It’s a psychological fact that some people enjoy…to a degree…fear. I’m not a scientist and won’t bore you with a bunch of jargon, but there are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. First, fear triggers the pleasurable release of dopamine, the same thing that happens in our brain during sex. As one article I ran across put it…”Dopamine is love. Dopamine is lust. Dopamine is motivation. Dopamine is attention. Dopamine is addiction.” So adrenaline junkies, drug abusers, folks with a bit of a gambling problem, & nymphomaniacs all have a similar brain chemistry as those who are really into horror movies. I am sure that is an epic oversimplification, but it’s the best I can do. Secondly, there is something called “excitation transfer”, which essentially means that after one gets really scared they calm down, but it’s not just the average everyday calm. When the heart rate levels out, breathing normalizes, & muscles relax one feels an intense sense of relief that is exceedingly positive & enjoyable, and that pleasant feeling is what is remembered about the experience in the long run.
I tell you all of that as a preamble to saying that I am not one of those people. I don’t enjoy being scared. I don’t like horror movies. I couldn’t possibly care less about haunted houses. However, I am rather intrigued with Halloween. I’m a bit of a history buff and have developed somewhat of a fascination with cultural anthropology, folklore, & mythology. I might have explored career options in that general direction if I’d known such pathways existed as a kid. Halloween has a quirky, fun vibe and a peculiar backstory & evolution. I completely understand that many of my fellow Christians choose not to celebrate Halloween, and I respect those opinions. However, there are frivolous elements of the occasion that I rather enjoy. As much as I appreciate a big ol’ bag of candy I am a little too old to go out trick or treating, so instead I’ll keep the lights low in The Bachelor Palace, snuggle with Rocco, and delight in some fantastic Halloween themed entertainment. I’m a bookworm and cannot recommend highly enough Washington Irving’s 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Yes, I know there have been countless film & television adaptations, but trust me…read it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novella The Hound of the Baskervilles could qualify as Halloween-ish, as could any number of stories written by the late great Ray Bradbury. Tastes vary, but there are worse ways to spend Halloween than curled up with a good book. However, this being the 21st century, many are predisposed to grab the remote and watch a movie or TV show. So sit back, relax, maybe drink a glass of cider & snack on some candy corn as I present…..
from the home office in Anoka, MN…..
The Superfluous 7 Favorite Halloween Movies & TV Shows:
7 Beetlejuice and Young Frankenstein
We begin with a tie!!
I was a little late in joining the Beetlejuice bandwagon, having first watched it several years after its 1988 release. However I have always been a fan of Michael Keaton’s work, and this is one of his most iconic roles. He stars as a long dead “freelance bio-exorcist” who is enlisted by a newly dead couple to scare a living family away from their house. Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, & Winona Ryder are in the cast as well, and the film is directed by Tim Burton with music by Danny Elfman…a most impressive crew indeed. It’s an odd amalgamation of comedy & horror that really works. A sequel has been rumored for awhile, but to my knowledge it’s all talk right now.
Did you know that a Halloween comedy inspired Aerosmith’s hit song Walk This Way?? Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein hit theaters in 1974 and is now regarded as a comedy masterpiece. It is a spoof of classic horror films, focusing on the grandson of Dr. Victor Frankenstein…an American named Frederick Frankenstein (which he hilariously pronounces “Fronk-en-steen”) who disavows his crazy family legacy until he inherits the estate in Transylvania. Once Frederick moves into the castle hilarity ensues as he decides to duplicate his grandfather’s infamous experiment. The terrific cast includes Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, & Cloris Leachman. Gene Hackman makes a brief but hysterical cameo. If, like me, you enjoy a well-written parody you can’t go wrong with Young Frankenstein at Halloween.
6 Hotel Transylvania
Adam Sandler has had a bad run, starring in mostly putrid affronts to good taste for most of the past 15 years. A rare exception is this animated 2012 offering in which Sandler voices Dracula as he tries (and fails) to keep his daughter away from humanity while hosting her 118th birthday party with many of his famous monster friends in attendance. Selena Gomez is even more beautiful animated than she is in real life (or maybe I’m just really lonely), and a bunch of Sandler’s buddies…Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Molly Shannon, Jon Lovitz, et al…add their voices to the fun. A sequel was released in 2015, and a third film is coming in 2018.
5 Halloween Documentaries on History
Nerd alert…I have decided to include an ode to the documentary. The History Channel may have gone in the crapper the past few years (Life After People?? Really??), but once upon a time it actually focused on…duh…history, and occasionally still does (even a broken clock is right twice a day). The original Haunted History of Halloween was first broadcast in 1997 and traces Halloween all the way back to its origins with the Celtic tribes of Medieval Ireland thru an American renaissance of the holiday in the 1950’s and the rise of horror films in the 1980’s. Whether you are determined to view Halloween as a pagan celebration of darkness & death or choose to look at it thru the eyes of innocent children dressing in fun costumes and asking for candy, every angle is presented, all narrated by the mellifluous cadence of newsman Harry Smith. In 2010 History produced an update called The Real History of Halloween, which covers a lot of the same territory, albeit with a more ominous tone and without Smith’s dulcet inflection, as he is replaced by the guy who seems to narrate everything on History (name unknown). Both documentaries are worth your time. Learning really is fun kids…I promise.
4 Frankenstein & Dracula
Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, while Mary Shelley (wife of poet Percy Shelley) wrote Frankenstein way back in 1818. Both are great novels that have frequently been adapted for the stage & screen. Most movie versions don’t hardly resemble the books at all, but that’s a discussion for another day. Universal Studios produced a collection of horror films in the 1930’s & 40’s with Dracula and Frankenstein featured prominently in many of them, and it all started in 1931 with Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. Lugosi’s performance as Count Dracula and Karloff’s interpretation of The Monster both set a standard for our pre-conceived notions of those characters. Neither film is all that scary thru the prism of what modern slasher flicks have become, and that’s just fine with me. There are several other creature features in the Universal canon of that particular era, including The Wolf Man, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, & The Invisible Man, that are worth watching if you are so inclined. However, I suggest starting with these two.
3 Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
I grew up in the 1970’s & 80’s, and comedy team Abbott & Costello had their heyday in the 40’s & 50’s, so I’m not sure how I became a fan. Though it may be counterintuitive, it seems like their movies (along with classic stuff from The Three Stooges, Ma & Pa Kettle, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy) were on TV with some frequency during my childhood long before there were hundreds of channels or streaming was invented. At any rate, at the height of their popularity Bud Abbott and Lou Costello teamed up with Universal to make a handful of films in which the humorous duo encounter classic monsters. This 1948 offering is the first & best, although later entries like Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, & Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy are perfectly delightful as well. Contrary to the title the twosome meet more than just Frankenstein’s Monster…Dracula & The Wolf Man are around too. It’s a seamless blend of absurd fun & fear, which is exactly what I like.
It really is the only horror movie I like. To be clear, I am speaking of the 1978 original. A bunch of sequels were made, and remake(s) came out just a few years ago, but really, other than 1981’s Halloween II, I don’t care about any of them. The original was written, directed, & produced by John Carpenter (who even composed the legendary theme song) with a $300k budget, which was super low even back then. However, the film made $70 million so everything worked out alright. Actually I think forced frugality did the film (and audience) a favor. Instead of graphic blood & guts Halloween is more suspenseful than scary, perfectly capturing the mood of the titular holiday. I have come to appreciate minimalism in relation to many aspects of life, and with movies I respect directors who show restraint, whether it is an artistic or economic choice. I can count on my hands the number of horror films I have bothered to watch in my four & a half decades on the planet…they’re just not my thing. Among those I have seen Halloween is the only one that I keep coming back to. It’s an annual tradition.
1 It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip began in the fall of 1950. Fifteen years later Coca-Cola sponsored the first of what would eventually be over fifty Peanuts animated television specials…A Charlie Brown Christmas. After the enormous success of the Christmas program plans were formulated for a different holiday show. The Great Pumpkin first aired on October 27, 1966 and has been warming the cockles of children of all ages ever since. It makes complete sense if you think about it…kids are all about Santa Claus, right?? So why wouldn’t a youngster like Linus Van Pelt desire another mythical gift giver on what is…for most children…the second coolest holiday on the calendar?? Of course we all know that the magic of Santa Claus isn’t possible without agreeable participation from parents, therefore the absence of such adults in the Peanuts universe dictates that the Great Pumpkin mythos is logically doomed. Schultz seemed to have somewhat of a jaded worldview, and it shows up throughout Peanuts. These are some cynical little crumb crunchers!! At any rate, everything about The Great Pumpkin is perfect, from Charlie Brown getting nothing but rocks in his trick or treat bag in what has to be the cruelest neighborhood in history, to Snoopy going all Walter Mitty and battling The Red Baron on a flying dog house, to the charmingly vibrant animation & groovy jazz soundtrack. I might be “middle-aged”, but I never hesitate to wave my inner child flag and bask in the glorious glow of nostalgia. The Great Pumpkin is quintessential Halloween, and for that I am thankful.