This evening we examine Halloween a little differently. For a pair of gay teens (really for the entire group of protagonists from The Unseen Kingdom), Halloween gives them the chance to be openly together, on the one night everyone wears a mask without judgement.
What Halloween Means to Me
It’s once again the season of shadow and darkness. A time when the autumnal chill brings goose bumps to the flesh, and the creatures of the night stalk the boundaries of civilization and imagination. Whether campy and fun or grim and gory, the Halloween season delights and frightens millions of Americans and the phenomenon continues to expand around the world. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and my love for the season only grows with each passing year. Even those who are not fans of the horror genre exhibit a soft-spot for Halloween. After all, if you’re going to suffer a few scares, why not embrace the season?
As a child, Halloween had a magical connotation for me. October was the time of the year that my imagination could run amok, unrestrained and free as I glanced out at the darkness. I knew werewolves hungered for my flesh, the dead clawed at their wooden prisons and craven ghosts of lost souls passed beneath the decaying autumnal spender, looking to drag me into the shadows if given a chance. And what child hasn’t dared all these things, especially on Halloween night? The fear of that monster in the closet and under the bed becomes a rite of passage this time of year. As a species, we enjoy and even crave a good scare.
Yet, why does Halloween appeal to me? What is it about the season that calls to me? I think there are a few reasons and I suspect that I’m not alone in some of these thoughts. I grew up something of an outcast, partially self-imposed but largely due to growing up a gay teen. In some ways, I spent years hiding behind a mask, but on Halloween night, everyone shares that mask. For one night, millions of Americans become outcasts. For those familiar with my memoir, The Demons of Plainville, you know that I also grew up in an environment that sometimes bordered on real-life horror. Again, you might think this would dissuade me from the holiday, but if anything it strengthened it. Perhaps my real experiences served as rich fodder for my imagination, or like many people, the season brought me comfort that worse things lurk in the shadows.
However, these days my rationale is different. I’m a storyteller and that’s the reason I’m here. This is the season that storytellers are embraced, perhaps more than any other time of the year. What other time do people crave tales of the twisted, otherworldly and macabre? As a ten-year-old as much as a grown adult, this is the season to liberate, celebrate and salute that dark imagination. I’d love nothing more than to operate a professional haunted attraction. The ‘Haunted House’ industry combines elements of storytelling and filmmaking to bring lurid thrills and chills to audiences of all ages. I’d love to take on that challenge some day here in Flagstaff.
Photo by Paul Albertella
Every Halloween there are certain movies I try to watch as the holiday approaches. Some of these movies have a great deal of suspense; some are rather gory, and others are laced with humor. I had originally wanted to split this list into two, but I’ve run out of time this season. However, I hope to return with another list for next season. In the meantime, here are twelve of my favorite horror movies to watch around Halloween. These movies aren’t necessarily my absolute favorites, but I am trying to rank them in order of preference with a nod towards quality. There will be some spoilers ahead, but it’s difficult to discuss these movies without highlighting some major plot points. This post is rated PG-13 due to some profanity on my part!
Directed by Bruce McDonald in 2008, Pontypool is an adaptation of a novel written by Tony Burgess. Pontypool was filmed on a 1.5 million dollar budget and takes place in Pontypool Canada. The movie stars Stephen McHattie as shock jock Grant Mazzy, and Lisa Houle as Sydney Briar, manager of the radio station that Grant works for.
The film opens with Grant struggling to drive through a blizzard when he stops for a woman babbling incoherently. The only thing Grant notices is that the woman keeps repeating certain words over and over. He starts the day normally enough, but soon reports of riots and disturbances around town begin filtering into the station’s phone lines. The only thing in common with these disturbances is that the citizens seem to be repeating certain words and phrases before turning homicidal or suicidal. As the situation deteriorates, Grant attempts to flee but the radio station is now surrounded.
Pontypool offers a unique take on the zombie genre. The premise, unfortunately, takes some people out of the movie, but if you can overlook that the concept is fascinating. The concept is that a linguistic virus has developed within the English language. Certain keywords and phrases represent a point of entry for the virus, and when the victim begins repeating those words and phrases, the virus takes control of the host. Here is the real twist, the keywords and phrases vary person to person. However, the local doctor has a theory on how to thwart the virus, and it becomes a race against time as a horde of crazed citizens and the military close in on the station. Pontypool is not a perfect movie, but I recommend it.
#11 The House of the Devil
Written and directed by Ti West in 2009, The House of the Devil is a retro tribute to 1980s thrillers. Ti West wanted an 80s feel so much that he filmed the movie on a 16mm camera to replicate the look of the 1980s film stock. The movie stars Jocelin Donahue as Samantha, Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman and Greta Gerwig as Megan. Samanta is a college student in dire need of rent money, so she agrees to take on a babysitting job for the Ulman family on the night of a lunar eclipse.
The House of the Devil is a classic slow-burn horror thriller that drips with increasing tension. The downside is that it takes a while for the plot to get moving, but the time is not wasted. You develop an immediate sympathy for Samantha and therefore when the situation deteriorates, you can’t help but hold your breath. When she arrives at the Ulman’s house, the first sign of trouble begins. She was initially told that she would be babysitting a young boy, but instead Mr. Ulman reveals that she will be watching his elderly mother. Her attempt to back out of the situation causes an immediate tense reaction, but a doubling of her fee settles the issue.
As the evening goes on, the movie enters a very 1980s style montage complete with music by The Fixx. As she dances around, she misses the tied-up or murdered family arranged in a pentagram in one of the darkened rooms. She knocks over a vase and finds a picture that reveals that the family that lives in the house does not appear to match the husband and wife she met earlier. One drugged pizza and murder later, Samantha soon finds herself amidst a Satanic sacrifice as the eclipse approaches.
I love this movie, despite the slow start. This film just oozes suspense that morphs into real horror as Samantha struggles to escape the crazed cultists. If you’re a fan of the 1980s style horror movies, you will love The House of the Devil.
Welcome to the 2015 Halloween Blog Hop
While I was preparing to launch The Demons of Plainville, a fellow author asked a question of me via Twitter, “What does horror mean to you?” I had planned on answering the question because it intrigued me, but the book launch and a trip to California had derailed those plans. Now that we’re in the Halloween season and I’ve launched my Young-Adult horror novel, The Unseen Kingdom, it’s come time to address that question. It’s an especially pertinent question as I prepare to countdown some of my favorite horror movies for Halloween.
Quantifying horror is something of a moving target, as I believe that a combination of popular culture and real world calamity has altered our collective consciousness of what constitutes horror. Even putting aside current events and culture, the concept of this genre has always been debated. In addition to horror, we have the standalone genres of thriller and suspense. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate these from one another. Add on top of this the conundrum of sub-genres such as supernatural horror and the supernatural thriller, and it really comes down to splitting hairs. I fear part of this stems from some natural bias against the horror genre. Compare how many thrillers have won an Oscar compared to horror movies. But here is a dirty secret, few films or books are strictly one genre. Nearly all stories, both contemporary and classic are inherently cross-genre in nature.
So let’s take a step back and ask a simple question. What is a horror movie? The simple answer is any movie which horrifies you. However, by this logic some might consider James Cameron’s Titanic a horror film. Think about it for a moment. Doesn’t Titanic have some elements of horror or moments that will horrify even the most jaded of audiences? How about The Hunger Games trilogy?
Clearly, we need a better definition of horror. It’s not enough to horrify the audience. Instead, there is a symphony of emotions that the story must evoke before we can label it as horror. There needs to be some level of tension in the story and this is accomplished by ratcheting up the stakes as the story progresses. This tension will inherently be transferred to the audience as the story proceeds.
I also believe there needs to be a level of genuine fear. This emotion needs to be shared by both the protagonists and ultimately the audience. I also think that there need to be plot points or scenes that the audience finds disturbing. Now don’t confuse the idea of being disturbed with the idea of gross-out gore. A great example of what I’m referring to is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In one of the key scenes, the injured daughter dies and rises as a zombie. Without going any further, many people were immediately disturbed by that scene, because the audience understood the ramifications. George Romero really didn’t need to show anything else for that one moment to be anything other than horrifying, and of course, what followed would help seal the film’s legendary status.
Does this mean that horror can’t be funny? Heck no! Injecting comedic elements into a horror story can effectively control levels of tension, fear, and pacing. Playing with the audience’s expectations can render upcoming scares and surprises far more effective. Comedic elements can also mitigate over-the-top levels of gore or shocking moments by making light of the situation, blunting its harsh edge.
Now, I have to rant a little and I know some of you will not agree with my feelings. That’s perfectly fine because we each have our own personal preference. These are just my opinions, but I’m going to try to defend my points. Are you ready? Alright, let’s do this!
There has been this trend in horror to make the entire cast of protagonists completely unlikable, if not utterly reprehensible people. Here is my fundamental problem with that strategy. My first stated ingredient to creating an effective horror story was to add tension. This tension must be shared by both the protagonists and the audience. If you absolutely abhor the protagonists, the audience will not share the characters’ emotions. The audience will not fear for their safety and hence will not experience those moments of shock or surprise when something happens to one of them. Why? Because they just don’t care.
Now this isn’t to say that the audience won’t experience any moments where they experience general shock, or in the case of a film, react to a jump scare or find a particularly gory scene disturbing. Eli Roth’s film Cabin Fever immediately comes to mind here. The movie is gory enough to be disturbing at times, yet it seems to fall well short of what I personally would term horror. When the audience experiences no shared emotional connection with the protagonists, they’re not going to experience the feelings necessary to evoke what I’d term as horror. Instead, you end up with an audience cheering the gory elimination of the characters and I’ve seen this in both movies and even books.
I don’t have a problem with there being one or two unlikable characters in a story. The presence of an unlikable or problematic character can help increase the tension and add an element of drama to the plot. A great example of this is Stephen King’s The Mist. An author or filmmaker can use the plot as a foil to redeem otherwise annoying or unlikable characters, as well. This can make the horror more effective when that redeemed character then falls victim to the plot.
All of this is my roundabout way of saying that I believe horror needs to be character driven. If the audience has no shared empathy or concern for the characters, then you’re not dealing with traditional horror. I know there is this derogatory term “torture porn” that some film critics label these movies, but I don’t think that’s fair. Instead, I’d label them shock, gore or splatter films or novels. There’s nothing wrong with these concepts. There are certainly elements of them I enjoy myself. And to be blunt, many horror books (mine included) and films contain scenes entirely intended for shock value, but seldom are the stories structured entirely around those concepts. I see this along the lines of adding salt to food. A dash of salt is used to add flavor, but too much can spoil the meal.
Alright, with that rant out of the way let’s muddy the waters some. Earlier, I referred to horror as a moving target. Unfortunately, at this point we need to differentiate books from films. I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula still stands on its own as classic gothic horror. However, how about 1931’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi? In that decade, audiences were terrified by Lugosi’s performance and the movie, in general, shocked audiences around the world. If you played that same movie to audiences today, it would not invoke the same emotional responses. Without a doubt, Bela Lugosi’s performance would still stand out, but viewers would likely not be horrified by the events unfolding on the silver screen. During the 1950s, at the peak of “The Red Scare” days, the specter of nuclear war was fresh in the minds of movie audiences. This made the idea of radioactively mutated giant monsters a new concept that terrorized moviegoers. They already had an innate fear of a nuclear conflict and its consequences, and also a fear of communist infiltration which opened the doors to films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. However, today’s audiences would not experience the same level of thrills and chills from these concepts anymore.
There are a few reasons behind this change. Firstly, they’ve seen it all before. Secondly, the fear of nuclear war and the ravages of radiation have receded from public consciousness. Lastly, they’ve seen far more gruesome concepts both on the screen and in real life. We are a nation that’s witnessed televised wars, terrorist attacks, mass shootings and serial killers. Our old fears have become replaced by new fears, fears more real and visceral than the horror movies of the 1930s-1960s. These films no longer meet the expectations of modern audiences. Although, certainly some fears are instinctual and eternal, even those need a good twist now and then to keep them fresh.
Now, does that mean I’m saying some of these classic horror movies of yesteryear are no longer good? Hell no! These films are considered classics for a reason. But here’s the trick with that. While most people would no longer be frightened by them, the performances of the lead characters and creepy cinematography continue to leave a lasting impression on audiences. Does this mean that the beloved Universal Movie Monsters are irrelevant and could never stage a return? Well, I think it would be difficult but possible. Universal Studios has been hinting at a comeback, but so far attempts have fallen well short of the mark. I blame this more on the writing and acting than on the concepts themselves. Screenwriters will need to recreate compelling characters, and find a way to modernize some of the themes to play to modern audience’s fears. I know some are suggesting that Universal step away from the horror genre and focus on more action-oriented thrillers, which they attempted to do with 2014’s I, Frankenstein. Again, I think the overall idea was intriguing, but it failed in execution. Universal needs to take a page from the famous Hammer Film Productions on how to reinvigorate old school concepts while still staying relatively close to their roots.
Now with all that being said, what draws me to the genre? I see horror as an emotional investment both as reader and writer. More than any other genre, I see horror as the searing fire to forge a compelling, sympathetic character who has the opportunity to grow. When exposed to the extremes of the genre, your characters will exhibit the best and worst of human attributes. The fragile nature of the human condition is laid bare in your characters, and their raw reactions and emotions, when done effectively, will be transferred to the audience members. The more you can make the audience care about those characters, the more you’ll own their emotions by the end of the novel. A solid horror plot applied to the main characters will turn them into steel, or melt them into oblivion. Either way, a well-tuned horror plot will take the reader and moviegoer right along with them. As a member of the audience, I want my imagination take me into the darkness along with those characters. As an author, I aspire to take all of you with me. And that folks, is what horror means to me.
Join me again tomorrow when I unveil my top 12 horror picks to watch this Halloween! In the meantime, visit these other great authors in the 2015 Halloween Blog Hop!
In this Book Bubble, we examine a very different element of horror. Instead of Adolescent worries, family problems or the threat of the supernatural, we take a look at how simple words can invoke horror as well.
The next couple of weeks I’ll be looking at some of my favorite scenes in The Unseen Kingdom in celebration of Halloween. We start out of the gate by looking at the idea of establishing tension with the characters.
My apologies for the lack of blog entries the past couple of months. Shortly after the release of The Demons of Plainville, we were forced to move to a new home with little lead time. This turned my life upside down as I endeavored to locate a suitable home, before engaging in the arduous task of packing and moving to the new place.
However, the good news is that I’ve finally released my Young-Adult LGBT horror novel The Unseen Kingdom. I’m quite excited to bring forth this twisted Lovecraftian tale to you and is currently available at Amazon (Paperback/Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (Paperback). The novel is born from my love of Halloween, the classic horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s and my desire to write compelling young gay characters. While the boys’ sexuality is relevant to the story, I prefer to focus on a plot that forces the protagonists to show off their courage, compassion and inner fortitude, rather than focusing on issues related to their sexual identity. These are normal, adventurous boys struggling against a supernatural conspiracy that threatens their sanity and their lives, along with typical adolescent problems such as confidence, abuse and identity.
Now that I’m settled into a routine and the book is released, I’ll be spending more time with the blog. Since Halloween is such an important holiday to me, I’ll be posting several blog and podcast entries leading up to October 31st. In particular, I’ll be discussing some of my favorite horror movies and perhaps a little about Halloween decorating!
I am currently on a ‘Blog Tour’ for The Unseen Kingdom and you can find the schedule of upcoming reviews, spotlights and interviews here:
So be on the lookout for my next major post next week, and in the meantime follow my discussion on “Perception in Horror” as it pertains to The Unseen Kingdom.