-- Bram Stoker, Dracula
This last Wednesday, for the first time in decades, I “did” Halloween.
How did I “do” Halloween? First, I cooked dinner, the dish noted above, which Jonathan Harker orders in the town of Klausenburgh on the road to Castle Dracula. It turned out to be quite good (I exhumed my recipe from The New York Times cookbook). As we dined, Elizabeth and I enjoyed two fine movies, courtesy of Turner Classics: The Body Snatchers, one of Val Lewton’s great string of horror films from the 1940s with Boris Karloff (who is wonderful here) and Bela Lugosi (who’s not given enough to do); the next was James Whale’s droll, fiercely atmospheric, and little-seen The Old Dark House, from 1932, again with Karloff, plus Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and Gloria Stuart (who, more than sixty years later, made quite a splash in a little B-picture I missed seeing a few years back, name of Titanic.)
That was it. We left the porch lights off. No costumes, no candy for costumed beggars and no costumed beggars, either. There was a pumpkin, but it sat on our front stoop, uncarved and unlit, like a plump orange paperweight.
For years, for me, Halloween was like St. Patrick’s Day: an occasion for hiding under the bed, out of the deadly swirl of maniacs, amateurs, and amateur maniacs. Am I getting conservative (in the old, non-debased meaning)? Probably. The last Halloween I spent out in public was in the notorious San Francisco Castro neighborhood, probably in 1986, helping to film a low-budget mockumentary. My most vivid memory of that occasion was of chasing a baby-skinned, bashful young blond boy, who wore naught but a body floss-style g-string, down the street through the roistering crowd. As I tried to persuade him to appear in our movie, the look in his eye at my pursuit bespoke terror (though I was fully, sensibly clothed, the Quasi-hippie from Heck). I wondered: What was he doing there in the first place, but to make a spectacle of himself? Good luck on keeping your secret, good buddy. It made the 11 O’clock News!
My only real true fond Halloween memory rises from Mohegan Lake, New York: walking along a country road on the hill high above the house on Red Mill Road, nine or ten years old in my blue nylon-polyester eagle costume; the sharp cold wind skittered the leaves along the dark road while, to the east, over the dark hills, a blood-orange moon stared from behind the bare branches of the trees, as fat and full as Dracula’s eye.
End of nostalgic moment. Maybe I “grew up;” got too self-serious about that kid’s stuff. Turned sensible and rational; or became too self-conscious and prone to embarrassment to rip loose. I made few feeble stabs at dressing like a Certain Gunfighting Movie Star, but no one trembled before my piercing stare, or my shoe-polished mustache and, really, I was just there for the booze, the buzz, and the girls.
But I hear you say: “Pshaw, Burchfield! Pshaw! You love horror fiction and movies! You have bored us numerous times with your geeky exegeses on the genre and have mightily leaped to the castle walls to defend it as a Serious Art Form (when it earns it). You have gathered friends together before flickering fires to read horror stories (at Christmas, no less)! Just last Saturday, while coming in the driveway—and a wee bit in your cups—you came upon some neighbors a-lighting their Halloween
pumpkins. Before you knew it, you had asked them if they have ever seen the Boris Karloff/James Whale Frankenstein. ‘No!’ they said and before another two hours had passed you had filled that need with your characteristic, often irritating, Mickey Rooney enthusiasm. And, once again, you made another convert! Pshaw, we say! Pshaw!”
All true. But 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 and . . . sorry, gotta read Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell. Session 9 is on. Have a good time! See you when you stagger home in the morning, Mr. Potato Head!
My attitude is a mystery to me, too, as much as why Dracula should fly so powerfully in the imaginations of millions in the first place. One clue: I’m no fan of camp. It’ll be a frosty day on the devil’s lap before I even consider casting a cold eye on The Rocky Horror Picture Show (no link to it, either. I left camp way back at the Soupy Sales Show.) My wild-ranging imagination stops at wearing leotards.
David Skal, in his book Death Makes a Holiday, suggests that this unruly, extra-legal holiday, from its origins as pagan holiday, through its awkward absorption by Christianity, has entirely floated away from its spiritual and mystical roots to morph into a completely secular bacchanalia of dis-inhibition, always tinselly and tawdry; whatever fear it does provoke it does by being sometimes actually dangerous to life and limb. Maybe it shares Christmas’ 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, even for those who dress up as a ghoul (and especially for those who flounce about 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 has become urbanized, floating free from its roots and dissolving, I hate to say it, into self-referential 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 boundaries of identity, or at least blurring them. Geek-boy gets to become Spiderman; the Bookworm gets to be Elvira, (though s/he may need a set of serious Super Falsies, while Spiderman better get himself into a girdle and then find a way to hide the panty line). Some pretend to transgress the Rules, but no one really does, except for real criminals, who hardly need a holiday.
I take fear, in the artistic sense, seriously and I want it served up that way. Consider that UFO poster that hung in Fox Mulder’s office in The X-Files that cried: “I Want to Believe!”
And so do I, though I must emphasize I do not believe in the physical existence of supernatural phenomena or UFOs (Furthermore, I’m not voting for Dennis Kucinich.) As I’ve said elsewhere, very few 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.
What I do mean is I want to be hypnotized and seduced into believing, for a time, into that unique world of anticipation, dread and awe. I crave that sense of standing on the edge of a dark chasm, surrounded by the dangerous mystique of something unfathomable, perversely sweet, dangerous to both body and—especially—sanity. And eternally mysterious, like life and death themselves.
Except for comedy, no genre is easier to film, or write, badly, but I believe that horror, in the hands of poets, in art, beyond its immediate shivers, can also give us perspective on the human condition. A real frightening experience, for instance an act of violence or, or an accident, has never permitted me perspective—in my own moments, I am in pure survival mode, all lizard brain. I’m not wondering or mystified about anything. When I escape I’m grateful to be alive. My only questions revolve around Dirty Harry fantasies. I might angrily ask why—or maybe why not—me? And
will it happen again?
Some examples of what I mean by horror that works: the anguished loneliness of Eleanor Lance, as she succumbs to the perverse architecture of Hill House in both the book and first film version of The Haunting; the crumbling of Miss Giddins’ spinster’s psyche as she finds her own secret guilty dreams staring back at her from the fog-shadowed landscape of The Innocents (based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James); the four old men of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story who tremble as militant demons attack their privileged white male bourgeois ground, demons they themselves have roused from their own hidden souls. “I am you,” one ghost tells them. Truer words . . truer words . . . .
And there are those extravagant, wonderful archetypes: Boris Karloff’s sense of childlike and brute alienation as the Frankenstein Monster is as beautiful a piece of acting as any in the history of the medium 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 atmospheric style, what stays with us in The Wolf Man is the despair in Larry Talbot’s dog-like eyes he realizes his safe, proper upbringing has done little to save him, or those he loves, from the violence within. And even Bela Lugosi, as Dracula, moldy and slow as that film mostly is, brings perfect mystique to the amoral, capering freedom of the sociopath (and he doesn’t fly around in underpants like Superman).
So, I’ve opened my door to them and to Halloween, invited the holiday into my cultural life again, though in my own stubborn eccentric way. As indicated above, it turned out to be a good idea. I’ll do it again, too. I might even invite you next year, dear and patient reader.
I only ask one thing: save your money, retain your dignity, and leave the Scooby-Doo costume at home.