As Leah and I stood in line for a packed screening of The Shining at The Plaza, we struck up a conversation with the guy behind us. I recognized his face from a couple of Splatter Cinema nights, but we had never spoken before. He told us all about how excited he was that he had seen The Shining when it was originally released, and now it was coming full circle with the last time it would ever be shown in 35mm before the accursed digital projection took over. When we got up to the window, there was one ticket left. While the thought to buy it and leave my personal assistant and this guy outside did cross my mind, I figured a less dickish approach would be better. We let Mark have the ticket, and thus began a friendship with one of my best Atlanta horror scene buddies.
If you've been to any of the Days of the Dead conventions or any horror event in Atlanta for the last few years, chances are good that Mark Schemanske has taken your picture. Hell, it almost doesn't even seem like a proper horror event now if I don't run into Mark and his ever present camera. I can't tell you how many nights Mark, Laura, Leah, and me have stood outside The Plaza after a movie talking and debating all things horror until the marquee lights went out. Wanna know how this dude rolls? When I went to Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse last week, not only did I run into him, but he had Linnea Quigley and Lynn Lowry in tow. Now that's cool. He's also from Detroit, so he knows all about Devil's Night, that most unique of Halloween traditions that has intrigued the hell out of me ever since I was a teenager quoting The Crow. So, Mark, what does Halloween mean to you?
"Growing up Halloween. In 1960s Detroit, nobody talked about Halloween until the month of October, and it was fairly late October at that. But I hung around with the weird kids, so it was always Halloween for us. We’d come in from the sunshine on a Saturday afternoon to catch Sir Graves Ghastly (a local horror host) show House of Frankenstein or 13 Ghosts on TV. We’d stay up late on Saturday nights to watch The Ghoul (of Parma, Ohio) stuff model cars with firecrackers and blow them up. And speaking of models, we had given up our toiling over Monogram Hot Rods and started building Aurora Monster Models. As for leisure reading, no more Archie or Superman for us when we had Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella – and the one indispensable publication Forrest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland.
So for me, Halloween lasted all year long – and it still does. But let’s get to the day itself.
Halloween is the one holiday on the calendar that has an edge to it, a special time of year when even the most straight-laced people can have fun with cobbled-together corpses, bloodsucking abominations, vengeful wraiths, and countless violations of the mind, body and soul. Who doesn’t love Halloween? It’s a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for the most twisted things our imaginations can conjure up. What’s acceptable around Halloween time won’t fly during the rest of the year. Don’t believe it? Apply some festering zombie sores to your face this February and see what kind of table the maitre’d gives you on Valentine’s Day.
Think about any other holiday. They all have happy endings. Santa comes down the chimney with toys. The Easter Bunny hides jelly beans. We all gather around the turkey table to give thanks for our blessings. Only on Halloween is the darker side of human nature even acknowledged. On Christmas, kids sit on a fat man’s lap and promise to be good for their swag. On Halloween, they take the law into their own hands – going up to the neighbor’s house with trouble in mind and threats on their lips. Trick or treat! One or the other. It’s your choice, pal.
And speaking of tricks, there’s Devil’s Night. By the mid-eighties, Devil’s Night had taken on a whole new meaning in Detroit: rampant arson of abandoned buildings across the city. (Read Ze'Ev Chafets’ book Devil's Night and Other True Tales of Detroit for all the details about my hometown’s unusual ways of celebrating.) But during my more innocent childhood, the night before Halloween saw kids indulging in harmless pranks like ringing doorbells and running away, maybe soaping a few windows, throwing rolls of toilet paper into trees, howling like wild dogs outside of windows, and in general being annoying after dark. There was no waxing of screendoors, no flaming bags of canine excrement on porches, no vehicular vandalism, nothing hardcore – not in my day, kids. And this was Detroit, for God’s sake, Murder City!
But that was the fundamental illogic about Devil’s Night and Halloween. When we threatened Trick or Treat on the 31st, many of our neighbors had already experienced the trick part the night before. Only on Halloween would the payback precede the shakedown.
Even the origins of Halloween throw a monkey wrench at tradition. When I was just a boy, my parents still took me to church, and I was horrified when I learned that Halloween, the night of ghouls and goblins may actually have started as a religious holiday. The jury’s still out on All Hallows’ Eve. Some say that it has solely Christian roots, while others say that it began as a Christianized feast that co-opted the European harvest festivals. The preacher claimed that it was specifically Christian, and there burst my bubble. My malevolent ghosts and disgruntled monsters had their basis in a worship service? Say it ain’t so!
But the more I learned, the better I liked it. Nearly every Christian holiday originated in a pre-Christian revel. Christmas was originally a Druidical solstice celebration, Easter a pagan fertility ritual, etc. Halloween is one holiday that that the revelers took BACK. You can be as traditionally religious as you want, but on Halloween, you’re going to deal with kids in monster masks, gleefully disfigured faces glowing out of pumpkins, and tales (not of saints and martyrs) but of slashers, ghostly girl hitchhikers and misplaced golden arms.
Because it’s rougher and more unpredictable, Halloween’s also a lot more fun. It’s a problem child fidgeting at a formal dinner. It refuses to stay still. So it was only a matter of time before it started venturing outside the month of October.
Look at any cosplay event, and you’ll find some aspect of Halloween. My adopted hometown of Atlanta alone has horror events year round: zombie pub crawls in the middle of summer, horror film festivals right before Thanksgiving, and supernatural spectacles every month of the year. No other holiday has broken out of its given month and marked its territory with such willful entitlement.
But it all gets pumped up a little in October. Most important, it reaches out and touches nearly everyone – often inappropriately. Halloween is a time when people who claim they don’t like horror might experiment a little with a scary movie or a visit to a haunted house. It’s the dark ride in the holiday amusement park, where people break their own rules and do things that just aren’t normal. On Halloween, people who’d normally pay to see “chick flick” or a “guy movie” will pony up the hard-earned cash to be chased by some nut with a chainsaw. They buy the ticket; they take the ride.
And for many of them, there’s no turning back."
27 days ‘til Halloween, Halloween, Halloween. 27 days ‘til Halloween. Silver Shamrock.