Amongst its many illustrious accomplishments, the ‘90s sitcom favorite, Boy Meets World — arguably the crown jewel of ABC’s once-mighty TGIF lineup — can boast to having the scariest Halloween episode to not actually air during Halloween. Instead, “And Then There Was Shawn,” the show’s extended homage to the hit horror movie Scream, premiered on February 27, 1998, well past the traditional haunting season. “That is so crazy,” the episode’s director, Jeff McCracken, tells Yahoo TV when reminded of the odd airdate. “We normally made shows for the holidays. Maybe we were preempted by some other event on Halloween week? Or maybe the network got scared at the last minute? I don’t remember how that happened.”
No matter; these days, “And Then There Was Shawn” has become firmly ensconced in the pop culture consciousness as one of the best Halloween episodes ever made, as well as one of Boy Meets World’s finest half-hours. A plethora of “Shawn” tributes can be found online, praising the way it merrily riffs on horror movies, while also serving up some legitimately unsettling moments… like, say, beloved teacher Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) being stabbed in the back by a pair of scissors. Written by Jeff Menell, the episode is predicated on the confusion that Shawn (Rider Strong) experiences after his best friends Cory (Ben Savage) and Topanga (Danielle Fishel) break up in the wake of Cory’s brief dalliance with “cute mountain girl” Lauren (Linda Cardellini).
That confusion takes the form of an elaborate fantasy sequence where Shawn imagines a masked, hooded killer stalking the gang in the halls of their high school. And the body count gets surprisingly high for a family sitcom, with Kenny (Richard Lee Jackson), Angela (Trina McGee), Eric (Will Friedle), and new student Jennifer Love Fefferman (guest star Jennifer Love Hewitt) following Feeny to the grave.
While certainly not as gory as Scream, “And Then There Was Shawn” does put young viewers in the vaguely uncomfortable, vaguely titillating position of watching characters they’ve grown to like and even love meet their untimely ends — just as they would in a great horror movie. We spoke with McCracken, who directed 51 episodes of Boy Meets World and these days teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, about the process of directing “Shawn” and why the episode is still so beloved amongst the Boy Meets World faithful.
Having previously written about Punky Brewster’s infamous Halloween episode, it seems to me that the reason these episodes from older kids shows endure in our memories is because they break with the traditional narrative format we expected from the series.
Absolutely. And actually, that was one of the concerns the network had with “And Then There Was Shawn.” They told us, “You really departed from format, and it could be too scary for our audience.” They were really concerned that we killed Feeny, and that all these other characters were dying left and right. So we had to tell them, “Look, it’s going to be tongue-in-cheek. It’s not going to be gruesome — it’s going to all be done with a wink.” That was the challenge I had as the director. Fortunately, when I first got the script I was bowled over by it. We didn’t change too much of what Jeff Menell had written. He used to be a film critic, so he’s a real student of film, and he did a beautiful job borrowing from the horror genre.
Stylistically, “And Then There Was Shawn” is also very different from the Boy Meets World norm. You employ a lot of handheld point of view shots to generate suspense. It reminds me of the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s original Halloween.
It’s something I’d wanted to do, and this script lent itself to that style. I wanted to capture the feel of Halloween and movies like it, but create something that was still fun, as opposed to horrifying. I knew that if I used the regular four-camera format, it wouldn’t have played. It would have been stifled and stupid. So we spent a week shooting that episode; we rehearsed it, and then shot it over three days without a studio audience.
The cast had a blast. It was like shooting a film for them, which made it something different. The handheld camera inspired this voyeuristic dynamic, taking the perspective of a menacing force. Even then, though, we always did it in a way that was funny. It was a great lesson in tension and release through humor. What I loved about the script is that it created tension so the kids or young adults that were watching it would go, “Oh shoot,” and then they could laugh and know that it’s not going to be terrifying for them and give them nightmares. Hopefully.
One great example of that tension and release is the moment where Kenny is stabbed through the forehead with a pencil. It’s a shocking moment that turns comic when he slides down out of the frame, leaving a pencil line behind him.
I wish I could take responsibility for that, but I think it was Michael or Jeff who came up with it. I love the gag, though. It’s just hysterical. I also knew that the scene with Feeny getting stabbed in the back would be funny, because of the expression on William’s face. If you took those scenes by themselves, they would be kind of horrifying, but the flow of the episode and the build-up to all the scary moments worked really well. We had to fight for the pencil, we had to fight for the scissors. We had to fight for everything! We had to fight just to assure them that it would be funny, and the kids should be titillated.
Related: 14 of Our Favorite TV Teachers
What was your favorite “scary” scene to shoot from a directorial standpoint?
The classroom stuff was probably the most challenging because you had to balance everybody and block it correctly, making sure the camera movements would pay off. The hallway stuff was the most fun, because it’s just slapstick. There were a lot of elements in those scenes: We borrowed from the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and then The Shining. I also liked the dynamics of the moving camera and the POV of the killer in those scenes.
Speaking of The Shining, can you confirm or deny this dubious IMDB credit: Is that Joe Turkel aka Lloyd the Bartender as the creepy janitor?
No, no, it was not Joe Turkel. Don’t trust that. If Joe Turkel had been in it, it would have made my day! That was our two casting directors, Shelly Stiner and Barbie Block. They brought in that guy and we all just went, “Yes, perfect.” I don’t even know if he’s an actor — I’ve never seen him again. He just had one of those looks. We saw the picture and went, “Yes, OK. Bring him in,” and we met him. That was it. He was a sweet man.
The look of the killer is obviously modeled after Ghostface from Scream, the biggest horror hit of that era.
We wanted it to be Scream-like in terms of the wardrobe — the black cloak and the mask. We didn’t go through too many designs; the make-up department presented us with a couple of drawings, and then they went and created it. I love the moment where the mask comes off and we see Shawn staring at himself. He’s staring at his jealousy, at his worst self. That was a surprise for everybody when we got to that scene in the script, because they didn’t know who the killer was. It was a great reveal, I thought. It put everybody at ease to say that this is Shawn’s troubled doppelganger — it’s his inner feelings manifested.
It’s a moment where you can tell that Jeff Menell is a student of scary movies. The great horror films are always grounded in a real emotional or dramatic story and aren’t purely a vehicle for scares.
Well said. And that was always the idea behind Boy Meets World as a show as well. Michael grounded every story in an emotional value; there’s always a certain humanity that’s at the heart of each episode. And this particular episode really personifies who Jeff is in terms of a human being and a writer. So the combination of Michael setting the template for the show, and Jeff filling it with his voice was the key to the episode.
Another sign of the times are all the South Park references. “Howdy ho” and “Oh my god, they killed Kenny” are vintage ’90s-isms.
All those cultural references were part of the zeitgeist then, but they still hold up. You look at the episode, and they’re still relevant. Or maybe that’s because I’m old and I still understand those references. My kids hadn’t seen Scream when they saw “And Then There Was Shawn,” but they still loved the episode. And when they got older, they watched those movies and got a new appreciation for it. With each new generation they discovered all the references and throwbacks.
How did the Jennifer Love Hewitt cameo come about?
That came about because Will [Friedle] was dating Jennifer at the time. So we told him, “Will, we’d love to have Jennifer on the show.” It all worked out; Jennifer was a doll and she loved doing it. They broke up soon thereafter, but it was perfect timing for us. I hope the show wasn’t the thing that did it! [Laughs.]
When did you first get a sense that the episode had become so popular with Boy Meets World fans?
I swear from the minute I first picked up the script, I knew it was going to be a classic. It mixes genres, it mixes tension, and it mixes comedy so beautifully. Once we saw a finished cut with the music, we all went, “This is going to be great.” With other fan favorite episodes, fans tend to talk about specific scenes. This was one where they couldn’t stop raving about the whole thing. It’s grounded in something very heartfelt, and I think that’s why the network finally went, “OK.” I’m glad they were looking out for their audience, but at the same time, we were all fathers and mothers on that show, so we weren’t going to make something that was going to disturb them. They’re traumatized enough having us as parents!
Could an episode like “And Then There Was Shawn” be made today?
If we’re talking network TV, I don’t think so. The platforms have been more specialized for distribution. The target for this show right now would be Disney Family, and would they make this episode on Disney Family? No; it’s too sophisticated and it takes time to shoot something like this. Girl Meets World is targeting really young kids, so that wouldn’t work in that world. So it would have to land somewhere else on cable, and then the question would be do you push it even further? They might make it more gruesome. The magic of the episode is that it rewarded the adults who watched these horror films, but also give the kids who had never seen them a taste of what’s to come. We were creating a little campfire horror story where at the end, it’s all going to be OK. You’re going to be able to climb into your sleeping bags and eat your marshmallows and it’s going to be just fine.