Young Goodman Wirt

Northeast Americana and Over the Garden Wall

Cartoon Network

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story  “Young Goodman Brown”—written in the 19th century but set in the late 17th and destined in the 21st to be a key influence on the Emmy-winning Cartoon Network miniseries Over the Garden Wall—the title character embarks on a midnight trek through the forest outside Salem, a settlement about 20 miles up the coastline from Boston. Brown is joined on his mission by a mysterious figure carrying a serpentine staff, and as they move deeper into the moonlit woods, Brown encounters various figures familiar to him, all of them eventually converging on the same destination: a Satanic ritual that binds every seemingly upstanding Salem resident, forever extinguishing young Goodman Brown’s belief in human virtue.

Though not explicitly identified as such, Brown’s walking companion bears a strong resemblance to the devil—that is, Lucifer as envisaged by early New England colonists, a trickster demon sometimes known as Old Scratch. This vision of the devil as mischievous and merciless is featured in Washington Irving’s own 19th-century short story, “The Devil and Tom Walker,” in which a Massachusetts colonist meets Old Scratch in the form of a sinister woodsman harvesting branches bearing townsfolks’ names. It’s Scratch, too, who appears in Stephen Vincent’s 1936 story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” in which the famed 19th-century orator must defend a Faustian New Hampshire colonist in a suit against Satan.

Rather than some wheeling and dealing snake oil salesman (as Old Scratch is portrayed by Walter Huston in the 1940 screen adaptation of Vincent’s story), the devil as seen in “Young Goodman Brown” is more of a seductive and venomous figure, closer to the one depicted in Robert Eggers’ The Witch or the nightmarish presence of Stephen King’s “The Man in the Black Suit,” the O. Henry Award-winning story conceived by King as his riff on “Young Goodman Brown.” Whatever the case, these stories are united by their roots deep in pre-Revolutionary New England, and they carry a distinct threat and genuine weight given their resonance with beliefs that were once deadly serious—the residents of Salem could only accept the mass delusion of witch trials because they believed so entirely in the demonic presence in the woods around them. When my ancestors set foot on this soil 400 years ago, they looked around and saw two things: seemingly endless trees, and the potential for dark magic between them.

Old Scratch appears in the pitch documents for a project entitled Tome of the Unknown, elements of which would later be reconfigured into Over the Garden Wall. In this proposed project, two young half-brothers, Walter and Gregory, were to find themselves on a train to the afterlife, soon escaping into a mysterious forest. There, they would encounter Old Scratch, conceived by series mastermind Patrick McHale as a squat and bug-eyed imp with unimpressive bat wings. Promising to transport the boys home, Scratch was to tear up a book (or Tome) and scatter the pages to the wind, telling Walter and Gregory that they must gather the stories and encounter the characters within before earning their safe return.

Such a project had been marinating for more than a decade, dating back to McHale’s college years. While attending art school in Los Angeles, McHale fell into a funk and made a pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts, a town about 30 miles to the west of Salem. He found himself enchanted by this hub of olde American culture, one that embodies the centuries-spanning scope of our national history—Concord served as the first battlefield of the Revolutionary War, the birthplace of Transcendentalism, and the setting (and, in 2019, shooting location) for Little Women, to cite just a few highlights. By the standards of a nation that’s only been colonized for a few centuries, Concord is rich with antiquity, and that spirit proved creatively rejuvenating for McHale.

An Old Scratch-esque figure appears prominently in another of McHale’s projects, the 2019 graphic novel Bags (or a story thereof), adapted from a story he wrote prior to Over the Garden Wall. Again, a character undertakes a late-night forest odyssey flanked by a demonic presence. In this case, though, that ominous companion is very much a cartoon devil (green in hue, and cutting an imposing yet melancholy figure), and the protagonist is a man so desperate to be reunited with his lost dog that he’s receptive to inquiries regarding his soul. 

By the time this demonic archetype made it to Over the Garden Wall, the villain was reconfigured as the Beast, which menaces the central characters throughout, nursing their fear and despair to lull them under its sway. McHale has cited “Young Goodman Brown” as a major influence on his Beast; this villainous spirit (primarily appearing in shadow as a hulking, furred, and many-antlered force), however, is no devil, but rather a malevolent spirit meant to evoke German expressionism and Wagnerian opera.

If McHale’s initial conception of Scratch—retooled at the behest of Cartoon Network, who didn’t relish having Satan as a character in their new project—was a more traditionally mephistophelean figure, this represents just one more stitch in the tapestry of New England ephemera that would become Over the Garden Wall. The devil as hoofed-and-horned figure has been consecrated as a secular icon and absorbed into the American collective unconscious—a term that might serve as an apt description for the setting of McHale’s opus

In the miniseries—which boasts a total runtime of about 110 minutes, originally parceled out over five nights in November 2014—half-brothers Wirt and Greg undertake a surreal odyssey through a forest known as the Unknown. Here, they encounter uncanny magicks, from a rabid dog with bulging, beautiful eyes, to a kleptomaniac talking horse, to the vast and ghastly Auntie Whispers, who gobbles up cursed black turtles while wielding a hypnotic bell. Along the way, they’re accompanied by two questionably-motivated allies: wry and prickly talking bluebird Beatrice (technically, a girl cursed to be a talking bluebird as punishment for throwing a rock at an enchanted one), and the frenzied Woodsman, who serves reluctantly at the command of the diabolical Beast.

Though there are ample Germanic overtones, the series’ prevailing aesthetic evokes the 17th century, when New England was most untamed and superstitious (the time and place that Eggers recreated for his Sundance folk horror, The Witch). But as they traipse through 10 largely standalone micro-adventures, Wirt and Greg will round a corner and find themselves in a gothic tale set on an 18th-century estate or a comedy of manners set in a 19th-century schoolhouse. Staking one end of its cultural spectrum in Nathaniel Hawthorne, the series expands to encompass imagery evoking 19th-century novelty chromolithographs, 1930s cartoons (the model for the eighth episode, which sees Greg transported above the clouds to do battle with the North Wind), and everything in between. The web of influences upon Over the Garden Wall is vast, but everything coheres around a core of classical Americana, one rooted firmly in the northeast.

It’s not much of a leap to compare Over the Garden Wall with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Chihiro’s surreal sojourn in the enchanted bathhouse is similarly informed by a hodgepodge of Japanese iconography, and like Wirt and Greg, she’s stranded in an uncanny dimension with a seemingly hazy awareness of the world beyond. Yet where Chihiro is introduced in the “real world” before entering the magical realm, Greg and Wirt are already in the Unknown by the time we meet them, and so it’s hard to discern whether they’re figures of our world or a fantastical one. Even their outfits are ambiguous—Wirt sports a pointed red hat and blue cloak, while Greg wears green coveralls and a teakettle as a hat.

The choice to drop the viewer into Wirt and Greg’s journey in medias res is the result of an 11th-hour overhaul that saw McHale take the first installment—in which Wirt and Greg go, as Wirt portentously intones, into the unknown—and move it to the penultimate spot. Thus, the series begins with its second chapter, which happens to be among its most chaotic. The unwieldy shape and tone implied by this disorienting premiere can be a barrier for some viewers, but that anarchic entry point is appropriate to this story’s narrative logic: how often are we afforded the time to acclimate to a dream, much less a nightmare?

Another intuitive comparison with the Unknown might be Wonderland (the wooden desks filled with naturalistic animals wearing children’s clothing, in particular, could be taken straight from Carroll), with its serialized narrative and distinctly elastic relationship to both logic and aesthetic coherence. But in these respects, Over the Garden Wall is similarly analogous to the Oz stories of upstate New York native L. Frank Baum. The second episode’s jack-o-lantern-clad skeletons are close visual cousins to Jack Pumpkinhead as introduced in The Marvelous Land of Oz, and the speed with which seemingly major antagonist Adelaide is dispatched (a confrontation squeezed into one 11-minute segment alongside a riverboat-set amphibian farce) would seem an acknowledgment of just how closely the beat mimics the Wicked Witch of the West’s demise.

For the most part, Over the Garden Wall is not a Halloween story in the classic sense. Rather, it’s a distinctly autumnal story, and it’s this unifying mood that’s made the series a new seasonal staple. Background artists based their style on the Hudson River School, the 19th-century trend in landscape painting that envisaged the American northeast as a place of awe and foreboding; thus, the Unknown is conjured against a canvas rich with pools of light and dense with pockets of shadow. As they traverse this chimeric landscape, Wirt and Greg move from what seems like early fall—with the backdrop of stunning foliage that draws “leaf-peepers” up the coast to Concord’s neck of the woods each year—into a bleak and gloaming frostbitten November as they tangle with Adelaide and Auntie Whispers, and finally on to a snow-swept confrontation with the monstrous Beast.

Yet the spirit of Halloween infuses Over the Garden Wall; vintage holiday traditions formed a cornerstone of the series’ design, heirlooms from that time before Halloween was homogenized, back when the traditions were homespun and the imagery accordingly eerie. And then, of course, there’s the fact that Wirt and Greg go into the Unknown on Halloween night.

From early on, we understand that Wirt is an alienated figure who believes his passions—poetry and the clarinet—make him weird and destined to a life of loneliness. We also come to understand that Wirt has no firm sense of his own identity, an issue thrown into stark relief when compared with a fairy tale ensemble dense with archetype (as he’s rudely reminded by an inn full of stock-image tradespeople). Wirt, it’s eventually determined, is a Pilgrim—“traveler on a sacred journey [and] master of [his] own destiny”—but he becomes increasingly isolationist over the course of the series, and it’s eventually revealed that by withdrawing from Greg and Beatrice, he’s risked losing himself to despair, succumbing to the Beast and forfeiting his chance to go home.

That home, as revealed in the penultimate episode, and first chapter chronologically, is an all-American suburb that seems to exist in its own hazy no-time. The neighborhood’s vehicles and interior design evoke the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, though cassette players are apparently rare. The feeling evoked is analogous to E.T. or even Halloween (now omnipresent objects of homage, a phenomenon that Over the Garden Wall at least predicts rather than imitates, having aired two years before Stranger Things premiered). Wirt and Greg live in a seemingly cozy neighborhood where every living room is lit by a tube TV and kids have free rein on Halloween to get into spooky shenanigans.

The choice to put the story in motion on Halloween is auspicious, as Wirt’s encounters with peers become a mirror of his experience at the inn—once again, everyone represents some distinctive and deliberate construct, while Wirt’s effort at a costume yields only a veneer of the vaguely fantastical (we see him assembling his costume from an altered Santa hat and a Civil War cape, another instance of the series blending commercialized Germanic tradition with 19th century Americana).

Wirt is sentenced to travel through the Unknown by virtue of his lack of self-assurance. On Halloween night, he intends to perform the classic adolescent ritual of giving his crush a mixtape—which, we learn, includes his own poetry and clarinet performances. By all appearances, Wirt’s crush is receptive to his interest, but his constant terror that what makes him distinctive makes him repulsive leads him off the garden path (rather than accept an invitation to spend the evening with his crush and her friends, Wirt’s odyssey begins with his frantic efforts to retrieve the tape and retract his self-expression), over the garden wall, and into the Unknown.

Wirt’s journey through the woods towards self-awareness parallels young Goodman Brown’s in some respects, but Wirt’s story comes to a more hopeful conclusion. Where Goodman Brown lives the remainder of his life in despair and dies in gloom, Wirt banishes the Beast, saving Greg from the (perfectly Grimmsian) fate of being transformed into an oil-rich tree that would power the lantern containing the Beast’s soul. 

Yet not so unlike “Young Goodman Brown,” Over the Garden Wall ends with its own form of disillusionment. Wirt triumphs by denying the Beast’s power—he declares its demonic bargain dumb, vanquishing terror by reconfiguring it as insignificant. In a sense, Wirt prevails by putting aside childish things; he accepts that a worldview allowing for the Beast—a worldview allowing for anxiety so all-encompassing it threatens to render you inanimate—is a dumb worldview, and he returns home to face his oncoming adulthood with new self-awareness and confidence.

This mildly anticlimactic denouement indicates the thread of meta-comedy that undergirds Over the Garden Wall. With their gentle lampooning of storybook conventions, many of the characters and scenarios could have stepped straight out of Shrek (particularly Beatrice, who exists to fire off snarky one-liners and eye-rolling commentary), minus that franchise’s suffocating reliance on pop culture references. But the overriding thread is one of sincere wonder and transformation, and for that, it stands out as one of the few great examples of the northeast folk tale tradition we’ve gotten this century.

In the introduction to his 1884 book New England Legends & Folklore, Samuel Adams Drake wrote that our folk tales reveal “the secret springs by which society was moved and history made.” Whether realistic or otherwise, these tales are a record of our beliefs and our urges; stories told and re-told across time serve “not so much…to teach history or its truths as to illustrate its spirit in an effective and picturesque manner.” By breathing new life into a centuries-old aesthetic tradition, demonstrating what still resonates and what resonates anew, Over the Garden Wall—a tale as comforting as a heaping plate of potatoes and molasses—does just that.