October 28, 2010

In a dark, dark room...

Over the past couple weeks I've been checking out what's available for little kids to get into the Halloween spirit. My nephew will soon be old enough to have scary stories read to him and go trick-or-treating, so I want to see exactly how sissified the holiday has become in order to counteract it.

It's even worse than I thought, and I already knew that it was going to be pretty wussy. First, there are virtually no scary story books on sale in the children's section of Barnes & Noble. All of the books on display for Halloween show monsters as goofballs, harmless and bumbling dorks, or similar characters from today's kid culture who happen to be wearing costumes (like the Go Diego Go books). Nothing eerie or spooky, let alone frightening -- in either the text or the pictures. The same goes for TV shows and movies on sale: they portray an adorable and safe holiday rather than one where you're going to get an exhilarating scare.

Still, this research triggered lots of memories of Halloween during the dangerous high-crime times of the 1980s, back before it became hijacked by aging women dressing like sluts and virgin-for-life guys struggling to think up the most uniquely meta-ironic costume in the hopes that it'll finally get them laid with that indie chick who works at the local independently owned coffeehouse. No, back then it was a carnivalesque night for children rather than an overly self-conscious status contest between adults.

In order to keep that original spirit alive, here are some books, music, and TV shows and movies that will protect any little ones who you have influence over from the growing apathy and cutesiness that's been killing off Halloween as a kids' holiday.


When I handed out candy in high school I used to play early albums by The Residents from a front window of the house, but looking back on it I was just doing "weird for the sake of weird." I don't think kids really found it creepy. This year I'm going with the soundtracks for A Nightmare on Elm Street, Labyrinth, and Twin Peaks (and maybe a few off the Fire Walk With Me soundtrack; not nearly as good). People complain that they sound "dated" because of all the synthesizers, but that's like whining about hearing Scarlatti played on a harpsichord. At any rate, synths are inherently spooky-sounding because they lie in the "uncanny valley" between clearly organic sounds and clearly artificial sounds.

The soundtrack for Labyrinth is the most upbeat and kid-friendly one, yet there's just enough sorrow in David Bowie's voice and other-worldiness in the scored music that it will ease them into the Halloween atmosphere. The one for Twin Peaks is the most haunting, both because of the brooding synth compositions by Angelo Badalamenti and the ghostly yearning tone to Julee Cruise's voice. Of course the one for A Nightmare on Elm Street is the most unsettling because of the heavy use of percussion, which calls to mind stalking footsteps, heels striking the ground while running away, windows and doors slamming shut, and things falling or being dropped unexpectedly that give you a jolt. There's lots of plodding, yawning synth lines that give it a surreal and dreamy feel, plus gently chiming sounds that suggest a child's music box or glockenspiel, heightening the contrast between the worlds of the safe and the dangerous.


In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz. He popularized a lot of adult folklore and urban legends for children, including in this book a version of "the vanishing hitch-hiker" and an otherwise normal girl who always wears a green ribbon around her neck. This is the only scary book you can get in the B&N children's section, and for only $6 hardcover. When I saw the cover, I vaguely recalled the title story, but it was the darker one about the green ribbon girl that really woke up the memories I had of being spooked out when someone read this to me in elementary school (probably the school librarian). Three of the seven stories prominently feature death, but kids have to learn about that some time.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (series), also by Alvin Schwartz. You can find watered down versions of some of these books at B&N, but they've junked the original illustrations by Stephen Gammell and replaced them with boring pictures by someone else. Gammell's disturbing, nightmarish drawings are half the fun of this series (see for yourself with a google image search), so you'll have to get the older ones from the '80s and early '90s. There's a newer boxed set of all three books, though I can't vouch for that. There's also an audio book version (most of which can be heard on YouTube) that stars a wonderfully creepy story-teller.

Halloween Poems by Myra Cohn Livingston. Actually the poems here are pretty dopey, but the kids will ignore them and focus on another unnerving set of illustrations by Stephen Gammell.

Thump, Thump, Thump! by Anne Rockwell. This tells the old "who stole my hairy toe?" folktale, but unlike other presentations of it the drawings are scarier (even if cartoony). The color palette is a dreamlike restriction to grays, blues, and oranges, and the desolate rolling landscape looks like it would in a kid's nightmare. It won't seem scary at all to a grown-up, but I remember the tension I felt every time my mother read this to me as a pre-schooler, and the only customer review at Amazon said the same thing. Unfortunately it's been out of print for nearly 30 years, so unless you feel like plunking down $40 for a beaten up copy or over $100 for an intact one, you'll have to find a local library that has it.

TV shows and movies

I'm only talking about ones that are explicitly about Halloween, not just scary movies in general. That's certainly a good idea, too, but you probably don't need any help remembering what the great horror movies are.

Halloween is Grinch Night by Dr. Seuss. You can find this at B&N on the Seuss Celebration DVD, which is a compilation of most of the Dr. Seuss made-for-TV specials of the 1970s. Most of it is a quiet, tension-building series of songs and shots of a small community locking themselves in on a frightening evening; the climax shows a young boy confronting a gauntlet of surreal horrors inside the Grinch's wagon.

Before the '90s explosion of helicopter parenting, my public library used to show this near Halloween in a small theater they had in the basement, at the bottom of winding stairs. When I watched this at age 7 or whatever it was, that climax was one of the scariest things I'd ever seen -- and this is coming from someone who during elementary school saw The Elephant Man, Night of the Living Dead, Aliens, Terminator, the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Child's Play, etc. When I watched it again recently, it wasn't very scary, so perhaps this is one that needs to be seen while staring up at a menacing big screen.

The early Treehouse of Horror specials from The Simpsons are spooky enough, and you can buy those separately from the complete-season DVDs. Both the show in general and the Halloween specials in particular started sucking around the same time in the mid-late '90s, but anything before that is great.

The original Halloween movie needs no reminder, I hope. I saw that last year and my heart still races every 20 minutes during that movie, especially during the many scenes where she's locked outside and pounding and screaming at some clueless kid to let her in, while Michael Myers is closing in on her. Don't be so afraid of showing this to little kids -- like I said, I and most of my friends saw all kinds of frightening movies before we graduated 3rd grade. Hell, at age 10 I even got to see Predator 2 in the theater, where I pestered my dad into sitting in the front row.

I know some of you are thinking of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but I didn't even find that one spooky when I saw it projected on the big screen. To me, most of Tim Burton's attempts at fright are too self-conscious, like the guy in high school whose slouchy posture is more of a pose for attention than a congenital deformity that we truly believe. Batman is full of awesome thrills precisely because it doesn't pause so often to make puppy-dog eyes at the audience and ask to be held. Even the single "Large Marge" scene from Pee-wee's Big Adventure is scarier than all of The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's presented matter-of-factly, and you feel like it could really happen. His later movies lost that believable campfire story-teller vibe, feeling more like you're joining some emo geek to dress in all black and read Edgar Allan Poe aloud in the neighborhood graveyard. Too affected.

These are just a few examples that sprung to mind while I was out browsing. I'm sure there are plenty that I either forgot or never experienced in the first place. So what else is there to shield kids from the adorablization of Halloween? Maybe something by Edward Gorey. I doubt elementary school kids would get the text, but the drawings alone would be great. After Halloween is Grinch Night, the library screened some episodes of Mystery!, and I recall loving his opening animation even at a young age. But it wasn't until high school that I started buying whatever I could get my hands on by him.


  1. "His later movies lost that believable campfire story-teller vibe, feeling more like you're joining some emo geek to dress in all black and read Edgar Allan Poe aloud in the neighborhood graveyard"
    Tim Burton + Vincent Price + Edgar Allan Poe.

    "Big Fish" is a not very emo late Burton film, but I don't think it would be to your taste either.

  2. I see the opposite. It's stayed the same or gotten worse.

    Go into a "Party City" store; it reminds me of what I saw at Spencer's Gifts in the early 90s (and may still be that way?)

    It is utterly prole with slutty costumes and disgustingly scary masks; you cannot take children in there and I won't be going back. When I was in line for my son's costume, I had two fat teen-aged girls near me waiting to try on their slutty costumes, a large and realistic fake snake on the floor that someone dropped and didn't bother to put back...

    I thought of "Idiocracy" standing in that line.

    Go to eBay or any secondary market venue to get a good idea of the evolution of Halloween in the 20th century.

    From the turn of the century until the 1930s, Halloween was mostly seen as adult and scary. In the 1920s this started to change and became more child-centric. In the latter twentieth century, it has become increasingly trashy and adolescent.

    Look up "halloween winsch" on ebay for a flavor of the turn of the cenury. The cards with clowns are really awesome.

    For the deco period, try "halloween vintage German".

  3. I forgot to say that the information I got about Halloween came from an antiques and collectibles show with an expert on Halloween. I believe it was from either the Keno Brothers' "Find!" or "Antiques Roadshow FYI". Again, the secondary market corroborates pretty well. Also try a search of halloween + decade to see the changes.

    In either that episode or another at Halloween time, they discussed Edward Gorey and especially the Gorey Alphabet.

    This year I bought the Martha Stewart Halloween book. She tends to like things from the 50's in all her holiday decorating, but will and does go earlier.

  4. More boring nostalgia. This blog is basically a long whine about how it was better in your day.

  5. Music: check out the Written in Blood series. It's a great collection of tracks from horror film scores.


  6. "This blog is basically a long whine about how it was better in your day."

    Ah, the penetrating insights of the dopey Millennial mind. It's not my day vs. not-my-day. It's high-crime vs. low-crime.

    I wasn't alive for Rocket to Russia, the Roaring Twenties, the Gothic / Romantic era, the Elizabethan / Jacobean era, or the 14th century either.

    Try paying closer attention and you might learn something. It will also help to stop being jealous of others who had exciting childhoods, rather than staring at Barney the Dinosaur and leveling up your dorky little Pokemon characters.

  7. I wish I would've had you as an older friend when I was growing up, but I had surrogate who might as well have been, who was two years older than me who introduced me to the Scary Stories series when I was in 2nd grade (he was in 4th). My mom is a helicopter type, unfortunately.

    Also, you were probably a bit too old, but don't forget the Goosebumps series that was really on fire in the early and mid-nineties but pretty much dead by '97 or so. I'm not aware of anything comparable, which was probably even bigger than Schwartz' books.


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