A Halloween Sermon by Simon
If you grew up in the '60s or '70s, Halloween triggers a certain, shall we say, fervor that simply can't be matched today.
Don't get me wrong — nowadays the jack-o-lantern celebration is more seamlessly exploited than ever, making tons of money as children shell out for Harry Potter costumes and adults shell out for Britney Spears costumes and everyone buys those bags of "fun-size" chocolate bars that weigh as much as a sack of topsoil. There are Halloween fairs and Halloween stores and sexy Halloween parties for the grown-ups and Halloween promotions and Halloween movie marathons on AMC.
Then, at the stroke of midnight, it's full tilt toward Thanksgiving.
Wearing costumes, being spooky, eating so much candy that your molars sing like Zatoichi's sword ... America loves it all.
And I'd be the last person to bemoan the "commercialization" of the holiday. But when I was a kid it had a certain, well, religious intensity.
Y'see, I was one of those kids who dreamed about Halloween all year long. This was in part because I was the weird kid who spawned the weird adult I'm proud to be today. But I believe it's also because I grew up in the Second Golden Age of Monsters.
The greatest monster movies of all time were made in the '30s and '40s. I'm talking about the Universal classics, natch: Frankenstein and at least a few of its sequels, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and assorted lesser-known treasures.
Why have monster films been so underwhelming of late, despite massive effects budgets and the doting attention of "serious" filmmakers? Because the desire to either shock with gore or tickle with kitsch (I'm looking at you, Stephen Sommers) has overshadowed what made the Uni monsters great: feeling.
The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man are tragic, dude. They're outcasts, exiles, prisoners of cruel fate. They feel longing and love, regret and even ennui. And yes, rage — but that wild destructive power has a context. Feel me? Lycanthrope Larry Talbot desperately seeks a cure for his nightmare condition. The Monster wants a friend. Dracula feels the dread weight of immortality crushing what little joy he can still feel. The Mummy wanders forever in search of his lost love. And the Hunchback? Don't even get me started.
For me, the Golden Age monsters were the highest of high art. I soaked it all up: the shadowy cinematography, the innovatively grotesque makeup, the vaulting score music and, most of all, performances that blended pathos and irony, melodrama and melancholy.
These flicks were hits when they came out, but when they were re-released in theaters and shown on TV in the '50s and '60s, they were welcomed into the cultural mainstream. They became domesticated into comedy, into music, into pop art; they were part of the family.
On the other side of the coin, Disney opened the Haunted Mansion when I was a kid; Famous Monsters magazine was a must-have subscription for geeky boys; and William Castle's amazing spookfests were making the TV rounds. Floating candelabra, wheezing pipe organs, walking skeletons, sinister laughter and portraits with moving eyes were the apotheosis of the form.
All of which is to say that for me Halloween was a time for the exaltation of all things creepy. I set up elaborate "haunted houses" to frighten the local kids, with demon claws descending on fishing line and mangled corpses fashioned out of old clothes. I had extensive collections of plastic fangs, tubes of "Vampire Blood," top hats and cloaks, which I donned to distribute mini-Snickers as ominously as possible to the courageous Spidermen and ballerinas who dared to ring the family doorbell.
Long after the Halloween decorations were gone from the neighborhood houses and local drugstores, my surroundings remained monster-friendly. An array of posters and photos from classic fright films adorns my office even now. Today might be the day I share my monsters with everyone, but where I live — by which I mean in the cobwebby corridors of my eternally eight-year-old imagination — it's always Halloween.