Tim Curry’s Gloriously Bad Halloween Song From The Worst Witch: A Scholarly Analysis

Tim Curry’s Gloriously Bad Halloween Song From The Worst Witch: A Scholarly Analysis
Illustration: Ben Currie

As Halloween approaches, it is paramount that we all take a moment to remember — or discover — Tim Curry’s “Halloween Song” from The Worst Witch. Since HBO aired its extremely low-budget, TV movie adaptation of Jill Murphy’s children’s books in 1986, it has remained one of the most wonderful, terrible, bizarre videos of all time, thanks to its unapologetic synthesiser score, baffling lyrics, and the cheapest special effects the ‘80s had to offer — but there’s more to it than its cheesiness. Much more.

I have completed an academic treatise about the “Halloween Song,” revealing the hidden truths inside each and every lyric. It’s meticulously researched, perturbingly thorough, and, if I do say so myself, an important companion to one of the greatest so-bad-it’s-good moments of the 20th century.

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Here’s what you need to know: It’s Halloween, and the Grand Wizard has chosen to spend the evening at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. This is a big deal; the Grand Wizard, played with a smouldering sensuality by Tim Curry, is a social leader, celebrity, and rock star rolled into one. Students kiss 5×7-inch glossy photos of him, teachers swoon at the sight of him, and his choice to spend Halloween, the most important of witch and warlock holidays, at the school is huge.

When he arrives at the school, he addresses the assembled students and teacher with a song celebrating Halloween, which he presents as what could be generously called a music video. You must see it to understand the scholarly work that follows, or just to lead your best, most fulfilled life:

Having experienced its glory, it behooves you to learn all that you can about its meaning, cultural significance, and what the hell is going on with that tambourine. And thus, I begin.

I wouldn’t change places

With anyone tonight

The Grand Wizard starts his song with an affirmation of the importance of Halloween to witch/warlock society, which may even hold religious significance. Given his social standing, it would be strange for the Grand Wizard to distance himself from a holiday so important to that same society, especially if it means trading places with an immobile skeleton.

We’ll carve pumpkin faces

This may seem banal, especially for some as important and presumably busy as the Grand Wizard. However, it’s not for us to critique how witches and warlocks celebrate Halloween, or with what rituals they use to do so. For instance, we don’t expect our elected officials to work through Christmas Eve instead of hanging stockings with care at the holidays, if that’s a tradition they happen to observe.

And watch the witch’s flight

Every human heart will shudder

Every soul will shake with fear

This seems like a rather optimistic assessment of how much Halloween actually scares people. It’s become such a commercial holiday that it generally fails to scare children who see it almost singularly as an evening to dress up and obtain free candy. Adults are even less frightened. However, remember Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches is set in a world where witches are known to exist — Miss Cackle says early that her mother “had the courage to fight for the formal education of witches” and started the academy herself. Given the apparent success of the school, it’s highly unlikely Miss Cackle Sr. fought other witches or warlocks for these rights; instead, she must have fought “City Hall,” metaphorically speaking. The question now is did the elder Cackle fight with words, or physical violence?

The lines “Every human heart will shudder / Every soul will shake with fear” point to the latter. If normal humans are this afraid each Halloween, they must have something to be afraid of. The most optimistic view is that witches and warlocks spend the evening trying to frighten people…but these lines heavily suggest that people are utterly terrified, and the specific mention of “soul” implies that humans may well fear for their lives on Halloween. Perhaps it’s fear of a future witch attack; perhaps the witches attack humans annually on Halloween. Either way, the camera zoom into a cat’s eye remains perplexing.

Tonight, the creepiest

Tonight, the scariest

Tonight, the most wonderful night

Oh-uh, night

Oh-uh, night” is merely a flourish the Grand Wizard includes as the song transitions to a more upbeat tempo, same as the theatrical disappearances and reappearances he performs as he sings. It is not likely to have any relevant meaning, regardless of what other scholars who have written treatises upon this song may erroneously believe. With due respect, some academics are so determined to find meaning where there is none, their educational treatises could be almost considered fiction.

Anything can happen on Halloween

Your dog could turn into a cat

Here, the Grand Wizard is maddeningly vague, or, more maddeningly, simply telling the truth. Is he speaking metaphorically, and Halloween nights get so magically orgiastic that it’s as if domesticated animals could randomly transmute into other animals, or does “anything” truly mean that chaos truly reigns and the laws of physics are subverted entirely yet randomly? Or is it somewhere in-between, and only witches and warlocks (and their pets) are subject to this pandemonium? (Remember, the Grand Wizard is addressing only the students and faculty of the academy, who are entirely witches.) We must consider the entirety of the source material before drawing any conclusions.

There may be a toad in your bass guitar

We could add teleportation to the list of magical mayhem that can occur on Halloween; however, we cannot be wholly confident a preexisting toad suddenly found itself in someone’s bass guitar, or chaos willed an entirely new toad into being inside the bass. No matter the mechanism, finding a toad inside one’s musical instrument would likely be creepy at the minimum, although the scares more likely belong to any amphibian who suddenly finds himself a prisoner of a jazz combo.

Or your sister could turn into a bat

The Grand Wizard’s repetitive assertation of transmutation suggests that whatever magical events occur on Halloween, changing into other things make up the majority of them, which in turn suggests that there is some order to the events that occur on Halloween, or, to put it more grandly, a method to its madness. Again, we must consider the entire text before drawing such conclusions.

Christmastime brings the snow

Summertime brings the sun

But on Halloween your blood begins to run

Something spooky’s going down on

The Grand Wizard acknowledges that other secular holidays and seasons have their merits, with help from a bit of snow and what appears to be a yellow, cardboard circle meant to represent the sun (clearly, even warlocks must work within their budget). Unfortunately, we simply cannot know whether witches and warlocks (or a portion of them) celebrate Christmas themselves or simply acknowledge it as a popular holiday celebrated by the secular and non-secular alike. If the former is true, however, it’s fascinating to consider the improbable evolution between Christians burning witches at the stake in the 18th century and their adoption of Christianity’s holiest day.

Even if witches ignore the religious aspects of the holiday and opt for a more capitalistic celebration, something truly fundamental must have changed for the witches to tolerate the religion (even obliquely) in the 250-plus years since the last witch was executed in Scotland. This is a subject that merits immense future study but is unfortunately out of this treatise’s scope.

As for the warlock’s torso turning red during “your blood begins to run,” presumably meant to represent the blood coursing through his body, it implies whatever a young witch or warlock’s education is made up of, anatomy is not part of it; however, the Grand Wizard could also have simply been a poor student.

Anything can happen on Halloween

It’s better than a video

These two lyrics are fascinating. Equating a holiday with a video seems like a false equivalency in that the two are so wholly different they cannot be compared by any metric; it’s like saying Arbor Day is better than an orange. However, the dominant visual media format of the ‘80s, when the events of The Worst Witch take place, was a video cassette, upon which movies were able to be seen at home. The Grand Wizard is not referring generically to the medium, but the idea of watching a movie at home, an event he asserts is less enjoyable than celebrating Halloween. The warlock’s meaning would presumably have been immediately clear to the students of the academy, as confusing as it may be to us in the present day, even though whatever is lying next to the TV is absolutely not a standard VHS tape.

Gremlins going to mess up every cassette

From London to Idaho

While it’s perplexing to consider the possibility that gremlins’ sphere of influence reaches America’s “Gem State” and proceeds no further, there is no science to back this assertion up (as of yet). Now, the most likely possibility has to be that the Grand Wizard had trouble thinking up a more relevant word that rhymed with “video” and went with the first idea that came into his mind.

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At least we can assert an answer for the second lyric, while the first remains as chaotically unknowable as perhaps Halloween itself. Why do gremlins hate cassettes? Presumably, they have a savage need to destroy video cassettes, but do they hate audio cassettes as well? Do they specifically hate cassettes, or are these cassettes merely a casualty caused by their usual mayhem? Or do gremlins, like witches and warlocks, also believe Halloween is better than a video, and are on some holy crusade to annihilate cassettes for their inability to measure up to Halloween? It’s a fascinating subject, but again, it’s one that lies beyond this treatise’s scope.

April 1st can be fun

The Grand Wizard’s belief here is commonly acknowledged as incorrect at best and an outright lie at worst, as there’s nothing fun or funny about the deceit brought about by the pseudo-holiday. (A sentiment shared by this scholar.) However, as hard as it might be to believe, we cannot and should not dismiss the very real possibility that April Fool’s Day is an important and enjoyable holiday for witches and warlocks, second only to Halloween. If they love to spread fear on October 31 because of the anguish it causes people, it seems entirely reasonable that they would also enjoy causing confusion and grief on April 1.

New Year’s Eve is a bore

While many humans agree with the Grand Wizard’s assessment here, many do not. Given the lavish pomp and attention the human world gives to New Year’s Eve, compared to the minimized celebration at Halloween (especially if people spend it fearing for their lives), we cannot ignore the possibility that witch/warlock society might be prejudicial. It’s worth noting that Halloween was once known as All Hallow’s Eve, lending more credibility to an “Eve” competition, so to speak.

But on Halloween your flesh begins to crawl

Oh, I’m losing control

As the Grand Wizard sings these lines, his head explodes into several small cubes, proving that he’s not just losing control of his mental and/or physical faculties, but of his physiology as well. This shatters the idea that there are any limits to the chaos that occurs on Halloween. Not only can animals turn into other animals, not only can people turn into animals, but the very cells of the body are subject to the whims of Halloween’s magic. If the Grand Wizard of the witch/warlock world cannot protect himself, it is highly unlikely anyone can.

Anything can happen on Halloween

Your toenails grow wrong and your hair turns green

More examples of Halloween’s potential transmutation effects. The myriad images of the warlock are more likely rudimentary video special effects than actual magic, which surely would have looked more impressive.

Your teacher could become a sardine

As the Grand Wizard sings this line, footage of a whale runs behind him, possibly corroborating either a deficiency in witch/warlock education in general or a deficiency in the Grand Wizard’s education specifically.

Your dentist could turn into a queen

While it may have been already assumed by some, here we discover for certain that Halloween’s magic does not only effect magic-users, but regular humans as well. Multiple educators are depicted in The Worst Witch, but there can only be few if any witch or warlock dentists; the lengthy education process required to become either a witch and a dentist makes the idea of someone combining both fields to be, if not impossible, highly improbable.

Left: Tim Curry as the Grand Wizard. Right: A skeleton. (Screenshot: HBO) Left: Tim Curry as the Grand Wizard. Right: A skeleton. (Screenshot: HBO)

What’s unclear is if witches and warlocks spend Halloween terrorizing the human populace to promote fear, spookiness, and creepiness; if a mother is forced to watch in horror as her baby’s head explodes into small cubes and (hopefully) reforms, a witch popping by to say “Boo!” pales in comparison. The body horror alone fully explains why anyone’s soul would “shake with fear” during a night where someone could watch themselves or their loved ones turn into physiological nightmares, even if only for seconds.

Has anybody seen my tambourine

I may start playing “Begin the Beguine”

Here’s we get to the two lines that have baffled scholars ever since HBO aired The Worst Witch in 1986. They bear no obvious relationship to any other lyrics in the song. It seems that the Grand Wizard has suddenly realised he would prefer to be performing with his tambourine, realises he has set it somewhere he cannot remember, and rather than stop the song, chooses to sing his request for help in lieu of anything Halloween-related.

However, none of this makes sense given that as the Grand Wizard is asking if someone knows the location of his tambourine, he is literally pulling a tambourine out of his generous cape. He knows exactly where his tambourine is. Why could he possibly be asking people if they’ve seen it when he consciously hid it on his own person?

Some academics have argued that the Grand Wizard has pulled out someone else’s tambourine, that, after misplacing his personal one, has borrowed (or purloined) someone else’s. However, he still wants his original tambourine back, possibly because it has some personal value, or because the borrowed tambourine is inferior to the Grand Wizard’s own, the latter idea stemming from the fact that the warlock uses the tambourine for these two lines, and then tosses it away.

This theory fails to explain why the Grand Wizard sings about the tambourine at all. Again, the lyrics have no known bearing on any other part of the song and consist purely of a personal appeal from the Grand Wizard, issued specifically to the students and faculty of Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. It’s not an appeal that needs to be made in song and could easily have waited for a more appropriate, less jarring moment in the Grand Wizard’s address. Also, if the Grand Wizard is such a tambourine aficionado that he owned his own instrument and carried it with him, he surely would have tested a replacement before using it, and thus discovered if it was too inferior to use. The tambourine must belong to the warlock.

I would like to offer a new theory. The Grand Wizard’s confusion regarding the tambourine, and perhaps his sudden desire for a tambourine at all, is another result of Halloween’s chaos. This would also explain the warlock’s affirmation that he may stop his song and pivot to singing “Begin the Beguine,” a song written by Cole Porter in 1935 about a dance whose popularity waxed and waned during the same decade, neither of which could hold any meaning or interest to an assembly of 10- to 12-year-old children whatsoever.

The craziest night you’ve ever seen

This hairy, scary, creepy, crawling Halloween

Of course, “hairy” simply refers to more of the physical afflictions Halloween can wreak, although whatever horrors are still to come, the winking pumpkin reminds the members of the witch and warlock community will be fine. Everyone else, however, in for a night of pure terror and possible relocation into a musical instrument.