Once upon a time, I was a film student. I minored in film studies at URI, in hopes of doing something that would allow me to work in film criticism.
Years later, I became a student affairs practitioner, and fell in love with applying theory. I merged the two loves while studying for my comprehensive exams, applying theory to films and TV shows featuring college, helping me to visualize the concepts I had been learning about for the last year and a half. I’ve done so again here, as I realized while watching The Nightmare Before Christmas that Jack was suffering from some serious career dissatisfaction. Seriously, that’s what I said. Out loud in my living room. By myself.

In any case, I present to you:
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I, Jack, The Pumpkin King: Jack Skellington’s Journey to Self Authorship


Aside from the deflection of a few complements, and his thanks to the denizens of Halloweentown for a successful holiday display, the first words we hear from Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas are an impassioned lament about his boredom with his stead as the Pumpkin King. My critical eye immediately traveled to my years of schooling in student development theory, and my heart went out to this man for his deep dissatisfaction with his work. Ultimately, I concluded that Jack’s identity crisis portrayed in the film is an excellent exercise in Baxter Magolda’s theory of self-authorship. Over the course of nearly ninety minutes, Jack takes a journey from disillusioned, to re-energized, to defeated, and finally to enlightened. Baxter Magolda’s stages can be applied to this sojourn to help us all find the joy in our work, be we student affairs practitioners or pumpkin kings.

“Just Like Last Year, And The Year Before That…”: Following Formulas

Our first journey through Halloweentown is jauntily shown in the opening song, “This is Halloween”. But while the town’s yearly display of holiday spirit is new to us each time, it is not new to Jack Skellington, the lead purveyor of these terrifying tidings. As the rest of the citizens celebrate the occasion with prizes and togetherness, Jack steals away to a graveyard to contemplate his state of affairs. He is concerned that being the scariest of them all has lost its meaning, and displays a remarkable sense of dissatisfaction in his accomplishments:

Oh, there’s an empty place in my bones

That calls out for something unknown

The fame and praise come year after year

Does nothing for these empty tears (Burton, McDowell and Thompson, 1993)

While there is no indication that Jack feels he put himself in this position, he clearly feels that the expectations of others play a significant role in his continuation as the Pumpkin King, not unlike “young adults [who] follow the plans laid out for them” (Baxter Magolda, 2001). In the film, this step overlaps significantly with Baxter Magolda’s second step, that of the crossroads.

“Oh Could It Be I Got My Wish?”: Crossroads

The first inkling that Jack might have a change in his future comes when he falls through the door to Christmastown. As he sees the world of holiday cheer for the first time, he is fascinated and mystified by his surroundings. Moreover, he starts to feel fulfilled where he previously felt boredom and emptiness:

The sights, the sounds

They’re everywhere and all around

I’ve never felt so good before

This empty place inside of me is filling up

I simply cannot get enough (Burton, McDowell and Thompson, 1993)

The crossroads stage of self-authorship goes a step further from following formulas, in that the dissatisfied party realizes that a change needs to be made. Much as any student may realize that he or she needs to pursue a new passion, Jack’s crossroads are reached when he finds something new that he wants to undertake.

At this stage, Jack’s self-authorship very much resembles an innovative career counseling theory known as happenstance theory. Criticisms of earlier forms of career counseling include a lack of regard for chance, spontaneity, and the course of life influencing career choice. In looking at a newer school of career counseling, Mitchell et al. (1999) “emphasize the importance of chance in one’s career, and helping clients become ready to take advantage of beneficial, unexpected events” such as Jack’s arrival in Christmastown. What results is a career choice he never could have dreamed of or pursued in Halloweentown, because he had never encountered it before. What results is a journey of self-discovery that spans two holidays and unexpectedly bridges two worlds (not unlike my desire to work in film criticism, as well as student affairs J)

“This Year, Christmas Will Be Ours!”: Becoming The Author of One’s Life

Jack throws himself enthusiastically into preparations for his town’s rendition of Christmas, even going so far as to kidnap Santa from Christmastown to ensure authenticity. He is rejuvenated with a new sense of purpose, and excited to redefine himself as the King of Christmas. Even in the face of doubt from his best friend and aspiring girlfriend Sally, he perseveres to set his own new beliefs and chart his new journey, however misguided it may be. A cornerstone of authoring one’s own life is the ability to sustain “a solid sense of confidence that [one] can direct [his] life”; Jack not only embodies that confidence, he instills it in the rest of Halloweentown. This transformation is evident in the cooperative spirit of the “Making Christmas” number that features the whole town packaging toys, learning new songs and generally supporting the new direction that their fearless leader has taken in his life. It is only on his maiden voyage, as he is shot down from the sky after “mocking and mangling this joyous holiday” (Burton, McDowell and Thompson, 1993) that he starts to realize that his journey was misguided and ultimately poorly informed.

That’s Right! I Am The Pumpkin King!: Internal Foundation

As Jack sits in the graveyard where he landed after his sleigh was shot down, contemplating the course that led him to a tattered red suit and a world filled with fear, he realizes that he was meant to be the Pumpkin King. He acknowledges that while he did the best that he could do, he ultimately was needed to preside over Halloweentown and be its leader. According to Baxter Magolda, the reprise of “Jack’s Lament” demonstrates the point at which individuals become “grounded in their self-determined belief system, in their sense of who they are, and the mutuality of their relationships”. And indeed, it is at that point where Jack determines his rightful place is in his old job, albeit recharged with new ideas on how to be a better Pumpkin King. Moreover, he realizes the mutuality of his relationship with Sally as he rescues her from Oogie Boogie in hopes of restoring the sanctity of Christmas. In a moment of despair for most, Jack sets the stage for his triumphant return to power. And as snow falls over Halloweentown, and Santa rushes off to rectify the madness wrought by Jack, he is gratified in his construction of his internal voice.


Jack Skellington starts and ends The Nightmare Before Christmas as the Pumpkin King, but takes a whimsical and harrowing journey to arrive at that point. Just as many of us have explored different paths to find ourselves, the undead are not immune to such crises of confidence. Jack’s journey to self-authorship through a happenstance trip to another world gave him the boost he needed to be better at his work. And whether your work is as the leader of Halloweentown, or working with students each day, perhaps we should take such journeys to rejuvenate ourselves each year!

One thought on “I Wrote About Student Affairs and Pop Culture

  1. You're adorable and this is awesome. Good work. I'm still having trouble conceptualizing self authorship as a vehicle and not as an outcome. Maybe we can talk about it sometime.

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