Monday, August 17, 2009

Halloween and "Horror"

It's the middle of August. I went to the grocery store on Sunday, and noticed that the store was filled with Halloween decorations and such. Halloween is more than 2 months away--about 10 weeks. I also noticed that the back-to-school stuff has been relegated to the "clearance" bins. I guess you had to be thinking about that around the beginning of July.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it just seems like a ridiculous anticipation of a holiday that we're not really ready for--school hasn't started yet, summer's not over, why are we preparing for what is essentially the Celtic beginning of winter? At the same time, I'm pleased to see it. I'm sick of the hot, humid days of New Jersey summer, though summer really only began at the end of July. Mother Nature was late this year. But weather aside, I'm usually ready for the eerie vibes of Halloween at this time of year.

Sadly, for the last 10 years or more (I've lost count), Halloween has turned into a gore-fest. People have become far too scientific-minded to accept ghost stories, so when they're presented, they're either wildly melodramatic or completely overshadowed by skepticism. Look at the television listings for the month of October. I'll guarantee that the majority of shows on TV are scary slasher films of some sort--the "Halloween" movies, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a wide variety of zombie movies...and probably lots of more recent vampire stuff, since that seems to be the rage lately. Most of these things rely purely on shock value--there's nothing that leaves you with a sense of the numinous, of the Unknown. You're just left with a feeling like you want to throw up after seeing so many massacred bodies.

I'd written a blog posting on 1979 a few weeks ago, and I was criticizing a really terrible television program that aired in October of that year, "Once Upon a Midnight Scary", featuring Vincent Price as host. While I still think it's pretty awful, I do have some nostalgia for the days when Halloween programs were like that one--not heavy on special effects, but still supposed to leave you with a creepy feeling. I seem to recall a lot of these from the late Seventies and early Eighties--I just wish I could recall what they are now.

To me, horror should be something more psychological, not so blatant. A good example of this is the movie "The Haunting", featuring Julie Harris and Clare Bloom. Forget the remake--the original movie, based on the Shirley Jackson short story "The Haunting of Hill House", still scares the crap out of me when I watch it. You don't really see what's going on, and you don't know if it's all in Elinor's (Julie Harris's) head. She's clearly not a stable person. Good horror should leave you with more questions than it answers. I had the good fortune to see this movie within the last couple of years at the Forgotten Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood, California. Seriously. There is something called Cemetery Screenings, a series of films shown on the side of a mausoleum in the Forgotten Hollywood Cemetery. You pay 10 bucks to get in, bring your picnic basket and lawn chairs, and watch a horror movie. That particular night, a couple thousand people showed up. The objective is to raise money for the cemetery, and it seems like it's an excellent fundraiser.

In my attempts to research some of the older Halloween shows I recall only peripherally, I came across this blog called Halloween Specials. It seems like a very good summary of what was on television in the United States at that time, though I feel certain that there were other specials--if I could only remember what they were.

Overall, Halloween isn't really what it used to be, not where I live anyway. Trick or treaters may not actually go out on October 31--some towns, like mine, designate a different day for trick or treating. Regardless, they don't come by my own house--I live well off the main drag, and parents are so paranoid now, they won't let their kids go anywhere that's not on the main road. Never mind that parents always accompany their kids. Even when I was 6 and 7 years old my parents never accompanied me when I went trick or treating. I can understand doing that with very small children, but once they're in school it seems rather absurd. Unless you live in, I don't know, Paterson, Newark, or Camden, I suppose. But here--I imagine the worst threat to children out here are the squirrels that might try to take their candy from them. The squirrels in my yard get into what appear to be verbal arguments with my cats, so one never knows.

In any case, Halloween has been really watered down and gored up, so I'm not sure why I look forward to it every year. Traditionally, it's a holiday dealing with the dead, when the veil between the "worlds" is supposed to be at its thinnest. Interestingly, the Celts celebrated with men dressing up as women, and vice versa. It involves the blurring of traditional boundaries. That may well be its enduring appeal.

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