- Chris Thorndycroft is a British writer of short stories and novels in the horror, fantasy and historical genres.
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The four yearly anthologies from Spinetinglers are now available for Kindle. The 2010 collection features my story ‘The Tapping’ and the 2011 (featuring a brand new cover design) includes ‘The Girl and the Mist’. The 2011 collection should be coming out in hard cover and paperback in the next month or so. Click below for links to Amazon.com. All are also available from Amazon.co.uk.
I posted this last year on another (now all but defunct blog) so I’m going to recycle it here. Most ‘Top Halloween Movie’ lists are just an excuse to slap together a few favorite horror flicks. But is that all Halloween is about? Since its arrival on the shores of the US in the hands of Irish immigrants, All Hallows’ Eve has metamorphosed into a holiday that embraces all things gruesome and terrifying with a plethora of newer traditions that are almost solely confined to the US. While that’s all well and good, what about the roots of the festival? And what movies can we find that are associated with these oldest traditions?
Originating in the Celtic parts of Europe (i.e. Britain, Ireland and Gaul) Halloween (or ‘Samhain’ as it was called in Ireland back then) heralded the beginning of the dark half of the year and was a night when the spirits of the dead (presumably both good and bad) could return from the Otherworld to visit the places and people they knew in life. When Christianity grew in strength under the rule of the late Romans, the newly formed church frowned on such pagan beliefs, connecting them with devil worship and other un-godly things (which must have been news to the Romanised Celts). In an effort to replace these heathen customs with their own mythology of saints, the festival was renamed ‘All Saints’ Eve’ or more commonly ‘All Hallows’ Eve’. Also, the church’s raging fear of women with apparent spiritual power (or any kind of power in society for that matter) led to the concept of witchcraft. After all, if these priestesses and healers were not Christians, they had to be using their mystical powers for evil, right?
And so there we have it; a pagan seasonal festival connected with spirits returning from the realm of the dead and doorways into other worlds layered with a Christian mythology of demons, witchcraft and the big, bad man downstairs. It is ironic that in these more secular times, the fusion of cultures and beliefs has become inseparably entwined. But what present day movies reflect this strange witch’s brew of mythologies?
Well, for over a century horror movies have fed on the gothic, the supernatural and the demonic. But not all of them. Some rely on the psychological or the problems of society and others are just in it for the gore. So for a list to properly represent the true spirit of Halloween (in my opinion), some parameters need to be defined.
1. A Halloween movie must deal with the supernatural (except in a very few cases which will be discussed further). So, while the likes of ‘Psycho’, ‘Jaws’, and the various slasher franchises may be considered great movies, they don’t fit the bill in this case.
2. Halloween is all about the dead returning to the realm of the living. So no werewolves, aliens or monsters of earthly creation. On the other hand ghosts, vampires and zombies (the gothic rather than the scientific kind) are in.
3. The ‘doorways into other worlds’ concept is a much used one and really ties in with what the Celts believed in and their traditions surrounding Samhain. While this could potentially cover a huge amount of ground, other worlds such as Hell and the realm(s) of the dead etc are perfect territory.
4. Arguably, Halloween is as much a Christian concept as a pagan one and as the early church made connections between Satan and heathen happenings, why not represent this too? Demonic possession, devil worship and satanic cults are hardly in short order in Hollywood.
After much thought, I have assembled the following list. All films are in alphabetical order (saves me having to pic a favorite, see?)
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Remember the hype surrounding this one? Many people thought it was the real deal and as this ‘missing footage found in the woods’ gimmick was ultra cheap to film, it remains one of the most profitable movies of all time.
I’ll go ahead and admit that I wasn’t scared into convulsions by this, but it remains damn well eerie to this day. The invented mythology surrounding the alleged witch of the nearby woods is effectively done and the gradually deteriorating friendship of the three protagonists as they get more and more lost really portrays the feeling of hopelessness which is terrifying in itself. And then they find that old house in the woods…
2. The Crow (1994)
Aha! What’s this? A Halloween movie that isn’t a horror movie? The Crow is a fantastic tale of a spirit brought back from the land of the dead to right the wrongs on Devil’s Night (aka Halloween). The fact that a crow acts as the guiding link between the living and the dead is a real nod to Celtic mythology, displaced as it is in the hellish urban landscape of 1990′s Detroit.
What could have been a simple action/revenge flick typical of its decade was really elevated by the gloriously noirish production design. Steamy, rain-slicked streets reflect the fires of anarchy as the resurrected Eric Draven chases down the hoods who raped and murdered his bride to be, caked up in goth trappings and following the titular bird all the way to the top of the criminal ladder.
3. Dracula (1931)
I said vampires were fair game in my intro, so I’ll go ahead and add the most influential vampire flick of all time. We can argue which of the countless cinematic versions of Stoker’s classic is the best until the cows come home, but you can’t deny the cultural impact of Bela Legosi’s opera-cloaked count who has influenced everything from breakfast cereal to Sesame Street.
Eerie and atmospheric (check out the superbly gothic crypt scene complete with rats and insects in which the stench of decay can practically be smelled), the film was the first in a long line of Universal Studios monster movies which remain popular subjects for Halloween costumes to this day.
4. The Exorcist (1973)
Widely regarded as the most terrifying movie of all time, The Exorcist (along with Rosemary’s Baby - 1968) was largely responsible for the shift in horror movies from gothic crypts and haunted houses to the demonic terrors of the modern world. Telling the tale of a young girl possessed by a demon and the plight of the elderly priest to expel the evil entity is the ultimate in the glut of satanically themed movies of the 1970s.
Essays have been written as to why this is so effective as a horror movie, so I won’t over analyse here. All I’ll say is that it is the corruption of innocence along with the hideous, puppet-like contortions of a young girl that makes this film just as horrific today.
5. Halloween (1978)
You knew this was coming, right? I said that I would explain the inclusion of any films with non-supernatural themes, and well, the clue is in the title. The atmosphere and festivities of Halloween in American suburbia are the backdrop here as an escaped psychopath returns to his home town and begins offing teenagers with the aid of a large kitchen knife. Why? We shall never know, but the concept kickstarted a trend in the horror genre that would dominate the next couple of decades.
Surprisingly bloodless, John Carpenter’s classic film was an exercise in suspense and the terror of not knowing what is lurking in the shadows. Slasher films before this had been set out in the sticks (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and in sorority houses (Black Christmas) – both 1974, but Halloween put the masked killer right in the backyards of American suburbia.
6. The Haunting (1963)
It took me a long time to choose this over The Innocents (1961) as the greatest haunted house movie of all time and I’m still not sure I made the right decision. This was back when atmosphere and eeriness made a horror film rather than blood and cheap shocks. Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, the film follows a nervous young woman who is invited along with three other guests to stay at the forboding Hill House by a psychologist interested in the paranormal.
The fact that it was filmed in black and white only adds to the chilling sensation I get when watching this; the shadows are deeper, the faces more expressive. And that scene with the face in the wallpaper really gets me.
7. Hellraiser (1987)
Based on director Clive Barker’s own novel (The Hellbound Heart), Hellraiser tells of a man who acquires a mysterious puzzle box which opens a gateway into another dimension. His earthly flesh taken by the Cenobites who dwell there, the man’s ex-lover (his brother’s wife) learns what has happened and begins a chain of murders that will bring her lover back from beyond the grave.
At a time when the horror market was saturated with slasher sequels from the US, Barker brought the British touch back and created a horror character (Pinhead) just as iconic as the Freddies and Jasons of the genre.
8. Monster House (2006)
One for the kids (and any of us adults who enjoy this sort of thing), Monster House is another one of those films that glorifies the traditional Halloween in suburbia and tells the tale of a local kid called DJ who spends his time spying on his extremely grumpy neighbor and general local nutjob Nebbercracker; a man so violently opposed to kids trespassing on his lawn that he steals their toys and frightens them off. When Nebbercracker apparently dies of a stroke during a tirade against DJ, the guilt-stricken kid quickly becomes convinced that the creepy old house has taken on its former owner’s malevolent spirit.
If you can suspend your disbelief that nobody except the trio of kids witness the timber-splitting antics of the titular house (including the grabbing of unfortunate dogs with a carpet-tongue and swallowing them whole), then there is lots to love about this motion capture animation from Spielberg and Zemeckis. It’s surprisingly scary for a kids movie and also has quite a heart-wrenching story at its core.
9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Radiation from a downed space probe causes the dead to rise up from the grave. A group of vastly different people find themselves under siege in an abandoned farmhouse and must use their wits to stay alive.
What, on the surface, might look like a science fiction movie fuelled by Cold War fears of atomic technology (and mind control) is in fact one of the most influential examples of the ‘dead back to life’ theme ever. George A. Romero’s gritty and cheap independent movie started a trend of low budget zombie gore fests that has continued to this day. Archetype-bending concepts (the hero is black) and a brutally abrupt ending make this film a cut above the slew of imitators that followed.
10. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Sure, it has the word ‘Christmas’ in the title, but this stop-motion effort based on the creepy and crazy imagination of Tim Burton is every bit a Halloween movie as a Christmas one. Tired of the annual town effort of ‘Halloween’, Jack Skellington (The Pumpkin King of Halloweentown) goes for a wander in the forest and stumbles into the fairy-lit and candy cane-coloured world of Christmastown. Obsessed with this new holiday, Jack Skellington instructs his loyal subjects that this year, they will be ‘making Christmas’. The results are hilariously disastrous and gothically grotesque in true Tim Burton fashion.
One only has to look at the quantity of merchandise generated from this 1993 stop-motion classic to see what a fan base it has. The face of Jack Skellington is almost an icon for Goth/EMO culture and the film (despite being directed by Henry Selick) has become something of a flagship for Tim Burton’s gothic and macabre career in movies.
11. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Washington Irving’s American classic gets the Hollywood treatment in this wonderfully atmospheric version. Police Inspector, Ichabod Crane visits a small Dutch settlement where the legendary Headless Horseman is relieving the townsfolk of their heads, one by one. Piecing the mystery together, Crane notices a pattern in the killings and begins to suspect that there may be some human involvement.
If I had to choose a favorite Halloween movie, Sleepy Hollow would be a powerful contender for #1. Tim Burton’s gloriously gothic take on Irving’s classic reeks atmosphere and perfectly sets the mood for the season. Eerie mist cloaks skeletal trees, the blood is as bright and as lurid as in any Hammer Horror (a comparison increased by appearances from Christopher Lee and Michael Gough) and the pumpkin head motif is used to full effect.
12. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Probably the most Halloween-centric movie ever, Trick ‘r Treat is a love letter to the autumnal festival itself. Visually sumptuous the film also offers enough scares and clever plotting to make it a seasonal classic.
An anthology in the style of the classic days of Amicus Produtions, the four separate stories are connected by a creepy little child-like character called Sam (short for ‘Samhain’) who is the apparent spirit of Halloween, dead set on punishing those who do not follow the unwritten rules of Halloween (wear a costume, hand out treats, never blow out a jack o’ lantern and always check your candy). The nighttime antics of a high school principal, a mean prank going horribly wrong, a virgin’s reluctance to ‘break her cherry’ and a grumpy old Halloween-hating man’s comeuppance are cleverly joined together amid the creepy festivities of Halloween in small town, America.
13. The Wicker Man (1973)
Investigating the disappearance of a little girl on a remote Scottish island, a deeply Christian police officer uncovers a heathen community with some very sinister traditions.
This is the second film to feature on my list that has absolutely no supernatural goings on in it at all. And with good reason. Few films have portrayed the age-old head on collision between pagan practices and Christian arrogance as perfectly as this one. It has been said that the things people do to one another and the things they do in the name of religion can be more horrifying than any monsters or ghouls the mind can imagine and that is the message that lies at the heart of The Wicker Man. Although set during the spring festival of Beltain rather than Samhain (despite being filmed in November), the film depicts a culture not too far removed from the Celtic practices that lie at the heart of Halloween.
It’s amazing what a difference music can make in movies and movie trailers. While creepy things can be rendered harmless by some light-hearted music, seemingly innocent stuff can become terrifying when put to the right soundtrack. This mock up trailer for a famous family movie is pure genius.
We don’t get many trick-or-treaters round our way so this is mostly just for us. Gruesome Gummies and chocolate eyeballs and pumpkins.
My wife is amazing with cakes. For Halloween she came up with the idea of cake pops (balls of cake miked with chocolate and decorated with marshmallow fondant and coloured chocolate). We made ghosts and zombies…
From The New Breed by Chris Thorndycroft.
Father Connor burnt his tongue on his coffee in surprise as Joey stumbled backwards out of the storeroom, gripping a broken broom in his shaking hands. He flung the snapped tool away from him and slammed the door shut before turning to the vending machine that stood by it and grasping hold of its edges.
‘Help me shift this thing!’ he hollered, his voice high-pitched in terror.
Connor hurried over and took a firm grip on the machine and together they slid it across the floor and pushed it up against the door.
‘What’s going on?’ Conner demanded but he didn’t catch Joey’s answer as the door slammed against the side of the vending machine making it tip and fall back into place, the bottles held within its innards rattling around.
Joey dived behind the counter and rummaged about, emerging with a double-barrelled shotgun. He began to slide in a couple of cartridges with clumsy hands.
Again the door flung itself against the vending machine, harder this time, propelled by an almost angry force. The big black machine with its glowing front panel tipped and hung for a moment before thundering to the floor with an ear-splitting crash. The door swung open and a figure emerged, stoop-backed; thin arms hanging almost to the ground.
Conner recognised the hitchhiker at once. Her dishevelled hair was even more lank in death and her pale skin was shiny. She was totally naked and Connor didn’t have to see her feet to know that the mortician’s tag was still attached to her big toe.
She lunged for Joey, her dead eyes rolling in sunken sockets and her hands held outwards like claws.
Joey screamed and pulled the trigger. In an instant Connor saw the young girl’s face torn away in a shower of pellets and blood. The force of it bent her over backwards but she did not fall. Straightening up, she advanced again, her head a hideous mess of loose flesh, ruptured eyeballs and seeping grey matter.
Joey fired the second barrel, aiming lower this time. The girl’s torso seemed to hang in suspended animation for a split second as everything from the belly down was sent hurling backwards, innards flailing like streamers in a parade. The top half tumbled to the floor behind the counter with a wet thud and Joey made a leap to reach the other side.
Something grabbed his ankle and wrenched him back. Ketchup and mustard bottles skittered and rolled as his arms waved about uselessly on the counter top before he sank down from view.
Connor prayed frantically that this was some terrible dream and did his best to block out the screams which were followed by long sucking sounds as the creature fed on its prey.
The thought of bolting for the door and fleeing into the night briefly crossed his mind and he chastised himself for it. This girl – this thing that had once been a girl – could not be left to roam aimlessly in Whispering Pines, seeking out more victims to feed upon. He did not understand why God allowed this creature to exist, but he knew that it was up to him to halt it in its tracks now, tonight.
It was done feeding and Connor could hear its arms flopping wetly on the linoleum, dragging itself along. A hand appeared around the edge of the counter and preceded a forearm, then an elbow and finally that mutilated red globe that remained of its head, blood – both Joey’s and its own – trailing in lukewarm strands from its gaping mouth. Shattered pits that had once been eyes peered at Connor.
Can it see me?
A plan formed in his mind and without pausing to consider it for too long, he made a dash for the counter. He was up and over into the kitchen before the creature was able to turn around and heave its writhing carcass after him.