305 – The Great Pumpkin

Are you sitting uncomfortably, dear children? Seats made of razorblades, cushions made of guts? Are there bats scritching your scalp and leeches sucking your toes?

Then I’ll begin.

‘Twas a darkened Halloween Eve that saw young Campfire traipsing house to house with his sister and his friend Matthew, who wasn’t a friend but the boy up the road who could climb higher, yell louder and do anything better than anyone else–or so he claimed. This was the season of ghouls, in which the eyes that lurked in shadows were always hungry, and nestled above teeth that were always sharp. Dark and rainy, these three were the only children trick-or-treating that night, and though the odds were against them they were hopeful for free sweets.

The sister was a witch, small and dear behind a a mask that that clad her own button nose with one long, green and crooked. Campfire was a vampire–Vampfire Burning, if you will–pale of complexion, with trails of fake blood (or was it?) running down his cheek. Matthew, eh, I forget what Matthew was dressed up as. It’s unimportant to the story. Let’s continue.

The hopeful children had taken buckets and sacks that, though they tapped and rapped on many a door, remained resolutely empty bar a Drumstick and a gummy worm (or was it?) hardly weighing them down at all. There were no decorations at places where they tricked and treated, no pumpkins glaring, no Frankenstinian monsters groaning. The only spooky things haunting Halloween that night were the children three and the night itself.

But this place, this house here, perched on the hillside alongside houses just like it, this would surely prove fertile ground for tricks and snaps and treats ahoy. And the children, armed with a waterguns and a rubber spider in a bucket, went a’knocking on a door that would surely give up the goods.

A trembling hand knocked. A tremulous voice squeaked. The door creaked open; in unison the children cried “Trick or treat!”

A woman, tall as the day in high summer, thick as the fog in high fall loomed over them. “Very nice,” she said, her voice the clanging of crypt gates, and she unfurled a hand over the bucket with the spider in it and let drop something from it, to rattle in the bucket’s depths.

Boom, went the door, slamming in front of the children as she left. Boom, boom, doom.

And the children, eager to see the treat bestowed upon them, rushed beneath the light of the nearest streetlamp and examined the contents of the bucket.

And they saw:

One rubber spider, its legs half falling off.

And one strawberry Opal Fruit.

“I knew it,” said Matthew. “I knew that’s all she’d put in.”

“How are we supposed to split that up between three of us?” said the sister.

And Vampfire Burning, suddenly found Halloween a much frightening place. The werewolves mightn’t be real and the only vampires roaming were himself and other kids wearing fangs bought in Woolworths, but witches, they were real, and they were just as likely to trick unsuspecting trick-or-treaters as treat them.

One Opal Fruit, strawberry flavoured. It scares me to this day.

But Halloween should be scary. Without monsters and magic, Halloween’s just a fancy dress party. Unlike certain British individuals–the stinge-finder general with the Opal Fruit being one, talk show host James Whale, who spent much of his radio show on the twenty-eighth moaning that dressing up for Halloween was tantamount to devil worship, being another–I think Halloween’s a splendid thing in principal. In practise in the UK nobody seems to get into the spirit of things. People bemoan the increasing Americanisation of the United Kingdom and point to Halloween as an example; if anything Halloween has a much lower profile than it did when I was young, when trick-or-treaters were infrequent but Woolworths formed a centrepoint for all seasonal revelry, with decorations and party tableware and gummy snakes as long and as thick as your arm. In our very British way we carved turnips, not pumpkins, and watched them flickering wickedly through the window as we ate something warm and comforting; outside the air smelled with sweet smoke as the guttering flame licked and scorched the turnip’s innards, a smell I’ll forever associate with Halloween.

Our parents threw us two memorable Halloween parties when we were small. These days the only parties you ever seem to hear about are those Christian dull-fests set up to keep candy-grubbing hooligans off the streets. Even in the US–the Halloween heartland–these occasionally make an unwanted appearance, as evidence by the church we passed on Sunday that advertised a special Halloween showing of Gone With the Wind and not Babe-Slasher XVI: Babe-Slasher Takes New Orleans as would have been befitting.

My mum took great pains organising these parties. I had chicken pox during my birthday one year–we have pictures of me spotty-faced, leant over a TARDIS cake with attendant marshmallow Daleks–so to compensate she threw me a party at the end of October instead of in the middle of it. Through imagination and copious use of food dye she turned orange squash into vampire’s blood, lemon barley water into mystical potion, made a black and orange cake with a witch’s hat erupting from its middle and black icing cats cavorting on its sides. Chicken drumsticks became bat’s wings. Everything on the table became darker and more morbid, and my party guests dressed in ghastly attire quailed when they saw the menu on the dining room door–at least until they eaten and drank and realise the only thing to be afraid of was severe stomach ache the next day.

After, we played games with a Halloween theme such as hunt the spider and pin the noose on the hanged man, and all the while two crepe paper ghosts looked in through the window, their mouths black ‘o’s of wailing terror.

Britain’s take on Halloween died in the early 1990s. Until that point TV channels showed spooky movies no child should have stayed up to watch (though many of us did). On October the 31st 1992 BBC One showed a Halloween drama, Ghostwatch, as part of its Screen One series.

Ghostwatch was a drama unlike any other. Presented in what would now be considered a mockumentary style it used popular TV presenters of the day playing themselves to foster an atmosphere of warm familiarity that it would shortly tear asunder. Anyone tuning in later might well have mistakenly believed that Ghostwatch was actually a live investigation into the paranormal happenings at Foxhill Drive.

Over its running time Ghostwatch takes viewers on an unsettlingly macabre story of child abuse, murder and possession. By the end it’s clear this is a dramatisation–but the show never purported to be anything else. The cast list was made clear in that week’s Radio Times and the whole thing was preceded by the distinctive rolling stone of the Screen One series, marking it out as part of a series of dramas and nothing more.

Except it was something more. This dark, unrelenting horror which innovated many camera techniques later borrowed by the team behind The Blair Witch Project went out in a prime time slot to an audience more used to the slightly more mundane–if often more gruesome–horrors of Casualty and So Haunt Me.

Ending with all hell literally breaking loose, Ghostwatch unsettled viewers to such a degree the BBC pulled it, never to repeat it again. In the wake of its screening a young man with learning difficulties killed himself, something that only added to Ghostwatch’s notoriety.

But Ghostwatch wasn’t the only piece of Halloween programming the BBC screened that night. Over on BBC Two Doctor Terror introduced a night of horror, starting with Stephen King’s Creepshow and The Fog and embracing all manner of documentaries about ghastly things that might be abroad on Halloween.

It was as if Halloween had peaked too soon. The next year’s programming was severely scaled back; on subsequent Halloweens TV schedules were often empty of Halloween programming, with a token effort–a Friday the Thirteenth movie, perhaps–shown two or three days either side of the night itself. Forever a horror junkie I’d become quite irate when browsing the schedules, demanding to know why they wouldn’t just move the one or two horror films they were showing to Halloween night where they’d be more suited.

Arriving too late to the US to bask in its love of Halloween, I caught only the final preparations, the dregs of a season already looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas beyond. Most of the Halloween candies had been replaced on supermarket shelves by Christmas goodies–one young man, evidently learning disabled himself collared both my wife and I separately to point this out, grinning around crooked tombstone teeth and telling us his favourite sweets were Cherry Cordials, whatever those are. There was still a haunted house the size of a kid’s wendy house lodged in the seasonal aisle; Lindsay drove our trolley through it three times, each time emerging looking tremendously disturbed. It was little more than a tent awning with a few dangling skeletons and a sound system playing screams, wolf howls and creepy music, but it’s more than I’ve ever seen in the UK.

These haunted houses were advertised everywhere, as were haunted corn mazes and haunted hay rides. Anyone with a bit of land behind their homes had strung up witches and demons and hoped to make a few bucks from those curious enough to brave their homemade haunted attractions.

Likewise, there were pumpkins and other spooks on ever doorstep, some a little more gruesome, some a littler friendlier but all there to celebrate the season, the holiday Halloween’s become.

Something I’d not realised prior to this visit was how important corn and scarecrows are to the American Halloween season. Kept from tradition pop culture there are just as many scarecrows adorning walls and porches as there are grim reapers, and corn husks are stapled everywhere–it’s a little neo-paganism, a few sacrifices for next year’s bounty.

My first American Halloween was quite uneventful. As my sister-in-law had decided to go our partying (dressed as a slutty schoolgirl at that) we were tasked with staying in and minding the children. They’d fallen into sugar comas as soon as they’d returned from trick-or-treating, so it was an easy way to make a few bucks. While little Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Pink Bat Girl dreamt of stomach aches, we curled up together and watched Trick ‘r Treat, me for the umpteenth time, she for first. Next to the pumpkins on the doorstep we’d placed a bowl of Dum Dum Lollies (“The worst candy,” I’ve been assured, “but also the cheapest.”), many of which had been overturned and trampled into the mud by tiny clawed feet by the night’s end.

And though I didn’t find myself lost in a corn maze, dress in costume or consume gut-wrenching quantities of sweets, having my wife resting her head on my shoulder, delighting in every scare on screen while three demons slept upstairs, I could hardly call it an anti-climax. Rather, this was the first of many Halloweens to come, in a nation that doesn’t stiffly refuse to believe in ghosts but seeks them out, calling out to the night’s wind: “Trick or treat, smelly my feet, give me something good to eat!”

It mightn’t be the holidays of my homeland, but it’s a holiday nonetheless. Happy Halloween, everybody.

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