Ghosts. Skeletons. Zombies. Werewolves. Vampires. Mummies. Cultural Appropriators. It’s all vewy, vewy, terrifyingly scary. It’s the time of the year where perfectly good lattes are being ruined by the addition of horribly artificial pumpkin-inspired oils and spices; kids annoy the heck out of everyone by knocking on doors to extort sugar; the television sets of all free nations broadcast spooky films; and, it is said, the veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead are at its thinnest.
It’s Halloween on Sunday (convenient, since you could hide in church if you are terrified). It is a strange celebration, uniquely Western (far Western, as in America only for a long time, before the export). Sure, it’s all based on the Pagan Samhain – but like all things modern paganism, the links are – thankfully – dubious. Out with rituals involving bestiality and blood sacrifice. In with tacky plastic toys and outfits and a spike in the sale of the unhealthiest mass produced goodies consumer goods manufacturers could envision.
Fine… I’ll admit it… I’m a bit of a ghost grinch. And I will confess too that there is something enduring about the idea of the dead and the living connecting… and the celebration of the morbid and the macabre. Like Mexico’s Day of The Dead, some celebrations to Shiva in India, and very overproduced Rituals by Immature High Magickians convincing themselves that their posturing amounts to the manipulation of forces from the other side – the human tendency to access some form of Halloween seems damn near universal.
I grew up without Halloween. Anything remotely like it would have been received with, um, horror. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe – toys printed and made in Taiwan – were seen as instruments of Satanic world domination. A skeleton would have caused instant cardiac arrest in the halls of moral power. It was a foreign, evil, potentially communist, English practice.
After what passes for democracy came to Mars, that changed. And it still seemed to struggle to catch on. Retailers, broadcasters, mall management companies, almost seemed desperate in their punting to get the Azanian public to go for it.
For whatever reason, the Holiday was received with difficulty.
At the same time, the instinct towards it, being all too human, was present. Everyone – not just kids at camp but everyone – loves a good ghost story.
Stephen King – quite the authority when it comes to the scary story – even attempted to analyse the phenomenon of Horror in his exploration of the genre ‘Danse Macabre’. Many other thinkers have contributed to the field.
What is the attraction? A whole smorgasbord of pop-psychology answers are ripe for the picking: it’s cathartic, it’s easier to deal with made up demons than the terrors of the real world; our lizard brains are wired to fear the dark and what’s in it; it allows us one adventurous way to believe there is more to life than just, well, life; it plays on our psychological need for superstition; et al.
I propose that we like it, and keep bringing it up every now and then, because it’s fun.
Stories are rides. People get on rides to experience emotions. That’s why readers and viewers buy tickets to the rides, they want to feel stuff. The soppy release of romance, the grandiose epicness of fantasy, the possibilities of sci-fi, the puzzle of the mystery; the shock and awe of the military yarn; the nostalgia of the historical. Horror provides a specific combination of experiences to viewers or readers that’s not on sale anywhere else.
Suspense. Gross out. Creepiness. Fear. Anticipation. Your skin crawling and your breath becoming short and, to reiterate the cliché, the hair on the back of your neck standing up. Where else can you get those feelings in a safe, well fed, comfortable environment? Horror induces the most extreme feelings in people. And having extreme feelings in comfort is a trick people will never get tired of.
It’s hard to do, too. People are smarter than ever, and more desensitized. You watch Classic Horror flicks and a great many of them are comically dated. What used to scare the hell out of moviegoers in the fifties no longer flies. Imagine being at the premiere of The Exorcist. The first people to have seen it must have felt as if they’d just been assaulted right through the screen. Nowadays, it may elicit a yawn of incredulity. People may still buy that demons exist. They may still buy that demons can possess little girls and make them turn their heads 360 degrees and speak Latin and spit green bile. But people simply can’t be expected to still believe that the moral authority to get rid of said demons resides in the Catholic Church. A stretch too far.
Horror is very hard to do. It’s very easy to screw it up. In a short story, you also have limited space to create an effect, and your effect itself is limited. You can’t do the Hitchcock slow build, you don’t have the time. You can make at best one point, create one impression, press one button, maybe two.
With knowledge aforethought of all this, then, it is my honour to present to my regular readers and subscribers, a special Halloween short story in this month’s newsletter. It will become available in the Stuff section some time, so others can read it too, but why wait?
My fiction tends to be thrillers or sci-fi. But as a kid, practicing my craft, all of my first tries were Horrors. This was partly because I worshipped and emulated Stephen King, and partly because all kids everywhere like spooky stuff. I remember, and still have, the completed manuscripts that were my earliest attempts. The Unknown, Rats, The Prison… horrors all of them.
I hope I’ve learned a thing or two.
And I hope I can still give readers a bit of a ride on the dark side.
See you Friday.
Many thanks to @alexmihu for the image that goes with this post.