Today's entry comes from the man responsible for one of the creepiest horror villains of the last decade (at least). As Martin Lomax in Human Centipede 2, Laurence Harvey made your skin crawl and chilled you to the very core. Through talking to him at various Days of the Dead conventions, however, I discovered that Mr. Harvey is an awesome guy. I've been trying to get him on the countdown since last year, and the stars finally aligned for him to offer his thoughts. So, today we're gonna spice things up with a little international flair and learn how one beloved family movie changed Halloween forever. Laurence, what does Halloween mean to you?
"Nowadays, Halloween means work. Being booked into conventions, film festival appearances, being asked to attend screenings, appear with bands, etc. Even if the months on either side of Oct 31st are barren, work-free deserts, I know that the end of October will be busy even in the years to come. I’m now used to the costumes and pumpkins that make-up the traditional US celebrations, but it wasn’t always so…
I grew up as a child of the 70’s, and it was interesting to see the changes wrought upon British society by one film and the envy felt by every child in Britain for the child protagonists of this 1982 release. Yes we were all jealous of E.T.’s Elliot and his friends and siblings. Whilst he may have had an extraterrestrial in the closet, it was the way the adults in their life indulged them in the carnevalesque spectacle of begging that was ‘trick or treat’. All the masks and costumes seemed to spring from the back pages of Fangoria. These were quality latex items, not dodgy knock-offs from Woolies. And they were going from door-to-door in expectation AND ACTUALLY GETTING FREE STUFF!!! What madness was this? I know it was only a movie, but such culturally inbred generosity seemed alien to this Northern lad whose neighbours would probably just close the door with a firm “No thank you, none today” and the kind of warm greeting usually reserved for Jehova’s Witnesses and gypsy knife-sharpers. How my 12-year-old self scoffed at such sheer fantasy!
Noooo. Growing up in the UK, our Halloweens were more in touch with the country’s pagan roots as part of a tryptich of festive nights culminating in Bonfire Night on the 5th November. Mischief Night often tended to occur the night before Halloween. It was a time for children to play pranks and make nuisances of themselves. This ‘mischief’ would range from ‘tap-and-go-run’ through to arson, vandalism and joy-riding. The exact date of Mischief Night could vary from town to town, region to region, or (as in Appley Bridge where I grew up) not really happen at all (although I doubt that it was because we were all too well behaved).
I should also explain (for the colonial audience) that Bonfire Night, five days after Halloween, is a celebration of James I surviving a catholic plot to blow up Parliament (with him in it). So now the tradition is to build bonfires around the country upon which to burn effigies of Guy (Guido) Fawkes - the most famous of the plotters (yes, even if you are a Catholic)- and set off fireworks. The festivity has lost most of its sectarian overtones, although some places in the UK burn effigies of the Pope, the US president, or other current hate-figures (including an effigy of a caravan of Gypsies, including ‘children’ at the windows, in one particularly outrageous incident of recent years). Anyway, for most people today Bonfire Night involves attending a ‘Health & Safety’ approved organized firework display and bonfire whilst standing around eating toffee apples, treacle toffee, parkin (a treacle-based sponge cake often eaten with butter/spread). But Halloween…. Halloween was always a combination of media-driven celebration of horror (readings of the Robbie Burns poems Halloween and Tam O’Shanter, TV channels cramming their schedules with Halloween-themed programs, a chance to dust off a couple of old Hammer/Universal/Amicus films, and radio stations vying with one another how many times they could play The Monster Mash in a single day) and hang-over from the pagan festival of Samhain.
As I said above, before E.T. there was no such thing as ‘trick or treat.’ Children only got dressed up as ghosts and ghouls if they were going to a fancy dress party. It wasn’t until E.T. explained the notion of ‘going trick-or-treating’ that I realised the improbably rich kids on US TV sitcoms probably weren’t heading off to preternaturally urbane soirees peopled by similarly privileged kids in their expensive costumes. No, they were leaving their improbably huge apartments overlooking Central Park in order to beg from their neighbours and doormen. At least E.T. showed working/lower middle-class kids going out and explained the notion of ‘trick or treat’.
We’d watch TV, play games, and maybe go out to a fancy-dress party (although very few people bothered to do more than don a cardboard mask). I remember one such party when my sister and I went with our friends next door to their grandmother’s house. As a child I lived in Skelmersdale before moving to Appley Bridge/Wigan, and our neighbours were similarly from Skelmersdale (or Skem). Skem was a newtown built in Lancashire for the overflow population of Liverpool. The neighbours’ grandma was a tough, hardy woman who fostered children and made a big fuss of events like Halloween. When we arrived, it was exciting; all these strangers, the house decorated with Silly-string cobwebs and cardboard skeletons hanging from the door, rubber bats swinging from the ceiling. We’d brought along the lanterns we’d made by hollowing out small turnips (yes, that’s what Halloween lanterns are traditionally made from here), carving a devilish grin in them, and placing a thick candle stub inside. We put them on the mantelpiece alongside the others people had brought. There were decorated cakes, Dracula ice lollies (black with a red raspberry centre), bowls of Monster Munch (over-sized corn-snacks in the shape of clawed feet), gummi snakes, and gingerbread in the shape of vampire bats. The place was full with us, the grandma’s current foster children, and teenagers that she had fostered in their earlier childhood. Other than masks and horror-themed T-shirts, I can only remember one person in fancy dress. They were wrapped in rolls of toilet paper as some sort of Kleenex-sponsered ‘Mummy’. There was music – The Monster Mash (of course), The Addams Family theme tune, The Big Purple People Eater, etc. And then the games!
The games were traditional Oct 31st fare. Ducky Apple in which apples were placed in a bowl of water, and the person whose turn it was would, blindfolded and with hands tied behind them, bend over the bowl and try to take one of the apples using only their mouth. Obviously this would involve dunking one’s head in the water, so someone would have a towel to hand. Similarly, there was Bobby Apple (it WAS Skem after all, most people had a scouse accent, so most nouns had a ‘-y’ added to the end of them) where the player (similarly hindered as in Ducky Apple) had to eat an apple dangling from the ceiling on a length of string down to its core, without using their hands. Obviously this was all before ’50 Shades of Grey’ came out, so no-one saw anything kinky about blindfolding and binding children. Both games also seemed to harken back to the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages; dunking the suspected witch in water to see if she drowned (if so she was innocent, and dead) and hanging being punishments for those found guilty of witchcraft. I’m not sure that there was a ‘tying an apple to a wooden stick and burning it’ game, but who knows? It may well be the origin of ‘toffee apples’ and their crispy hard candy shells.
Things didn’t immediately change with the release of E.T., but by a couple of Halloweens later there were teenagers out in twos and threes going around (not in fancy dress, just hoodies and shell suits) knocking on doors ‘trick or treating’, and year by year it gradually became more enmeshed in British culture (as legislation around safety and fireworks tightened, restricting the celebrations of Bonfire Night). And now, we’re all expected to stock up on sweets and chocolates to have in a container by the door as mums and dads walking their children around the neighbourhood begging."
30 days 'til Halloween, Halloween, Halloween. 30 days 'til Halloween, Silver Shamrock!