The Book of Linus
Michael Koresky on It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
“Oh, Great Pumpkin, where are you?” —Linus Van Pelt.
One of pop art’s great emblematic figures of human spirituality stands only three inches high, sucks his thumb like a lollipop, and perpetually carries a blue blanket wherever he goes, clutching it close to him for security from a hostile world. By choosing to keep his feet firmly planted in a forbidding pumpkin patch on Halloween night, rather than partake in his peers’ holiday festivities, Linus proves that his clear-eyed conviction, his single-minded philosophical questing, separates him from the crowd. This 1966 CBS television special presentation and 25-minute ostensible children’s film, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, directed by Bill Melendez and written by Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, provides us with one of American filmmaking’s most lucid depictions of the struggle between existentialism and religious determinism. It is a film that skirts the line between the secular and the sacrosanct, a children’s work that finds the spiritual in the mundane, and specifically attempts to locate the divine in the pagan. The Great Pumpkin himself, defined at once by his presence and non-presence, looms large over cartoonist Schulz’s world, witnessing as we do the interactions of these little people way down below, all of them stuck in a deceptively benign universe, beset by ironic turnabouts, lacking any sort of parental authority, trapped within the same clothes day in and day out, never aging. There must be a greater, controlling being to whisk them from this stasis.
For Linus Van Pelt, as well as the rest of the Peanuts gang, it is an inhospitable world that Charles M. Schulz has sketched, regardless of its atmospheric gentility; its casual grace often gives way to sarcastic epiphanies, punchlines that further its moral inquiries rather than resolve them. Charlie Brown himself sees the world as a cruel place, yet his disillusionment has no philosophical outlet; his unending misery begets misery, he falls into the same patterns daily— attempting to kick Lucy’s football and always falling flat on his back, continually flying his kite into the same carnivorous oak tree. Linus, on the other hand, seeks religion and philosophy as the key to understanding his universe. Free of Charlie Brown’s suffocating self-pity, Linus realizes that there must be a divine purpose, an order to everything that extends beyond the boundaries of his daily world of four blocks, cut into strips, often black-and-white, sometimes color.
Perhaps that’s why Linus remains second fiddle to the bald little boy wearing a yellow shirt with zig-zag stripes: his utter conviction and unwavering beliefs are alienating for most of us, while Charlie Brown’s penchant for making the same mistakes, for replaying the defining awful moments of his life over and over, remind us of ourselves. Linus is less willing to decry a troubling world from which no one sees any discernible moral order—and let’s not forget that Linus knows his New Testament. One year prior to the airing of the Halloween special, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) appeared, climaxing with Linus quoting from the Book of Luke, standing on the stage of the school auditorium, a single spotlight shone on him, reminding his schoolmates about the true origins and meaning of Christmas. “For unto you this day is born a savior, which is Christ the Lord,” Linus proclaims, and it truly is a transcendent scene, reinstating spiritual awareness in a godless commercialzed world of pink and blue aluminum Christmas trees. Like that one brilliant star that shines over Charlie Brown’s backyard at the closing moments, Linus presides over his peers: not because of any sort of moral superiority (each of the Peanuts gang is given due respect, although perhaps not equal humility), but as a spirit of unification. In a sense, even before the start of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Linus has already been waiting for a sign, something that will literally drop from the sky and make itself known as a messenger of good tidings.
To locate Linus’s remarkable belief in the unknown within a narrative set during Halloween rather than Christmas is a good deal trickier, and Charles M. Schulz throws a wrench in the works. While his closing biblical monologue during the Christmas pageant rehearsal bestowed grace upon a troupe of kids literally and figuratively without guidance, this time around, and during this widely secular holiday, Linus’s religious prognostications are greeted with nonstop ridicule. Convinced that the Great Pumpkin, a being of great benevolence and command, will rise out of the most “sincere” pumpkin patch and bestow gifts upon the good boys and girls of the world, Linus forgoes a night of trick-or-treating and Violet’s annual Halloween party so as to await the divine appearance of the heretofore unseen spirit. The more directly stated connections between the Great Pumpkin and Santa Claus make a more proper correlation for the younger targeted viewers (Linus declares that he will bring toys, that he knows who has been good and bad, and that there are such things as “pumpkin carols”), yet in his script, Schulz decisively disconnects the two. In a letter to the Great Pumpkin, Linus writes “You must get discouraged because more people believe in Santa Claus than in you.” Thus, even before the punchline is dropped (“Well, let’s face it, Santa Claus gets more publicity”), Schulz establishes that the Great Pumpkin represents something far greater than childish want; the Pumpkin is the messiah of Linus’s Halloween, the holiday itself, defined by longstanding religious objection and centuries-old attempts to Christianize it, becoming conflated with Christmas. Linus’s attempts to reconfigure Halloween in terms of Christ’s providence is met with Snoopy’s jeers and his sister Lucy’s fist-shaking threats. But it is Charlie Brown’s incredulousness of Linus’s beliefs, defined in a casual retort, that is the film’s thematic lightning rod: “We are obviously separated by denominational differences.”
The existent gap between religious observance and festival celebration defines both of the Schulz/Melendez holiday specials. The annual efforts of orthodox and fundamentalist sects to persuade American children from participating in Halloween’s revelries is hardly a recent phenomenon; widespread 19th and 20th century Western fear of Paganism has always reached its apotheosis on October 31, originally the closing date on the pre-Christian Celtic calendar, and marked by customs that reflect Druid harvest practices. As the Roman Catholic Church found the persistence of this harvest festival to be distastefully secular, All Saints’ Day was introduced by the pope in the 7th century, in part to counter the effects of the pagan festival. Ever since, the holiday has been marked by traditions both religious and non: the November 1 observance of all the saints in heaven remains prevalent, especially in Latin countries, while trick-or-treating itself is founded on the ancient customs of Irish peasants. It’s safe to assume that Halloween, brought to the United States with Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, is now observed by most as completely separate from the church, and with even its historical significance lost on most, the holiday becomes little more than a mere social gathering. And certainly it is widely regarded as a holiday for children, an odd confluence of emotions in which an ominous, restless afterlife is celebrated with youthful exuberance.
Halloween’s contradictions are certainly not lost on Schulz and Melendez, whose sharp irony and stark autumnal visual palette create a dynamic moving strip of American customs, rites, and hypocrisies. The first image, post-credits, of a leaf drifting down from above accompanied by composer Vince Guaraldi’s simple lovely oboe, connects the Peanuts gang with something richly ethereal and disembodied. In fact, the entire Peanuts tableaux, from Schulz’s very first comic strip in 1950, suggests that there is something outside of the characters, watching with an omniscience that cannot be easily described as authoritative or judgmental; there is a compassionate presence here, an unseen force that guides these children, each weighed down by oversized, over-contemplative candy-apple heads, as they treat each other with alternating calumny and sympathy. Linus’s connection with all of Earth’s gifts (“You didn’t tell me you were gonna kill it!” he wails when Lucy plunges a carving knife into a pumpkin) separates him from his more narrow-minded, gullible (Charlie Brown tries to kick the football again and lands on his back), self-regarding (Lucy sits watching TV, and in a brillantly self-reflexive move from Schulz, clutches a TV Guide with her own picture on the cover) friends. Only Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, remains uncorrupted at the start of the film, letting her puppy-love crush on Linus dissuade her from trick-or-treating. His inviting her, converting her if you will, to join him in awaiting the Great Pumpkin’s arrival alarms her older brother, who drags her off, blaring, “What are you trying to do to my little sister?” Yet ultimately she will forgo Linus’s observance, wailing that she missed out on tricks-or-treats, and “candy, apples, and gum, and cookies and money and all sorts of things.” Sally succumbs to the tempations; the only thing that seems to have come between her and her beau is the difference between their fundamental belief systems.
For many generations, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is our “Little Golden Book” introduction to the spiritual dilemmas of the earthbound believer. Linus never receives a sign; all that arrives is a beagle (Snoopy, dressed in his Halloween WWI Flying Ace scarf and goggles, ominously and inexplicably arises in silhouette from the pumpkin patch, then shrinks back down into stultifying dog-dom). Linus’s attempts to bestow spiritual guidance to the mundane, to imbue secular tradition with faith, receives nothing but a terrifying silence. A hush falls over the midnight garden of orange pumpkins and green vines, and Linus, calling after Sally (who faithlessly abandons him to join the howling pack of nonbelievers), exclaims that if the Great Pumpkin comes, he will put in a good word for her. “Good grief, I said if,” he stops himself, his hair literally raised on end, and as Melendez zooms out slowly, he shouts to the nonresponsive sky: “I meant when he comes. I’m doomed.” Fearing an all-powerful, even vengeful omnipresence, Linus remains stranded in the pumpkin patch until the wee hours of the morning, freezing, teeth chattering, desolate, his faith in something outside of what he can literally perceive acknowledged with nothing more than the wind blowing through the trees.
A conservative Protestant and member of the Church of God, Minnesota-bred Charles M. Schulz became one of the preeminent American pop artists of the Fifties, his simple, inquisitive line drawings spoke to many struggling with the contradictions of living in Eisenhower’s America. A reluctant existentialist, Schulz created characters that broke from strict parameters or denominations, yet reflected the beliefs ingrained from his upbringing. When the strips, reflective of Schulz’s lifelong sense of alienation, segued into moving pictures made for television in the mid-Sixties, their stark tableaux became a mise-en-scène of dislocation. It’s not too much of a stretch to remark how Schulz’s depressive, Scandanavian-heritage outlook became of a piece of a New Wave pop renaissance, the war within him between religious devotion and philosophical rumination (he watched his mother die of colon cancer when he was 20) not too far from that of Ingmar Bergman, the use of dire negative space within the frame and the consistent lack of resolution not too distanced from Antonioni.
While Linus represents the ideal of the purified soul that Schulz never attained, his questing reaches an existential dead-end—yet his spiritual resilience finds its zenith in the closing credits. As Charlie Brown and Linus sit together, behind that no-man’s-land brick wall, fists perched under their chins like Rodin’s “Thinker,” Charlie tries to console Linus, disappointed at the Great Pumpkin’s non-appearance, by saying he’s done similarly stupid things himself. Outraged, Linus raises his hands angrily, “Stupid? What do you mean, stupid? Just wait till next year at this time. I’ll be waiting for him!” As we pull back and the credits roll, Linus’s outburst becomes nearly evangelical, a tendency which is reprised and perfected in 1972’s You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown, in which Linus throws his entire class-president campaign into turmoil and public ridicule by—in a decidedly Joe Lieberman-esque moment—invoking the existence of the Great Pumpkin. Here, the connection between the Great Pumpkin and the ecclesiastical is clarified. In Schulz’s world, there may be no literal guidance, no physical certainty, no answers, but Linus will go on attending his midnight mass in the pumpkin patch, waiting for Him to appear.
Schulz once said: “I think life is full of anxieties and fears and tears. It has a lot of grief in it, and can be very grim. And I do not want to be the one who tries to tell somebody else what life is all about. To me it’s a complete mystery.” Yet still he taught Sunday School and, through his Peanut gallery, searched for some sort of meaning. What Schulz was able to portray above all was that, for those who keep on searching, the world can be an unforgiving place. Linus’s piety, his belief in an imminent transcendence, ultimately allows him to be perceived as what else, but a “blockhead.”
This article originally appeared in Reverse Shot’s Holy Moment issue in Spring 2004.