It’s almost Halloween, which means it is time for me to over-analyze spooky movies! The movie The Nightmare Before Christmas came out in 1993 and became an instant holiday classic. Recently I was re-watching the movie and was struck in particular by Sally and her relationship with Dr. Finklestein, her creator. Sally has very little say in her own life and is constantly poisoning Dr. Finklestein so that she can leave and be able to go about the town and participate in daily life. Dr. Finklestein created Sally to be his companion and insists that she needs to do what he says because he created her and gave her life.
This conflict is just played off as funny in this kids’ movie, but it’s an interesting question on a variety of levels.
First, I think there is the question of, if you create something, do you then own it? That seems to be the case to some extent with inanimate objects, but not when it comes to people. We see this all the time in matter involving abusive parents and their children. Just because a child was created by a certain set of parents doesn’t mean that the parents have total control over their child. Governments grant many rights to parents, but even those rights can be argued if a child is being harmed. Even for parents who are not abusive, recognizing that your child is their own person is, I think, essential to good parenting. And while parents should guide their kids, at a certain point it needs to be recognized that parents can’t control their children, and that they are their own people with their own autonomy.
Despite the fact that Sally was created to be a romantic companion to Dr. Finklestein, he also seems to play the role of parent, making their relationship very creepy. He doesn’t let her into the outside world, because he insists she’s not ready for it yet. We aren’t told how long it’s been since Finklestein created Sally, but the other characters seem to know her well enough that it couldn’t have been recently; meaning Sally has been trying to escape Finklestein’s clutches for a while. The doctor tells Sally that her wanting to go out into the world and be a part of the community is a phase, and constantly throws the fact that he created her in Sally’s face as reason why she is obligated to stay with him and obey him in all things. Sally, for her part, also plays the role of a child: she seems unsure of her place in the world, and constantly returns to Dr. Finklestein because she has nowhere else to go. Sally appears to largely live on the streets when she stays away longer than a day. She also, despite everything, seems to care about Dr. Finklestein. She takes care of him to some extent and even after she poisons him so she can escape, she still covers his sleeping form in a blanket before she leaves. Furthermore, though Sally is constantly using poisons, she knows they won’t kill Dr. Finklestein (because this is a kids’ movie) so she never actually does anything to harm him.
Secondly, we have Sally filling the role of wife to Dr. Finklestein. For years, our sexist society has (and in many parts of the world still does) viewed women as property. Women were first considered the property of their father until they were married and were then considered the property of their husband. To this day there are still groups that believe that women should be subservient to men and should always obey and defer to their husband. Furthermore, women are usually expected to fulfill a certain role as a wife by cooking, cleaning, and basically doing anything they can to please their husbands. Women in these scenarios are not seen as having any of their own autonomy; their will is not considered important, but rather the will of their husband is.
We see Sally being forced into this role by Dr. Finklestein. It’s clear that he created her to be his “companion”. While the movie doesn’t get into details of what that entails, it certainly seems to be that of a traditional wife. Sally is forbidden to leave her home, she apparently does all of the cooking as well—you’d think Dr. Finklestein would no longer allow that considering she is always poisoning him, but it’s clear that he wants Sally to fulfill that particular role as a wife. By the end of the movie we see that Dr. Finklestein has grown frustrated with Sally and no longer wants her, allowing Sally to be free to move around and do as she wishes. However, Dr. Finklestein starts developing a new creation, one he hopes will be more compatible with him. He essentially creates a hyper feminine doppelganger of himself and splits his brain between them. We only see the two together at the end of the movie. While Sally is free, a new creation as taken over her role. I think we are meant to believe that this creation is happy with her role, but seeing as she was only created recently, there is no way of knowing.
The issue here at every level is a question of autonomy. Sally was created for a specific purpose. In many ways Dr. Finklestein made her to be his perfect wife, but when she wasn’t, he tried to control her to shape her into what he wanted, only to later abandon her as hopeless and try to do the same thing again. Despite being a children’s movie, there are many eerie complications here. Sally is created and raised by Dr. Finklestein, but with the purpose of being a wife, which in many ways shows her as a victim of child grooming. Sally’s free will and control over her body is literally stripped away from her. She relies on Dr. Finklestein, but doesn’t want to. He controls her specifically with the idea that she owes her life to him.
When I watched this movie as a kid, I remember not thinking much of Dr. Finklestein and Sally’s relationship. The way things ended, with Sally getting her freedom and Dr. Finklestein getting a new companion, I simply assumed that they both were able to find the people they were actually compatible with. I viewed Dr. Finklestein as bad to some extent, but he was friends with Jack and no one ever advocated on Sally’s behalf, so the movie painted him as more of an annoying figure than as someone who was bad or evil. I do remember being confused by Sally and Jack’s relationship, though. The two barely talk to each other in the movie. Only at the end when Jack realizes Sally was helping him and looking out for him all this time does he finally notice her and want to be with her. In some ways it seems like Sally is moving from handler to handler. First, she was a caretaker for Dr. Finklestein, and now she serves a similar role for Jack, even if it is one that comes with more freedom. I enjoyed this movie as a kid, and I still enjoy it as an adult, but I have certainly noticed some more troubling and problematic things about it as an adult. It’s a movie I still love and will still watch every Halloween, but I wish Sally as a character would have been explored more without putting the focus solely on her relationship with Jack. Perhaps if Sally hadn’t ended up in a romance at the end, but had simply found a friend in Jack, I would have felt better about the ending she was given.