What's Boo With You?
Halloween is dead. But shouldn't we like it more, then?Take an informal survey of a few dozen friends and neighbors, as I did. Pose a question only slightly more involved than "Trick or Treat?" -- namely, "Who's taking Halloween too seriously these days?"The responses you'll get will drip and ooze nostalgia. Frankly, with a millennium approaching, end-of-the-world prognostications overwhelm quaint little costume party regularities like Halloween. This year, the anti-holiday falls on a weekend night -- what could be more joyously anticipated? Yet even the most fervent Halloween partiers (and we all have a friend or two who spends a little too much time on their costume, or gets way too involved in scouring the neighborhood for Mary Janes and Reese's Cups) are hard-pressed to find an extreme to this celebrated night of extremes that hasn't been done before -- and better.Pose the aforementioned Halloween query and you will receive responses in one of two forms:1. The respondent's best costume ever. One hears of elaborate transformations (Jekyll to Hyde) or impenetrable disguises (mimicking Lon Chaney's face-distorting make-up techniques from The Phantom of the Opera). I myself worked a general theme of box-shaped costumes from the age of 6 through 12. Milestones included a box of Quisp cereal (with the promise of "Special Prize! Quistopher Inside!"); the top of the Empire State Building with King Kong atop it; a mailbox; and a magician's box with a sword thrust through it.2. The respondent's most unusual, appropriately Halloweeny experience. I've spoken to relatively sane folk who have howled at the moon, watched stars from the roofs of collegiate towers, attempted to conjure up spirits using the Mephistophelean chants from Christopher Marlowe's Faust, recited the works of Edgar Allen Poe and eaten a cockroach. A preternatural calm sets the mood for many of these events, making the oration or the insect snack seem a fated occurrence.Halloween has that still, clasping power over us all. But still...Every previous decade, it seems, had more vibrant, historically apt Halloween imagery than the 1990s do:* In 1913, the soon-to-be-illustrious historians Will and Ariel Durant, co-authors of the Story of Civilization, chose Halloween, of all times, as their wedding day.* The master magician Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1928. The internationally renowned escape artist was known for debunking spiritualists and mediums while on a sincere crusade to find genuine methods of communication from the grave. Before he died, Houdini made plans to contact his wife posthumously through a seance on the anniversary of his death. Several attempts were made, all reportedly unsuccessful.* Oct. 30, 1938 gave us Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast. This radio verit emanation from The Mercury Theatre of the Air caused nationwide panic when listeners tuning into the drama late became convinced that Martian invaders really had landed in Grovers Mills, N.J. Based on the H.G. Wells novel, the circumstances of the radio rendition have inspired a separate oeuvre of conspiracy-themed sci-fictions, notably the Lectoid revolt in the cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.* On Oct. 31, 1955, England's Princess Margaret ended weeks of speculation by publicly announcing to an enthralled populace that she had decided not to marry her gentleman friend Group Captain Peter Townsend. Why she chose Halloween as a day to squelch matrimonial gossip is a scheduling glitch lost to history.* A Peanuts special during the loss-of-innocence decade of the 1960s brought us the Great Pumpkin, wherein Linus waits 'til next year and Charlie Brown got a rock.* In 1978, director and composer John Carpenter brought us the first of the series of movies that took Halloween as their title, predating a spate of creepy film odes to virtually every other day of the year -- Friday the 13th, April Fool's Day, Leprechaun (i.e. St. Patrick's Day), Groundhog Day, Independence Day. The Halloween sequels brought us kicking and screaming into the 1980s and dulled the thrills of the original, which pioneered the use of the Steadicam in suspense thrillers.Meanwhile, as time drags by, fewer and fewer youngsters are allowed to prowl the streets unattended.So where does that leave the 1990s? In a fit of Halloween nostalgia that seems downright fiendish. In 1997, everything old is boo again. A major biography of Houdini came out last year, and a musical based on the magician's life is attempting to break into Broadway. A recent episode of the HBO series Perversions of Science was based on the Orson Welles controversy. Thanks to the success of the self-referential horror movie retread Scream, a fresh sequel toÊHalloween is in the works.And all traditions have been consumerized up the Hallowazoo. The Spencer's Gifts chain of tchotchke emporia creates entire new shops dedicated solely to Halloween excess and sets them up in shopping malls throughout the country. Apple-picking farms go pumpkin wild and set up bizarre sideshows like the quaint little Room of Hay at Bishop's Orchards in Branford, Connecticut. The Room of Hay is simply a wooden paddock filled with hay bales in which hyperactive tykes run, jump and cavort with abandon. For that growing section of the population who, like myself, suffer strong allergic reactions to hay, the Room of Hay is a nightmarish life-sucking horror worthy of an Edgar Allen Poe short story.In your slithery search for how to look and act on Halloween, beware of those corporate demons who will go to any length to market their presumably one-purpose products with a shocking variety of advertising come-ons:The EZ Foil company, manufacturer of disposable cakepans, has seasonal packaging which brags that you can "Make this EZ Halloween costume!" In the photo next to that attractive offer... Is it a giant telephone? No, it's a bemused child in a black sweatsuit covered in a spraypainted shopping bag helmet, five feet of felt, and lots of shiny silver lumps (some of which have numbers on 'em).To construct your "EZ-Fone Cell Phone" costume, you need the basic supplies required for any Halloween outfit: black spray paint, a black marker, black fabric, empty paper towel rolls, a shopping bag, glue and duct tape. You'll also need -- ring! ring! -- two EZ Foil muffin pans, two EZ Foil pizza pans, a bunch of foil wrap, and thirteen EZ Foil cupcake cups.Which still begs the question, what's remotely scary about a telephone? Ooooh, maybe the boss is calling. Arrrggh, maybe it's the muffin man who lives who lives on Drury Lane, angrily demanding his cups back. Oh, go cook a witch in an oven, like Hansel & Gretel. It's Halloween! Just remember to use an EZ Foil Witch-size baking pan.EZ Foil also suggests that old standard, the Robot, as another trick-or-treat possibility. Robots have been scaring the human race since Karel Capek's expressionist drama R.U.R. debuted in 1921. The EZ Foil costumes contain so much metal (including pie-plate kneepads and elbow protectors) that mobility might well be limited to standing and grunting, in the grandest Frankenstein's Monster tradition.Strange as it might seem to laymen, this year's Halloween obsessives aren't generally composed of the ghoulish crop of Goth music lovers and S&M/bondage fanciers. These folk, for a start, celebrate all year long. And as far as Satanic holidays go, Halloween isn't the biggest event. It's got very little credibility, being a messy blend of several Pagan harvest or god-appeasing celebrations.In the Eastern sector of the USA, we are blessed -- or, rather, cursed -- by the ubiquity of the Warrrens, that curious ghostbusting couple who claim credit for locating and removing the ghosts who were such bad tenants in Amityville. The Warrens survived and continue to milk The Amityville Horror and their other hoary adventures in supernatural extermination. They present talks amid photographic and audiotaped documentation, replete with spooky shadows. The Warrens live in Monroe, a city already well known for witchery thanks to a sorceress named Hannah Cranna who's buried in the town cemetery. Halloween obsessives, if you lived in Monroe, you could resting comfortably in a coffin in your basement by now.The scary truth for those of us who indulge the 1990s nostalgia for the fully freakish, full-blown bootiful Halloweens of decades dead and gone, is that the best way to mark the end of October may well be -- horrors! -- to stay home and watch TV. The Simpsons, for starters, have done so many Halloween-themed episodes that they now constitute an annual marathon. Last year NBC's NewsradioÊlampooned how schoolkids at the "cool table" would make fun of classmates in costumes. (That same episode found an excuse to put Kids in the Hall honey Dave Foley back into a dress.) This year Frasier promises a literarily themed Halloween party subplot, albeit one where a guest arrives as the title character in The Story of O. Public access television studios around the country produce some of their most imaginative, provocative programming at this time of year -- Citizens Television, the Comcast-broadcast access channels in New Haven, showed viewers the awe-inspiring spectacle of area media personality and college instructor Bob Paglia dressed as Dracula, lip-synching an aria; the same show hosted a real-life shrieking contest.Even 1970s Shock Rock poster boy Alice Cooper, whose schedule of personal appearances multiplies mightily every October, was a childhood couch potato devotee of the Zorro series starring Guy Williams. Cooper cops to costuming himself as Zorro for seven consecutive Halloweens. Hey, so that's where he got the fencing sword bit for his live act.ItÕs embarrassing to admit, horrific even. But live Halloween is ho-hum, all smoke and mirrors. When prime time TV's faded into the real-life channel-switching witching hour of talk-show reruns, true enthusiasts of the holiday might as well crawl into bed with a good book. I recommend Nine Horrors and a Dream, nerve-wracking short stories by the late Joseph Payne Brennan, a quiet Yale librarian and obsessive depressive horror-hoarder who built his literary legacy in the 1950s on that most frightening of all art forms -- horror poetry.It'll be a dark and stormy night. Get over it.