the value of addams family values
no plans, no problem
Here’s how my Thanksgiving is supposed to go: One subset of the family will host, the others will drive over, and we’ll enjoy a nice midday meal. Here’s how I’m almost certain it will actually go: All drivers will leave the house 30-60 minutes late, causing lunch to be served one to two hours late, this year’s family drama will either simmer awkwardly under the surface or bubble over, and we’ll all go home exhausted and frustrated, promising ourselves next year will be better.
This level of chaos can only be matched by a sequence in a children’s movie from 1993: the Thanksgiving play scene from Addams Family Values. The play takes place out of season at a summer camp, and young Wednesday Addams is told to perform an astonishingly racist caricature of Pocahontas. Instead, she flips the script and starts a raging fire. Her upbeat yet evil camp counselor clearly deserves to have his offensive play ruined. In his desperation to put out the literal and metaphorical fires ravaging his camp, though, it’s hard not to see echoes of my family’s own attempts to salvage the holiday: Both are spectacles as funny as they are disheartening. Often I’ll hang back and observe with my grandfather, just trying to stay out of the way.
Ever since I was little, Grandpa has taken every opportunity to give me books. He’s exceptionally good at it, capturing every genre, every age range. One Thanksgiving, however, Grandpa hit the ball out of the park, gifting me a little-known book called Addams and Evil.
I’ve already mentioned the Addams Family a fair amount, so allow me to explain. Married couple Morticia and Gomez Addams, their daughter Wednesday, their son Pugsley, and—if you take Addams Family Values as canon—youngest son Pubert live together with Uncle Fester, Grandmama, Frankenstein’s-monster-style butler Lurch, and pet disembodied hand Thing. They’ve been the center of multiple live-action TV series, animated adaptations, books, feature films, and one surprisingly good musical—through it all, the family has exclusively worn black. Parodic inversions of suburban WASPs, they rapture in gloomy days and lament sunny ones—they’ve even been known to pour boiling oil on sieging Christmas carolers. Different adaptations have them recognizing their own oddities to varying degrees; for the most part, though, their terrifying, cobwebby, boarded-up mansion is the only world they know. From their perspective, everyone else is either weird or boring.
Treatise after treatise has been written on the power of the Addams Family as a challenge to oppressive regimes of normalization. In Addams Family Values, Wednesday proclaims an affinity for murder over compulsory heterosexuality. Even when the family is under attack, they often have nothing but respect for the daringness of their attackers. The hat I bought from The Addams Family Musical demands plainly that the reader “Define Normal,” and that’s the core tenet of all things Addams Family.
I’m a fan, but I have to admit I’ve always felt like a bit of a poser. I’ve never seen the original 1964 live-action series or either of the animated ones; my territory only covers the ’90s movies, the musical, and the fact that I grew up in a family that knows the theme song by heart. I was a hand-me-down Addams Family fan. I didn’t know the deep, ancient lore, like the fact that Wednesday uses a spider as a yo-yo or the multiple rearrangements of the family dynamic. I didn’t—that is, not until one Thanksgiving with my grandpa, when I opened up Addams and Evil.
Before diving in, I thought I knew what I had to know about the Addams Family: the basic gist, the canon, the family structure. That’s where the twist comes in: As I learned that day, there is no original Addams Family. They’re evolved creations; no one ever sat down and specifically created Morticia, Gomez, and the rest. The characters weren’t even given names until 1964; even then, their last name was just their creator’s. In 1938, they began life as random New Yorker cartoons written and drawn by Charles Addams, eventually compiled into Addams and Evil in 1947. Though unnamed, all the classic characters are in these single-panel comics. The woman who would become Morticia emulates a socialite by complaining over the phone about how busy her Friday will be: “It’s the thirteenth, you know.” Pugsley and Wednesday return from camp in pet crates. Fester cackles among sobbing theatergoers. The fundamental culture shock of their interaction with the outside world is crucial to each gag—before they had the space and time of dedicated publications, the writers of the Addams Family had to tell visual jokes with minimal dialogue. When Gomez joyfully reels in an out-of-frame but clearly massive sea creature while other beachgoers run screaming, we don’t need words to know who and what he is, how he’s different from us, and why it’s funny. With no history and no original incarnation, who has played, drawn, or directed them most faithfully is beside the point; they became the Addams Family because we made them the Addams Family.
Likewise, on Thanksgiving, my family—and perhaps the greater American family—forms and finds its shape through similarly abstract forces: cultural norms and customs. While the holiday especially is often celebrated without consideration of its origins—and, as Wednesday Addams reminds us, is built on genocide—we probably deserve to have the whole American family ideal burnt to the ground as well. Surely the Addamses would rejoice in the backfire of tradition.
On the other hand, though, for the Addamses, family always comes first. It can be hard to feel like part of my own family; since my parents split when I was young, the side of the family I’m with has alternated every year, such that it’s difficult to get a sense of my own comprehensive canon. That might be why I end up hanging out with Grandpa, who tends to have as little sense of what’s going on in my parents’ generation as I do. But the Addams Family doesn’t need a canon. It’s a media property stitched together from one-off jokes and visual gags featuring unnamed characters. Addams Family Values takes a Halloween-esque family to summer camp and has them put on a Thanksgiving play of all things; nonsense is the name of the game. If the world’s most iconically off-balance family was born from even greater incoherence, surely I can revel in the presence of the people I love without needing a greater continuity as a reason to be there. How’s that for giving thanks?