Perhaps I’ll go over the other spooky Hey Arnold episodes next year, but this year, we’re just looking at one more: “Haunted Train.”
This is one of my favorite Hey Arnold episodes. I have watched it again and again, I just really like it. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and it’s one of my favorites as an adult. Let’s just climb aboard and start the recap already:
Arnold and Gerald are chilling on the stoop outside of the boarding house. Grandpa gives them some ice cream cones that he’s just purchased off the Jolly Olly Man, and asks how things are going. The boys are both bored – they’ve done every activity they could think of, and have nothing left to do.
A train goes by. It’s like the L trains they have in Chicago (and probably elsewhere), which adds to the vagueness of where this show is actually set. But that’s not important now. Grandpa gets an idea, and asks the boys if he ever talked about the time he worked for the railroad. The boys don’t react at all, and Grandpa’s voice suddenly gets big and dramatic as he adds “…AND first heard the legend of the haunted traaaaaain?”
This piques the boys’ interest. Grandpa’s story is much shorter than the usual lead-ins to a spooky episode. It just goes, 40 years ago, a mad train engineer drove off the tracks and crashed, and no one ever saw him or the train again.
Grandpa: Some say he drove it straight to… you know.
Grandpa: ALL the way downtown! To the very-most southern point!
Arnold: You mean…?
Gerald: Wow! He drove all the way to the South Pole?
No, the mad engineer drove the train to… Hades. Every year on the anniversary of its last drive, the train comes back, with the mad engineer driving it. He returns to the station to pick up unknowing passengers, who are hypnotized by a bright light, and and are overpowered by a terrible, foul stench, a smell they say is like rotten eggs, but Grandpa says is like fire and brimstone.
Then a terrible, ghastly, haunting sound, one that would send a chill down to your heart, an inhuman sound, starts up. Then the train travels to the “Zone of Darkness,” an area full of fire and horror.
Grandpa then reveals that this very night is the anniversary of the train’s final ride, and will be picking up passengers at the old train station, and he makes sure to give them the exact location of the station. Most of the kids leave after that, and Grandpa goes inside, chuckling to himself that the kids sure aren’t bored now!
One dissolve cut later, Arnold and Gerald are alone on the stoop, and Helga is jumping rope on the sidewalk. All the other kids have gone. Now, I know Helga is really mean to Arnold all the time, so I don’t exactly blame Arnold for not connecting that she has a huge crush on him, but she does this a lot, where she’ll just be hanging out near his house, or following him, or whatever. Grandpa figured out she has a crush on Arnold (he mentions in one episode that a lot of the time he’ll see her across the street, jumping rope, like she’s waiting for Arnold), but I guess Arnold’s just not genre savvy enough yet.
Arnold and Gerald are discussing the story. Arnold says his grandpa is known for making stuff up, so he’s not toally sure. Helga doesn’t believe the story at all, saying she wants actual, physical proof. Arnold says that some things can’t be proved that way, and maybe the best way to determine if the story’s true is to visit the old train station themselves that very night. Gerald doesn’t like that idea, and Helga thinks it’s stupid, but then Arnold tells her she doesn’t have to come, and he’d understand if she was too chicken to show up. Being called a chicken is a grievous insult, so Helga agrees to go.
Cut to one dark and spooky night, the three kids approach the old train station. Gerald startles a big swarm of bats. Helga, nervous about the huge swarm of flying mammals right over her head, says “Yep, no train, let’s go.” Arnold says they have to wait longer than 30 seconds, and that’s that.
Several hours later, Gerald and Arnold have improvised a blues song about waiting for that haunted train, with Gerald on vocals and Arnold on harmonica. Helga finally has enough and tells them they’ve waited long enough. A loud “Woo-wooo” interrupts her, and she tells Arnold to stop playing that harmonica already. Arnold points out he already did, and as he’s talking, another “woo-wooo” sounds. A train horn!
The doors open and a blinding white light fills the screen, and the three kids find themselves aboard. They comment on this, Helga saying they’re victims of a force they cannot possibly imagine, and run to the doors, which close right before they can get there. The train starts moving, and a terrible smell fills the train car… The smell of rotten eggs! And then they hear some terrible, cacophonous, ear-splitting music! They’re three for three in terms of signs they’re actually on the haunted train.
Then the lights go out. The Zone of Darkness! By this point, Helga is full-on panicking. This is one of the things that makes Helga a great character. Normally she’s very tough, hard-as-rock, whatever. She gets angry pretty easily. But she’s so melodramatic! Just listen to her when she’s expressing her love for Arnold. And then there’s times like this situation, or the time they were all trapped on a subway, where everyone else is clearly afraid, but she’s the one who’s so over the top it either makes you even more nervous or just really annoyed at how nervous she is.
Anyway, Helga knows this is the end. She can feel the hot breath of the underworld upon her neck, and… Wait what’s that behind her?!
Oh, it’s just Brainy.
Brainy is this weird, creepy guy who always shows up behind Helga, breathing heavily. Apparently it’s because he has asthma and a crush on Helga, but he’s downright ridiculous. One time he showed up inside a tree that Helga was standing in front of. If I recall correctly, even Helga said that was weird.
Annoyed at him scaring them so badly, they open the train doors and throw him off, into a still river or pond next to the tracks. So… they could open the doors at any time, and jump out… And they didn’t? Not even in the place they threw Brainy into?
Gerald sees some flames outside the window. They’re almost in the fiery netherworld! Oh no! The train is about to stop, but Arnold has an idea. He’ll just… use a fire hose to put out… all of the underworld… what. I guess the plan was actually to spray the Devil when he showed up on the train. I don’t know.
It turns out the thing they sprayed was an actual guy. The conductor of the train hears the ruckus and intervenes.
Yep. It turns out the train is a commuter train for steel mill workers. The flames come from it, well, being a steel mill, the lights turning off and being blindingly white is just because the train is old and the lights are faulty, the foul stench is the sulfur from the steel mill, and the terrible noise they heard earlier was the conductor playing his accordion. Ah, see? Nothing supernatural going on, just regular old science. It’s almost… disappointing, after all that.
Grandpa drives the kids home, amused at their story. Arnold tells Grandpa he thinks he set them up, and there isn’t really a haunted train, after all. Grandpa says “Well… I didn’t say that.”
The camera pans over and… well…
Yep. Turns out there IS a haunted train after all!
This was the first episode in the series following the “someone tells ghost story, kids go to investigate, find real-world explanation, then ti turns out there was a ghost after all” formula. And it’s the only one with a really great song at the end, so that makes it the best, in my eyes.