Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, originally released in 1993, tells the story of Jack Skellington, the main character, who is the king of Halloween Town. This fictional town is filled with all the monsters that come to scare children once a year on Halloween, such as vampires and witches. These monsters may seem scary, but it is Oogie Boogie who is the true monster. After kidnapping Santa Clause from Jack, who was also trying to kidnap Santa Clause, Oogie’s horrendous nature is put on full display. With a lack of morals that the other monsters possess, Oogie Boogie resides on the outskirts of town where his home in his henchmen’s’ basement is a casino-themed torture chamber.
The creation of Oogie Boogie in the 1990’s stems from the Latin American version of the Boogeyman, “El Coco”, the reformation of gambling laws and stigmas surrounding gambling in the United States, and the rise of the serial killer in American media and film. These influences were not random, but a reflection of societal fears and prejudices. Dr. Jefferey Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses) is a scholarly work detailing seven theses that outline the links between monsters and a certain theme in a time, place, and/or culture which can be used to understand the connections between Coco (the boogeyman), gambling, and serial killers in relation to Oogie Boogie.
The most obvious cause and inspiration for the character of Oogie Boogie was the Boogeyman, in name and appearance. According to Natalia Klimczak, in her article Shape Changes, Fear Does Not: The Mythical Monster Coco, the roots for the Latin American boogeyman, Coco, stems from Portugal and Spain in which Coco was a dragon fought and conquered by Saint George (Klimczak 2-3). This version of Coco was still prevalent in medieval times and was depicted as a dragon with a turtle-looking head (Klimczak 7). Sometime between the 15th and 17th century, this tale of Coco was brought to Mexico from the Spanish conquistadors; however, Mexican culture understood Coco to be a creature with no specific description or make that kidnapped and ate children who misbehaved (Klimczak 8-9). In some Latin American culture, Coco’s appearance as a man or creature covered by a sack is inspired by men in the 16th and 17th centuries that would collect orphans and take them to the orphanage as described by Carmelo Tidona in his article, L’Uomo Nero (Boogeyman). The Mexican version of Coco spread to America and is understood to be a creature or being that terrorizes disobedient children and feeds off the fear of these children to gain his power (JCU 4).
This psychopathic killer is translated into Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas as Oogie Boogie, a sack-man with slits for eyes and a mouth and filled with bugs. Dr. Cohen’s first thesis, The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body, from Monster Culture (Seven Theses) claims that “The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy” from a particular time, place or culture (Cohen 4), which is apparent in the representation of Oogie Boogie as a modern, American boogeyman. This version of the boogeyman utilizes the fear of the word “Boogeyman” and the American audience’s understanding of the boogeyman as a child-eating monster in order to establish fear of Oogie Boogie.
Another main cause in the creation of Oogie Boogie is the reformation of gambling laws in the US and attitudes regarding morality and gambling. Gambling dates back to colonial times, with colonists being frustrated with gambling restrictions imposed by the British government. After separating from Britain, the colonies used lotteries to create funds for their towns, as exemplified by the 1612 lottery for Jamestown (Dasgupta 1). More state lotteries were created between 1740 and 1865 in America to create funds to support public needs, such as education; however, in the eighteenth century moral concerns about lotteries and gambling forced states to ban lotteries (Dasgupta 1). Moral concerns regarding gambling stemmed from religious figures, such as evangelist Billy Sunday as well as Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch, whom claimed gambling was “the vice of a savage” (Vacek 88). It was not until 1964 that lotteries and gambling were seen in America with the New Hampshire state lottery (Dasgupta 1). During the 1980s and 1990s, gambling became widespread (Vacek 89) with many states creating lotteries and/or allowing casinos and other forms of gambling to exist. Currently, “lifetime gambling participation [was] reported as 78%” (Averbeck, Clark, et al 17617), which has allowed scientists time to research behaviors regarding gambling. By 1980, pathological gambling was recognized as a psychiatric disorder (Averbeck, Clark, et al 17617) and since then much more research has been done on gambling addictions. Although Americans have adopted a more liberal viewpoint on gambling, as seen by the amount of states legally allowing such activity in varying levels, there are still some negative receptions of gambling that are rooted in the puritanical beliefs of the past (Vacek 92). This emergence of gambling in the 1980s and 1990s led to part of the inspiration for Oogie Boogie, a monster addicted to gambling with other people’s lives instead of money.
This representation of gambling linked to murder serves to establish the moral fear Americans regards gambling with. This connection is best explained through Dr. Cohen’s fourth thesis, The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference, which claims that the monster represents a cultural fear and that the monster is an illustration used to keep certain beliefs, practices, or peoples restricted (Cohen 7-12). In the film, Oogie Boogie is forced to live on the outskirts of the town, as no one else in Halloween Town shares his morals, or lack thereof. This physical separation alludes to the rejection of Oogie’s beliefs and being by both the characters in the film and the audience members. More specifically, this presentation of gambling as addictive and a pathway to the loss of morals represents the conservative, religious American fear of gambling and the “evils” it will cause in society. Tim Burton does a wonderful job in illustrating this point through Oogie Boogie’s song in which he admits to cheating, killing, and obsessive gambling.
The most striking cause for Oogie Boogie’s character is the emergence of the serial killer in American media and film. Since the 1970s, serial killers have had a large impact on American culture with films, television shows, and documentaries focusing on the most well-known serial killers as well as merchandise (called muderbilia) , such as a lock of hair from one of these infamous killers, being sold for massive sums of money (Schmid 1). This rise in “fame” for serial killers is the result of lower editorial standards in newspapers when reporting on crimes during the 1980s (Schmid 14). With newspapers competing to provide the most interesting and dramatic news, serial killers rose to new levels of fame in the 1980s because they were “all scandal, all the time” (Schmid 14). Also causing this increase in coverage in serial killers was the need of the media to provide “a face to a faceless predator criminal” (Schmid 15). Since the 1980’s rise in media coverage on serial killers, the entertainment industry capitalized on American’s fascinations with these individuals and “actual serial killers…are slowly metamorphosing into immortal (and profitable) icons” (Simpson 2). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, horror films based on serial killers, such as Nightmare On Elm Street, scared and fascinated millions of Americans which has led to the continued production and reformation of the serial killer character and narrative. The original release of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas was in 1993, during one of many climax in the serial killer genre and character adaptation. As Dr. Cohen explains in The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body (thesis 1), the monster is a projection of cultural fear(s) and represents something beyond itself (Cohen 4). Burton does a phenomenal job in developing the serial killer narrative in a family-friendly way without losing the fear this killer represents. Oogie Boogie’s home, in a basement, is a casino-themed torture chamber, as seen in the Oogie Boogie song scene. This scene shows skeletons hung throughout the room, which resembles the trophies of serial killers in other popular films.
Along with the skeletons of his victims, Oogie Boogie has many torture devices ready at his disposal with many taking on a casino theme, such as the shooting men that nearly kill Santa Clause. Another significant choice of Burton’s in Oogie’s portrayal was his need to win when gambling with other’s lives by any means necessary – so basically cheating since he is the worst gambler ever. This portrayal goes beyond his addiction to gambling, but encompasses his insatiable appetite for killing. He literally cannot stop himself!
Dr. Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses) explains the cultural fears or representations that Oogie Boogie takes on in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Latin American boogeyman, Coco, embodies a folkloric fear that disobedient children will be taken and eaten by this boogeyman. Burton also references religious American’s views of the evils of gambling as Oogie Boogie serves as a border indicating the societal expectations in religious areas to refrain from the temptations of gambling. Finally, Burton capitalizes on the American fascination with serial killers that boomed in the 1970s to showcase the fear of the unpredictable nature of the serial killer and their unpredictable victim patterns that left many feeling vulnerable yet fascinated.
Averbeck, Clark, et. al, “Pathological Choice: The Neuroscience of Gambling and Gambling Addiction”. The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 33(45): 17617-17623, Nov. 2013. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/jneuro/33/45/17617.full.pdf
Cohen, Jefferey J., “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”. 1996.
Dasgupta, Anisha, “Public Finance and the Fortunes of the Early American Lottery”. Yale Law School, Aug. 2005. https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=student_papers
JCU Paranormal Research Group, “Worrisome Wednesday: The Boogeyman”. History and Headlines, May 2018. https://www.historyandheadlines.com/worrisome-wednesday-the-boogeyman/
Klimczak, Natalia, “Shape Changes, Fear Does Not: The Mythical Monster Coco”. Ancient Origins, March 2016. https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/shape-changes-fear-does-not-mythical-monster-coco-005566
Schmid, David, “Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture”. The University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Simpson, Philip L., “Psycho Paths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction”. Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
Tidona, Carmelo, “L’Uomo Nero (Boogeyman)”. La Tela Nera, Feb. 2012. http://www.latelanera.com/mostri-creature-leggendarie/creatura-leggendaria.asp?id=222
Vacek, Heather, “The History of Gambling”. Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, pp. 88-93, 2011. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/144593.pdf