Back when I had cable I looked forward to October with a burning fervor, because SyFy turned into an overflowing Halloween cornucopia, stuffed with grade Z horror movies, terrible cheesy ghost shows, and best of all, marathons of all the spooky Quantum Leap episodes. I don’t know how I managed this, but for several years in a row, every single time I turned the TV on in October, Dr. Sam Beckett was battling ghosts, vampire cults, or the Devil Himself, and it was awesome.
Without really thinking about it, watching these episodes became a Halloween Tradition for me. And that started me thinking: what about all the other wonderfully cheesy 80s dramas that I Netflix obsessively? Do we ever get to see Sonny Crockett carving a pumpkin? Or The A-Team doing a group costume as the Scooby Gang? Well, no, no we don’t get either of those things, but we do get this:
That’s MacGyver dressed as a jester, in case you were temporarily blinded by the image.
How did these shows do this stuff? And how did the supernatural elements fit into the rest of the framework of the show? Most Halloween episodes operate along strict “Treehouse of Horror” rules—spooooky things happen, sometimes potentially show-altering things, but at the end of the episode the shows reset and it’s like nothing ever happened. What intrigued me about this is that, while I’m looking at one show that’s kind of sci-fi, and one that’s fantasy, even the straightforwardly realistic shows introduce supernatural elements, and then have to find a way to deal with them.
The other thing is that the 80s produced only one type of Halloween special. Rational male scoffs at supernatural happenings. Superstitious female gets freaked out. (Often the superstitious female looks eerily like a family member who is insane and/or dead.) Rational male is vindicated, superstitious female grudgingly admits she was wrong, one last weird supernatural event happens, which makes everyone look at each other, startled. Then the show keeps going like the scary thing never happened.
OK, so we begin with Knight Rider. Knight Rider is a slightly SF show, in that a mostly-dead man is brought back to life, with a new face, thanks to highly advanced plastic surgery technology. Also, there’s a talking car. At first it was supposed to just be a car that responded to commands from Michael Knight, but the car, KITT, slowly gained more sentience, and with it, sass. The fantasy element is the idea that Hasselhoff, who is repeatedly upstaged by his car, is somehow able to be a super-suave detective/mercenary/spy. I should also note that, in addition to the usual Halloween frights, Knight’s shirts were often unbuttoned almost to his navel.
In their Halloween episode, helpfully called “Halloween Knight,” Knight’s coworker Stephanie witnesses something that looks like a murder, but she’s wonked on cold meds and can’t be sure. Knight investigates, but then Stephanie starts seeing crazy visions, including the murdered woman appearing in her bathtub, and this horrible thing just sort of floating around.
Knight discovers a hidden projector is to blame for the visions, and then the investigation becomes much more, “Who’s trying to drive Stephanie crazy?” rather than “Who murdered the woman next door?” Bad priorities, you say? Well, not nearly as bad as Stephanie’s! She’s totally willing to look past the fact the “murder next door” thing, and even the whole, “someone broke in and rigged up crazy projections to drive me crazy” thing—she’s keeping this apartment, dammit! Meanwhile, KITT has attracted the attention of a witch, who puts a crudely-drawn pentagram around him.
There is no real explanation for this. Knight continues the investigation, and he and Stephanie finally find the murdered woman’s corpse in a Bates Motel replica.
The Motel is owned by the same guy who own Stephanie’s apartment—but she’s still not moving, dammit!—and it looks like this case is about to crack wide open. But first, Stephanie has to attend the Knight Foundation’s Halloween party—because just what a super-secret sci-fi organization wants to do is host a big costume ball. Naturally, since The Hoff isn’t around to protect her, she’s immediately trapped by the real murderer, which leads to a swordfight, a car chase, and KITT flying through a drive-thru screen. Halloween! But the real spooooky tag on the episode comes courtesy of the witch. She shows up at Stephanie’s housewarming party to flirt with Knight, but her very presence causes flowers to wilt! Knight looks back nervously at KITT, who warns him not to eat any of her food, since it might have newts in it. So an episode that spends the whole time debunking ghosts and visions ends with a weird assertion of the power of witchcraft.
MacGyver had three spooooky episodes, but only two were explicitly Halloween. The first was titled “Ghost Ship,” even though it’s actually about a sasquatch. Mac is hiking in the Pacific Northwest for SCIENCE when he comes across the aforementioned Ghost Ship—except that the ship’s crew has just gone ashore for a while to siphon oil illegally out of a pipeline, so it isn’t really a ghost ship at all. But I guess they thought “Mac Wrestles Fucking Bigfoot” would be a ludicrous title for the episode.
Anyway, he finds a Russian teenager stowing away on the ship, rescues her from the ‘squatch (who is also on the ship) and then they camp in the woods overnight so that some friendly Native Americans can find them and tell them tales about the sasquatch that protects the land. The next day, Mac leaves Russian girl alone and defenseless in the woods just long enough for the evil oil-siphoners to capture her so that he can do a Heroic Rescue. But just as they think they’ve escaped—the sasquatch attacks! MacGyver wrestles him, but is seriously outmatched. Then, luckily, the ‘squatch’s mask comes off! Once Mac sees that Bigfoot is actually just a very tall guy, he’s able to fight again and defeats him. The episode ends when Mac, the Man of SCIENCE, scoffs at the myth of Bigfoot, until he hears a strange screaming sound in the woods. The camera lingers over the mountains, as if to say, could Bigfoot be real? Well, no, most likely not, but by your camera angle you seem to say so.
The other Halloween episode, “Halloween Knight” (not to be confused with the Knight Rider episode of the same name), is about MacGyver crashing an evil Halloween party to save his nemesis Murdoc’s innocent little sister. He dresses as MacJester to get in, which is amazing, but this episode isn’t actually supernatural in any way, and will be ignored henceforth.
The real Halloween episode is called “The Secret of Parker House,” and features Teri Hatcher as MacGyver’s dim-witted friend Penny Parker. Penny has just inherited a house from her Aunt Betty who is a) dead and b) crazy and c) Penny’s exact double! She tells Mac that the house is haunted, but he has forbidden that word! “The Supernatural is just an easy way to explain what we can’t understand,” he tells her rolling his eyes at her silliness. Why are they even friends? It’s her 21st birthday, and for reasons unknown she is hanging out with a middle-aged spy on Halloween.
Once they get to the town, the episode goes into Halloween Porn overload with black cats, crazy POV camera angles, cobwebs, and owls that are awake and hooting during the day. The house is creaky and weird, and Penny is instantly freaked out. Mac makes her recite: “There’s no such thing as ghosts,” which is great and all, but then they find her Crazy Aunt Betty’s skeleton in the yard.
And then, because Penny isn’t freaked out enough, Mac takes Betty’s skull covers it in sculpy (Skull-py? Heh.) and the show spends about ten minutes showing us how MacGyver recreates Betty’s face. We start with this just a little bit of clay, and enormous, terrifying eyeballs, but soon we have a full head! Instead of fleeing the house screaming, which is what I would have done, Penny observes that she and Betty looked exactly alike!
MacGyver discovers that there was a still under the house, and that Crazy Aunt Betty earned the “Crazy” part of her name by drinking lead infused moonshine! Meanwhile, it turns out the handyman had a crush on Betty, so much so that he cut every known picture of her out of the newspaper, and created a shrine to her.
Then the creepy sheriff shows up, glowers at both of them, poisons Penny, and eventually traps them all in the basement after it’s revealed that he murdered Betty (because she was pregnant with his illegitimate child) and then blamed it on the handyman! Who now, incidentally, thinks that Penny is his beloved Betty come back to life! Having never tangled with MacGyver before, the sheriff tries to rig an explosion to kill them all, but Mac uses SCIENCE and saves them.
Except…while they’re all trapped in the basement, the Sheriff, in a particular fit of extra-creepy-assness, seatbelts Betty’s skull into the passenger seat of his truck. Then the Ghost of Crazy Aunt Betty disables the tuck’s engine and jams the Sheriff’s seatbelt, trapping him in the car as a giant support beam falls through the car window and impales him.
So, don’t fuck with The Ghost of Crazy Aunt Betty’s moonshine still, apparently.
When Mac and Penny come out, they’re shocked to see Sheriff Cliff dead in his car, but even more shocked to see, carved into the beam: “Cliff + Betty.” After the camera has lingered on the inscription for a moment, Penny says, “Now Aunt Betty can rest in peace!” which is frankly a weird reaction to all this, but MacGyver, rather than being kind and just patting her on the shoulder or something, goes in for the kill with, “And now so can we, and you can give up believing in ghosts!” But JUST THEN, Crazy Betty’s music box starts playing. “Is that so?” Penny asks Mac, who just looked irritated that Betty won’t stay dead.
Penny appears in more episodes, but no mention is ever made of her house, the poor handyman who thinks his long-lost crush came back from the dead, or Penny’s status as the heir to a moonshine empire. But what’s even more interesting here are the physics of this situation. Why couldn’t Betty’s Ghost exact vengeance at any time? Did she only gain power after her skull was exhumed? Or was it the presence of Penny that gave her power? Why does a show that lovingly details all of Mac’s science experiments, also want to leave ambiguous ghost/Bigfoot theories hanging over the credits? And what happens when a show just embraces that ambiguity? Well, then you get Quantum Leap.
There are four spooky episodes of Quantum Leap, each with a different supernatural foe. “Portrait for Troian” is about an alleged ghost, “The Curse of Ptah–Hotep” (Ironically not the episode that is rumored to be cursed) is about a pissed-off mummy, “Blood Moon” is about a vampire cult, and “The Boogiem*n” is about, well, we’ll get there. Each of the first three follow the usual formula of the rational male being vindicated until one last supernatural tag seemingly calls the structure of the universe into question. The twist, though, is that—in a Mulder & Scully style set-up—Sam is the rational male who insists that science can explain everything, and Al, who is also male, and also a scientist, is cast in the role of superstitious scaredy-cat.
This is consistent with his character throughout the show—in the episode where Sam leaps into a priest, for instance, Al refuses to come inside the church until it’s absolutely necessary, and winces away from statues of Mary that are on the sidewalk. In the supernatural episodes, though, he goes all out. In “Troian,” he panics when he realizes he’s in the main character’s family crypt, and completely buys into the idea that ghosts are speaking to her. He does a fabulous Shemp impression when he sees Ptah-Hotep. And, best of all, he completely believes that Sam has leaped into a real vampire in “Blood Moon,” and in response to Sam saying “I’m a scientist. I deal in facts.” accuses him of being a “night stalker” and a “bloodsucking ghoul from hell” and sure enough, the next time he comes through the imaging chamber door he’s wearing a huge bulb of garlic around his next—and a cross, despite his previously established aversion to Catholicism.
Quantum Leap’s real contribution to the Halloween canon, however, is “The Boogiem*n,” which takes all of these 80s Halloween tropes and packs them into a single episode. I’m typing it as “The Boogiem*n” with an asterisk because this episode is…cuuurrrrsed! Supposedly when people used to tape it their VCRs would break—and I’ll admit that right after I typed the title in the search bar, my Hulu account went haywire and kept knocking me back to a menu page when I tried to play things. So clearly, the rumors are true.
Things start off pretty weird: Sam has leaped into a guy in a poofy blood red piratical outfit. He’s engulfed in Halloween porn—leather-bound books of magic; a guttering candle; a howling wolf; a black cat. When he goes exploring, a devil jumps out at him and he falls down the stairs.
As he comes to, he is quickly brought up to speed. He is Joshua Ray, “a second-rate H.P. Lovecraft” according to Al. The devil is a young fan of his named Stevie, and the woman helping him up is his fiancé, Mary. They’re all working on the local church’s Spook House for Halloween. And, oh yeah, his house is supposedly haunted by a woman who was burned in the Salem witch trials. As they come outside, the audience is practically assaulted with the number of pumpkins and cheesy witch cut outs. Then we see the horror below.
Which apparently is not an effigy of the Headless Horsemen in hell, but instead Josh’s warped version of a scarecrow, which Mary compliments. This is weird—why would she compliment a scarecrow? But the reason is soon revealed—she was setting up the greatest philosophical segue in the show’s history:
“The problem with quantum leaping is that it often left me feeling like a scarecrow—with a head full of stuffing and no idea why I was really there.”
Seriously, how much time has Dr. Sam Beckett spent meditating on the existential torment of scarecrows?
So then we dive into the real meat of the episode, and weird moments start piling up. Two different people mysteriously die at Josh’s house, a handyman named Tully is killed by goat (boo!) and a woman named Dorothy is bitten by Josh’s pet... black mamba? Really? I mean, I know this episode is set in the 60s, but I’m not entirely sure those were legal in Maine even then. The paper in Josh’s typewriter updates with a description of each new death! Al becomes oddly fixated on blaming Mary, and accuses her of witchcraft. This doesn’t seem at all like the normally chivalrous Al, but when she gets angry with Josh, a skull flies across the room and almost hits him, so maybe superstition is finally winning out? And even though Sam’s realization that Mary has epilepsy seems to provide a scientific explanation, there’s still the fact that her address is 966 Salem Avenue—and yes, of course the 9 swings down on it’s hook when they get to the house, and then the Sam finds the Sheriff—dead by goat!
He goes back to his own house to look for Mary, but finds Stevie on his lawn. The kid desperately wants to tell him about the new novel idea he’s just had! Oh, and Mary’s inside with the Sheriff. Wait, how can that be? But more importantly: why the hell is Stevie hanging out at Josh’s house? The Spook House has been cancelled due to multiple deaths, Josh is implicated in murder, and, oh yeah, it’s almost midnight. The leaping through time and possible witchcraft I can handle, but shouldn’t Stevie have a curfew? Sam tries to make sense of this nightmare leap:
“Tonight there were no treats, there were no tricks—there was only death.”
And then Sam faces off with the Devil! Happy Halloween everybody!
The Devil appears in the form of a better-dressed Al, and gives Dean Stockwell the opportunity to go full-Lynchian. He bleats! Like a goat! And sinister red lights appear under his eyes, and then In Dreams start to play and—well, OK, that last bit doesn’t happen. But after Real Al finally joins them, Devil Al engages Sam in the following dialectic:
Devil Al: “Yin and Yang, good and bad, God…” (stares expectantly at Sam).
Sam (with reluctance) “…and the Devil.”
Devil Al: “In the flesh, so to speak,” (Hey, shut up, at least it wasn’t “Pleased to meet you.”)
Sam (to Real Al): “Al, tell me he’s not real!”
Al (more to Devil Al than Sam): “Oh, he’s real, Sam. Very real.”
The Devil underscores his reality by grabbing Sam by the throat, and explaining that he’s frustrated by Sam’s whole “putting right what once went wrong” project, while Sam plaintively mentions that he’s just trying to get home, and the Devil jovially informs him that he’s not going to make it. But Sam wins because faith or something.
And then Sam sits up on the stairs and realizes it was all a dream! Ha! Or wait, was it? Because Al, Mary, and Stevie are all standing there, even tough he hadn’t met Mary or Stevie yet hen he got knocked out. Al says that Ziggy lost him for two minutes, and then Sam hears Tully the handyman upstairs and gets to him just in time to catch him as the ladder falls. But there’s no evil goat! Everyone’s happy that Tully isn’t dead, Sam tells them all about the crazy dream he had where Mary made things fly through the air, and we find out that Stevie is actually Stephen King when his mom and his dog Cujo pick him up in a big blue Plymouth.
Then Sam leaps. So was Sam there to save Tully or to give Stephen King the idea for Carrie? Does Jackie die in this version of the universe? How far down the rabbithole are we?
The really interesting thing with this episode is that, unlike every other Halloween episode I could find, they do some serious world-building within the dream, and then keep all of it in the waking world. Without the dream-knowledge Sam wouldn’t have been able to save Tully, so that’s an immediate example. But more importantly, we later learn that Sam is actually fighting evil forces in the universe. The show introduces an Evil Leaper, and at the end of the series not only do we meet a God-like figure named Al (played by Bruce McGill, better known as MacGyver’s ne’er-do-well BFF Jack Dalton!) we also learn that Devil-Al is correct—Sam never does make it home.
So, the Devil... wins? Kinda? Aaaauuugggh...that show.
So what is it about Halloween that makes us want to suspend our disbelief and leave room for ghosts, mummies, and even Bigfoot? I found it fascinating that TV that loved to promote science (like MacGyver) or tried to stay somewhat realistic (like Knight Rider) still wanted things to go bump in the night, but then balked at allowing that worldview into the rest of the show. It’s my personal Halloween miracle that even hardened scientists like Sam Beckett can believe in bloodsucking ghouls for one day a year.
Leah Schnelbach will not be surprised if Dean Stockwell turns out to be the Devil. You can follow her cosmological theories on Twitter!