With Halloween/All Hallows Eve/Day Of The Dead/Samhain upon us again I thought I would leave all of my pseudo-philosophizing behind and talk simply about THE best day of the year… Oct 31st. To me all the other holidays are just crappy excuses why I can’t get mail and nothing more.
Halloween/Hall’o’veen started as Samhain (pronounced Sow-In) and was a Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest and the start of winter. This lead to beliefs that the night of October 31st into November 1, the barrier between the living and the dead was at it’s weakest and that the spirits of the dead would have domain over the earth on this one solitary night. Once the christian church started to horn in on the Celts and force them to change their holidays and celebrations, the church mandated November 1st as All Saints Day (always like the christers to deem their beliefs the only valid ones). The Celts, not really being happy about the whole “your beliefs are dumb so use ours” philosophy the church was peddling, kept celebrating Samhain anyway. The church decided to let them celebrate and party like it’s 1599 but changed Samhain (October 31st) into All Hallows Evening, the night before All Saints Day. This eventually morphed into/was bastardized into All Hallows Eve, then Hallows Eve, then Hallo’veen and then finally Halloween.
History out of the way now, lets get down to Halloween in the modern age. First out of the gate is horror movies. This is the time of year that many of you who do not consider yourselves “horror” movie fans will break out the horror flicks never the less. I have to ask, why is this? Do you feel some childhood draw to the films of tradition that you experienced in youth and are inextricably linked to that very same youth? Do you endeavor to claim a kinship to the Season Of The Witch vicariously through these movies or is it simply that horror movies work better this time of year than any other? As Joe Bob Briggs so eloquently put it “Seeing someone die makes you feel so alive” and he is right, there is a visceral and adrenaline fueled calm* that comes with sideseat violence yet it is one that is pushed down into the subconscious due to social norms. The gory lawn decorations, the spooky tint that everything from TV to books has to it and even how the very air itself is tainted (even tangentially) by the natural decay surrounding us.
My speculation on this is as follows, I am not a psychoanalyst, I only play one on the radio:
October is naturally a time of transition from the warm and fruitful summer of which new life is brought into being to that which we associate with darkness (both literally and figuratively thanks to that Daylights Saving Time bullshit), death and decay. The leaves turn and die, plants whither and hibernate, weather harshens and most of all the very day itself degrades into shorter and shorter spans leaving only the foreboding unknown before us… all the while we celebrate what is both realistically and symbolically death brought about by nature itself. What does all of this bullshit-philosophizing mean to horror movies? Everything.
A horror film, if made correctly, evokes a primal urge back in that lizard brain we all possess from our forebears. No matter how evolved we as human beings delude ourselves into believing we have moved past it, we all love to see someone get killed, get hurt or even just to be scared by the experiences of others. Hell, many people I know don’t use the term ‘horror movie’, they call them ‘scary movies’ as they go into them WANTING to be scared out of their wits and maybe even pee a little. When you become frightened the senses go on alert and become heightened to be more than reactionary but to become almost predatory, this is part of that “fight or flight” response our evolutionary grandparents left us. Now, most people can control “fight or flight” to a high degree and that is what being intentionally scared is all about, to get that adrenaline rush all the while knowing that you are in a safe, controlled environment and that YOU are doing this to yourself. It’s like being a junkie for adrenalin and providing your own fix. Being scared watching a film is a way to, basically, trick your brain to drugging itself with endorphins and as I said, if a film is made well this can be achieved remarkably effectively. Screaming has been proven to be a cathartic release of tension and a way to relieve stress from the body and mind alike. A horror film allows for that release in a controlled and safe manner.
A film like The Exorcist has endured as one of the titles usually used when discussing fear on film, there is a reason that 40 years later this film is STILL frightening and disturbing and why it is still a Halloween staple. Sometimes a film just “feels” like the Halloween season be it intentionally (Halloween III and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) or it can just be an almost intangible quality such as the tone just fits perfectly (Night Of The Living Dead). Some movies just “feel” like Halloween even if they don’t take place then or really even use any of prerequisites of the season, maybe it was them being perennial TV stables of the season (Plan 9 From Outer Space and the aforementioned Night Of The Living Dead) and yet some become those perennial movies due to them feeling like Halloween before they were shown every year… it’s very odd how these things happen. A horror film needs not “feel” like Halloween though to be scary, that much is obvious, yet they must invoke fear or at least macabre uncomfortableness to be effective. The old Hammer films had a mood about them that overrode all else to give off a genuinely creepy atmosphere. A Lucio Fulci movie such as City Of The Living Dead/Gates Of Hell, The Beyond or Zombi is more about mood and a tense atmosphere and less about characters and story. Alien exuded tension and awkward silence to the point of making every mundane sound seem threatening in the end. John Carpenters Prince Of Darkness slowly builds the stakes and mood that when the ending comes, it hits you right in the gut.
Face it, October just feels like the 31 days you are allowed to loosen your civilized self just a little and hang around with your ancestral urges a while. Watching a horror film helps us release that pent up rage being part of a “enlightened” society tends to build upon us. This Halloween season, watch as many horror films as you can, release that growing rage and have a good scare, that is the purpose of all this.
Speaking of “enlightened” that is the exact opposite of what Halloween celebrations are today in america. In the modern day observance that is Samhain (which they now pronounce as Sam Hain, sigh) it has become about “sexy” costumes, drunken stupidity and general debauchery, hell I would be surprised if most adults that dress up and go out even know why they are doing it other than “it’s fun”. Look, you don’t have to know the history or the meaning behind something to enjoy it, that is not what I am saying at all, I only mean that if Halloween is just a night to have beer fueled anal sex with that chick that might very well be a guy dressed as “sexy transformer”** then you seem to have as much depth as the cartoon character you came dressed as. Don’t just use Halloween as an excuse for acting like you secretly always want to, use it as a day to explore your darker side which you generally keep hidden (not in a serial killer way either), have fun but would it kill you to know more about Oct 31st than just you got to bang Spongebob then?
*”Adrenaline Fueled Calm”, there is an oxymoron for you…
**Double entendre that…