Putting the Hallow in Halloween

Josh Hadley

josh hadley | the shadows of pop culture | oct. 2018

With Halloween/All Hallows Eve/Day of the Dead/Samhain upon us again I thought I would talk simply aboutthebest day of the year, Oct 31st. To me, all the other holidays are just excuses why I don't get mail and nothing more; Halloween, on the other hand, is something else. It has an energy all its own that nothing else matches.

Halloween/Hall'o'veen started as Samhain (pronounced Sow-In) and was a Celtic celebration for the end of the harvest season and the final act of fun before the start of winter. This lead to beliefs that on the night of October 31 into November 1, the barrier between the living and the dead was at its weakest and 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 Christians 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 or was bastardized into All Hallows' Eve, then Hallows' Eve, then Hallo'veen and then finally Halloween.

History out of the way now, let's get down to Halloween in the modern age. First out of the gate are horror movies. This is the time of year that many of you who do not consider yourselves "horror" people 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 some tradition that you experienced in youth and are now 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 side-seat violence and 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 into that which we associate with darkness (both literally and figuratively, thanks to that Daylight Saving Time nonsense), and death and decay of the fauna all around us. 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 backseat-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 your 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 youare doing this to yourself. It's like being a junkie for adrenaline and providing your own fix. Being scared watching a film is a way to, basically, trick your brain into drugging itself with endorphins and as I said, if a film is made well, this can be achieved to remarkable effect. 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 such as “The Exorcist" has endured as one of the titles usually used when discussing fear on film, there is a reason that 40-plus years later, this film is still frightening and disturbing and why it is still a Halloween staple. “The Exorcist" reaches into your very soul and squeezes. Sometimes a film just "feels" like the Halloween season be it intentionally (“Halloween III" for example) or it can just be an almost intangible quality, such as a film's tone fitting the season perfectly (“Night of the Living Dead"). Some movies just "feel" like Halloween, even if they don't take place at that time or really even use any of prerequisites of the season, maybe certain movies 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 as 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 discomfort 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 Carpenter's “Prince of Darkness" slowly builds the stakes and mood so 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. Watching a horror film helps us release that pent-up rage we have from being part of an "enlightened" society which 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.

A fiercely confrontational and arrogant critic whose stubborn nature makes him immanently readable and equally angering, Josh Hadley is a writer for magazines such as Hustler, Fangoria, Paracinema, Shadowland, Grindhouse Purgatory and Cashers du Cinemart, as well as a radio host on Jackalope Radio. Find more from him at 1201beyond.com, a website that only the most anti-social personalities would engage.

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