The All-American Addams Family


Hi, ThinkProgress readers! It’s Halloween, and I’d like to celebrate by singing (and snapping) the praises of those fine Americans, the Addams Family.

These days, mention of the Addams Family summons up images of Raul Julia, and while I love the 90s Addams movies (and Julia) as much as the next ghoul, I’d like to push the clock back — all the way back to the New Yorker in 1938, which published a Charles Addams cartoon of a terrified vacuum-cleaner salesman pitching his wares to a pale forbidding woman and her werewolf-like husband.

More cartoons followed, refining character designs: Morticia remained, while her husband evolved into a squat, debonair figure with an elegant mustache; two children coalesced, a brutish mad scientist boy and a girl Christina Ricci was born to play (and later would). The humor remained macabre, dark, beautiful, and often subtle: the effectiveness of an Addams cartoon often lay in the hunt for the joke. Much horror and humor came from the family’s skewed domesticity: Morticia knitting a three-legged jumper for a baby, Gomez cheerfully filing his fence to blade-sharp points, Pugsley transforming himself into Mister Hyde and back again with the contents of his chemistry set.

This trend manifested fully in the 1964 television series.

The television show brought the cartoons to life, and into conflict. The Addams Family themselves remained ghoulish, their house a collection of torture devices, but in their repeated encounters with the outside world it became apparent that we — the audience, the confused onlookers wondering why on earth someone would eat alligator steak, or keep an octopus for a pet, or nap on a bed of nails — were the joke. We were no less deranged than the Addamses.

Gomez and Morticia were good parents, sensitive to their children’s needs and willing to defend them against a world that didn’t understand. And — remember this is mid-60s primetime TV here — Gomez and Morticia were obviously, physically, in love with one another. In a first season episode, after a hard conversation about parenthood, Morticia invites Gomez up to their bedroom where she “wants to try on her new nightgown”—and then CUT TO: INT MASTER BEDROOM – NIGHT, with Morticia in her nightgown and Gomez passionate.

Episode after episode showed the Family remaining itself in spite of frequent collisions with a confused WASPy world. Difference, says The Addams Family, even severe and terrifying difference, doesn’t need to divide, and it does cut both ways. The Addamses are just as perplexed (or even horrified) by the Boy Scouts, makeup saleswomen, psychiatrists, and school board officials who visit them as the forces of WASP America are by the Family.

Fifty years on, the message here, expressed with consistent arched eyebrow and demonic grin, remains fresh. In a time when non-majority dress, language, prayer practices, and even headgear have become targets of institutionalized fear, the Addams Family provides a model for breaking open that fear — and suggests a social role for Halloween. One night a year, we remind ourselves that there’s a child behind every werewolf’s mask, and that no matter how ‘normal’ we think we are, we may look like a grotesque fish-thing to someone else.