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A Remembrance of Halloweens Past

Freddy KreugerA few years back I won an award for a short story collection. So proud was I of this achievement that I made sure the award was prominently displayed in my downstairs toilet.

At about the same time we were having some work done on our cottage. A local builder was taking up the floorboards in the front room. After using our downstairs loo he mentioned, with some apprehension, while I was making him yet another cup of tea, that he’d spotted the award.

“So you’re err … you’re into that, err … that sort of thing then Jasper?” he said in his broad West Country accent. I admitted that I liked horror and had written rather a lot of it over the years.

“Tell you what Jasper,” he said, eyeing the floorboards as though he was wondering if he shouldn’t give me a little more time to re-hide whatever I’d left under them. “I’ll have one of my lads come round and finish this up in the morning, if you don’t mind.”

The hasty retreat our builder subsequently beat, is not an uncommon occurrence to those of us who work in the horror field, nor to those who consider themselves a fan. Though, on the whole, you couldn’t hope to meet a nicer, gentler and more well-rounded group of individuals than horror writers and horror enthusiasts, people tend to view you with distinct suspicion if you spend a lot of your time wondering just how much of the front of your house you could festoon with human innards before you were forced to butcher another corpse. Or how long it would take a dismembered body to decompose if the various parts were artfully gaffer taped to the gnomes in your front garden?

Except on Halloween of course. On Halloween your neighbours will all come round and praise you for the creativity and imagination of your house decorations. If it’s a slow news day the local newspaper might even send someone down to take photos. It would only be a week or so later, when the pumpkins and plastic witches had all been packed away, and the smell of decaying flesh was making your neighbour’s prize azaleas wilt, that anyone would think to call the police.

That’s because Halloween is the one time of the year when everyone shares and celebrates our dark and twisted obsessions. When Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees are welcomed into homes all over the world like weird Anti-Santas who take away presents of candy, chocolates and other tooth rotting treats without leaving a thing in return. Halloween is the national holiday of the international tribe of loners and misfits who spend the rest of the year in darkened rooms listening to Slayer and poring over their lifetime collections of Fangoria.

However, while there is a long tradition of this activity in America, Halloween, as we’ve come to know and love it, is something of a late comer to UK shores. I used to watch US films and TV specials about Halloween with a mixture of awe and bewilderment as a young child in the 70s and 80s. It was another exotic part of US culture, such as top loading washing machines, cordless telephones with answering machines and sinks with garbage disposals, that were utterly alien to the world in which I was growing up. Seeing Charlie Brown and friends go from house to house to get candy (which I had learned was something we called ‘sweets’) dressed as witches and ghosts was like watching a documentary on the tribal customs of a distance race who lived in another time. I was almost in my twenties before I saw a pumpkin in a supermarket in the UK. I’d seen films and photographs of carved pumpkins, and even read recipes for pumpkin pie, but could only imagine what they tasted like.

We did use to carve jack o’ lanterns when I was a child, only we carved them out of large swedes and turnips and not for Halloween but for Bonfire Night six days later. For those who don’t know, Bonfire Night, on the 5th of November, is a night when we celebrate Guido Fawkes’s plucky attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Fawkes failed of course, but we Brits love a good failure, that’s why all our National Heroes are failures, like Eddie the Eagle, the world’s worst ski jumper, and Scott of the Antarctic, whose whole party froze bravely to death when they failed to find the North Pole.

If you were to knock on a neighbour’s door and ask for sweets, where I lived on Halloween, they would most likely have punched you in the face and knocked out several of your teeth. Thereby saving you the trouble of having them fall out after eating all that sugar (dentistry wasn’t so great where I grew up either). As the phrase ‘trick or treat’ carries an implied threat, that children rarely have to make good on these days, and as no one was going to give us a treat, my school chums and I went straight to the ‘trick’.

Halloween was known to us as ‘Mischief Night’. It was an excuse to commit petty arson and vandalism on a community wide scale, running as fast as we could to stay one step ahead of the angry grown ups who would have beaten us senseless if they caught us, as several of my slower friends found out. There would be entry level mischief as perpetrated by little kids, such as leaving a bag of flaming dogshit on someone’s doorstep, ringing their bell then hiding behind their hedge to watch as they tried to stamp out the flames only to get dogshit all over their shoes. The drawback of this old chestnut was that most people had tried that very same gag themselves when they were young. So they would often get a shovel, pick up the flaming shit and try and drop it on the heads of the perpetrators, who sat giggling behind their front hedge. Trust me, there is little in life worse than getting a flaming bag of shit dropped on your head when you’re only seven years old.

As we got older, we would graduate to more serious civic damage, breaking windows, burning down sheds and other pranks. Once, some friends and I found a whole stash of paint tins in a garage we broke into, and proceeded to run down the length of the street pouring the paint all over the windscreens and paintwork of every parked car we came to. Looking back on this as an adult I shudder to think of all the money and inconvenience we caused those poor car owners. It was no wonder we would have been beaten senseless if they caught us.

What we didn’t realise as children was that all the chaos we unleashed on Mischief Night was part of a centuries old tradition that we were simply channelling. The ancient Pagans who celebrated the festivals of Samhain, Beltane and Calan Gaef, on the 31st of October, believed it was the night when the dead would return to their homes and the Wild Spirits would run abroad on the Great Hunt, causing mischief and mayhem. In Ireland, Scotland and Wales, during the middle ages, it was a time when the young apprentices and other youths would play violent pranks on their elders, while young children would go from house to house in mummers costumes, or with painted faces, singing songs and reciting poetry in return for cakes and other sweetmeats. For at least two thousand years this has been a night when chaos and mischief have held sway, unless these energies were directed in a more positive direction.

These days the kids in my home town go trick or treating, just like the American children we used to watch on TV. This activity might lead to them eating a bit too much chocolate and watching a few films that aren’t entirely age appropriate, but that’s a lot more positive than what my friends and I used to get up to, and most probably a little more fun. The hideous costumes, the spooky decorations and the horror paraphernalia are a way of curbing those ancient and chaotic forces that took hold of my classmates and I. These primal forces exist in all of us and the purpose of holidays like Halloween is to give them vent and let them out, before they take a much more destructive form.

In fact, it could be argued that that’s one of the purposes of the horror genre in general. Maybe those of us who enjoy it all year round, just have a little more primal force bubbling away inside us. Or perhaps we just like the way it feels when we let it out more. Either way, I think that what the critics of horror’s violence and dark world view overlook, is the importance of having an outlet for those basic human attributes. We don’t put an end to violence and aberrant behaviour by putting an end to the fictional forms that help us explore and understand these human attributes. In fact we risk intensifying them, if there is no safe outlet with which to explore them. The antics of my friends and I amply illustrate this. And it should be noted that we were indulging in this activity in the height of one of the most repressive and censorious attacks on horror in living memory – namely the clampdown on so called ‘video nasties’ in the early 80s, which were also a time of mass riots, bitter strikes and civil unrest in the UK. I really don’t think that’s the least bit of a coincidence.

Trust your Uncle Jasp on this, you know it makes sense.

I began this column by mentioning a short story collection that won an award and I’m going to end it by plugging another. That’s right, I have a new book out. It’s a thoroughly gruesome collection of two reprehensible novellas and seven disreputable short stories called Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts. Quite possibly the sickest, strangest and horniest thing you’re going to read this year. And if it isn’t, I shall come round to your house and read it to you until it is.

US readers can grab it here and UK readers here.

JASPER BARK

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