An Unscary Halloween

I freely admit, over the years, I have often gone with the flow on Halloween, watching scary movies, creepy episodes of The Twilight Zone, reveling in ghost stories and monster yarns.  This year, though, I will go against the grain.  Maybe it’s the state of the world, the precarious position of our institutions and structures, the downright disturbing events that we’ve all had to deal with on a national and global level.  Whatever the reason, I am going to go with lighter fare this All Hallows Eve.

 

After all, there will be more than enough people watching horror movies.  Who needs Michael Myers when you can have Ralph Kramden?  Who needs Jason Voorhees when you can tune in to Forrest Gump?  And who needs Rick Grimes when you can watch Cary Grant or Johnny Carson?

 

I remember one Halloween when I was a teenager, I invited some neighborhood friends over (some of whom were inspirations for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers), and we had a horror marathon, watching Psycho, Halloween. and Dawn of the Dead back-to-back-to-back.  It was well past midnight when we were through.  No one wanted to leave that night–the wind was blowing, the temperature dropping, and we all knew the ghosts and goblins of the season were lurking out there in the dark.  So they stayed and slept over.  The next morning, with the clear, crisp light of day bringing in the month of November, we all felt better.  The sun was up, you could see up and down the neighborhood streets–the spooky atmosphere of the previous night had passed, evaporating like smoke on the wind.

 

This year, though, I am vowing not to have to recover from anything.  Why scare myself with ghosts or killer dolls or axe murderers?  Why not break the ghoulish tradition and play for laughs instead?

 

I don’t mean to discourage you from filling up on frightful movies this Halloween.  If that’s your preference, drink deeply!  Enjoy.  Tune in to a Vincent Price masterpiece or a Hitchcock thriller, or a classic horror film from yesteryear.  Turn off the lights and dare yourself to watch in the dark.

 

But not me. Not this year. This year, I’ll watch an episode of Cheers, the “old” Cheers with Shelley Long as the costar–when the show was at its best.  I’ll watch The Honeymooners–maybe the episode where Ralph is being investigated by the IRS, and employs Norton to help him figure out what he might have done wrong with his income taxes.  And then?  Maybe an old Happy Days or an Everybody Hates Chris episode.  Maybe an old Cary Grant classic where Cary climbs buildings, dodges crop dusters, or saves the world–all without breaking a sweat.  In short, I will keep it light, corny, and optimistic.

 

Because, when you come right down to it, the world can use a little optimism right now . . . even on Halloween!

Enjoy the holiday!  And enjoy the coming of November.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Fearsome Five (Or, Five Scary-Movie Classics for Halloween)

We’ve reached that time of the year again–All Hollows Eve–when ghosts and goblins roam the earth.  (Of course, if you’re like me, you’re convinced they roam the earth every day, regardless of what the calendar says.)  Particularly here in the hills of Vermont, it’s a time of thinning trees, plummeting temperatures, and hard nighttime frosts as the days shorten and the wild animals forage for any and all food they can acquire before the onset of the interminable New England winter.

Halloween is also, of course, a day when many people revisit scary movies from their past.  Even folks who may not be horror fans reason that, just this one day out of the year–they ought to tune in to a fright fest.  Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of the classics–from vintage comic books to old TV shows to old movies.  And so it will likely come as no surprise that five of the scary films I recommend all date from decades ago.

Five Horror Classics for Halloween . . .

House of Wax (1953)

If there is one name that is synonymous with classic horror movies, it is Vincent Price.  From his brooding features to his unmistakable voice, Price was the perfect leading man for scary films.  Nowhere is that more evident than in House of Wax.  Price is at his spooky best in this atmospheric period thriller directed by Andre DeToth, playing a disfigured sculptor who goes to extreme and horrific measures to repopulate his wax museum, which is decimated by fire early in the movie.  The film is a period piece–with the setting turn-of-the-20th-century New York, and the suave and morose Price gives a performance to elicit nightmares.

 

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock was known as the Master of Suspense, not the Master of Horror, but he took a decided turn with Psycho.  To modern eyes, the violence in this film is nothing extraordinary, but in 1960, it was shocking.  The infamous “shower scene” scared countless millions–my own mother included!  The scene lasts only a minute on film, but it took a week to shoot.  But for me, the genius of Psycho isn’t in the murder of Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) but in the psychological makeup of the villain–Norman Bates, played superbly by Anthony Perkins.  While most remember the shower scene, I always loved the scene directly before it–when Bates and Marion have a conversation in the motel parlor.  Norman at first turns on the charm, but eventually a dark and troubled personality emerges, culminating in the line, delivered with chilling effectiveness by Perkins, “We all go a little mad sometimes.  Haven’t you?”  Halloween shivers all around.

 

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Who needs The Walking Dead when you have Dawn of the Dead?  Considered by some horror enthusiasts as the best pure horror film of all time, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, like Psycho, was shocking in its day for the graphic violence it portrayed–again, nothing over the top by 2020s standards (which says something about our societal tastes today, perhaps?) but in 1978, it was a gut punch to moviegoers.  An apocalyptic story line, with zombies taking over the world, Dawn of the Dead grabs you by the throat and never lets go.  The movie is well known for its abandoned shopping mall setting, pitting a small core of survivors against a horde of the undead who populate the mall.  Creepy stuff.

 

Halloween (1978)

It seems fitting that the teenage daughter of Psycho‘s own Janet Leigh would make her film debut in one of the classic horror films of the 1970s.  In Halloween, Jamie Leigh Curtis plays Laurie Strode, a high school student who becomes embroiled in psychotic killer Michael Myers’s rampage.  John Carpenter’s edge-of-your-seat film took audiences by storm in the late 1970s, introducing an entire genre of slasher films that would dominate the next decade (think Friday the 13th).  Halloween, though, is different in that it is light on blood and gore (much of it implied rather than graphically shown) and heavy on suspense and thrills.  The first of its kind, in many ways, the original Halloween holds up remarkably well over forty years after its release.  Watch it alone, with the lights off.

 

The Shining (1980)

Stephen King wrote the novel, of course, and he didn’t like Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation–but, taken on its own, Kubrick’s The Shining is a movie masterpiece.  Moody, atmospheric, and haunting, the movie starts slow, developing the mood and theme and characters, and then, literally, about halfway through, all hell breaks loose.  Jack Nicholson plays the tortured Jack Torrance, and no one plays “tortured” like Nicholson.  The movie is chock-full of creepy, atmospheric, ghostly effects, and Danny, the boy with “the shining,” often steals the show.  Incidentally, The Shining has what I consider to be the most terrifying scene in cinematic history, when Danny, racing down the empty hallways of the haunted Overlook Hotel, is confronted by two murdered ghost girls.  “Come and play with us, Danny,” they tell him.  And he then sees them as they were when they were murdered, hacked to pieces.  For me, this scene is especially haunting because the ghost girls–identical twins–greatly resemble two other girls (also twins) I knew growing up.  Gets me every time.

 

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And there you have it–a quick trip down horror movie memory lane.  I hope you watch (or rewatch, as the case may be) a few!

Happy Halloween and thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“He’s in the Closet!” (Or, What Not to Say When the Tension Is High)

Back in the 1980s, when I was in junior high, I asked my older brother John if he could sneak me in to the old Waring Theater in Rochester, NY.  Why would I need to go to the theater on the sly?  The Waring was replaying the classic horror film Halloween that week, nearly ten years removed from the movie’s debut.  Since I was just a toddler when Halloween was originally released, I hadn’t yet seen it–and I dearly wanted to.  I enjoyed feeling scared at the movies, and who was scarier than Michael Myers?  I had to see this movie.  And John was my ticket in.

 

I was still a few years shy of seventeen at the time, and so, by law, the only way I’d be permitted into the theater to watch Halloween–and R-rated movie–would be if my parents accompanied me and stayed with me throughout the duration of the film.  I didn’t want that!  So I went to John for help.  He was friends with the guy at the ticket booth, and he assured me he could get me in.

 

He did.  It was easy.  The guy–a recent college grad, just like my brother, just shrugged when John asked for the tickets.  “Sure, why not,” he said, barely acknowledging my existence, then asked my brother what he was doing next Friday night.  Maybe they could get together.  And that was that.  I was on my way in, ready for a good scream-fest.  But it wouldn’t be just John and me.  A couple of his friends came with us, and if they felt uneasy or burdened by sitting beside a minor at an R-rated movie, they didn’t show it.  They made me feel like one of the guys.  It was a good start to what I hoped would be a memorable evening.

 

When the movie started, the audience quieted.  I figured most people in the audience had seen the movie before.  It was a replay, after all.  It was my first time, though, and I wasn’t disappointed.  I’d seen other horror movies, of course, but this one was different.  It made me fidget in my seat as no other movie ever had.  Where was Michael Myers?  You could never tell from one scene to the next.  He would jump out, unexpected, sudden, and the audience would gasp.  I realized, maybe many in the audience hadn’t seen the movie.  Or, if they had, they had forgotten just enough to be scared again.

 

A few times during the first hour of the film, my brother, seated beside me, asked me how I was doing.  I both appreciated and felt annoyed at the questions.  It was nice he cared.  But what was I–a baby?  I was fine!  Scared but fine.  On my other side, though, Mark, one of my brother’s friends who accompanied us to the theater, continually looked away during frightening scenes.

“Just thought I lost a contact,” he said when he caught me eyeing him at one juncture.  “But I didn’t.  Just had a speck in my eye.”

Mmm-hmm.  I guess he hadn’t seen the movie before either.  Who knew?

About an hour and fifteen minutes in, the tension on-screen reached a fever pitch.  The movie’s star, Jamie Lee Curtis, in the role of Laurie Strode, suspicious over the mysterious events of the evening, decides to cross the street and search her neighbor’s house, where some of her friends are staying.  Unbeknownst to her, these same friends have just been murdered by the film’s villain, Michael Myers.  And all we, in the audience of the old Waring Theater, knew was that Myers was hiding somewhere in that house.

 

“Don’t do it!” someone several rows behind us shouted.  “Don’t go in that house!”

But Laurie, on-screen, does not heed the moviegoer’s warning.  She enters the house, unaware that the killer is in there, somewhere, waiting.

She soon discovers her butchered friends, and panic rises.  She knows a maniac is at large.  She knows she is in danger, and she, and everyone in the theater, is on high alert.

 

As I watched the scene unfold on the big screen, I’m not sure I breathed.  What would happen next?  Would Laurie survive?  She was the protagonist, the hero!  She had to survive.  Right?  I wasn’t so sure.  Neither, evidently, was anyone else in the audience.  No one spoke.  The tension was thick enough to bite into and chew.

And that’s when, as the scene tested the limits of my fright-stamina, it all suddenly came crashing to a halt.

Let me back up.  Neither my brother, his friends, nor I knew that another of my brother’s friends, Ricky, was in the audience that night.  Ricky had graduated high school with my brother half a decade earlier, and he was known for his carousing, wild antics and no-holds-barred personality.  He once told me, on a visit to our house, that he spent more time in the principal’s office than the classroom.  He was the class clown, the prankster, the guy who was fun to hang around, but at a safe distance.

 

And that night, though none of us knew it, he was seated about a dozen rows in front of us.  As we watched the climactic scene play out on the screen, as the suspense rose still higher, Ricky decided that now was the time to make his presence known.

He stood up, turned around, faced the audience, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “He’s in the closet!”  Immediately, groans emanated from the throng of moviegoers.  Popcorn flew, hurled in Ricky’s direction.  He quickly sat back down as the popcorn continued to pelt him.  And sure enough, seconds later, there was Michael Myers emerging from the closet . . .

 

This memory, as with so many others, is crystal clear in places and blurry in others.  While I can see that popcorn flying through the air, striking Ricky in the face, the hair, the shoulders as if it were yesterday, while I can hear his “in the closet” shout like a firecracker in my head, even today, I cannot remember the drive to and from the theater, the trips to the concession booth, or what we did before and after the movie.  I can’t even remember seeing Ricky after the movie.  Likely he bolted as fast as he could to avoid the wrath of the crowd.  But the night lives on, the experience endures, and fragments of it swirl around like pieces of confetti through the chasm of thirty years.

 

As a writer, I sometimes think back to that night, and remind myself not to inject any “in the closet” moments into my stories.  After all, if something is meant to surprise, it should surprise.  There’s a fine line between telegraphing and foreshadowing.

 

I’d prefer the popcorn doesn’t fly in my direction.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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