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Sunday 30 October 2011

My "Case" for Halloween

Jack-o-laternImage via WikipediaUnless you are a Christian fundamentalist or a neo-pagon, the celebration formally known by the ancient Celts as Samhain will have little spiritual meaning to you. Perhaps that's a rather sweeping statement, but I think for the most part if Christmas is losing the battle with commercialization (and my opinion on that is complex) then Halloween lost it a long time ago. In fact, “Halloween”, for all its association with the supernatural, is generally regarded as a secular holiday – and that suits me fine. Our middle class torch-bearers of the "old religion", bless every sky-clad and Hermetic spell-weaving one of them, look to this like a Christmas – except I guess for those also assert, with justification, that Christmas is also a hijacked European pagan festival. Whereas some of the even wackier members of the Christian Right would have us believe that this is the time Satan or the Enemy rides out. And the sight of people - worse still, children! - wondering the streets dressed as the many representations of supernatural evil must be enough to confirm their long held belief that we are all approaching the prophesised End of Times.

Being a fan of history, I quite like the ever-evolving story of Halloween. Because it means little to most, the politicization and misunderstanding of it is original purpose meets little debate. In short, it was just another ceremony to lighten the spirits of the masses as the nights drew in and the weather grew harsher. It was the Gaelic harvest festival – a time to celebrate and enjoy the bounty of the year’s crop yield. The beginning of the “Celtic New Year”, as the sun began to recede. The occupying Romans, of course, began associating this with their own Lemuria festival of the dead celebration, where they exorcized the malevolent spirits of the dead. The Christianization of Rome led to the eventual Christianization of many traditions. Therefore this harvest festival-cum-exorcism of ghosts on 31st October became All Hallow’s Eve, which preceded the Catholic celebrations, All Hallow’s Day on 1st November and All Souls Day on 2nd November. Of course, The Isle of Man still celebrate 31st October as a type of original New Year’s Eve called Hop-tu-naa, which is very similar to Halloween complete with trick or treating children. However, rather than using the North American imported pumpkin, their version of a Jack-o’-Lantern, associated with the will-o’-the-wisp legends, they use a carved turnip. The carved pumpkin that has become synonymous with Halloween to the point that orange might as well be the official colour for the celebration, is actually the North American settlers’ version of the old turnip carving tradition.

There is speculation among some historians that links the bonfire celebrations of Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November with Samhain and that, just the Catholics had done, the Protestants turned a celebration with pagan roots into their own religious festival. I heard this link made as fact quire recently on a history podcast without the fact that this is a controversial viewpoint not accepted by mainstream historians.

Personally I have no deep connection to any religious or commercial date in the calendar. Therefore Halloween suits me down to the ground. It’s a celebration that doesn’t really impose itself on you, unless of course you consider the trick or treaters to be an annoyance. Well, we have to put up with carol singers in the run up to Christmas and they could come on any number of days. Besides that, it’s all down to whether or not you attend a fancy dress party or get into horror films or stories. It doesn’t have any of the sanctimonious moralizing of Christmas or an insistence on having relative around. There is no anti-climax, as no one has any special expectations for the date and there is nothing like the pressure to spend money. These advantages could also be set against Valentine’s Day, Easter or any other celebration in the calendar. When I was at primary school I was first told any type of significance for Halloween from our visiting vicar. He explained the Hallow’s Eve connection, a time when the forces of evil could indulge themselves one last time before Hallow’s Day. Today I see that the event has gradually become a time when people can “let themselves go”. Like they need any sort of encouragement! This is just another example of the celebration moving further away from its association with general spookiness. Aside from teenage trick or treaters, one of my pet hates of Halloween is the wearing of a costume that has no connection to ghosts, zombies, vampires, witches or anything else from the spooky cannon. Call me an old stick in the mud, but you can wear your Superman or hooker costume to any other fancy dress party.

Going to parties is definitely not a must for me. I can really take them or leave them. I generally just like the whole idea of a having spooky night. Being a fan of Gothic fiction, horror movies and ghost stories it all suits me just fine. The secular nature of the holiday appeals to me too. There is no dogma imposed nor is any belief or political persuasion excluded – and there is no social stigma for those who choose to exclude themselves.

When it comes to Halloween, no-one does it like the Scottish. The country is full of gory history and superstition. From the completely fanciful legend of the cannibals of Galloway, Sawney Bean and his 45-strong incestuous brood to the haunted battlefields of someone of Scotland’s bloodiest battles, Scotland is the perfect place to visit over the Halloween period. I took my poor unfortunate family on a virtual Burke and Hare pilgrimage to Edinburgh. Resident to Edinburgh, these two serial killers committed their final murder on Halloween night. The grisly tale, which I have summarized before, is all the more sinister by the fact that it is undeniably true. We not only have accounts of their nefarious deeds, including their own testimonies, but there are some truly macabre souvenirs taken from Burke’s hugely popular public hanging. He was publically dissected by order of the court as type poetic justice and his skeleton is now displayed in the Royal College of Surgeons’ Museum; tanned skin from his body was turned into a number of macabre souvenirs. To this day you can view a matchbox made from one of his hands in the Police Museum in Edinburgh. Dissecting Professor Alexander Monro even dipped his quill in the blood of Burke and penned a letter revelling in this morbid excess.

However, the “spirit” of the occasion can be enjoyed many different mediums. If you are going to have a party why not mix up the various mixes with a rich selection of horror themed tracks. There are some great spooky classics from Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, and what Halloween could miss the king of mascara and monsters himself, Alice Cooper. Then we have the wonderfully campy “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” soundtrack that demands audience participation and both the original and harder-edged cover of “Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’” provide excellent background tunes. The soundtrack of the first “Resident Evil” film works brilliantly. This is not in any small way to the fact shock-rocker Marilyn Manson was behind a lot of the musical arrangement. In fact, a lot of Manson’s work is very appropriate. Also have a good look over some of the’80s Goth scene. However, if you are going to start going down the Black and Doom metal root it might be worth remembering that although a lot of the classic instrumental stuff is impressively atmospheric, their particular vocalizations are an acquired tastes and might inspire more than their fair share of giggles from your guests. Having said that my favourite Halloween track has to be Type-O-Negative’s wonderfully irreverent “Black No.1 (Little Miss Scare-All)” – not only does it mention Halloween a couple of times in the lyrics and even Lily Munster, but it also features a wonderful turn on “The Addams Family” theme tune.

Reading or, better still, listening to a good horror or ghost story is a wonderful tradition that can delight all ages if delivered in the right way. Any one of Edgar Allen Poe’s literature is virtually tailor-made for the occasion. “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Black Cat” and “The Pit and Pendulum” are my personal favourites. However, Poe doesn’t have the monopoly on the classic short fiction. The Penguin Book of Horror stories, both in audio and printed formats, has a wonderful selection of classics written by a rich variety of literary giants. This includes the creator of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, not to mention Long John Silver, R.L. Stevenson delivers a very eerie tale inspired by Burke Hare called “The Body Snatcher”. A.M. Burrage’s “The Waxwork” has a “Twilight Zone” type of charm and is comparable to Poe in this sense of mounting psychological terror. However, the most genuinely scary of the lot has to be “Moonlight Sonata” by Alexander Woollcott. There’s genuine horror in the tale without being gratuitous and then a genuinely nasty, if ingenious, pay-off at the end.

It is also worth mentioning the excellent "Pseudopod". This is a free weekly horror podcast that provides a multitude of modern horror stories ranging wide across the various subgenres, The presentation and production of this show is first rate and the length of the episodes are perfect to listen to on a Halloween night. 

What better way to finish the night off with than to selection of films. Now, I haven’t just specifically chosen horrors and I haven’t necessarily chosen my favourite horrors, but those films that fit this particular occasion. Happy Halloween!

The Flesh and the Fiends

Okay, so I am really on a Burke and Hare thing here. However, the film meets plenty of criteria. It’s genuinely creepy and features a giant of classic horror cinema, Donald Pleasance as a particularly nasty William Hare. Curiously it is also the only Burke and Hare film I have seen that heavily features Halloween.



Well, I might as well get this obligatory picture out of the way. The trouble is the slasher genre has been so badly hacked to pieces that a lot of its initial impact is impaired. Still, the date is right and the presence of Pleasance again, this time as a good guy, and Jamie Lee Curtis should be enough to keep your attention. There is, of course, Carpenter’s superior direction and his distinctive theme tune.

Sleepy Hollow

Pumpkins and the legend of the headless horseman! What more could one ask from a Halloween movie? Tim Burton’s wonderful homage to classic swashbuckling Hammer Horror delivers a picture that has a wonderful balance of thrills and humour. The cast is headed by Burton favourite Johnny Depp, who really excels in this type of very quirky role, and includes Miranda Richardson and a requisite cameo from the great Christopher Lee. Ray Park’s work as the horseman’s stunt double takes the fight scenes in a wonderfully inventive direction.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown comments on any public holiday are a must for me. From silly traditions taken to their extreme to the wonderful downbeat comedy of the peace accompanied by the distinctive jazz soundtrack make this satire on the Halloween holiday a much needed counterbalance to the “excuse for excess” philosophy now connected to the event.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Burton again and this time with a film that works equally as well as a Halloween film as it does a Christmas film. In fact, it is often more connected to the latter than the former. However, it is interesting to note that it features Halloween far more prominently and was actually premiered on 31st October. The film is full of fun songs that reflect the whole tongue-in-cheek campy appeal of Halloween and contains the distinctive Burton-style take on stop-motion animation.

The Crow

Alex Proyas’ mesmerising 1994 reimagining of J O’Barr’s graphic novel is perhaps the best dark fantasy piece ever made. The story of an avenging spirit brought back from the dead to exact revenge on his murderers is set the night before Halloween on a fictionalized night of organized anarchy and crime called “Devil’s Night”. The film is a virtual love letter to the Goth subculture, but has a widespread appeal with memorable characters and quotable lines.


I saw this classic silent at the cinema accompanied by a live pianist over the Halloween weekend. It was a real treat. Yes, much of the over-exaggerated “silent acting” and all the components of the movie that have been copied numerous times over the past near century did rouse regular snickers and giggles, but that is part of the fun. The film can be appreciated in many different ways. I see it as a window into the darkness of the Weimar Republic. So much of what we know as the modern horror movie can be traced back to F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece of expressionist cinema.


“Ghostbusters” is fun, exciting and genuinely funny. This movie combines the talents of a post-Blues Brothers Dan Ackroyd with a pre-pretentious Bill Murray in a comedy that rivals “Trading Places” for laughs. It’s a wonderful satire on the whole sham ghost-hunting business and plants tongue firmly in cheek as Ackroyd and fellow writer, Harold Ramis, play with the whole pseudoscientific business of supernatural investigation.

The Monster Squad

“Ghostbusters” inspired some excellent imitators. Bizarrely “The Monster Squad” featured a cast of kids and yet sported a 15 certificate in the UK. This was “Ghostbusters” meets “The Goonies”, and is as entertaining as either with half the budget. A bunch of pre-pubescents take on Dracula, The Wolf-Man, the Mummy and some vamps with the aid of Frankenstein’s Monster and a survivor from a Nazi concentration camp. The script is smart and in a way that doesn’t talk down to kids, making it very edgy for its time, and is very affectionate to the Universal cannon in a way that “Van Helsing” wouldn’t know how.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Before there was Wii exercise games and before breakfast show workouts this was how you got people moving in front of a TV. The perfect party movie, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is the perfect adult musical. Richard O’Brien brilliantly parodies the ‘40s through to ‘70s science fiction and horror B movie horror scene. In a nod to the likes of cross-dressing B movie king, Ed Wood, O’Brien has Tim Rice plays the picture’s most memorable role, the transvestite Transylvanian Dr Frank-N-Furter. The film and the live musical is a unique hybridization of schlock Americana and British eccentricity.
Please also see:
Best Horror Through the Ages and Paint it a Blacker Shade of Dark

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