Character Deep Dive: Sally the Rag Doll

Sally the rag doll from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Voiced by: The endlessly impressive Catherine O’Hara
Film: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

Fall is here, which means it’s time to suck down Pumpkin Spice Cold Brews, pull out your plaids, and be that person who is unapologetically basic about the autumnal season. 

Disney’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is an immovable pillar of that world, one that children of the 90s who love Halloween will be existing in for the next few months. It’s not a perfect movie, and many of the modern criticisms that call into question some of its choices are valid, but it does boast stellar visuals and a truly wonderful character in the form of Sally the rag doll, who deserves every bit of love that the emo kids of yore still have for her today.

“You’re Mine, You Know! I Made You With My Own Hands.”

Catherine O'Hara voices Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas

Sally is a part rag doll, part quasi-scarecrow, part Frankenstein’s monster — her creator, mad scientist Dr. Finkelstein, is an obvious nod to Mary Shelley’s character. Rather poignantly, her body is stuffed with dead leaves. Usually associated with endings and decay, if you’re a certain kind of person — one who feels the most alive during the fall — there’s something beautiful and invigorating about seeing the fiery orange of leaves still on the trees and the brown ones that have already fallen crunching underneath your feet. And if you’re the kind of person for whom The Nightmare Before Christmas is a must-watch at least several times between September and Christmas Day, you probably are that person. 

We know that green leaves may be vibrant and full of life, but brown leaves are warm and tactile. You can step on a healthy leaf without even noticing, but not so with a dead one. It crunches and crackles, and if you don’t feel it beneath your feet, you’ll hear it at the very least. Not everyone sees the beauty in something like that, but like Sally, dead leaves make themselves known when they may otherwise be overlooked.

Aside from her striking physicality, the first thing we know about Sally is that because he gave her life, Dr. Finkelstein thinks she belongs to him. She escapes from him again and again, but he keeps dragging her back, determined that he’ll stay put this time. She never does, at least not for long. Even though Finkelstein knows it’s coming, Sally keeps coming up with new ways to knock her captor out with Deadly Nightshade, and when that fails and he locks her in a tower, she jumps right out the window to freedom.

Sally doesn’t appear to feel physical pain, but it still takes guts (leafy or otherwise) to huck yourself from a great height and hope that everything will be okay when you make it to the bottom. She smashes apart when she hits the ground, but because falling apart is just a normal part of life for her, she calmly pulls out a needle and thread, serenely sews her broken pieces back together, and continues on her way, intent on her mission. We stan a queen who has mastered acceptance and adaptability.

(Almost) Everyone Hails To The Pumpkin King

A huge piece of Sally’s story revolves around her love for Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King and the most important person in Halloween Town. But unlike everyone else, she refrains from showering him with constant praise and adulation. Being in love doesn’t mean ignoring the object of your affection’s faults or staying quiet when they’re about to make a huge mistake. Sally is the only one who tries to dissuade Jack from taking over Christmas, imploring that he give up on his plan to no avail.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a movie full of beautiful music thanks to longtime Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, and “Sally’s Song” is my favorite. It’s heartbreaking while still being a testament to her quiet strength. Sally does lament that she goes unnoticed by Jack, but so many of the lyrics show that she stands alone in her unwillingness to agree with his desire to become Santa Claus because she knows in her heart it’s a terrible idea.

“And though I’d like to stand by him

Can’t shake this feeling that I have.”

And in a later verse:

“Although I’d like to join the crowd

In their enthusiastic cloud

Try as I may, it doesn’t last.”

In all honesty, for most of the movie, Jack does not deserve Sally at all. He really goes full Straight-White-Guy on the situation and, as a result, almost ruins everyone’s Christmas. Jack Skellington is that guy who did a single study abroad semester in Christmas Town and thinks he knows everything; the one who assumes that because he’s really, really good at one thing, he must be equally good at anything else he wants to do. Everyone else is so far up Jack’s bony ass that they’re either enamored with everything he says and does or are too intimidated to say otherwise. Still, it’s Sally, the person who actually loves him the most, who has enough respect for him (and her own intelligence) to tell him the truth.

To his credit, in the end, Jack does learn his lesson, accepts culpability, and rights his wrongs, realizing that if he weren’t so preoccupied with himself, his life would be much better with Sally in it. He made his mistakes — it happens — but it’s the mark of a good character when they admit they were wrong and vow to do better in the future. Declaring his love, at last, brings a sweet resolution to The Nightmare Before Christmas’ love story, but in a fun twist, Jack finally opening those empty eye sockets and seeing Sally’s true value is due in part to a push from someone unexpected.

“She’s The Only One Who Makes Any Sense Around This Insane Asylum!”

Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Sally really does everything she can to stop Jack from making a fool of himself as sham Santa and destroying Christmas for the world’s children. When talking to him directly fails, she lets some fog loose to try and ground the sleigh and stop the madness, which is not easy. Sally loves Jack, so of course, she wants to see him happy, but she knows in the end that his temporary disappointment would be better than what actually ends up happening.

It’s hard to stand alone in your convictions when you’re getting pushback from every direction, but that determination is another aspect of Sally’s character that few in her life seem to notice. When ghost dog Zero and his plot-convenient glowing red nose foil her fog solution, Sally knows it’s down to her to rescue the kidnapped Santa Claus, the only person who can put this disaster (or this nightmare before Christmas, if you will) right.

Old Saint Nick knows all, so it’s no surprise that he’s the first to recognize that Sally is this story’s heart and moral center. It’s Sally who tries to free Santa from Oogie Boogie’s clutches, and she very nearly manages it all on her own. While everyone else sees nothing wrong with a little bit of abduction as long as Jack gets to do what he wants, it’s Santa who sees us all when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake. It’s Santa who sees that there’s only one other person besides himself who’s aware of the innate insanity of the Christmaween (Hallowmas?) debacle. After Sally comes to the aid of not only him but of the children who depend on him, Santa gives her the gift of shaking Jack’s empty skull free of the cobwebs and showing him what’s been in front of him all along.

This character has stitched together the eras of the lives of an entire generation, like the pieces of Sally herself, from trick or treating wearing little patchwork dresses to adults who are still invested enough to read books like the recently released Nightmare Before Christmas sequel Long Live the Pumpkin Queen. If like me, you aim to like a spooky life all year round, then Sally has always been a perennial favorite, but in a world that sadly insists on having other seasons, she should at least be celebrated every October through December for the macabre icon she is.


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