Friday, November 03, 2006

A Happy Hallowe'en

Happy (belated) Hallowe’en, everyone! Whether you took your kids trick-or-treating, leafed through a favourite spooky tome, hunched in the flickering glow of your tv to watch a much-loved special, went to your local theatre for a scary session with the magic shadows on the big screen, sat around a crackling fire telling ghost stories, visited a loved one’s grave to pay your respects, or celebrated the finest season of them all in some other fashion, I hope you had a good time.
For me, Hallowe’en is the best time of the year. Always has been. Didn’t Ray Bradbury, that most famous lover of this dark season, say something to the effect of “Ah Hallowe’en, better than your birthday, better even than Christmas!” in his script for the animated television version of “The Halloween Tree”?
Maybe it’s because I’ve always felt a kind of quickening at the change of the season when autumn’s drawing to a close – some kind of extra little charge as instinct says to get in gear and prepare for the coming winter, all the while nature seems to be singing her lullaby on the wind. Maybe it’s that special tang in the air that you just don’t get at any other time of the year. Or the crackle of leaves underfoot. Maybe it’s that seductive witches’ perfume smell of late autumn: leaf bonfires on lawns, the first smoke of the year curling up from chimneys, apples falling from trees, and fresh-cut pumpkin shells cooked from within by jack o’lantern candles. Maybe it’s also the colours of the leaves on the trees: reds, oranges, yellows and browns – and if you’re lucky enough to live in eastern Canada (no province west of Ontario has anywhere near the kind of variety that Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes get), you see them all in combination: side by side from tree to tree, on the same tree – on the same leaf! How about a nice, broad maple leaf in deep red, slashed by orange and yellow, shot through with green veins and browning on the edges? How about a million million of these in a billion different colour combinations?
Bradbury puts the flavour of nature during this season best with his usual poetic simplicity in his novel “The Halloween Tree”: “Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve.”
But aside from nature’s contributions, it’s also the fun of the night itself: dressing up in costumes – the more outlandish the better (try to make it a different one every year so you don’t get stale!), the anticipation of seeing what your friends have come up with for their disguises, braving the night (oh to be old enough to do it without mum or dad in tow) and all the imaginary terrors you try to convince yourself it doesn’t hold, pumpkins carved crudely or with skill into a thousand different grimaces, growls or chortles, houses festooned with all manner of monstrous decor, and the candy! Bags and bags and bags filled to bursting with a zillion types of chocolates and chips and sweets to keep you buzzing on a sugar high for weeks! And then there’s coming home and pawing through your haul in front of your favourite seasonal TV specials or listening to a relative regale you with a chilling ghost story. And as you grow up, you move into the costume party set or take simple joy in watching your kids have fun.
And I think the experiences handed out year after year in the trick-or-treat bag of life have a lot to do with it too. Right from the start, Hallowe’ens for me were all good. The first I can remember was when the family lived in the suburbs of Cambridge, Ontario. Lots of friendly faces, a great candy haul, and I especially remember the house where the owner of the local A&W restaurant franchise lived – he had the Root Bear mascot on hand to entertain the kids and hand out candy while he passed along shots of something good and strong to the parents to help keep them warm. I remember those were also the days where Poprocks were among the most frequently handed-out candies. Yes, I can recall eating Poprocks and drinking Coke at the same time when I got home. No, I did not explode as a result.
Later in my childhood, the family moved to a small neighourhood of maybe 100 houses isolated outside of town in the middle of forests, wild fields and farmlands. Now those were great Hallowe’ens! The absolute best! Maybe it was because I was smaller at the time, but the snack-sized chocolate bars seemed bigger then. One lady always gave an extra chocolate bar to kids who collected for UNICEF. And those were the days too when it was safe to give out home-made goodies, so there were a few homes that didn’t bother with the store-bought stuff. Some gave out fresh-baked cookies, some had popcorn balls (either in caramel or bubble-gum), and then there was dear old Mrs. House, who lived near the bottom of the subdivision, who made her own candy apples from scratch! Now, you may think there aren’t that many ways to make a candy apple and so you may wonder why these were so good, but let me tell you, they were the best! Part of it, I think, was that they were home-made, with freshly boiled-down sugar and nice, crisp fall apples straight from the orchard, and beyond that these sorts of treats are always that much better when they’re made by someone taking the time out of the goodness of her heart to make kids happy. Even better, if the next day was a school day, when we walked down the hill past her home on our way to the bus stop in the morning, Mrs. House would always come out onto the porch and wave us up, and ask us to each take two or three more candy apples because she’d made too many. How great was that?! That left us with the choice of either keeping them for ourselves to enjoy over the next couple of days, or trading them at lunch for pretty much anything we wanted from the other kids. Let me tell you, nothing makes you the kingpin of the lunchroom in a small country schoolhouse like home-made candy apples. Although, admittedly, there was also one house that always gave out stale rice cakes. We never ate those. And beyond the treats, this isolated neighbourhood along the banks of the Grand River was tops for its tricks. Putting out jack o’lanterns was the bare minimum for holiday d├ęcor in this place – hay bales, straw on the walkways, candles and corn stalks, and that was just the average. There were a lot of families that took pride in the gimmicks they concocted to make us kids shriek in fear and fun. One house strung a clothesline from an open window, across the front walk, to a tree and mounted a ghost on it. As we walked up to the porch, the specter would come flying out of nowhere and brush over our faces on its way past. Another family would give us a treat at the door, then have the oldest son toss a skeleton on a noose from the roof of the porch to flop down in front of us. Another had a dad dressed up as a mummy in a coffin on the porch who would lie in perfect stillness until we rang the doorbell, when he’d then lurch to life and give us a shock. And there was the family that littered their front yard with dozens of dummies, dead in a gang fight, and lying hidden among the carnage, their son would wait by the walk until we went past, then give a roar and grab our ankles. More than a few of us cleared a foot off the ground when we jumped in terror. We’d be laughing within a minute and asking him how long it took to get the fake bloodstains on his clothes and the rubber knife mounted on the side of his head just right. That was Hallowe’en in the country, a night out with people who knew each other and knew how to have fun.
Later, in my teens and 20’s here in BC, there were parties with friends. And let’s not forget the birth of “The Simpsons” and their awesome Hallowe’en specials. I only regret that for the past few years Fox has waited until AFTER Hallowe’en to air the new versions of its seasonal special. Kinda takes away from the enjoyment when they’re airing a Hallowe’en episode nearly a week after the night itself has passed.
These days, my wife and I enjoy a quieter evening of carving pumpkins, handing out candy (full-sized chocolate bars, mind you, not the worthless little snack-size bites – we’re known as the cool house because of it) and enjoying watching the neighbourhood kids have fun, and watching a couple of favourite movies or TV specials (like “The Simpsons”) together. I can’t wait until we have kids of our own and I can take the little ones out trick-or-treating and experience it again from a different perspective. We also go to the cemetery around this time of the year for the Chinese Chung Yeung Festival – their autumn day of the dead festival (there’s another in the spring), where my wife pays her respects at her father’s grave. It’s interesting how around the world, events like Chung Yeung, or in Latin America El Dia de los Muertos or for the pagan cultures of Europe Samhain and our modern western Hallowe’en have all evolved at more or less the same time of year.
But I digress (as usual). In honour of Hallowe’en, that best time of the year, here’s my list of favourites for the season:

1) “The Halloween Tree” by Ray Bradbuy. The best ode to the wonders of the season. My choice for this year’s Hallowe’en reading.
2) “From the Dust Returned” by Ray Bradbury. If “The Halloween Tree” had a formal companion piece, an expanded universe follow-up, this would be it.
3) “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Gotta go for the classics.
4) “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe. To me, this is one of the most unsettling of Poe’s stories, far more so than “The Raven”.
5) “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. ‘Nuff said.

1) Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” This version of Washington Irving’s classic scared the crap outta me when I was a little kid, but has become my all-time favourite as an adult. It’s a pity this masterpiece doesn’t get aired much any more. I was really disappointed last year when we were in Disneyland on our honeymoon just before Hallowe’en and there was no sign of the Headless Horseman in any of their seasonal souvenirs. It’s great Disney’s developing new stuff, but it shouldn’t be turning its back on the successes of the past.
2) “The Halloween Tree” the Hanna-Barbara animated version of Bradbury’s novel of the same name, narrated by Bradbury himself with Leonard Nimoy as the voice of Moundshroud. The poetry of Hallowe’en brought to the TV screen. I just wish it was available on DVD.
3) Disney’s “Lonesome Ghosts” A very early Disney production (probably from the 40’s, maybe early 50’s at the latest) starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy as early ghostbusters (the “Ajax Ghost Exterminator Company”). Packaged on videotape during the 80’s with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but I haven’t seen that tape in years, never mind a DVD version. This feature was a rarity to begin with, but I haven’t seen any sign of it on TV in 10-20 years. Another example of Disney turning its back on its heritage.
4) Disney’s “Trick or Treat”. Huey, Dooey and Louie team up with crafty old Witch Hazel to teach their cruel uncle, Donald Duck, a lesson in this hilarious gem from sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s. I saw footage of a sequence with one of the songs in this feature aired briefly as part of a Hallowe’en montage in a Disneyland souvenir shop last year on our honeymoon, but I was saddened that the full-length version of the production wasn’t available on DVD at all. At the risk of repeating myself, Disney’s got to learn not to turn its back on its classics.
5) Wrapping up the list: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” Despite the endless humiliations heaped upon Charlie Brown and Linus’ blind faith causing him to miss-out on trick-or-treating and the party (as well as earning the wrath of Charlie Brown’s little sister), I still love this old chestnut. Especially Snoopy’s dogfight against the Red Barron and his trek across the war-torn French countryside of his imagination. At least this classic still makes it to air every year.
6) Honourable mention to “Garfield’s Hallowe’en” which was a riot, but doesn’t get much air time anymore. And a nod to the “Fat Albert” Hallowe’en special, which, at least, is out on DVD now. And I can’t leave the annual “Simpsons Treehouse of Horror” episodes out either, though it doesn’t make it into the top 5 because of the Fox scheduling stupidity I bitched about before.

I’ve got a caveat for this one right off the bat: I don’t like slasher flicks (‘cause I do like some plot in a movie), so there are none on this list.

1) “Ghostbusters” It’s been years since Bill Murray deadpanned “He slimed me.” on the big screen, but it still kills me. After all this time and all the viewings, this is still a funny movie.
2) “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” A great twist on an oft-told tale. Lavish sets and costumes. Great performances by all, especially Anthony Hopkins who plays Van Helsing as utterly determined, smart and crafty, if at times a bit daft. The only weak link in the cast, not surprisingly, was Keanu Reeves. He tries, he really does, but I watch him and keep expecting him to lapse into his character of Ted from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (which he was ideally suited for) and mumble something like: “Dracula, dude! That was sooooo bogus!”
3) “The Sixth Sense” Creepy and smart.
4) “Sleepy Hollow” One of the few Tim Burton films that doesn’t annoy me. It’s a fun romp with some affectionate nods to the Disney version.
5) “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” I saw this one on TV as a kid and loved every minute of it. I still get a chuckle when I see it once in a blue moon now as an adult.
6) Honorable mentions go to Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (which had me in stitches – no pun intended) and to “The Mummy” 1999 version (the scene where the newly-awakened mummy goes after the guy’s eyes and tongue in the tomb is still a bit frightening to watch, though the rest of the film is a fun cotton candy adventure).

Now it’s time to put Hallowe’en to bed (or back in the grave, if you prefer) for another year, to dream of more dark nights of fun, and to brace ourselves for a morning where the count-down to the December holiday season is on.

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