Just as VHS gave way to DVD, so my DVD collection is being replaced with blu-ray. For financial reasons I’m being selective as to what films get the high-def upgrade , but there have been a lot of horror films on my blu-ray shopping list. Rather than send the unwanted DVDs off to one of those online sites that offers you peanuts for them, I’ve brought them in to work to sell for charity.
This week I put a “Halloween Special” sign next to them to try and cash in on the season. Seeing the long line of scary DVDs a colleague cautiously enquired about my love for such dubious looking movies as The Burning (1981) and Suspiria (1977). I mentioned my fondness for Halloween but couldn’t follow that up with an explanation as to where that love came from; so began a stagger back through the mist of my memory.
The roots went as far back as my pre-teen years. As a child my favourite film was Ghostbusters (1984), though not because spooks featured heavily; I thought it was a funny film with four titular ghost hunters who had cool gear and a great car. The ghosts must have made an impression though as shortly after I became mildly obsessed with a book I got from the library on the paranormal. It contained old black and white photos, supposedly of spirits inadvertently captured on film, and was a mesmerising read, creepy, eerie, exciting. It was a feeling I was surprised to find I enjoyed.
The biggest influence at the time though was my Dad. He was a prolific reader and amateur writer, and when I was growing up he was going through a Stephen King phase. Whenever Dad was unwinding a King paperback was usually in hand. I found their covers fascinating, dangerous looking artwork on a black background, and I wondered what horrors dwelled within their pages. Dad always exclaimed that King was a much underrated writer and he was rarely wrong about these sort of things.
When I was twelve I was deemed old enough to have my own “grown-up” books. On my first visit to our local second-hand book shop I headed straight to the horror section, keen to find my own scares. I went home with a bundle of the most terrifying books I could find and delved in to the works of James Herbert, Guy N Smith, Robert McCammon and their horror cohorts. Horrors rarely extended beyond the written word at this stage though. As a working class family we didn’t have Sky Movies or a big library of VHS, so viewing was at the mercy of the terrestrial television schedules. And the schedules weren’t kind.
Horror was (and to a certain degree still is) an unpopular genre with the masses. British television channels were also risk adverse, unwilling to air anything too distasteful for fear of upsetting the conservative minded viewer. Disaster movies were as thrilling as it got, the likes of Airport (1970) and Earthquake (1974) littering the Sunday afternoon slots, so I had to settle for these mild thrillers for a cinematic buzz. Very occasionally an actual horror film was shown, usually late Saturday night on Channel 4 or BBC2. One of the very first I enjoyed with my Dad was The Creeping Flesh (1973), an intriguing film from the latter days of Hammer. Unfortunately, Dad didn’t set the video timer properly and the last fifteen minutes was cut off; I still don’t know how the film finished. Dad also recorded Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) for me, but Mum vetoed that one after he recounted the scene where Robbie Freeling’s braces come alive, envelope him and snake off to the nearest plug socket; I had my own set of teeth-straighteners at the time and Mum assumed it would give me nightmares.
The first Halloween I can remember was a memorable one for a lot of other people in the UK to. It was October 1992 and I’d just started secondary school. I’d really enjoyed my junior school years but none of my friends went with me to grammar school. Even so, one of them kindly invited me to his birthday party a couple of months in to the new school year in October. Nice as it was to see old junior school friends again, it wasn’t much fun being there with a bunch of new kids I didn’t know, and who didn’t know me. My Dad collected me slightly early and cheered me up on the walk home with news that BBC were showing something spooky on TV that night. That something was Ghostwatch (1992).
A fake documentary investigating spooky goings on in a north London house, this “live” one-off show featured a host of familiar faces from the day including Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, and Craig Charles. The BBC made very little effort to declare that the show was a hoax, and as we sat watching the genuinely creepy events escalate over its ninety minute run time I looked to my parents to gauge whether it was real or not. Worryingly, they didn’t seem to know.
Ghostwatch caused a big commotion after it aired. In the pre-internet age there were very few spoilers, so keeping a prime-time slot show on BBC1 a secret wasn’t that difficult. As a result a good number of naïve viewers were duped in to thinking they were watching the paranormal come to life in real time on Saturday evening TV. The BBC were flooded with complaints, including one former soldier who claimed he’d soiled himself with fright. The television equivalent of Orson Welles War of the Worlds (1938) radio play panic, the BBC offered a swift public apology. As one of my first genuinely frightening horror experiences, I absolutely loved it.
Three months later I convinced my parents to let me stay up to watch Aliens (1986). It was Christmas so they relented. I hadn’t seen Alien (1979), but it didn’t matter; when the final credits rolled I knew I’d seen the greatest film ever made (recounted here - http://filmsfilmsfilms.co.uk/blog/this_one_goes_out_to_the_one_i_love/2012-08-13-15 ). I still feel that way today, twenty-six years later. It cemented my fondness for all things terrifying and a lifelong horror fan was born. Over the next couple of years though, access to horror films remained sketchy. Aside from a memorable rental of Candyman (1992) I had to satisfy myself with snatched snippets from Friday the 13th films friends smuggled in to school to watch on rainy lunchbreaks, or the occasional Hammer horror classic airing on late night TV.
Thankfully things changed as the nineties rolled on and in 1995 my older sister discovered Empire Magazine. It was a gateway in to “proper” cinema, a monthly read that taught us about the best directors, the best movies, forgotten gems, and upcoming releases. At the same time VHS started to drop in price considerably with the arrival of DVD. With a little more pocket money to hand I finally had access to the films I wanted to see. One of the first videos I invested in was Scream (1996). Empire had heralded it as one of the finest horror movies in years, and they were right; it was love at first sight and I immediately added it to my favourites list.
Looking in to Scream and its place in the horror genre, I discovered the slasher film sub-genre and Halloween (1978) as the original templates that Scream was commentating on. I tracked down the John Carpenter classic on VHS and gave it a watch. As much as it pains me to say it now, I was underwhelmed. The lack of gory kills was partly to blame I initially thought, but I later concluded that it was the fact I was watching the film in letterbox format on a 14inch portable television. Halloween thrives on its atmosphere and it needs a good sized canvas to work its magic. Utilising grainy VHS, on a tiny television with a tinny mono-speaker, I couldn’t have picked a worse format to watch it on.
When I reached adulthood in 1998 my time was spent on other things, music, nightclubbing, university, and eventually full-time work. When my future wife and I purchased our first house in late 2003 I was finally able to buy a television that would do my film collection (now on DVD) justice. My new pride and joy was a 32 inch, 100hz, widescreen Samsung hooked up to a 5.1 surround sound system. Shortly after getting it I gave Halloween another watch and realised how wrong I had been previously; it was a masterpiece. When 31st October 2004 came around it seemed like the perfect All Hallows Eve movie. I complemented the viewing with a couple of candlelit pumpkins on the mantelpiece and a Halloween tradition was launched.
Not only do I watch Halloween every 31st October I've now taken all Halloween traditions to heart. Late autumn is a beautiful time of year, the varied colours of trees turning in for the year offset by a welcome creepiness that drifts along as the evenings grow longer and darker. The atmosphere of the season invokes the best of those feelings I had as a child, wondering what frights were waiting for me in a new paperback horror or an unseen scary movie. It also gives me a good excuse to revisit the most terrifying movies in my collection. Horror films remain one of the few genres where a time of year can add extra layers of atmosphere and fun, all thanks to the festival of Samhain. Its also the one day of the year when revelling in the antics of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees isn't looked at as a tawdry, low-brow hobby; quite the opposite, people embrace it, adorn themselves with costumes and rummage in the back of the DVD cupboard for something scary to put on.
I must have been eloquent enough in my description of All Hallows Eve, as my work colleague parted with 50p and took home a pair of horror classics on DVD for 31st October next week, Halloween being one of them. Forty-one years on, John Carpenter can still entice new recruits to the Samhain celebrations. And as Sheriff Brackett quite rightly says 'It's Halloween ... I guess everyone is entitled to one good scare'.