Pumpkins by us, circa 2012
To celebrate Halloween, and to reward myself for a week of working on some very dense material for my day job, I’ve decided to leave books and writing aside for a moment and look at my favorite Halloween movies (and there’s one written piece thrown in for good measure).
This is sort of an odd list for me to generate. For the most part, I don’t enjoy the horror genre. I tend to find it upsetting. I over-empathize with the characters. Instead of feeling titillated, I wind up reflecting on true stories of random horrible acts of violence, and well, it’s terribly unpleasant. There are exceptions though, especially when there’s a layer of self-commentary (Cabin in the Woods) or there’s political commentary (name your favorite zombie movie, and I’m sure it’s got some).
I also don’t like to think of death as something scary, or of ghosts as evil. I think of the people I love who will one day die, and of people I have loved who have already passed away, and I just don’t find any joy in imagining them in any kind of torment, or as any agent of torment (as in stories of hauntings). I love cemeteries, because I love to think about the stories that all of the people there have left behind. I’ve been told that this is strange, but I find them peaceful.
But this is what Halloween is meant to be about – remembering the dead, even honoring death itself. Our tradition has roots in Samhain, a festival in celebration of the end of the year, the death of the summer and the beginning of winter. Autumn is a time when death is beautiful – the leaves are the most brilliant just before they wither and fall. Samhain is a time when the barrier between the living and the dead is permeable, and the dead are giving a place at the feast. It also has roots in the Christian All Saints’ Day, wherein the living form spiritual bonds with dead who suffer purgatory, and the dead who are in heaven.
Ghoulish, perhaps, but villainous and terrible? Not unless the dead in question was villainous and terrible in life, please.
So my list won’t include the scariest or most original selection of movies out there (Reader’s Digest can help you out there), but there are many, many stories that don’t push my general squeamishness too far while still capturing the spirit of Halloween. These are my five favorites:
1) Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. Not only is this a brilliant example of storytelling, but it has everything you could want in a holiday movie – including another holiday. Christmas is my favorite (ultimate hygge time), and this movie gives me a chance to secretly start cultivating my yuletide cheer a bit early, thus tempering my insatiable Christmas desire long enough to let me enjoy the Fall holidays first.
2) Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. This is a masterpiece. Don’t expect a serious horror film, or else you’ll never make heads or tails of it. It’s take on the gruesome is comic, fun, and kind of beautiful. And you know – Johnny Depp with gadgets, Christina Ricci in a hoop skirt, and delightful autumnal scenery.
3) The Shadow of the Vampire. Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich amaze me in this, and it’s incredibly scary. Like, legitimately it frightens me, and I enjoy it, because it always makes me reflect on the vampiric power of film. It really sucks me in, you know? Pair it with Nosferatu for an excellent evening in.
4) Donnie Darko. This is sad, triumphant and thought-provoking all at once, and it always sends me to my homemade VHS of Harvey, which I taped off of Turner Classic Movies on a VCR. Because I am from the past, and I really, really want to read that time-travel book.
5) Teig O’Kane and the Corpse, as found in W.B. Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, translated by Douglas Hyde. This is the one that isn’t a movie, though I would love to see it adapted into a short film. It’s deliciously ghoulish, spooky, traffics in both fairies and ghosts, and says something about both death and life. It’s a wonderful campfire read for any season, but I especially like it when its chilly out. It’s a perfect Samhain tale. You can find this tale here, but I recommend getting the book so you can take it with you to travel.
I make no apologies for my puns. It’s a holiday, after all.
- Merry Samhain & Happy Halloween (springwolf.net)
- Top spooky ancient Irish myths surrounding Halloween (irishcentral.com)