Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town

Jack is the film’s main character, and fan theories about his backstory range from mild to wild. His official name is Jack Skellington, but throughout Tim Burton’s film, Jack answers to other names as well, including The Pumpkin King, Mr. Unlucky, Bone Daddy, Bone Man, and of course, Sandy Claws. At the beginning of the story, Jack laments over the hum-drum repetition that plagues his existence. He has grown weary of the same old thing–the day-in, day-out routine of scaring and screaming, of fearing and fleeing.

nightmare before christmas tree

Credit: Disney

As chance would have it, his best friend Zero ends up leading Jack to a place where seven trees stand, each one adorned with icons from popular holidays, including Easter and Thanksgiving. But the one adorned with a Christmas tree stands out to him above the rest. At this point, viewers may think they know the storyline–Jack has found a remedy for his boredom, and now he’ll deliver the joy of Christmas to the residents of Halloween Town, and they’ll all live spookily, happily, and hopefully, ever after.

But they’re wrong.

Jack Skellington is hardly a hero. In the story of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack kidnaps Santa Claus, fashions destructive weapons, and upsets everyone in Halloween Town. And despite his affection for Sally, Jack is repeatedly disrespectful to her–talking over her, ignoring her, and remaining completely oblivious to the fact that she’s been kidnapped. Though it isn’t Jack’s intention to make others angry or hurt them, that’s exactly what happens.

And beyond that, he’s in no way mentally stable.

jack skellington and sally

Credit: Disney

Jack’s Mental State

According to Medium.com, Jack Skellington’s behaviors and patterns of thinking throughout the film fit well with the storyline. Many characters in Halloween-themed films exhibit odd, eerie, and troubling behaviors. But when the film and Jack’s behaviors are viewed through a mental health lens, Jack’s background and mindset are more easily understood.

Jack Skellington’s behaviors and thought patterns seem to have striking resemblances to the symptoms experienced by people with schizophrenia, a serious mental disorder, and one that Dr. Spencer Rathus, an author and clinical psychologist in New York City, describes as the “worst” mental illness in the field of study.

Dr. Rathus points out that there are three types of schizophrenia. But when it comes to Jack Skellington, the culprit may be more specifically described as paranoid schizophrenia.

What is Schizophrenia? 

According to the National Institutes of Health, schizophrenia is a mental disorder that affects the ways in which people think and perceive the world around them, how they feel, and how they act.

People with the disorder often seem as though they have lost touch with reality–a condition that can create stress and angst for the patient, as well as for his or her loved ones. People who have schizophrenia often experience symptoms that can make it difficult for them to participate in everyday life. Symptoms of schizophrenia are categorized as either psychotic, negative, or cognitive.

Psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia pertain to a loss of shared reality with others and include hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking. Negative symptoms include a loss of motivation and a loss of interest in daily activities. Cognitive symptoms include issues with attention, concentration, and memory. People with the disorder often experience the world around them in a distorted way, as they may suffer from hallucinations, delusions, disordered or illogical thinking, and movement disorders.

jack skellington

Credit: Disney

Jack Skellington and His Grief Journey

The story of The Nightmare Before Christmas casts Jack as the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. He’s usually seen with his ghostly dog, Zero. But Jack’s behaviors and mindset–revealed in the lyrics to the songs he sings in the film–are indicative of something deeper. According to Medium, Jack’s own reality might be the work of delusions and hallucinations:

[Jack’s] delusions were brought on by the tragic death of his best friend, Zero, otherwise known as the ghost dog in the film. Whether Zero was a real person or an actual canine, Jack spiraled out of control following his passing. His mind split and produced hallucinations that he was the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town and that he went on to steal Christmas.

After Halloween’s completion, Jack experiences a bout of bipolar depression, defined by Dr. Rathus as “a disorder in which the mood alternates between two extreme poles (elation and depression).” The period of depression starts with the song “Jack’s Lament,” where Jack sings the lines,

Yet year after year, it’s the same routine/And I grow so weary of the sound of screams.

And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King/Have grown so tired of the same old thing.

Oh, there’s an empty place in my bones/That calls out for something unknown

The fame and praise come year after year/Does nothing for these empty tears

The entire song is about Jack’s depression as he longs for something more, something to fill the sad gaps in his soul. In the film, the depression continues until Jack stumbles upon the portal to “Christmas Town,” to which he is sucked in and enveloped by the joyous sounds and snow of Christmas. It inspires Jack to steal Christmas for the year and recreate it using the ghouls and goblins in his native town. Jack creates an elaborate plan, giving everyone a job to fulfill in order to take Christmas and put their own spin on it.

What Does This Mean for Jack Skellington?

The post goes on to suggest that, in reality, Jack is actually attempting to deal with the grief of losing his best friend, and he uses Christmas as the available outlet. Jack allegedly experiences two psychotic episodes. One includes delusions of grandeur: that Jack is Halloween Town royalty as the Pumpkin King. The other episode takes place as Jack’s plans to bring Christmas to Halloween Town go horribly wrong, and the whole disaster is allegedly brought about by the disorganized elements of his delusions.

jack skellington

Credit: Disney

And, spoiler alert, Sally might not be real either:

“The execution of stealing Christmas can be equated to a disorganized delusion of a schizophrenic. Jack does a poor job of recreating the same atmosphere and excitement, causing far more trouble than expected, something foreshadowed by another character in the film, Sally. Sally could very well be the delusional manifestation of someone close to Jack who’s trying to help him cope with this tragedy.

This situation worsens when, in Jack’s delusions, he actually ruins Christmas rather than making it better. This causes a secondary bout of depression, expressed by the song “Poor Jack.”

jack skellington

Credit: Disney

The first half of the song Jack spends lulling about his failure, with lines like,

What have I done?/What have I done?

How could I be so blind?/All is lost, where was I?

Spoiled all, spoiled all/Everything’s gone all wrong

But I never intended all this madness, never/And nobody really understood; how could they?

That all I ever wanted was to bring them something great/Why does nothing ever turn out like it should?

At this point in the film, says the author of Medium’s post, Jack’s delusions begin to deteriorate quickly. Thankfully, though, he’s able to get back up and again and acknowledge his failures–but that he gave it his all.

Then Again, Maybe Not . . . 

This element in the storyline does not line up with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, as Dr. Rathus states that those who have the disorder can’t “recognize that their thoughts and behavior are abnormal.” But Jack does, and that’s a positive.

He quickly recovers his thoughts as the Pumpkin King and rescues the real Santa Claus, who restores the importance and joy of the holiday. Although he still believes he’s the Pumpkin King, the real Jack has come to understand the absurdity of his own unconventional thought of stealing Christmas and returns back to his ‘normal’ delusion.

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Credit: Disney

Though it’s not the usual living happily ever after that fans are accustomed to in a Disney film, in a Tim Burton film, such a “return to delusions” seems par for the course.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

One comment

  1. Thank you, Becky B.