Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Son of the Attack of the Halloween Grinch

 [New to some of you, but not to others, a fulmination against a holiday that, I’m told, has surpassed Christmas--yes, Christmas--in popularity.]

As a few of you know, I love the horror genre. My bookcase is haunted by several illustrated editions of Dracula and collections of such admired authors as Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, most of them first editions, many signed. My shelves of horror story anthologies, mostly in paperback, have impressed more than a few visitors.

Catch me at the right moment and I'll crack open your ear 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), The Others, and Shutter (Thai version) while expressing reserved admiration for parts of Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street series and even kind words for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
But, I have to add, I hate Halloween.

Halloween at my house means porch lights out and not even sugar dust by the door. We wear no costumes, attend no parties (though Elizabeth likes to enter pumpkin carving contests, which she almost always wins).
A few years ago, she 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 comes from Craig Claiborne's original The New York Times Cookbook.)

As we dined, we enjoyed two fine movies, courtesy of the Greatest TV Channel in the World: The Body Snatchers, one of Val Lewton's great string of horror films from the 1940s, starring Boris Karloff (one of his best performances) and Bela Lugosi (who, sadly, hasn't enough to do); the next was James Whale's droll, atmospheric, and little-seen The Old Dark House, from 1932, with Karloff, plus Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and Gloria Stuart (who, some sixty years later, made a splash in a little B-picture I missed a few years back, name of Titanic.)

I hate Halloween. With vicious snarl, with sharpened teeth, 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 sense? Probably. The last Halloween I spent out in public was in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, sometime in the mid-1980s, as an assistant on a low-budget mockumentary. My most vivid memory of that occasion was of chasing a baby-skinned, bashful blond boy, clad only in a silver strip of body floss, down the street through the roistering crowd. As I tried to persuade him to appear before our cameras, the look in his eye bespoke naked terror (though I was fully, sensibly clothed).

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

My only Bradburyian Halloween memory comes from when I was a boy in Mohegan Lake, New York: walking a dark country road on the hill above the house on Red Mill Road, in my blue nylon-polyester eagle costume. Fall leaves skittered crisply over the black road, driven by a wicked wind while, to the east, dark hills slumbered under a blood-orange moon glowing through the bare branches of elms and maples, a demon's eye, fat and full. The world seemed huge and mysterious, death awesome and close.

Maybe I "grew up" into a self-serious, sensible, and rational man; or became too self-conscious, inhibited and easily mortified. As a young man, I took feeble stabs at dressing like a deliciously sinister Gunfighting Movie Star, but who trembled before my gun-sight eyes, 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.

Tonight, Wednesday, the Greatest TV Channel in the World is showing more horror movies. That's enough Halloween for me (and probably enough for you Easterners rising up from under the muck of Sandy). We also have Carl Dreyer’s Vampyre, on the DVR.

No! Don't mind me! Go! Knock yourself into next week! See you when you stagger home tomorrow morning, Mr. Potato Head!

I hate Halloween. With curses and floggings, I hate Halloween!

No, I've not 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 a world stripped of its ancient mysteries.

I'm no fan of camp. It'll be a hard frost in Hell before I even consider casting my cold eye on The Rocky Horror Picture Show My wild-ranging imagination turns into David Brooks' brain whenever I envision myself in leotards.

Author 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 morphing into an purely secular, capitalistic bacchanalia of dis-inhibition, forever tinselly, forever tawdry.

Halloween may share 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 the harvest rhythms of Life and Death, and the possibilities of an Afterlife, even for those who dress up as zombies. Except for the notable—and alarming--exception of Barney the Dinosaur, none of this could be considered scary.

Like all our traditional holidays (and our religions, too), Halloween's origins were rural and now that most of us are uprooted from the soil of Creation, it's been urbanized, denuded and has dissolved--I hate to say this--into money-making, self-referential, bored and joyless post-modernism.

Just a joke, folks. Ha. Ha. Ho. Ho. Wink. Wink. Boo.

Halloween seems to provoke waves of paranoia and schoolmarm moralism, but 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 becomes Spiderman; the Bookworm turns Elvira, though s/he may need a pair of Super Falsies, while Spiderman needs a high-priced girdle under those tights and some 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 some sense, I do. I want the Death and the Awe.

Now for a word from our rational sponsor: I must emphasize I don't literally believe in the supernatural, UFOs or that Barack Obama is both Christ and Satan, returned from Kenya.

Even so, I get irritated at another Halloween ritual: the lemon-faced 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.

In fact, very few of the best horror artists and writers possess any standard transcendent faith at all; many 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 wish in my soul 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, death, and awe.

I crave that sense of standing before a darkened door, and the beckoning chasm beyond; 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 and sanity, heart and soul. Something eternally mysterious, like life and death themselves.

Except for comedy, no genre is easier to bungle in execution or more vulnerable to cynical, indifferent commercialism. But I believe that horror, in the hands of poets and artists, can, in its twisted glass, also mirror the human condition. We’re all going to die. The ground always shifts under our feet. We’re strangers to ourselves, each other.

And all of us are afraid of the dark.

A real frightening experience, like a physical assault (of which I've had my share) or an accident, has never permitted me perspective. In my own moments of real-life terror, I was all lizard brain. I was not wondering or mystified about anything. When I escaped, I was grateful to be alive. Most of my thoughts were murderous Dirty Harry fantasies. I might angrily ask why--or maybe why not--me? When will it happen again?

It's only in the best horror fiction and film that the original meaning of Halloween can be sensed nowadays and that's because the truth underneath--or behind--our fears lies: that we are alone, that we are vulnerable, that we are strangers to each other and to ourselves.
Great Art always strives to heighten reality; to take unreality and make it real. The horror genre fails at this most of the time, but when it does succeed, the results are as moving and artful as any work of realism.

Some examples of what I mean by Horror as Art: Eleanor Lance's lonely anguish 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 world 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 ground is blizzarded by demons they themselves have called from the corners 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 lumbering in its wake. Lon Chaney Jr. may not have been a great actor, but in addition to its atmosphere, what still lives 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 transforming violence within him. And Bela Lugosi as Dracula brings perfect grace and mystique to the deadly glamor and amoral, capering freedom lived by sociopaths.

It’s to them that I open my door on Halloween, in my own grouchy stubborn 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.

I only make one request: save your money, keep your dignity, and leave that fucking Scooby-Doo costume at home.

Photo by author; taken at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

No comments: