The thought of the unknown has remained at the forefront of many literary works. It has been expressed by authors such as Mary Shelley in her exploration of the fine line between life and death in her novel Frankenstein (1818), or the complete writings of Edgar Allen Poe who dives into the dark and gloomy reality that lies just beyond the mundane world, or even H.P. Lovecraft’s the Cthulhu Mythos, a fictional and twisted world filled with ancient gods and cosmic horrors beyond reasoning of humankind. A personal favorite would have to be the works of Washington Irving, a hometown hero, who skillfully writes his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) about the woods that lie just beyond the outskirts of Sleepy Hollow, New York, where a headless horseman roams throughout the night, always in search of his head, blown away by a cannonball. Just beyond, or on the other side of the door is a universal sensation that none can get over, a feeling of looking into the void and knowing that something watches back in complete silence. A void where unknown creatures, places, and gods lie just waiting to be discovered, whether evil or good, where only they know of your fate. A fate worse than death, the fate of eternally roaming, lost in the same woods that you first arrived in. These woods, as you have been warned, are filled with only danger and horror, yet maybe, just maybe, they’re filled with adventure and something even more fulfilling—a promise bigger than life itself. This story has been told dozens of times, with various authors and plots, of people who mistakenly, or willingly, enter the darkness; a story that will be told a dozen more times due to the nature of the unknown, it is simply unknown, there can be millions of interpretations of what it looks like.
One of the more prominent interpretations of this reality outside of reality belongs to the animated series Over the Garden Wall. Released as a ten-part series on Cartoon Network over the span of five days from Nov. 3 to 7 in 2014, the week directly after Halloween left a sentimental and intriguing aftertaste for those who were still in the throes of the holiday and the autumn season. Created by artist Patrick McHale, co-creator of Adventure Time, another Cartoon Network seminal classic, the artistry in the series was heavily influenced by old Halloween postcards, the foliage throughout rural New England, and numerous Hans Christen Anderson stories. The series follows two half-brothers as they appear to be lost in an endless forest called The Unknown. Wirt and Greg, voiced by Elijah Wood and Collin Dean respectively, do not know how they entered the woods, nor do they know the way out. The Unknown is beautifully hand drawn and evokes the autumn season through the various images that are seen throughout every episode, sometimes even taking a few minutes per episode to appreciate the falling colorful leaves, the dozens of flocks of birds flying south, and the rolling yellowing fields that have just seen a bountiful harvest. As the two boys continue their wanderings throughout these woods, they meet eccentric characters who are portrayed beyond the realistic proportions and behaviors that are exhibited by the brothers, otherwise stated as rather odd. Characters such as the Woodsman, voiced by Christopher Lloyd, who appears in several episodes and is always trying to cut down trees within the woods to crush into crude oil to light his eternal lamp; or Quincy Endicott, voiced by John Cleese, a crazy and high-strung millionaire within the woods who doesn’t even know how wealthy he is, always gets lost in his mansion and sometimes even reporting seeing a beautiful ghost wander his halls; and even the terrifyingly unproportionate Auntie Whispers, voiced by Tim Curry, who is her niece’s watcher, always ringing a bell to keep her under control from something more sinister, while enjoying a snack of little turtles.
Beyond the humans that call The Unknown their home, there are characters such as Beatrice, the talking blue bird, voiced by Melanie Lynskey, who was cursed by another bluebird that turned her family into the species and is tasked with trying to find a way to reverse the curse. There are instances of anthropomorphic foxes and deer trying to attend an isolated school, pumpkins who reside within the town of Pottsfield who are always celebrating an endless harvest, or frogs who enjoy the frog band that plays music (on par with the likes of John Philip Sousa) on the steam ferry up and down the rivers of The Unknown. It is the rich blend of characters, animals, and creatures that create The Unknown, a place where it truly seems that reality is not what it is, and the boys are far from home, always trying to find a way to get back. Yet these eccentricities can be considered the literary foreground that gives way to a background filled with death, darkness, and lost souls. This culminates in the ultimate antagonist of the two boys, the Beast, voiced by Samuel Ramsay, who lives in the shadows of the dying trees or within the dark windy roads that populate The Unknown, always trying to convince the boys to join him in the darkness.
Over the Garden Wall evokes the days of Halloween past, where the beauty of the nature that envelops the world has begun to change, turning into a place filled with coolness where the breeze is just right, the ultimate joy that comes with the changing colors of the trees, and yet the underlying fear of something more sinister. A childhood filled with fear, with an uncertainty that came with innocence; where the darkest of rooms provoked a sense of danger and unease, and where you thought you saw eyes watching back at you from the nightly woods. The series perfectly mixes this fear and uncertainty with the innocence and joy of what it means to be a child, a blend that will last for decades, proving its worth as a foundational component within the animation and storytelling worlds. The ten episodes are streaming on Hulu with a total runtime of just over two hours, making Over the Garden Wall a one-sitting watch.