By Krista Amira Calvo
When humans are young, they are not of the most responsible nature. As children we often find ourselves roaming the hills of some distant land, searching for dragons, treasure or an admirable hero. The real world falls into the background, a flurry of colors and muffled sounds in our whimsical periphery. When I was just about six, the summer heat found me lost on a fanciful journey in my backyard, one that took me from the swimming pool where my three year old cousin played into the house to rescue a helpless woodland animal, or something of the like. As I traversed the haunted kitchen to rescue the wounded creature, I heard frantic shouts that broke the barrier between reality and my apparitional adventure. I suddenly remembered where I was, or rather, where I was supposed to be, and bolted through the house and back out into the yard. I saw my cousin, so slight in size, floating face down in the water, her hair swimming like snakes around her limp body. In a flurry, an adult I cannot recall, pulled her from the water. Everything in between seeing my lifeless cousin sprawled on the concrete to her eventual gasps for air, her life-bringing watery gurgles and sputters, is incomprehensible. Whether I was so swept up in the panic or if my mind has forcibly forgotten it I cannot tell, but this memory was brought back to me the first time I watched Over the Garden Wall, the Cartoon Network miniseries whose death positive themes made my heart swell with exultation. Frankly, it changed my life.
In 2013, Patrick McHale wrote and released an animated short called Tome of the Unknown: Harvest Melody. In the very short film, Wirt, and his little brother Greg and Beatrice the talking bluebird set out for the big city in search of a cabalistic book of all known things. Along the way they meet a lonely vegetable man (yes, a man made from various vegetables) and this meeting is the catalyst for their subsequent shenanigans. The short slipped under the mainstream radar, but it was a cult hit nonetheless that received several accolades. In 2014, Cartoon Network asked McHale to turn the short into a full length feature. This never came to fruition, but after some push and pull, Tome of the Unknown was turned into a ten episode miniseries renamed Over the Garden Wall.
“Over the Garden Wall, the Cartoon Network miniseries whose death positive themes made my heart swell with exultation. Frankly, it changed my life”
The show opens with Wirt, a brooding and poetic teenager, his little brother Greg, the portrait of silliness and whimsy, and Greg’s croaking frog, temporarily named Kitty (his name changes quite often throughout the series, among these names is a one “Dr. Cucumber”). They are quite obviously lost in the woods, a place that is christened the Unknown. Wirt and Greg’s attire, Wirt in a red conical hat and Greg with a teapot on his head, create a sense of ambiguity, making it very difficult for the viewer to discern the time period in which Wirt and Greg exist. Desperate to return home, they put their faith in Beatrice the talking bluebird, who promises to get the two boys to safety. To be released from the clutches of the Unknown, they must first find Adelaide of the Pasture; she is the key to their survival, or so Beatrice says. Wirt’s uncertainty and blatant pessimism are a stark juxtaposition to Greg’s overtly positive “ain’t that just the way” outlook. This abutment plays a major role in Wirt and Greg’s journey, during which they encounter a plethora of diverse characters: anthropomorphic animals and vegetables, a young and beautiful maiden haunted by an evil cannibalistic spirit and a ferry full of frogs in dapper attire who happen to be extremely talented musicians. But the most paramount creature the boys encounter is what many of the show’s fans and critics alike have interpreted as none other than death, a being they call the Beast. This is when I fell in love with the show.
Before I address the full significance of the Beast, I think it imperative to discuss the little death positive plugs in the show that happen along the way to Wirt and Greg’s confrontation with him, their encounter with death himself.
On Wirt and Greg’s first leg of the journey, they come across a town called Pottsfield inhabited by, yet again, vegetable people, or so it seems. The boys and Beatrice discover the town upon overhearing an eerie song. I must admit that much of the lyrics to the hymn are slightly unintelligible, but the intelligible lyrics are as follows:
From flesh removed, our chalk footfall tempers this holy ground
Where timeless spirits meet round the heart of Pottsfield town.
O, hie thee forth o’er golden mead, yon is the maypole set
A ribbon to wind thy soul, and to bind love to thy breast
My initial reaction to these lyrics was that they were quite dark for the youthful demographic of Cartoon Network, and I can only assume the unintelligibility of the lyrics may have been intentional. If you are a thanatologist of sorts, or you just love the macabre, it is easy to pick up on the allusion made by the name of the town. If you haven’t yet, the episode lays it out for the viewer quite nicely. Beatrice and the boys, drawn by the song, wander into the town of Pottsfield where pumpkin people dance around a maypole, bob for apples (an ostensibly cannibalistic action) and celebrate what seems to be some sort of autumn solstice. A perplexed Wirt encounters a lady pumpkin who asks him if he thinks he is “. . . a little too early.” When Beatrice expresses that she has a bad feeling about Pottsfield, they attempt to leave; Enoch, the herald of Pottsfield, is displeased to say the least. He sentences the boys to a few hours of hard labor during which they are made to dig holes in a field. To Wirt’s shock and surprise, he unearths a skeleton. Afraid they are digging their own graves, Wirt attempts to delay the completion of his task which in turn gives the excavated skeleton the opportunity to come to life. The citizens of Pottsfield adorn the jubilant, fleshless being with a pumpkin head and vegetable arms and it is then that Wirt realizes that everyone in the town is, in fact, dead. If it hasn’t clicked yet, Pottsfield is a direct reference to the potter’s field, a pauper’s’ grave; it is the place of burial of unknown or indigent people. This very obvious yet gentle allusion to something so dark once again illustrates just how death positive Over the Garden Wall is, as well as expresses Patrick McHale’s viable intent to open conversations with children about death, something I am very passionate about. As the boys finally depart Pottsfield, Enoch asks them if they are sure they wouldn’t like to stay. Wirt declines, to which Enoch responds, “Oh well, you’ll join us someday.”
“Oh well, you’ll join us someday”
As the boys continue their expedition, the reason behind their presence in the Unknown continues to remain unexplained, thus the viewer is along for the same rollercoaster ride that the boys are on. The hardships encountered on their journey reveal so much about Wirt. His reactions to adversities are often in the form of deep and dark poetry in which he expresses his feelings on their incessant failures and the possibility that death awaits them. Wirt’s lament in the episode Babes in the Woods is an indicator that, despite his youth, Wirt has accepted that humans are not immortal, and that he too someday will perish:
“The beast / it must be out there / it’s sitting cricket / of our inevitable / twilight singing / of our requiem / we are but wayward leaves / scattered to the air bind / by different wind”
This is not the only one of Wirts’s laments in which he explores mortality. In the very first episode of the series, The Old Grist Mill, Wirt reflects upon everything he has left behind:
“No, I am lost / my wounded heart resides back home in / pieces strewn about / the graveyard of my lost love / sometimes I feel like a boat / on a winding river / twisting toward an endless black sea / further and further from where I want to be / Who! I want to be.
Wirt’s lamentations are critical; they are the backbone in defining his personality and are revealing of the past that has led him here to the Unknown. This is the same past that will lead he and Greg into the arms of the Beast.
Although the Pottsfield episode is the most conspicuously death positive of them all, every single chapter of Over the Garden Wall touches on the subject of death in one way or another. The Woodsman, who Greg and Wirt encounter throughout the entirety of their time in the Unknown, is grieving the loss of his daughter whose soul lives in a lantern he must feed with the black oil from edelwood, a mysterious, creeping plant. Greg’s habit of sharing “rock facts”, falsehoods he makes up to cheer up Wirt, are also oddly death positive. In a favorite rock fact of mine, Greg reminisces about the death of the dinosaurs, explaining that in their extinction, they have been forgotten: “Did you know that dinosaurs had big ears, but everyone forgot because ears don’t have bones?” And then there is Auntie Whispers, a character easily interpretable as evil, who is merely trying to protect her niece, Lorna. Possessed by a cannibalistic spirit, Lorna’s demon can only be controlled by the ringing of a glowing, magical bell that Dr. Cucumber has somehow managed to swallow. There is also the tale of Percy Endicott, a wealthy elite who has fallen in love with a ghost, only to find that she is in fact alive. She too was enamored with a ghost, the ghost of the very much alive Percy Endicott. Toward the end of the series, Greg encounters a gravestone with Percy Endicott’s name on it, although this easter egg is never addressed.
In chapter eight, Babes in the Woods, the mini series takes a turn to a place darker than it had previously explored. Wirt has given up on making it home, leaving a still hopeful Greg in charge of finding the way back. Upon falling asleep in the frozen forest, Greg’s dreams transport him to a magical land in the sky called Cloud City, where he is offered the opportunity to stay by its whimsical citizens. This episode is incontestably an allusion to the afterlife, and suggests that heaven is what you make of it when you arrive. To his dismay, Greg is informed by the goddess of this heavenly place that he must leave Wirt behind if he is to stay. “See how the edelwood grows around him?” she says, “The Beast has claimed him already.” Refusing to abandon his brother, Greg returns to him and decides to embark on a journey to bargain with the Beast for Wirt’s life. But before this encounter, the mystery of the Unknown begins to unravel and the boys’ origin story is revealed. It is this lead up that reminded me so much of the near death experience of my cousin twenty-four years ago.
In the second to last episode of the series entitled Into the Unknown, every single death positive metaphor is brought to light, for this is when we find out exactly what Greg and Wirt are doing in the Unknown; it begs the question if this place ever existed at all. In a series of unfortunate events catalyzed by Wirt’s secret love for his classmate Sarah, the boys are sent on a Halloween goose chase through their hometown to retrieve a mixtape of clarinet playing and poetry that Wirt has made for Sarah, but is not ready for her to hear. This explains the strange attire they don as they are adrift in the unknown; Greg’s teapot hat is amusingly an elephant costume. The boys follow Sarah to a graveyard party (during which we see Percy Endicott’s headstone), and chaos ensues when the police arrive to break it up. Wirt and Greg, to avoid a whirlwind of trouble, jump the cemetery wall. In this capricious motion, they are catapulted down a hill and into a river where the boys are, professedly, drowning. It is in this moment that the audience has the realization that the Unknown is no mystical land. Rather, it is the ethereal, near death experience of two boys trying to stay alive in a realm beyond reality. Their fear of the Beast, their determination to escape him, is Greg and Wirt’s will to live battling with the impending approach of the reaper. As Wirt and Greg drown, we are taken back to the Unknown, where Wirt must rescue Greg and finally meet the Beast face to face.
When this happens, the metaphor of Wirt and the Beast’s encounter becomes painfully clear. A weak, cadaverous Greg is wrapped in edelwood, the plant we now know consumes all those who die in the Unknown, and it is this plant that nourishes the soul that inhabits the lantern. The insinuation that death feeds off of the dead is quite terrifying, and I must admit I was taken aback at Patrick McHale’s bold statement, albeit its conscientious truth. Throughout the entirety of the show, I felt as if though the conversations of death were light enough to be digested by children, if they even understood these impressions at all. But the fear evoked by the Beast in his encounter with Wirt struck me as a little shocking, until Wirt’s rebuttal to the Beast’s demand that he and Greg remain in the Unknown. Wirt, summoning all of his courage, tells the beast quite modestly, that this idea is “dumb.” In a blur, Wirt grabs a pale-faced Greg, says goodbye to Beatrice, and the Beast is finished off by the Woodsman, who destroys the lantern that had the Beast’s soul in it all along. As all of this transpires, the audience is propelled into the present, where Wirt opens his eyes under water and rescues a small, lifeless Greg and a listless Dr. Cucumber.
The happy ending to this dark tale unfolds in a brightly lit hospital room. Wirt and Greg are surrounded by their friends, and the Unknown seems far far away. It was nothing but a dream, if you will. But the metaphor remains transparent; Greg’s propinquity to the Beast in the Unknown illustrated how much closer to death he was in the real world, having sacrificed himself for his older brother. Had Wirt not escaped the Beast and come to under the water, he, Greg and Dr. Cucumber (now named Jason Funderburker) would have surely died. Neatly wrapped up in a death positive package, the audience is contented to find that the Unknown was but a frantic figment of a slowly dying imagination. That is, until Greg shakes Jason Funderburker, and the ringing bell in his belly begins to glow.
“Shows like Over the Garden Wall slowly open the door to conversations with our children about what it means to die, and to be dead, even if it opens just a crack”
Making the claim that Over the Garden Wall changed my life is a bold statement; of that I am aware. But I would be lying if I said the series didn’t move me deeply. Its exploration of death, near death experiences and the ability of children to understand and face mortality is incredibly refreshing for someone like me who believes communication with children about death is of the utmost importance. In Western society, we hide our children from the realities of death, and often we try our best to hide ourselves. This approach to death facilitates an unnecessary fear in children and adults alike. Shows like Over the Garden Wall slowly open the door to conversations with our children about what it means to die, and to be dead, even if it opens just a crack. Aside from its message, the beauty and grace with which the story is told brings an almost comforting air to the idea of our own mortality through music, a warm, soothing aesthetic and beautiful prose. Aside from my profound love for the series, the message it sent triggered my memory. It returned to me the moments once lost in a haze of trauma and suppression over watching my small, helpless cousin cross into the realms of the afterlife and return unscathed. I have yet to ask her if she remembers that journey, if there was one at all. While in limbo between the spheres of the living and the dead, do we all travel to the Unknown? Or is it reserved for the vivid imaginations of children unfortunate enough to traverse such dimensions? There is a lesson here, to be taken from Wirt, Greg and Jason Funderburker the frog; death is not to be feared, for it comes for us all. And ain’t that just the way.
Krista Amira Calvo is a Caribbean-Latinx Bioarchaeologist, writer and avid necropolitical activist. She currently heads the organization The Black Veil Coalition, a vessel she uses to promote communication, intersectionality and activism in the death positive community in regards to race, gender and feminist issues. She has conducted osteological research in Transylvania and is currently focusing her work on the bioarchaeology of women and children, exploring pathological abnormalities caused by stress and malnutrition in historic orphan girls. She enjoys talking about bones, writing about bones and generally just hanging out with bones. She has two fluffy cats and currently resides in NYC.
Krista is a member of the Death & the Maiden Collective.