Under the Lens, Into the Known: Over the Garden Wall
Updated: Jan 19
Portraits you know, photographs you don't, sights you've seen but can't recall, half-remembered lyrics, bygone eras, and recognising the sound of a phonograph without knowing what one looks like.
'The Unknown' of 2014's Over the Garden Wall is less than it at first glance claims to be. A landscape which, like any fairy tale, is navigated by two boys lost in the wood; Wirt and Greg. Stumbling upon a grist mill and a ghost town, a manor house and a dispossessed man, and frog lullabies upon a ferry, all in their long walk home. Through this world, creator Pat McHale establishes his own geographic storytelling, posing a question seldom asked: where do unknowns end, and knowns begin? Our hero Wirt navigating these nuances like trees in a wood, on a pilgrimage to nostalgia.
Motifs of nostalgia, memory, and false-memory are ingrained within each of the show's ten chapters. These motifs conveyed across a variety of mediums. You will have heard the show's title already, of course, from the late twentieth-century rope-skipping rhyme:
'Over the garden wall
I let the baby fall.
My mother came out
And gave me a clout
Over the garden wall.'
Additionally, Beatrix Potter scholars may note the resemblance between her illustrations and that of the animals of Chapter 3's School Town Follies. Lullaby in Frogland, too, pays homage to the game art of the McLaughlin Brothers' Frog Pond. Betty Boop and the Tavern
Keeper, Oz and Cloud City, the Black Cat Dance music cover and the depictions of the Pottsville skeletons...so the list goes on. Melodic inspiration employed to much the same degree; a key musical cue, Come Wayward Souls, and its subsequent Potatus et Molassus leads the march in a symphony of replication in its summoning of Christian hymn, O'Holy Night. Old Black Train becomes The Little Black Train, The Fight is Over becomes Ballrooms of Mars, and The Highwayman becomes the Disney animated St. James Infirmary Blues. Every track and frame eerily familiar to something you've heard before. Lyrical adjacencies only your unconscious mind bothers to note, ticking away in the back of your head like the obelisk of an antique metronome. The show even superseeding its own 80s setting in its final shot; pulling out on the city landscape of Cartoon Network's (as of then) still to be released show, Clarence.
Indeed, the whole show could be argued to occupy a limbo of sorts. The space between the familiar and the unfamiliar; known and unknown. An assortment of Americana artwork, and a composition of Americana concerto. Even the brother's fall into the riverbank - transporting them from their 80s-set home to this purgatorial timeless landscape - references a more literal interpretation of an 'uncanny valley.' And their destination, that of a wood, is itself a cacophony of the same sounds and sights across a vast vista, with the trees themselves all appearing the same. Is it any wonder that the forest, of all places, marks the home of so many a fairy tale? Lost forgotten stories, brought together in their structural and moral similarities; their rhymes.
The infantility of these half-recollections speaks to the motifs of children's literature, yes, but it also warns against the snare of nostalgia. To fall into a place somewhere between reality and memory, and become lost. Unable to leave until one faces reality, surpasses the fables, and accepts the world for what it is, as Wirt - The Pilgrim - does.
That 80s setting is not for nothing. With the resurgence of Spielberg and the pop-culture popularity of Stranger Things, the 80s is itself a long-sought-after bygone era. This is a fixture of the human mentality, as we understand from history, however it is rare indeed for a memory to persevere from one generation to the next. With Generation Z of western demographics, never having lived the 80s, longing for it. Memories of memories. Copies of copies. And, as any engineer will confirm, with each copy of a copy comes degradation. Lines unblurring from facts and dates to reveries and vibes. This, laid bare, is the machine of nostalgia. Rotting the braincells of the old, and corrupting that of the newly formed. This is the land that The Beast - the devil of McHale's purgatory - inhabits. One in which children are grinded into fuel, to sustain the soul of something long-dead and grotesque. This is the cry of Pat McHale, and the cautionary fairy tale of a new generation of storyteller: "Beware the unknown."
The slights of memory and folk-memory, of course, can be navigated only by you, and you only. Stories are no one thing, and form no holistic miscellany; they are varying and mercurial, kaleidoscopic and untameable. No bigger a wood could one imagine, and with each map esoteric, it is no wonder we are all but lost. But it is not the extinguishing of The Beast's soul-sustained dark lantern that resolves Wirt's dilemma, but the repurposing of it to what it was intended as in the first place: illumination. Guidance from the dark of the unknown, to the light of the known. Indeed, as McHale himself once observed, "Maybe all our memories are lies. Maybe everything we perceive is a lie. But we have to put our belief somewhere. Right?" Or something like that. This is what a phonograph looks like, by the way.
The Unknown is not where our horrors live, for nothing knowable may reside there. The uncanny is little more than resemblance, and autumn is but the ghast of winter. Instead, it is The Known we must face. And put nostalgia to bed.