Over the Garden Wall, a Picture-Perfect Autumnal Feast 

If you’re an autumn afficionado, you may have seen the cartoon masterpiece that is Over the Garden Wall, the 2014 children’s series that ran on Cartoon Network over the course of one week. Since then, the show has reached cult classic status among adult viewers who return to the short, 10-episode series yearly as the air turns cold and the leaves turn vibrant. Aside from the impeccable fall vibes, I’ve been thinking about what makes this one-off series so enduring. There are tons of fall-flavoured specials out there, but Over the Garden Wall seems to hit the bullseye—like teasing out the appealing elements of other media and combining them into the ultimate autumnal stew. It’s got the coziness we all crave this time of year without forgoing the spookiness of the season (maybe just a touch spookier than most children’s fare?), while pulling directly from cultural touchstones of yore. It also localizes the story to a pseudo-New England setting, in some vaguely post-Civil War/turn of the 20th century timespan. It’s a feast for Halloween fans, but also for big ol’ literature and history nerds (like myself).  

The plot of Over the Garden Wall is simple: two brothers Greg and Wirt find themselves lost in a strange land called the Unknown, a place out of time that is full of dark forests, strange inhabitants, and a sliding scale of sinister threats. As they try to find their way, they earn the help of a less-than-friendly bluebird named Beatrice who promises to take them to Adelaide of the Pasture, ostensibly their ticket home. Story-wise, Over the Garden Wall recalls familiar tropes of Western literature, especially the young person’s journey dotted with eclectic weirdos going all the way back to chivalric tales of Medieval Europe (a la King Arthur and his round table) and into the 20th century with the likes of The Wizard of Oz. OTGW pokes meta jokes at this (and its Hansel and Gretel fairytale structure) in episodes like Songs of the Dark Lantern, where the brothers come upon a tavern full of townsfolk who are known only by their occupation: the Butcher, the Midwife, the Tailor and the Apprentice. They prod Wirt until they discover his narrative function: he’s the Pilgrim, a “traveler on a sacred journey, a master of your own destiny!” 

While the overall structure is indebted to these staples of the Western literary canon, OTGW is mostly interested in the 19th century American take on the genre, with influence from the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne (he of The Scarlet Letter fame) and Washington Irving (who gave us The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Hawthorne is a particularly apt inspiration for a Halloween tale, born as he was in Salem to the Hathorne family, one of the main antagonists of the infamous witch trials. After adding that “w” to his last name to distance himself from his problematic family, Hawthorne spent his writing career taking shots at Puritans and their hypocrisy. Enter Young Goodman Brown (1835), a story that follows the titular fellow as he takes a walk in the woods at night with the Devil, with whom it turns out the whole town is in league. OTGW’s Wirt, as the young pilgrim, nicely fits the Goodman Brown role.  

In Washington Irving’s The Devil and Tom Walker (1824), the Satan figure (called Old Scratch) appears as a woodsman who chops trees engraved with the names of the prominent colonial families in Massachusetts. OTGW has its own Old Scratch in the form of The Beast, who haunts the forest as a shadowy, deep-voiced, antlered silhouette. It also has its own woodsman, who must continually chop the branches of edelwood trees to feed the Dark Lantern—and keep his daughter’s trapped soul alive. 

But story structure aside, what really brings viewers back to the Unknown every October is the visuals, especially the pretty autumnal backgrounds, whose gentle browns and yellows recall the paintings of the Hudson River School movement of the mid-19th century—another apt point of inspiration when you consider that the Hudson River School’s founder, Thomas Cole (an English transplant in New York), was particularly awed by the colours of a North American autumn. OTGW creator Patrick McHale has referenced American chromolithographs as inspiration as well, the most famous of these printers probably being Currier and Ives (as we still sing to this day in “Sleigh Ride”: “It’ll nearly be like a picture-print by Currier and Ives…”). The visual references coalesce into an idealized version of autumn, familiar but nostalgized, the kind that sells pumpkin spice lattes and drives leaf-peeping tourism every year.  

Still from Over the Garden Wall

The second episode, “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”, is the real clincher of this aesthetic. This installment sees Wirt and Greg stumble (quite literally—through a minefield of pumpkins) into a quintessentially New England town’s harvest festival. Of course, because it’s the Unknown, there’s something weird about this town—almost cultish. The brothers are drawn into the harvest celebration by the sounds of singing, which brings me to my next point: the music. The singing in the town recalls Sacred Harp singing, a 19th century style of religious singing. A soothing fiddle leads us into the episode, which per music scholars is “simple and unadorned, a style that is present in many works from the late 19th and early 20th century”(one of my favourite pieces of music to evoke this period using similar techniques is the Legends of the Fall soundtrack).  

The tour of American cultural history continues in subsequent episodes like “Schooltown Follies”, where Wirt and Greg meet a teacher who sings about her lost love. Greg has a ragtime style song about potatoes and molasses, which fits with the teacher’s Gibson Girl styling to create a picture of turn-of-the-century America. Skip forward to episode 8, “Babes in the Wood”, and we’ve got a full-on 1930s style cartoon spectacular, on top of countless allusions to Old Hollywood (Greg’s song “Adelaide Parade” sounds an awful lot like “We’re Off to See the Wizard”)—even the opening song of the first episode recalls the plinky piano of silent films. Just like the old-timey visuals, the music cues are meant to evoke a quaint and recognizable past (familiar to us only through various art, movies, and music—think Little Women vibes) that enhances the feeling of coziness even amid all the strange and spooky happenings.  

I’ll cut myself off here, but I’ve really only scratched the surface of OTGW’s wealth of historical and cultural references! If you’ve seen the show and you’re a fan, let us know what element makes it extra special to you! 

About Alyssia

Alyssia is an Adult Services Librarian at the Vaughan Public Libraries. Nothing makes her happier than a great book and a great cup of coffee. She loves fiction in all formats - books, movies, television, you name it - and is always on the lookout for awesome new music.  |  Meet the team