As October creeps by, our thoughts turn to the ghastly tales we remember from when we were children. Once, the scariest thoughts that crossed our minds were not about our credit score, burgeoning epidemics, or a rapidly changing climate, but the dark, the bogey man, and the monsters that lurked behind our closet door. I'd like to return to these primal fears of my childhood, when the stirrings of my imagination and sensitivity to the supernatural had not yet been dulled by a culture of materialism and conformity. Let us pull back the shroud and examine the horror that awaits us.
The word Halloween is a shortening of the phrase "All Hallowed Evening" as it preceded "All Hallowed Day", a Christian celebration of all the saints who have died before us. The religious aspect of this holiday has mostly been forgotten, at least in the USA, but its original intent was to honor and remember the dead. As with most Christian holy days (a.k.a. holidays) that spread throughout Europe, these customs and ideas mingled with Pagan festivals and practices. For Halloween, this coincided with the Gaelic festival of Samhain or Summer's End. This was the time that the Celts prepared for the darker half of the year. It was also believed to be a time when the veil between the world of humans and the world of spirits was thin. For this reason, it was a time to be on guard against spirits or perhaps, if one was a witch or warlock, to summon their power. H.P. Lovecraft uses Samhain as a narrative device in a number of his stories, and the date almost always involves some kind of dark ritual to call upon the power of the Old Gods. Art imitates life, after all.
Objects from a modern Samhain ritual.
Halloween simultaneously celebrates and mocks death, one of the few things almost everybody is afraid of. Even I, who have no fear of being dead, wonder sometimes, with a bit of hypothetically insulated fear, exactly what it will feel like to die. As in the physical sensation of an accidental or violent death. How much pain is involved in a fatal bike crash or a gunshot wound, for example? Even worse, what would it be like to die slowly from a disease, thirst or starvation? What the hell would you be thinking between the moment you sense death is inevitable, but before dying? Nobody really knows. Perhaps people who have had near death experiences or been close to death but brought back would know better than the rest of us. But nobody really knows, except people who have already died, so knowledge of death, at least from the perspective of the dying person, creates a kind of paradox. It is the only human experience one can witness and know they're going to have, but still lack any practical foresight.
"To what base uses we must return, Horatio." Halmet Act V Scene I
But the bizarre thing about Halloween and horror (as a genre) is that despite their absolute fixations on death, they answer none of these questions! Instead, they thumb their nose at death, and make fun of it by depicting and imagining the most gruesome, horrific, awful deaths to make it thrilling, exciting, sometimes transgressive, and absolutely fun. Horror takes all these practical fears of death, at least in terms of the physical act of dying, and then it flips those feelings around to make us laugh, or be truly frightened, face that fear, and come out unscathed. We may be freaked out, or numbed, or brought to laughter and tears, but in doing so, death becomes something silly, grotesque and frightening in a way people can handle and know. To me, horror makes fear itself less frightening by dispensing it in these measured doses and letting us know how well we can handle it.
The Exorcist is a real knee-slapper.
So Halloween makes a fest and an occasion out of this whole phenomenon. And some kind of annual death celebration must have been part of the human experience for as long as we’ve been around.
Fall is the perfect time for it, because it’s the part of the year that people can see so much of the natural world around them “dying” or reaching the end of a cycle. At least in the climate I live in. So death is on our minds. Summer has passed its peak. Autumn becomes a ludicrously beautiful kind of slow death with leaves bursting into color, falling, and as the season progresses, a kind of grim chill sets in. But there is so much life energy too, in the harvest and celebrations. So death becomes okay, an expected necessity. And so we must celebrate it.
In horror, we do. We also celebrate fear. Especially, as in Halloween’s case, fear experienced in childhood. I remember being especially frightened and anxious as a child. At night, I would look into the posters hanging in my bedroom, and feel a kind of dread, watching as my imagination would conjure all kinds of things seen rippling in the shadows. I remember especially as a child feeling frightened and vulnerable. My bedroom had an inside door that led to a short passage-way that connected my room to my brother’s. I would often imagine it could open at any moment with my brother leaping out of it, which he would sometimes do for fun or to frighten me. I also sometimes felt a vague energy or presence that I could never pin down, but that would scare me just the same.
I never saw this movie. I didn't have to.
So instead of all these creepy vague fears that I remember being with me almost constantly as a child, at least until about seven or eight, horror movies themselves became a kind of distraction to me. My dad would only rent them on Halloween. It was a kind of vacation from our normal standards of decency and age appropriateness. The first one I clearly remember watching is Halloween. It had everything: teenagers, sex, extreme acts of violence. All kinds of fun and mayhem. I clearly remember the image of Michael Meyers impaling a nerdy looking teenage boy, and then covering himself with a sheet to appear like a ghost. Then him walking back into the bedroom to finish off the girlfriend. Watching these scenes gave me a cold excitement, and the sheer terror involved in them was blunted by the effects of my Halloween candy binge, the lights being on, and my family nearby. I also remember how thrilling it was to see a movie with so many cusswords in it and even breasts. This was at a time in my life when my tastes were less sophisticated, so I didn’t realize at the time how special this movie was or how well it stacked up against other horror movies from the time. But looking back on it now, I realize what an incredible cinematic achievement it was especially considering its low budget: the music, the mask, the Halloween setting, the All-American town and cast, and how it helped shaped the mold of the teenage slasher flick.
John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)
My father rented other horror movies around Halloween too, and even though many of them weren’t nearly as good, they still entertained me just the same with their excessive amounts of blood, boobs, butts, and gore. The ones we watched during the day, while carving pumpkins or getting our Halloween costumes on weren’t nearly as frightening as the ones we watched at night. We’d save the best ones to watch after trick-or-treating was over, but as soon as the movies ended, it was bed-time. Instead of drifting off to sleep, I’d usually spend at least a couple of hours in stark terror, imagining all the horrors that had visited the characters of the movies we had watched falling on me instead. I never cried or had nightmares from the movies, but I did sit in my bed with a sense of nervous dread in my stomach. By morning or throughout the night, it would go away, but for those firsts few hours under the covers, my fears would be pure and distilled.
The last horror movie I remember frightening me this badly was the first time I saw Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The movie itself is frightening enough with its images of murdered twins, cascading blood, and haunted bathtubs. What really got to me as I was watching the movie was Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrence and his relationship with his family. I know Stephen King has much to say about Nicholson’s version of Mr. Torrence, but for a man with a tenuous grip on sanity in an extreme situation, his arguably cartoonish depiction of murderous rage doesn’t seem too far-fetched compared to the emotional outbursts I witnessed from my own father. I didn’t know it at the time, but my father was bipolar, and when he became very upset and lost his temper, he would yell obscenities and become verbally abusive. Thankfully, I never bore the brunt of it, but I witnessed my older brother and my step-mom get the full dose and knew enough that it was important to keep this potential for outbursts in mind. So when Jack Nicholson berates Shelly Duvall for interrupting him when he’s writing or strokes Danny’s hair as they sit together on a hotel bed, this vacillation between tender affection and verbal abuse was uncomfortably familiar. When Jack begins chasing after his family with an axe through the hotel, it didn’t seem like that far of a stretch for me.
Before the madness sets in.
I never feared violence from my father, but even at that young age, I understood that his grip on sanity was somewhat looser than most people’s. The Shining became a chilling example of a father’s wrath, one that hit all too close to home. I don’t even think this crossed my father’s mind when he decided to show this to us, but I began connecting the dots immediately. If Jack Nicholson could cross the line from loving father to murderous psychopath in the span of two hours, then how easily could my father snap with barely any more notice? It was hard falling asleep that night, and I don’t think I ever looked at my father in quite the same way again. He was always a very loving man, and especially on Halloween and other holidays he would get into the season and his excitement was contagious. But that glimmer of madness and anger in his eyes would flash sometimes, and I’d feel like Danny and Wendy in the Overlook, ready to hatch my escape plan if need be.
The Shining is an inspiration to everybody with an interest in interior design.
In retrospect, it does seem strange to show little boys horror movies that involve murderous parents, serial killers, demonic possession, mad scientists, copious amounts of gore and nudity. Perhaps even inappropriate. But I’m glad I got to see those movies at such a young age. Being that scared taught me some lessons and toughened me up a bit. I learned that I could feel those emotions and still be okay afterward. I learned how to process my fears and anxieties that I was experiencing much of the time anyway, but could now direct toward ideas that were genuinely scary. I still saw those swirling shapes in the posters of my bedroom at night and stared into the abyss of my eye sockets in the mirror of a darkened bathroom, but I learned to control these fears and build up a tolerance to them. I remember looking at the features of my face in the dark bathroom mirror after watching Candyman, see them swirl around into some kind of demonic visage, and will myself to keep staring until I couldn’t any more. It was almost like seeing how long I could touch a hot frying pan before pulling away. The more I confronted my fears, the less scary my real world became.
I also learned from my father a remarkably simple lesson, namely that made-up monsters and stories couldn’t actually hurt me. As an adult, this seems self-evident, but for a child who’s just watched A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time, the prospect of getting into bed to go to sleep is daunting. I remember feeling a similar emotion after seeing The Ring in college. I saw the movie in the theater with a college girl-friend, and perhaps seeing it on a big screen magnified the experience for me. For the next seven days, I lived with a constant terror that because I had seen the movie, I was doomed to die. Rationally, I understood this to be ridiculous but emotionally, the terror was real.
Nowadays, the best horror movies are imports from Japan.
As a writer, I’ve used my own imagination to create works of horror, but I’ve never attempted to create that feeling of true fright, something that I find terrifically difficult for an author to do, even when I’m reading horror. Instead, I create an atmosphere of darkness, in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe or the comic book writer Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead). Horror writers are able to build a narrative and introduce ideas that are sometimes frightening, but cinema is so much more visceral when it comes to producing truly scary moments.
It might seem cheap, but I love the “jump” moments in horror movies, especially from the 70s and 80s. Even when it’s a false scare like a cat jumping out from an opened cupboard, the surge of adrenaline it produces is invigorating, and sets the viewer up for the true scares yet to come. It’s these moments that cause my wife to bury her head beneath my shoulder and cuddle up to me, that wake me up if I’m feeling drowsy. Classic horror movies don’t have these moments (at least not in the ones that I’ve watched), but in modern horror movies, they’ve become a cheap cliché. But I’m okay with that, because horror as a genre is meant to be cheap. And I like being scared.
As an adult, I celebrate Halloween for the entire month of October. I watch good and bad horror movies, and have a soft-spot for anything low-budget and sincere. I don't like modern horror movies as much, because I don't like torture porn. And usually, a big budget ruins horror movies. Drag Me to Hell is a recent exception to both these cases. I also read horror. This year, it's been Edgar Allen Poe tales (illustrated by Arthur Rackham) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. These stories seem florid and sophisticated, but in their time, people considered them cheap, low-brow entertainment. They're good, but more philosophical than scary. And unlike Stephen King, authors of the 19th century don't spend paragraphs devoted to what a person's open guts look like.
The last tradition I have is a piece of horror writing. You can look back at my previous pieces here and here. Next year's will be a choose-your-own-adventure style horror story called Choose Your Own Demise. It'll take a while for me to decompose (get it?), so I've written this essay for 2014's entry. Let me know what you think in the comments, and feel free to share some childhood memories. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some flesh-suits that need stitching...