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Halloween Country by Mike Holsclaw

“… that country where it’s always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly and dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.”  – Ray Bradbury

As past readers will recall, October is my favorite month and Halloween my favorite holiday. The quotation above, from Ray Bradbury’s “October Country”, perfectly captures the optimal mood I’m always striving to recapture every year when fall arrives; half memory, half myth, it’s the warm smell of chimney smoke, the crisp bite of autumn air as the sun starts to set, the friendly sound of polyester uniforms swishing as youngsters shuffle from house to house, their faces lit by the candlelight of grinning jack-o-lanterns. It’s the piercing clarity of a night sky where a full moon glows like a new penny at the bottom of a well, and the melancholy feeling of the earth quietly groaning as it creeps into the dark half of its year, with much of the natural world either going to sleep or expiring before being reborn in the spring.

Some folk feel that there’s something sinister, even diabolical, about Halloween, especially since it originates, in part, from the pagan festival of Samhain (“sow-wen”), in which the Druids made obeisance and welcome to their familial dead. I, on the other hand, feel that it answers an almost instinctual need, a quixotic itch we’ve probably had since the first Neanderthal buried a member of his tribe along with some flowers and the deceased’s favorite hunting spear, to actively engage with death. Halloween offers us a richly symbolic means of confronting extinction, personal and cosmic, in a comparatively safe and contained fashion. Particularly in North America, we seem to be getting closer to the Mexican ritual of the Day of the Dead in the ways in which we observe Halloween; this also includes our choice of macabre entertainment; the scary stories and horror films we consume this time of year are basically benign rehearsals for what lies ahead; we don’t know what to expect but, like Henry Ward Beecher said on his deathbed, “Now comes the mystery”. That mystery is elaborated on, sometimes with great finesse, sometimes with incredible clumsiness, by pop culture that is Halloween centered.

I don’t know why, perhaps because the culture at large is in such a general state of chaos right now, but, this year, the Halloween festivities have been somewhat halting in their rate of emergence; I’ve only just caught a fleeting glimpse of the traditional beasties that have usually come out of hibernation by this point in the month. I will say that I’m thoroughly enjoying how Retroplex has begun showing many of the great Universal Horror films of the 1930’s; I watched the last forty minutes of Tod Browning’s “Dracula” a few nights ago and was completely entranced. Although I’ve seen it many times, my experience this time was subtly different; for perhaps the first time, I was acutely aware that this was a film that was 87 years old and it suddenly had just as much resonance as a historical artifact as one of the great films of the classic era. The gulf between their world and ours is now so great that the culture in which the film takes place feels exotic, even alien.

Rather than being off-putting, though, the effect was thoroughly charming; I was surprised, but it felt a great deal like watching a silent film; the basic cinematic syntax was similar to today but the overall affect was almost completely different. The discretion they felt about how graphic they could be or, rather, how much they must not show, feels naïve now but also oddly appealing; such reticence today is almost unimaginable. On the other hand, the casual misogyny and xenophobia was bracing because it now feels inconceivable. Rather than being overly offended, though, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat condescending about their parochialism; instead of seeming superior, they came across as blinkered and sadly lacking in their limited understanding of the world. Nevertheless, despite the narrowness of their worldview, there is still an unexpected power to the film’s images and Bela Lugosi is still as potent a presence as he ever was. Even more than in its heyday, he is such an obvious fusion of sexual energy and deathwish that he burns a hole in the screen whenever he shows up. He exerts attraction and repulsion in almost equal amounts and I can only imagine how overwhelming his impact must have been on unsuspecting audiences in 1931.

Because I had such an unexpected reaction to “Dracula”, I’m now really looking forward to seeing the films in this year’s Double Feature; “Nosferatu” is almost 100 years old (!) and it’s been almost five years since the last time I watched it, so I’m intrigued about what my response is going to be at seeing it again. At a guess, I think I’ll still admire Murnau’s artistry as much as I always have and will probably still be supremely unnerved, as ever, by how ghastly and corpse-like Max Schreck appears. I suspect (and fear) that I will be unavoidably put off by some of the stiff, stodgy performances that some of the other actors in the film give; I know that this style was representative of silent films produced in the Weimar Republic at that time but I don’t think it will translate all that well into the 20th century. On the other hand, I still remember being impressed with Greta Schroder as Ellen; the last time I watched the film, I thought her performance was overly expressive, perhaps even kabuki-like, but I also thought that she and Schreck were the film’s heart and its center of gravity; the game of spiritual feint and parry in which they engage still stands out as being just as fascinating today as it was in 1922.

As to “Carnival of Souls”, I have always been a huge fan of Candace Hilligoss; I find her allure to be both glamorous and bizarre, as though she’s an exotic peacock with a dazzling plumage.  I don’t expect that to change but I do think, in light of the heightened times in which we find ourselves, that I will be more sensitive to the sexual politics of the film than I have been in the past; I’ve noted before that I consider her character, Mary Henry, to be on a continuum of horror film heroines, including Janet Leigh in “Psycho” and Sigourney Weaver in “Alien”, in which the female protagonist is, at least in part, in a state of rebellion against the restrictions which their societies place on them because of their gender. This time around, I think those cultural limitations will probably stand out in an even more stark contrast than ever before. I look forward to seeing how different the movie will seem after my having been, hopefully, somewhat “woke” by the events of the last several years.

Speaking of “sexual politics”, I’m totally jazzed at the prospect of seeing the latest iteration of the “Halloween” franchise; as much as anything else, I’m excited at how the narrative has been recast as the opportunity for Laurie Strode to take back her life after the trauma Michael Myers inflicted on her all those many years ago in Haddonfield; I won’t use the cliché of “empowerment”, but I will say that Laurie has always been one of my favorite horror movie icons and I’m glad that she’s going to have a “lioness in winter” moment to tie the story into a neat little bow. (This new film dispenses with all the cluttered, knotted-up mythology that accumulated in the sequels to John Carpenter’s original and, for the most part, I’m in complete agreement with that decision, but the one sequel I did like was “Halloween: H20’’, which, again, featured Jamie Leigh Curtis as Laurie Strode. Still, from all the advance praise I’ve heard, this new film may be an even better instance of “Laurie vs. Michael”, so, the pain of “H20” no longer being “canon” is slight).

As we grow closer to the 31st, I’m sure there will be even more weird and wonderful sweetmeats for us to consume, and I may revisit what’s waiting for us out there, but these are just a few of the treats I’ve begun to avidly anticipate. Have a safe, happy Halloween and, always remember, the gobble-uns’ll git you ef you don’t watch out!