Creepy horror of commercial Halloween
Scream as the zombies totter towards you! Thrill at being scared! Race to protect your kids from seasonal fear!
THE CURRENT status of Halloween offers lessons about the flexibility of capitalism. We now carve pumpkins rather than turnips. Malevolent children wander the streets threatening to “trick” innocent citizens if they are not gifted bags of “treats”.
(Mind you, having always refused to hand the little extortionists so much as a polo mint, I am still waiting for this promised awful retaliation. Chickens!) The entire country – or that portion of it at home to dreadful “fun” – seems to wear fancy dress for the whole month of October.
The origins of Halloween are obscure, but the general consensus is that we – the Celts – are responsible for its invention. Yet, as recently as 20 years ago, none of the habits mentioned above was part of domestic Halloween celebration.
The Americans have really pulled a fast one here. They’ve taken our own festival, sentimentalised it, defanged it and sold it back to us as industrialised conformity. What next? They’ll be trying to turn St Patrick’s Day into a vulgar orgy of papier-mâché heads and illuminated leprechauns. Oh hang on a moment . . .
Not being one of those columnists who lives in a horrible rural shed and spends his time commenting on the majesty of frogspawn, I am not here to argue for a return to the ancient mystical roots of Halloween. Yokels wearing straw masks while frolicking ethnically round fetishes of the great god Fogbeard are no less ludicrous (or authentic) than trainee solicitors attending urban cocktail parties dressed as Buzz Lightyear.
No. What we are really missing is any sense of the macabre in Halloween. Obviously, we can’t get this from attempts to connect directly with the supernatural. Ghosts don’t exist. Those Celtic spirits were all made up. No house has ever really been haunted. There is, in short, no such thing as the supernatural.
But, at this time of year, we have tended to enjoy dragging up fictional takes on the fantastic. Glance at the gangs of juvenile tearaways progressing towards your house in search of fun-size Twix. This one is The Mummy. That one is Dracula. The other one is a zombie.
You might argue that horror has never been more conspicuous in popular culture. In less than a month, the last film in the Twilight sequence – based on Stephenie Meyer’s hugely popular novel sequence – will sulk its way into cinemas. One day every year, Dublin becomes flooded with citizens dressed in bloody rags for the summer’s zombie walk.
Every now and then, some misguided moralist will argue that dressing children up as werewolves or allowing them to read books about beautifully miserable bloodsuckers constitutes some level of abuse. A trip to a horror convention should set such killjoys’ minds to rest. Visit, say, the Horrorthon festival at the Irish Film Institute this weekend and you will encounter nothing but good will, high spirits and friendly welcomes. Only heavy metal events involve greater levels of camaraderie.
The real problem with the current attitude to horror is that the genre has become so sentimentalised that – in its mainstream form, anyway – it no longer retains any real potency. Meyer’s vampires are a little too like ordinary teenagers. The witches’ costumes sold in Dunnes Stores are just a little too cute for discomfort.
As the commercialisation of Halloween has increased, the desire to protect children from recreational scares has remained an unshakable manifestation of parental paranoia. In the 1950s, the US government got itself in a state of advanced panic about the popularity of horror comics. In the 1970s, fulminating puritans such as Mary Whitehouse decided that Dr Who had become too scary for children. A decade later, the video nasty controversy threatened to turn the United Kingdom into a nation of pitchfork-brandishing hysterics.
Won’t somebody please think of the children? Sadly for opponents of horror, virtually every attempt to link contemporary atrocity with the viewing of macabre material has failed. We all recall how, with no good evidence, certain tabloids decided that the largely comical Child’s Play films inspired the murderers of Jamie Bulger. They didn’t.
For centuries, children have enjoyed being frightened half to death. Philip Pullman’s recent retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy stories – tellingly classed “for young and old” – reminds us of the relentless violence that ran through folk tales.
The truth is that children are often less unnerved by horror than are their parents. They treat the recreational shocks as a form of play: a way of preparing themselves for the genuine horrors of adulthood. When parents argue that some film or television show is too scary for kids they often mean for adults (specifically themselves).
Forget all the cosy horror and gelded malevolence. Cuddle up to a genuinely nasty entertainment this Halloween. It’s fun for all the family.