Conventional wisdom would have you believe that Yuletide is the unquestionable highlight in everyone’s calendar and, for a lot of westerners, that is probably true. After all, who can argue with the universal appeal of eating yourself into a stupor (with an excessive intake of gingerbread) and pretending to be enthused about the fourth bloody pair of socks that you’ve unwrapped on a cold December morning?
Yet I — alongside legions of horror fans — have always maintained that the spooky season is really the most wonderful time of the year. An excuse to let your freak flag fly, to celebrate all that’s creepy and kooky in this world, and of course, to coerce your normie friends into watching tons of scary movies; Halloween is essentially the perfect holiday for somebody like me.
Or at least it is on paper. By all rights October should be my favourite month without any contest but, if I am being brutally honest, it never quite lives up to the astronomical expectations that I have in my head.
Even as a monster-obsessed little tyke, I could tell something was off. Each year I would get myself all psyched up for a round of trick r’ treating — selecting my ideal costume months in advance, honing my best zombie impression, and excitedly venturing out with my parents for the big night itself— only to find the whole experience a tad underwhelming. And that sense of disappointment has only persisted as I’ve grown into adulthood.
You see, the version of Halloween that I’m constantly sold in the media is far superior to the barebones one I get dealt in real life. Based on what I’m shown in films, it seems as though entire communities should be enthusiastically coming together to mark this occasion and that even the smallest of small towns will go whole hog for the revelry, much in the same way that they do for Christmas.
I’m led to believe that neighbourhoods ought to be teeming with people, that houses will be given the most extravagantly ghoulish makeovers and that the sky will be the limit when it comes to picking out an outfit. Alas, this is not the Halloween I grew up with. Not even close.
Living in the ever-stuffy UK (where anything frivolous or fun is automatically met with scorn), I consider it a banner year if I see so much as a couple of pumpkins on my street and a “Treehouse of Horror” episode airing on TV. We just don’t make a big enough deal about October 31st over here, regarding it as nothing more than a pit stop between the summer months and Bonfire Night (the latter presumably being a more reputable occasion, in which we memorialise a thwarted attempt at blowing up our parliament by *checks notes* venerating the domestic terrorist responsible for it).
Based on the agonising conversations I’ve had with people over here, the issue appears to be that Halloween is viewed as a silly American import — despite the fact that its origins are rooted in the Celtic Samhain festival — and is thus snobbishly dismissed by a lot of us Brits. Apparently, that energy would be better channelled into less trivial matters. You know, like histrionic jingoism, ostentatious coronation ceremonies, an endless string of sporting events that we seem to invariably lose, and a whole day in April immortalizing a man whose defining accomplishment was slaying a definitely-real dragon.
So yeah, Halloween is kind of an afterthought in old Blighty. Where our transatlantic cousins get pop-up retailers exclusively dedicated to macabre décor, we get a barren “seasonal aisle” over at the local ASDA. Where American TV channels are taken over with creature features and annual specials, the best I can ever hope for is an embarrassingly themed instalment of a “celebrity” dance competition. And instead of Halloween Horror Nights (of which I am indescribably jealous by the way), I have to make do with low-rent scare mazes that take place in a repurposed tennis club.
It was such a privilege then to visit the States in 2022 and finally see All Hallows’ Eve being done justice, with people unabashedly getting into the spirit of things and truly embracing it in a way that I’d always dreamed they would. And I was there in August, so can only imagine how things must ramp up once you get to Fall!
More often than not, however, I have to (quite literally) settle for Halloween at home. The ensuing celebrations are fine, but I can’t really justify saying that it’s my favourite time of year either. No matter how badly I want it to be.
In order to get the authentic American experience, I’ve instead got to turn to the realm of entertainment for second-hand fun. Indeed, consuming Hollywood movies, TV shows and sometimes video games allows me to vicariously enjoy the festivities, which is why I make a habit of doing it every single day throughout October.
I’ll take anything that’s set at Halloween. Even films that I wouldn’t rate that highly under normal circumstances (such as The Predator or Hocus Pocus) have a unique appeal when I’m looking to scratch this particular itch. As I yearn for something seasonal to do, I can take comfort by sticking on a Blu-ray of, say, Adam Wingard’s The Guest. In doing so, I get to escape into a reality where it’s okay for grown adults to sit on the porch and carve pumpkins, where throwing themed parties is the norm, and where there are school dances that boast their very own house of horror attractions! Or I could maybe watch Terrifier 2 and — instead of being repulsed by Art the Clown’s sadistic rampage — simply marvel at the fact that Miles County has got a halfway-decent costume store with more than just a handful of options to choose from.
Then there’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, wherein the entire narrative is predicated on the (to me alien) notion that this holiday is so popular you could feasibly wipe out entire swathes of the population by inserting cursed microchips into a single brand of mask. Alas, I can guarantee that if Silver Shamrock were to try that shit over here in the UK, they’d be lucky to get the fatalities up into the triple digits.
I also tend to latch onto movies that can immerse me in a proper autumnal atmosphere because, God knows, I won’t get that at home either. British weather is notoriously dreary and, save for maybe one abrupt heatwave in July, doesn’t really change that much over the year. Winter is grey and drizzly, Spring is grey and drizzly, Summer is grey and drizzly and, guess what, so too is Fall. Yet all it takes is a double-bill of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Monster House and I’m suddenly transported into a world of crunchy leaves and earthy, amber hues. Speaking of the latter, some of the very best flicks for getting me in the mood are actually animated features — such as Laika’s gorgeous ParaNorman — because they really go out of their way to capture the distinctive look & feel of this time of year. Not to mention, there are no restrictions on the kind of picture-perfect Halloween they can imagine.
As an outsider looking in, they exude the same kind of cosy feeling that many derive from watching Rankin/Bass classics in December, comfortably standing alongside the likes of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer or The Little Drummer Boy. Yet the cream of the crop for me (and many others) is undoubtedly Michael Dougherty’s enchanting Trick ‘r Treat. And, given my frustrations about how dismissive my own country is of Halloween, it shouldn’t take a forensics team to get to the bottom of why.
Set in the fictional town of Warren Valley, where everyone takes All Hallows’ Eve traditions very seriously, it’s a movie in which the entire community gets together for a ghostly parade and killjoys are punished for their bah humbugging. In this diegesis, smashing Jack-o’-lanterns or turning away candy-starved youngsters is a crime punishable by death and I find that so cathartic.
From various different angles, each of the film’s intersecting tales explores the value of holiday rituals, where they come from and, above all else, why that lore should be cherished. Whether it’s a group of adolescents using their cosplay as an opportunity to express parts of themselves they would usually repress, kids regaling each other with urban legends that are imbued with dark moral lessons, or an elderly curmudgeon being taught the error of his ways after refusing to participate in the night’s revelries; everything thing comes back to Halloween as a core theme. In fact, it’s the only flick I can think of that’s about the meaning of this particular occasion, in much the same way that It’s A Wonderful Life is about the meaning of Christmas.
Trick ‘r Treat even manages to retroactively create a modern-day mascot for this date in the calendar, in the form of the adorably terrifying Sam. Xmas has always had Santa Claus and Easter’s got its famous bunny, but Halloween has never had a definitive icon to rival them. That was until this vindictive, confectionary-obsessed menace (stuffed to the brim with pumpkin guts) arrived on the scene. Now the holiday has a recognisable face, albeit one that’s covered with a burlap sack most of the time.
With that said, as much as I adore Trick ‘r Treat, I would never dream of watching it at any other time of year. It is inextricably Halloween-y to me, and I want to preserve that special feeling it gives me. After all, it’s a fix that I cannot find elsewhere in real life.
It’s the same reason that I return to a certain Battle Royale game every twelve months for its Fortnitemares event and eagerly anticipate Red Letter Media’s annual Best of the Worst Spooktacular, because those things allow me to be part of communal activities that are themed to the season. And that’s something that I just won’t come across at home. It’s now gotten to the point where I’m even longingly watching TikTok shopping compilations, gazing at all of the awesome decorations, props and lighting set-ups that you can buy at random supermarkets across the pond.
The point is, I really do love the idea of Halloween, even if it is something that, to an extent, I’ve had to admire from afar my whole life. You see, without all of the cool stuff that people in the U.S. have access to, I’ve just got to find my own way of getting into the spirit of things. Which is why I am always grateful for a visit from Michael Myers, Jack Skellington, The Cramps and, of course, little Sam. Those guys truly make Halloween for me.
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