Despite the fact that I’d never seen any of the Universal Monster movies as a kid, I devoted four consecutive Halloweens to them. I was obsessed with monsters, and obviously the Universal Monsters were the gold standard. My dad may have tried to show me some of the movies to help feed my obsession, but I was too scared to actually watch them. He even tried to show me An American Werewolf in London at the ripe young age of four, but I didn’t get very far into the movie before retreating to the safety of my bedroom…to play with my monster toys, of course.
Halloween was always my favorite holiday, save for maybe a few of my teen years (which I’ll get to in a bit). My early monster obsession must have had a lot to do with that as a child, but my reasons for loving Halloween have changed and evolved over time (for that matter, so has the holiday itself, but that might be getting slightly off-track). My parents dressed me up for my first few Halloweens, but once I hit the age of three and was able to consciously decide for myself what I wanted to dress up as during the holy ritual of trick-or-treating, it was all about the monsters. Yes, the same monsters I was too afraid to see on screen in fuzzy black-and-white (this was long before crisp HD transfers, of course). I was Dracula at age three, the Wolf Man (my personal favorite at the time) at age four, the Mummy at age five, and Frankenstein’s Monster at age six. I don’t find it implausible that I might have planned on going as either the Phantom of the Opera or the Creature from the Black Lagoon the following year, but of course I had to ruin it by hopping aboard the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers hype train by then.
I’m not really sure where my monster obsession came from. I mainly watched cartoons when I was that young, and while I’m sure a few of my favorite cartoons featured monsters at various points, there wasn’t a cartoon I watched that early in life that was primarily about monsters. I was also obsessed with sharks and dinosaurs, like I suspect many kids are, which I guess is in the same general ballpark as monsters. But as to why I was specifically taken by the likes of werewolves, vampires, and mummies, I have no idea. I wanted to be able to pinpoint it to a line of Universal Monster collector’s cups that I remember getting from Pizza Hut, but a quick Google search tells me that was in 1992, which would be after my obsession started.
So I have to think it was most likely a book that I checked out from the library. I have not been able to find out the name of the book since then, but there was a book I used to check out regularly from my local library about the history of movie monsters. It was in the children’s section, as it featured mainly pictures (all in black-and-white) and just brief descriptions of each monster in simple language. I used to stare intently at all the pictures in that book, only vaguely skimming through the descriptions, totally captivated by the odd designs of all these monsters I was too afraid to see in action on the screen but more than happy to allow into my imagination and playtime rituals via various toys of them I had. I seem to remember the book having a faint, reddish hardcover and a photo of King Kong on either the back or the front. It was the Kong design from King Kong Lives, which was never a popular or well received movie at any point in time, so my best guess is that the book was printed shortly before that movie was released thinking that this brand new Kong would help sell some copies. I’m guessing it didn’t help.
In any case, Halloween was the time of year when I would not only be allowed to dress up as one of the monsters I idolized, but we got to decorate the house with those cardboard faces of monsters, witches, and ghosts. You know the ones I’m talking about. I’m pretty sure everyone had the same ones at some point. I remember wanting the Dracula one on the front door, because I misinterpreted vampire lore to mean that a vampire had to invite you into its home (rather than the actual rule, which is that a vampire must be invited in before entering), so having Dracula’s face on our front door seemed like an appropriate choice to me. As I mentioned before, the Wolf Man was my favorite, so I was allowed to put the Wolf Man one in my bedroom window. Surely all the kids walking home from the bus stop would point to the Wolf Man snarling at them from that window and say, “Boy, the kid who lives in that room must be really cool.”
Is it normal to also try to play the character of your Halloween costume? I feel like that’s the dividing line between kids who merely participate in Halloween and those who actually celebrate it. I was not content to just walk around the neighborhood in a Wolf Man mask kindly asking the neighbors for candy so they could tell me how cute I was. I wanted to walk around like Lon Chaney Jr. stalking through the woods in The Wolf Man (I knew how he walked, because that’s the one clip of the movie I had seen at that age, and it was enough for me), and I wanted to roar and growl at every door. I was after the coveted “ooooh, how scary” reaction that adults would give out to the kids who got particularly invested in the holiday. It never occurred to me that they might not actually be scared of me. I thought I was actually scaring them, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. Maybe there’s some psychological thing about being a generally scared kid getting to be the one doing the scaring for a change that made it so appealing, but I don’t know. I just thought it was the most fun I’d have all year.
And to be clear, I was a very easily scared kid. There was an ad for Candyman in a comic book I had, and although I had no idea what the movie was even about, just the shadowy image of the hook-handed Candyman in that ad caused me to have trouble sleeping for weeks. For whatever reason, my parents insisted that my bedroom door stay open at night when I was a kid (good thing that rule changed by the time I reached my teen years), so I stayed up at night convinced that I could see Candyman’s shadow from the crack in the doorway. I even started to hear him breathing, which in retrospect was probably my dad snoring in the room across the hall, but when I was a kid, that was definitely Candyman breathing at my door. But as long as I stayed in bed, he couldn’t get me, I figured. I don’t know why I decided upon that. It made going to the bathroom exceedingly difficult. To this day, no movie has ever scared me as much as Candyman did years before I ever saw it. Which is to say no movie has ever scared me as much as my own imagination did when I was a young child.
The year that I went as Frankenstein’s Monster, I also happened to be enrolled in karate, and Halloween fell on a day that I had a karate class. Fortunately, it was just going to be a costume contest that day and not an actual lesson, otherwise I might have talked my way out of going (as I was wont to do for all of the after-school activities I was unwillingly enrolled in). Each kid got to showcase their costume individually and briefly act them out, and then the winner got a coupon for a free personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut or something (I’m assuming that was the prize, anyway…it was the prize for everything back then). When it was my turn, I grunted and stumbled my way across the floor in my best Boris Karloff impression (again, based on what little I had actually seen of the movie), and I thought I had absolutely nailed it. But the winner ended up being some kid who was ALSO Frankenstein’s Monster but didn’t even act the part out correctly! He just walked at a regular pace with his arms outstretched in front of him, and that was all he did. His costume didn’t even include the bolts or flat head! It was just the outfit and green face paint with a tacky red scar painted across his forehead. My costume was WAY better, and so was my performance. It’s a travesty I didn’t get that personal pan pizza. A goddamn travesty. I’m pretty sure that kid was the karate instructor’s son. Bullshit.
I kind of drifted away from monsters shortly after that (no, not because of my unfair defeat at the karate costume contest), and I chose more recent, trendy costumes for the next few Halloweens: the Red Power Ranger, Raiden from Mortal Kombat, Curly from Goosebumps…I think that was the order. Halloween was still my favorite holiday by far, but it became less about indulging in my spooky side and more about just having fun playing dress-up with my friends (costume coordination became an issue at this point). The scary element of Halloween still bubbled up to the surface occasionally in conversations at school when we’d talk about how many horror movies we’d all seen (we were all lying) to make ourselves seem cooler and tougher than we really were. There was a kid named Patrick who claimed to have seen “all thirteen” Jason movies. At the time of this writing, there are only twelve Friday the 13th movies (including the remake), and at that point there were only nine (Jason Goes to Hell having just recently been released), so that should have been a dead giveaway, but man, we all ate up his stories about the gory shit in those movies his older brother had introduced him to. Imagine my disappointment when I finally saw all of the movies and never got to see the scene of Jason with a flaming mask bashing a teacher’s head in with a baseball bat. Thanks, Patrick.
There seems to be a sort of general consensus that Halloween is fun when you’re a kid, lame when you’re a teenager, and then fun again when you’re an adult. It’s easy to see why that is. You’re too old to trick-or-treat but too young to go to parties. So what is there to do? Well, at the age of twelve, since that was to be the first year I wasn’t going to go trick-or-treating, I figured I needed to find a different way to celebrate Halloween. And that was it. That was the year I finally started watching horror movies. Throughout the entire month of October, I looked through the listings in the TV Guide (remember that?) so I could set my VCR to record all the movies I wanted to see. Unfortunately, since I only had basic cable in my room, they were all edited for TV and interrupted by commercials, but I didn’t mind so much. I also rented a few from the video store, so there were a few I got to see in their unedited form. Among the ones I recorded on TV were Child’s Play, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, The Shining, and yes, The Exorcist (which explains why I never got why people thought it was so shocking until I finally saw the unedited version a few years later). Among the ones I rented on video were The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Evil Dead II, and of course Halloween, which are the three movies I most credit with turning me into a full-fledged horror fan for life.
But on Halloween night that year, you know which two movies I watched? An American Werewolf in London and Candyman. The two movies that, though I hadn’t seen them, scarred me the most when I was a young kid. And much to my surprise, I saw that An American Werewolf in London, far from terrifying me, was actually a horror-comedy that made me laugh out loud several times. And although Candyman was a full horror movie with a lot of creepy scenes, I didn’t have any trouble sleeping after it. Not even after I went to the bathroom afterwards and had to look in the mirror. Did I dare? “Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman…” Okay, so I only said it four times. I still had boundaries.
There was a brief period in my late teen years when I considered Thanksgiving my favorite holiday over Halloween. I know that seems strange. For probably 99% of people, it’s either Halloween or Christmas. The other holidays are just days, but those two are events that essentially have entire seasons dedicated to them. I gravitated towards Thanksgiving because I sadly felt I had outgrown Halloween for a brief spell, and I felt bad that Thanksgiving got ignored in between the two big commercial holidays. I don’t think Thanksgiving was ever really my favorite holiday, but I said it was for like two years. Like I said, I felt bad for it. If the three were siblings, Halloween would be the cool oldest kid, Christmas would be the cute youngest one, and Thanksgiving would be the middle child that no one pays attention to. So I said I liked Thanksgiving the most. What was I supposed to do when I wasn’t feeling the Halloween spirit as much anymore…start going gaga over Christmas? Please. I may not have been that into Halloween at that point, but I was a goth teenager after all, so happy Christmas cheer was never an option. I’d take gorging on stuffing and gravy until I got sick over singing so much as the first verse of the aural atrocity that is “The Twelve Days of Christmas” any fucking day.
I found my way back to Halloween eventually. Maybe the discovery of alcohol had something to do with it at first, but soon I returned to my roots and regained my love for the time of the year when all things spooky get the spotlight. Since horror is a significant portion of my life nowadays, it’s obviously not like it’s the only time of the year when I celebrate horror or watch horror movies. Halloween may only be a holiday, but horror is a lifestyle. (As a side note, my boss at my day job remarks every year something to the effect of, “Well, now that Halloween is over, I guess you won’t be watching as many horror movies for a while” — yes, I will, you fucking square [sorry, pent-up frustration starting to bubble up there].) I’m tempted to say that Halloween remains special because it’s the one time of the year when people like me get to feel normal, but that’s not even true. I don’t think horror freaks care about feeling normal. I mean, why would you even embrace this subculture if you wanted to feel normal? It’s specifically designed for people who aren’t normal. Honestly, I think it’s just special to me now because when the leaves are changing colors, the autumn air is crisp and cool, everything is pumpkin flavored, and there are skeletons and cobwebs adorning houses and stores, it’s like the spooky kids get to rule for a month before all the bright colors and cheery music start up on November 1st. And I guess it’s pretty cool that it’s the one time of the year when even “normal” people actually seem to listen to what I have to say.
Granted, I see those bright colors and cheery music creeping in before Halloween more and more every year, but what am I to do? Go on the news and complain that there’s a “war on Halloween” or something? That would be ridiculous.