‘Pretty Little Liars’ set the standard for Halloween episodes

Illustration+by+Hailey+Akau

Photo: Illustration by Hailey Akau

Illustration by Hailey Akau

By Shannon Garrido, Multimedia Managing Editor

Picture this, it’s 2011. 

Rebecca Black has just released “Friday,” Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart have won Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards, and the second season of what would become one of the most iconic television programs in teen history airs. The ground below you starts to shake. 

For anyone born after 2001, chances are you passed by the CW channel and came across the galactic masterpiece, groundbreaking, genre defying, cinematic experience that is “Pretty Little Liars.” The show explores the lives of four high school girls in a small town called Rosewood, who reunite a year after the death of their friend Alison DiLaurentis. 

In the year following Alison’s disappearance, the girls begin to receive anonymous texts threatening to spill all their secrets. In the first season Alison’s case quickly goes from a disappearance to a homicide and the show follows the girls as they try to solve the mystery of who is out to get them and who killed their friend. 

The show is nothing short of catastrophic. There are unresolved murders left and right as the girls are continuously blackmailed on their way to tenth grade algebra. It’s also not far-fetched to say the show had several flaws. The showrunner Marlene King is known for using terrible plot devices to tie loose ends because she refused to let the audience in on who the killer could be. As a viewer you are both at the edge of your seat and insanely frustrated. In addition to King’s multiple plot holes—chasms, I might say—the obscene vilification of mental illness and encouragement of predatory relationships is something the show could, and should, have done without. 

However, every year as the leaves changed and pumpkins were carved, Miss Marlene was preparing to deliver nothing short of Halloween perfection. “Pretty Little Liars” cemented the art of Halloween themed episodes.

Most shows, when approaching holiday themed episodes—especially Halloween—call it a day by decorating the set and giving each character a costume to attend some sort of party. But what are the stakes? Where’s the drama?  

Halloween is the perfect opportunity for a teen drama to experiment with the plot, add a little mystery, or add an element of horror, all while incorporating the general essence of the show. “Pretty Little Liars” hit the nail on the head every time, indicated by its top-ranked Halloween episodes.

“The First Secret”—the thirteenth episode of the second season—takes us back in time before Alison’s disappearance. Immediately the ambiance mimics the themes of a funny high school slasher movie like “Scream.” The lighting is darker, and as a viewer you feel the tension as every loud noise and every dark corner is emphasized for the utmost spookiness. Still, there is a comedic absurdity to every obviously creepy house and scary costume, each of which inspires curiosity. 

We see Alison’s mean-girl persona at full force for the first time as she literally terrorizes everyone in town. Up until now, her antics were stories of a terrifying bully who had all the confidence and power in the world. But this Halloween, we see she is not invincible—she is scared, and someone is making sure of that. While at a costume shop, she receives a threatening message from a blocked number that reads, “I’m watching you.” She scans the store for the perpetrator then turns to be surprised by a horrific baby mask and a burlap suit. Visibly afraid, Alison yells “Freak!” at the burlap baby and walks away. Immediately we know this masked infant is the villain.

The episode creates several moments like this, in which the audience is both laughing and on edge, aware that the villain is being exaggerated but still poses a real threat. We get the typical costume party, where the girls—allegedly—turn looks.  Alison wears what can only be described as the most iconic wig of all time in her Lady Gaga costume. 


Illustration by Rachel Choi

These episodes effortlessly weave Halloween into their plots because expected elements like spooky music and costumes become an entertaining asset and not a cheesy cop out. 

Another show stopping example is episode 13 of season 4, titled “Grave New World.” The girls believe Alison is alive—Marlene King is once again tying loose ends with dental floss—and in their quest to find her they end up in a neighboring town called Ravenswood. The town seems to be stuck in time, full of old buildings and people in nineteenth century clothing. In true PLL fashion, the girls are roped into an impromptu costume party at a literal graveyard where they are chased around by an unknown perpetrator. 

The true comedy lies in the episode’s premise: dressing-gown-clad teenage girls working to find their not-so-dead friend in a town stuck in the 1800s. The episode used every ounce of self-awareness—awareness, mind you, the show does not always possess—and raised the stakes of the show entirely by almost confirming that Alison is alive. 

It baffles me that a show that utilizes the plot device of evil twins not once or twice but three times produced Halloween content that remains iconic to this day. Other teen dramas that dominated the 2010s—The Vampire Diaries, Glee, and Gossip Girl—also have vibrant characters and convoluted storylines, but none use Halloween as an opportunity to truly impress or engage their audience.

TVD’s Halloween episodes play out like any other, tacking on a corny montage of teenagers drinking in costume. Glee gave us what can only be described as a rift in the space-time continuum by producing “The Rocky Horror Glee Show.” In this episode Emma Pillsbury sings “Touch A, Touch A, Touch Me” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show to Will Schuester, and audiences everywhere paid the price.

Even Gossip Girl—known for elaborate mysteries and darker themes—never really brought the it-factor to its Halloween episodes. Instead, the series settled for themed costume parties woven into a pre-existing plot—a  plot that, if memory serves me, always involves a themed party. There was no added layer of fear or fright that changed the stakes of the season.

Miss Marlene, however, takes Halloween as an opportunity to generate buzz, and she really outdid herself in season three’s “This Is ‘A’ Dark Ride.” The episode follows the girls at a Halloween party on a… moving train. You know, like the kind of parties we ALL went to in high school. 

The outfits and the set are absolutely absurd, with each girl dressed as an obvious reflection of her character. Fun and flirty Hannah dresses as Marilyn Monroe. Bookish Aria goes dressed as Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby. Spencer is smart and uptight, so her costume is Lauren Bacall from “To Have and Have Not,” and Emily is sporty so her costume is Barbarella. 

In this episode the girls are chased by someone in a queen of hearts costume who is suspected to have stolen Alison’s body (I am so serious). At this point, Alison’s corpse has been dug up by the series’ unknown antagonist. In the duration of the episode, the antagonist drugs Aria, puts her in a wooden box with a dead cop, and tries to push her off the train. 

The drama and the excitement of a mystery is there, but more than anything, the stakes are high. Like every PLL Halloween episode, this one changes the trajectory of the remainder of the season. If the girls don’t find the culprit, Aria could die. 

By the end of the episode, the girls save Aria from imminent death but fail to identify her perpetrator. We think it’s all over, and suddenly the train tilts and the ice tray collapses to reveal…a body bag containing Alison’s remains. The girls are found suspicious of tampering with a homicide investigation, which not only raises the stakes of the show but forces viewers to ask themselves: who did it? 

It’s no secret that some teen dramas are known more for corny dialogue and subpar writing. Pretty Little Liars is no exception. The show is known for adding unnecessary and unimportant characters to explain confusing plot lines. Much of the show relies on inappropriate and harmful relationships to influence a young audience. 

Yet, a lot of us tuned in because it is entertaining, and in a way, its absurdity makes it so. Halloween episodes provided a kind of entertainment that remains palatable to this day, even if the rest of the show doesn’t. New shows need to take notes from the artful calamity of a good Halloween episode and consider it the perfect opportunity for reinvention.