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The Grinch Who Dissed Halloween

I seriously love horror fiction. My well-haunted bookcase houses several illustrated editions of Dracula, editions of Poe, Lovecraft and nearly complete collections of such celebrated and admired authors as Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, most of them first editions, many of them signed. My tiers of horror story anthologies, mostly in paperback, have excited murmurs of both approval and astonishment.

 

Catch me at the right moment and I'll break your ear in two about the aesthetics and subtext of classic horror films from Murnau's Nosferatu and the early Universal horror films, through Val Lewton, onto modern classics such as The Innocents, Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting, Session 9, The Ring (U.S. version) and The Others, while expressing reserved admiration for parts of Wes Craven's Nightmare of Elm Street series and even some kind words for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

I even write horro fiction, as you can see from this brief sample.

And I hate Halloween.

Halloween at my house means porch lights out and not a single crystal of sugar by the door. We wear no costumes, attend no parties and if there's a gourd, it sits unlighted on the stoop, like a plump orange paperweight, usually until it starts to rot away.

Once, in 2007, my wife and I sort of "did" Halloween: I cooked a chicken paprikash, the dish that Jonathan Harker orders in the town of Klausenburgh on the road to Castle Dracula. It turned out to be quite good (the recipe was exhumed from The New York Times cookbook).

As we dined, Elizabeth and I enjoyed two fine movies, courtesy of the Greatest TV Station Ever, Turner Classic Movies: The Body Snatchers, one of Val Lewton's great string of horror films from the 1940s, starring Boris Karloff (who is wonderful here) and Bela Lugosi (who, sadly, has little to do); the next was James Whale's droll, fiercely atmospheric, and little-seen The Old Dark House, from 1932, again with Karloff, plus Mervyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and Gloria Stuart (who, more than sixty years later, made quite a splash in a little B-picture I missed a few years back, name of Titanic.)

Again: I hate Halloween.

 For years, for me, Halloween has been like St. Patrick's Day: an occasion for hiding under the bed, out of the way of the deadly flood of maniacs, amateurs, and amateur maniacs.

Am I getting conservative (in the former, Burkean non-debased meaning)? Probably. The last Halloween I spent out in public was in the San Francisco Castro neighborhood, probably in 1986, as an assistant on a low-budget mockumentary. My most vivid memory of that occasion was of chasing a baby-skinned, bashful blond boy dressed only in body floss down the street through the roistering crowd. As I tried to persuade him to appear in our movie, the look in his eye bespoke terror (though I was fully, sensibly clothed, the Quasi-hippie from Heck).

I wondered: What the hell was he doing there in the first place, but to make a spectacle of himself? Good luck on keeping your secret, pal! It made the 11 O'clock News!

My only Bradburyian Halloween memory floats by from when I was a boy in Mohegan Lake, New York (I should write about my visit home there last year, someday): walking along a country road on the hill above the house on Red Mill Road, in my blue nylon-polyester eagle costume. Fall leaves skittered along the dark road, driven by a sharp cold wind while, to the east, the brooding hills murmured under the glow of a blood-orange full moon that shone through the bare branches of the trees, as fat and full as Dracula's eye.

I guess I "grew up," turned too self-serious, sensible and rational; or became too self-conscious, inhibited and easily embarrassed. As a young man, I made a few feeble stabs at dressing like a deliciously sinister Gunfighting Movie Star, but who trembled before my gun-sight stare, or my black-dyed mustache? No one and, really, I only dropped by for the booze, the buzz, and the girls.

Ask me to throw on some costume, I don't care how cheap or expensive, I don't care how much it makes me look like Christopher Lee or Lee Van Cleef, I . . . will . . . not . . . care. Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell waits for me on my bedside table. Let the Right One In is on.

No! Don't mind me! Go knock yourself silly! See you when you stagger home in the morning, Mr. Potato Head!

I hate Halloween.

It's not that I've gone all literal-minded. Still, my attitude mystifies me too, as much as why Dracula should fly so powerfully in the imaginations of millions in our mystery-denuded world. One clue: I'm no fan of camp. It'll be a frosty day on the devil's lap before I even consider casting my cold eye on The Rocky Horror Picture Show (I left camp back at the late great Soupy Sales on WNEW-Channel 5 in New York.). My wild-ranging imagination turns into David Brooks's when faced with the grim prospect of wearing leotards.

David Skal, in his 2002 cultural history of Halloween, Death Makes a Holiday, posits that this unruly, extra-legal holiday, from its origins as pagan festival, through its awkward absorption by Christianity, has entirely floated away from its spiritual, mystical and agricultural roots to morph into an exclusively secular bacchanalia of dis-inhibition that is forever tinselly and forever tawdry.

When Halloween does provoke actual fear, it does so by being sometimes actually dangerous to life and limb of the celebrants. Maybe it shares Christmas's tragic fate to be kept true to its roots only by a comparatively small group of believers. It's no longer about our relationship with Death and the possibilities of an Afterlife, even for those who dress up as zombies (and especially for those who choose to flounce as Mrs. Potato Head).

Like all our traditional holidays (and our religions, too), Halloween's origins were rural and now that so many of us are non-rural, it's been urbanized, denuded and has dissolved--I hate to say this--into self-referential, bored and joyless post-modernism. Just a joke, folks. Ha. Ha. Ho. Ho. Wink. Wink. Boo.

While Halloween seems to stir plenty of paranoia and indignant moralism, for the huge majority, at least in this country, it's about Switching the Self, crossing the boundaries of identity, or at least blurring them: Geek-boy turns into Spiderman; the Bookworm turns Elvira, (though s/he may need a set of serious Super Falsies), while Spiderman will need a good girdle unto those tights and find a way to hide the panty line.

I take the supernatural, in the artistic sense, seriously. I want it served that way. Remember the UFO poster that hung in Fox Mulder's office in The X-Files: "I Want to Believe!"?

In a sense, I do.

And now for a moment from our rational sponsor: I must emphasize I don't literally believe in the supernatural, UFOs or that Barack Obama is Christ Returned.

Still, I always give an irritated shiver at another irritating Halloween ritual: the lemon-pussed scientist staggering from his lab into the offices of the Associated Press to remind everyone that vampires, ghosts, werewolves et al don't exist, as if that were the point (and thanks for stomping on the party, bub, but it was deader than a zombie already).

In fact, very few of the best horror artists and writers possess any standard transcendent faith at all; most seem to be agnostics or atheists, H.P. Lovecraft being the most famous example, Russell Kirk, a famous rare exception.)

When I say I take horror seriously, I mean I deeply wish in my heart to be hypnotized and seduced into believing, for a time, that such things can be. I want to be drawn into that unique weird state of dream-life, of anticipation, dread and awe. I crave that sense of standing before a half open door, of being beckoned by a chasm; of the thin ice of everyday reality cracking under my feet, plunging me into murky depths; of being enwrapped in a fatal mystique of something unfathomable, perversely sweet, dangerous to both body, sanity and soul. Something eternally mysterious, like life and death themselves.

Except for comedy, no genre is easier to bungle in its execution or more vulnerable to cynical, indifferent commercialism. But I believe that horror, in the hands of poets and artists and beyond its immediate shivers, also mirrors the human condition.

A real frightening experience, like a physical assault (and I've known a few) or an accident, has never permitted me perspective. In my own moments of real-life terror, I was in pure survival mode, all lizard brain. I was not wondering or mystified about anything. When I escaped I was grateful to be alive. Most of my questions revolved around Dirty Harry fantasies. I might angrily ask why-or maybe why not-me? When will it happen again?

Great Art always strives to make it real. Some examples of what I mean by Horror as Art: the anguished portrait of Eleanor Lance's loneliness as she succumbs to the perverse architecture of Hill House in both the book and the 1963 film version of The Haunting; the crumbling of Miss Giddins' spinster's psyche as she finds her own dark desires beckoning to her and the children in her charge from the fog-shadowed shadows of The Innocents (co-adapted by Truman Capote from The Turn of the Screw by Henry James); the four old men of Peter Straub's Ghost Story who tremble as their privileged white male bourgeois ground becomes blizzarded by demons they themselves have roused from the recesses of their lonely souls. ("I am you," the Demon tells them. Truer words . . . truer words . . . . )

And there are those extravagant, wonderful archetypes from film: Boris Karloff's childlike, savage alienation as the Frankenstein Monster is as great a piece of acting as any in film history and survives, like the monster itself, all the parodies that lumber after it. Lon Chaney Jr. may not have been a great actor, but in addition to its atmosphere, what stays alive in 1941's The Wolf Man is the anguish in Larry Talbot's dog-like eyes as he realizes his safe, proper upbringing has done little to save him, or those he loves, from the tearing transformative violence within him. And even Bela Lugosi, as Dracula, moldy and slow as that film mostly is, brings a perfect grace and mystique to the amoral, capering freedom of the sociopath (nor does he fly around in his underpants like Superman).

So, I open my door to them on Halloween, in my own grouchy stubborn eccentric way. I might even invite some of you into my haunted house sometime, you dear and patient readers, for a good story, for a good film.

Just remember--I hate Halloween.

And so I only ask one thing: save your money, retain your dignity, and leave the goddam Scooby-Doo costume at home.

 

(Revised 11/1/09; 11/2/09)