Halloween episodes of sitcoms are an especially fun form of media. Showrunners tend to go all-out for the holiday, often throwing tone, internal logic, and continuity out the window in favor of a silly, spooky time. Before the pandemic cancelled large gatherings, I used to host a Halloween party where we’d watch Halloween episodes of TV from our childhoods. The heady rush of nostalgia seemed more potent as we remembered not only the TV show itself, but also the nervous anticipation that Halloween season would bring us as children. But my favorite Halloween episode — the one that both evokes those feelings and holds up as a good episode of television — actually wasn’t intended to be a Halloween episode at all. It’s the season 5 Boy Meets World slasher parody “And Then There Was Shawn,” which originally aired on Feb. 27, 1998.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for a 20-year-old episode of Boy Meets World.]
The ‘90s were an especially fruitful time for the sitcom Halloween episode. Sitcoms from Friends to Frasier got in on the fun, but none went as hard as ABC’s beloved TGIF. The network filmed special Halloween bumpers for its family-oriented Friday night programming block, with hit shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Family Matters, and Full House all running Halloween-themed episodes. In fact, Boy Meets World aired a Halloween episode of its own during that 1997 block — an episode called “The Witches of Pennbrook” starring Full House’s Candace Cameron as a witch who seduces Jack (Matthew Lawrence), with a cameo from Sabrina the Teenage Witch herself, Melissa Joan Hart.
“The Witches of Pennbrook” is a perfectly enjoyable Halloween episode (Cameron’s performance is so charmingly terrible it turns into high camp), but the episode that aired four months later — and then played in syndication around Halloween for years after — is the seminal TGIF Halloween episode, the best episode of Boy Meets World, and perhaps the best Halloween episode ever aired on television.
Boy meets ‘90s horror tropes
“And Then There Was Shawn” begins like a standard episode of Boy Meets World. Cory (Ben Savage) and Topanga (Danielle Fishel) have recently broken up, and Cory’s best friend Shawn (Rider Strong) is taking it poorly. The three of them argue in Mr. Feeny’s (William Daniels) class over a “big pencil,” looping Angela (Trina McGee) and Kenny (Richard Lee Jackson) into the feud. Mr. Feeny gives all of them detention. Things start to pop off when Mr. Feeny leaves the room, and Shawn discovers that they’ve been locked in. The blackboard slides up to reveal “No one gets out alive!” has been written in blood on the board behind.
The rest of the episode is framed as a slasher parody, with each character embodying a horror trope. Kenny, the only student in detention who’s not one of the core cast members of the show, dies first, stabbed in the head with Topanga’s big pencil. Angela is the scream queen, shrieking her lungs out at each new development. (‘90s scream queen Jennifer Love Hewitt guest stars as new student Jennifer Love Fefferman, and Angela admonishes her for screaming because that’s kinda her thing.) Cory and Shawn’s big brothers Eric (Will Friedle) and Jack (Matthew Lawrence) show up as the wisecracking slackers, and Cory and Topanga fill out their roles as the virgins who won’t die.
“All right, thanks for saving me,” Cory tells Topanga.
“I’ll get as sick as you can get without actually dying,” Shawn adds.
Shawn takes on the mantle of the horror aficionado who recognizes what’s going on and rationalizes every twist. In an oral history of the episode written by Polygon’s own Matt Patches, Boy Meets World creator Michael Jacobs said that Shawn’s role was essential in making the audience feel comfortable in this new reality. He recalled that former Disney chairman (and Quibi mastermind) Jeffrey Katzenberg once told him that “it was extraordinarily important that the viewer knew the rules of the new world they were about to enter. That there were parameters that had to be set so that the audience would feel in a very stable surrounding, and that they were in good hands.”
At first Shawn assumes Mr. Feeny is playing an elaborate prank on them, but when Feeny falls to the ground with a pair of scissors stabbed in his back, he realizes they’re playing out a horror movie. He warns the group that whoever they suspect next will turn up dead, which is exactly what happens to the creepy janitor. Shawn seems one step ahead of the killer the entire time — before it’s revealed that he’s the one behind the murders. He’s been taking out everyone who stood between Cory and Topanga’s relationship. At the end of the episode, Shawn wakes up in detention to reveal the whole thing was just a nightmare.
Scream, TGIF, and kid-friendly horror
Audiences in early 1998 were primed for this kind of self-aware horror. Wes Craven’s Scream had come out a little over a year earlier, and the Boy Meets World writers borrowed heavily from the film, especially its tongue-in-cheek tone. The killer even quotes the iconic line from the Scream franchise, asking Jack, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” He responds “The one with the hottie-hot-hot from Party of Five, and Jennifer Love Fefferman says, “Neve Campbell?” That layering of references is quintessentially ‘90s (Jennifer Love Hewitt co-starred in Party of Five with Neve Campbell, and both of them starred in horror movies — Hewitt in I Know What You Did Last Summer and Campbell in Scream.) It’s also part of what makes the episode work so well.
Even though TGIF was a primetime block, its primary audience was kids and tweens. Jacobs said that he saw that as an advantage.
“Boy Meets World was hovering in this strange middle ground,” he said in the same oral history. “We weren’t as popular as other family shows like Full House or Sabrina, but we also weren’t a crappy Saturday morning show like Saved by the Bell. And so when we stepped out of the box with an episode like this, it kind of felt like we were in our own little corner of the playground, and no one was paying attention.”
A horror homage in a kids show was certainly a risk. The writers couldn’t necessarily expect its young audience to have seen the kind of PG-13 horror movies that “And Then There Was Shawn” references. But speaking from my own experience as a horror-averse tween, those movies held a horrible fascination for me, even though I didn’t watch them. By emulating them in a show that I knew and loved, I got to feel like I was engaging in a grown-up form of media. For one episode, Boy Meets World was a little more scary than I was used to, but it still felt safe and familiar so I was able to relax and enjoy the storytelling.
As I grew up and started to appreciate horror as a genre, I began to enjoy the episode on a new level. I got to experience the nostalgia that comes with watching a show you loved as a kid combined with a new appreciation of the references that went over my head on the first viewing. Because Boy Meets World never talked down to its young audience, the jokes are still funny (except for some dated ideas around consent) and the plot is still compelling.
“And Then There Were Shawn” reminds me more of Community’s homage episodes than any of its fellow TGIF shows’ Halloween specials. The Boy Meets World writers clearly know and love teen slasher movies and the homage is done well, but more importantly it’s clear that they know and love the characters. They didn’t write a slasher episode for the sake of airing a slasher episode. They wrote a slasher episode as a way for Shawn to process his feelings about Cory and Topanga’s breakup. It’s high-concept, it’s appropriately scary, and it tells us something interesting about the characters, which for my money is the best a Halloween episode can do.
All seven seasons of Boy Meets World are streaming on Disney Plus.