Greetings, Fright Fans! This year Halloween proper falls on a school night. Which means if you were going to a Halloween party or two, you’ve probably already done so, and on the night itself you might not be able to do a whole lot more than stream something on video.
But, Alas! O woe! You don’t know what to watch. Fear not! Your friendly neighborhood arts columnist has got your back.
I told a story, a year ago, about trying to find someone to go see the reboot of Evil Dead in 2013 and not being able to find anyone. This moment was an eye-opener for me. It was an event that made me aware that there was a divide I hadn’t been aware of.
There is a very specific kind of thrill that happens when you’re watching or reading or listening to a story and something terrible or weird or inexplicable or some combination of all the above happens that you are either hard-wired to enjoy or you’re not. And my completely unscientific lifetime observation is that this proclivity is not dictated by race, class, education, or any other determining factor you might normally expect. Whereas I know some people who were introduced to horror later in life, I know none who grew into an affinity for horror if they were introduced at a young age and didn’t care for it. On the other hand, people do grow out of horror fandom, or even the ability to enjoy it, and I have a theory as to why that is.
I used to ride rollercoasters. I don’t anymore, because that much of a charge no longer sounds like fun: It just sounds like a lot. It physically takes more than I feel willing to give. Hard drugs are kind of the same way. When I was a young man I used to do them a lot. Too much. Luckily, I made it out to the other side, and now, the idea of getting high on coke or heroin or god forbid, LSD (14 hours of anything is a big “no thanks”) sounds singularly unappealing. The genre of horror is the storytelling version of that. It’s willfully engaging the fight-or-flight instinct through a storytelling medium. On the other side of that instinct is the great equalizer, or as local horrormeister Carson Winters says, “Also, death. Always death.”
Death is at the center of Halloween, as it is at the center of horror. The fear and the fascination with death drive both. It is the true final frontier. It terrifies us, but also, we want to reach out and touch it. Death is the undiscovered country that everybody goes to — but nobody knows what’s over there. To our consciousness there is nothing more alien, more strange, weird and unknowable, than the concept of not existing. A good horror story is where we go to learn, to pass through the veil, and come back. Halloween is when – together as a society — we get to embrace that journey, and further, celebrate it. The acknowledgement and honoring of death and all that scares us is, by definition, an act of affirmation and gratitude.
So now, how do you, oh non-horror lover, express that affirmation and gratitude? What is your avenue to taking a walk on the other side — but coming back? Well, I’m here to tell ya.
In this age of screams and screaming — wait, I meant screens and streaming — (I’ll see myself out) the easy thing would be to just suggest movies. But it occurred to me that there are other kinds of art out there that might be just as much fun for you to try. Now, the stuff I’m going to mention is, of course, by no means comprehensive. I am just going to list for you some all-time faves of mine, and you can either partake of those, or, hopefully, it’ll knock over a different domino in your head that will lead to something equally thrilling.
But you’ve got one night, and you want to partake in the spirit of Halloween. You want to reach out and touch death; feel that cold tingle of the abyss and pull your hand back alive. To do that, here are some ideas:
I read a lot. One of my favorite art forms is the short story, and, in case it’s not already obvious, I love a really good horror short story. It’s not the slow burn over a long amount of time that a novel is. There won’t be as many threads of plot, and there’ll be fewer characters, fewer twists and turns. Short horror stories are about that immediate emotional jolt, like a right cross to your soul. If you’re a true believer, read one of these stories out loud to a loved one, or, even better, to your kids. They’ll love it.
“The Knowing,” by Tanarive Due, from her collection, Ghost Summer. When you talk about staring into the abyss, “The Knowing” is exactly that. I know that I don’t want to know the exact moment and means of my death, but I don’t know that if I were capable of having that knowledge, would I or would I not choose to know it? And if I did, what would I do with that knowledge?
“In the Hills, the Cities” by Clive Barker, from Books of Blood Vol. 1. I knew Clive Barker from Hellraiser before I ever read his fiction. Hellraiser (the first one) is a film classic, but it can’t touch Barker’s written word. And Barker writes some weird shit. In this story, two towns build walking giants made up entirely of the living bodies of their citizens, and then they go to war with each other. This story made me feel all kinds of unnamable, uncomfortable feelings, and I still don’t know why.
“Skin Like Porcelain Death,” by Daniel José Older, from Salsa Nocturna. Older has a knack for taking what seem like recognizable horror tropes and reimagining them in a New York State of mind with a distinctly Latino flavor. This story is a stand-alone, but part of a larger universe. It’s about creepy dolls and … that’s enough, right? Don’t want to spoil it too much, and we all agree dolls are creepy?
“The Husband Stitch,” by Carmen Maria Machado, from Her Body and Other Parties. Machado is flat-out my favorite prose stylist I’ve encountered in at least a decade. Her poetic phrasing is unerring in its manipulation of your emotions. This story is a riff on a theme I first ran into as a kid, Washington Irving’s “The Adventure of the German Student” (which appeared in Tales to Tremble By, no less), and I recommend reading them one after the other to note the changes in sensibility and temperament.
“Crouch End,” by Stephen King, from Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Totally get it! I know! Stephen King, such a cliché. And it is. But the reason he’s so huge is that over the past fifty years no one is more dialed into what scares us. One of King’s favorite tropes is the married couple going into a strange town, encountering they-know-not-what, and then something awful happens to them, and, well, this is that with a cosmic horror twist. This is a perfect Halloween story.
Okay, but maybe you don’t want to read it out loud because that takes a certain amount of effort. And it does. Well, this is the 21st century, and it’s not quite as personal, but there are quite a few horror podcasts that are also pretty good.
Spooked (from Snap Judgement), which you can find in most places you find your podcasts (I listen to it on Spotify), is a podcast that has everyday people come on and tell their real-life stories of encountering something they don’t understand. I love this podcast because every story is different, and there’s something for all kinds of different horror tastes. If one story doesn’t suit you, the next one will. Hosted by Glynn Washington, who is always having a party with himself.
No Sleep features samplings from new horror writers from all over the world. They make their site easy to get around, and their pods have generally strong production values without working too hard.
The Black Tapes is a serialized docudrama set in the Pacific Northwest. It follows a podcast host who investigates a doctor who is out to disprove the existence of the supernatural, but hey, he’s got cases he hasn’t disproved yet, so, what’s going on with those? Back in the day there was a TV show called In Search Of… that featured Leonard Nimoy as a host who would seek out “experts” to explore the mysterious and the supernatural. It was a lot of hogwash, but I loved it. The Black Tapes feels a lot like that, without the intellectual dishonesty.
Quiet Part Loud probably doesn’t any help from me, but it is produced by Jordan Peele and it does star Tracy Letts and Christina Hendricks, and it is a lot of fun and with a message to boot.
Classic Ghost Stories Podcast – Tony Walker. For those of you who like your old-fashioned, Gothic-style ghost stories written by dead white guys from the past, this manages to sound just like the voice you might hear in your head when reading those stories. You can listen to him on YouTube, and as far as I can tell, all he does is read stuff like that. A personal favorite would be Robert Aickman’s “Ringing the Changes.”
And finally, that staple of 21st Halloweens — the horror movie. What to recommend that hasn’t been recommended somewhere else? Well, in one of my many capacities as a horror enthusiast, I judge movies for the Portland Horror Film Festival. That introduced me to the idea that there were horror short films I knew nothing about.
This is a rabbit hole I highly recommend going down on YouTube. Like their literary counterparts, these five- to ten-minute to half-hour movies pack an immediate punch. Their storytelling method is necessarily different than that of feature films, and because they’re not big-budgeted there is no committee filmmaking, no trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. These are intensely personal films with a singular voice.
Coda Sacra (Pol Barros) – a group of people are hunting something in a lake that has terrorized the countryside. They – at least some of them – have fought it before, at some cost, and they don’t feel good about their chances now, but they don’t have a choice. You learn all of this without any words. Master class in mood-setting.
Latched (Justin Harding) — a choreographer takes herself and her baby into the woods so she can have some isolation while she creates. But she accidentally awakens a demonic spirit and must rely on her courage and wits to rescue her child. The title ends up being no joke.
Your Date Is Here (Todd Spence) – a mother and a daughter play an old-fashioned game, with decidedly unsettling results.
Portrait of God (Dylan Clark) — a religious young woman shows the audience (us) a painting that she says reveals the face of God. We can’t see anything … at first.
And now just a handful of excellent feature films that you may have not seen, in genres you will recognize:
His House (2020), Remi Weekes
The Uninvited (1944), Lewis Allen
The Orphanage (2007), J.A. Bayona
Let the Right One In (2008), Tomas Alfredson
Habit (1995), Larry Fessenden
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), Ana Lily Amirpour
The Company of Wolves (1984), Neil Jordan
Ginger Snaps (2000), John Fawcett
Dog Soldiers (2002), Neil Marshall
Dawn of the Dead (1978), George Romero
The Re-Animator (1985), Stuart Gordon
Pontypool (2009), Bruce McDonald
Train to Busan (2016), Sang-Ho Yeon
Hopefully you’ll find something in here that will scare you, unsettle you, make you keep the lights on. Every day what scares us is a little different than what came before. More than ever there are new creators in books, online, in film, who are finding new and imaginative ways to scare the living bejeezus out of you. Take a chance; try something new. Reach out and touch Death and enjoy it – but come back alive.