Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Day 29 - "This is the Place Haunted Village" in Salt Lake City, UT

     Okay, in the name of fairness, here's another locally appreciated entry, but for the other side of the country. I'm generally not an enormous fan of haunted houses, but when I was living in Utah, I was very excited to check out the Haunted Village at This is the Place Heritage Park every October.

    A brief history lesson for some context, "This is the Place" commemorates where the Mormon pioneers first came into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Upon emerging from a canyon, Brigham Young supposedly sees the desert expanse in front of him and says, "This is the place", the place where they would settle and start their state. For most of the year it is a living history museum consisting of restored or replicated period buildings and guides in period clothing that give visitors an idea of what life was like for those pioneers 150 years ago.

     In October, the park transforms into the, less historically accurate and educational but very fun, "Haunted Village" where visitors now learn what life was like in the 1850s if you had to worry about witches or killers running about. Yes, the park's look still remains basically of that same time frame, you won't find anachronistic chainsaws or horror movie references here. Instead you'll find characters like witches or serial wife murders that have moved into the village. Each year, there is a theme/narrative which is introduced by a very well produced movie( got me, they DO show a movie) that plays while you stand in line for your turn to enter. The story of the haunt is then somewhat played out by the actors providing some exposition and progressing the plot as you move through the park.

     Once you get to the front of the line, you'll be allowed to enter as a group of 3-10 or so (don't want to have too big a group that could dampen the creepy atmosphere and be too unwieldy as to ruin the timing of some of the jump scares) and you proceed into the village, sans any type of guide. I've been to some haunted houses that were guideless, but since you're wandering acres of the park, moving from building to building, spending a lot of time outside on dark paths, I've always thought this was a very cool aspect of the Haunted Village. If any place would have a guide keeping a careful eye on you, it seems like it'd be here. You get to roam between the structures(homes, a butcher shop, the hospital, the school) at your own pace, pretty much. This leads to funny moments along the tour as you run into groups in front of you whose strategy is to go sloooooow between buildings and then you also have groups from behind merge with you, these groups instead choosing to run as fast as they can between buildings.

     Most of the buildings are far enough apart to where the exact nature of the scares ahead won't be spoiled for you, but you do often hear muffled speech and screams in the distance well enough to keep you filled with dread. What also helps on that front is that you never get a break. Being outside doesn't mean you're immune to scares. There are people wearing black hiding in the trees that pounce down beside you, actors in ghillie suits along the path that wait for the perfect moment to rise up, characters from buildings will follow you outside the path and silently walk behind you for a stretch before returning to their base of operations...your heart beat never gets a chance to dip. Only once you've traversed all the cursed acreage do you get to cool down as you exit through the visitors center and laugh and talk about your favorite parts, maybe ending the trip with some hot chocolate or sarsaparilla. 

     I would be curious to hear about any other haunted attractions that are like this, as it's by far my personal favorite and one of the things I really miss about Utah. The only thing that comes to mind immediately is maybe tours through older penitentiaries or hospitals where they're doing a similar museum/haunt type thing, but they don't have the outdoor aspect of the Haunted Village. Please let me know of anything like this out there, I'd love to find something near by to fill this void in my Halloween ritual.

Day 28 - The Telltale Lilac Bush

      This is an odd one as it's an item more localized and personal than anything else on the list, but this is my blog, dammit. "The Telltale Lilac Bush", as the subtitle might suggest, is a book of scary stories that originated in West Virginia. For anyone who grew up here, it's, at the least, a treasured memory of the Halloween season as much as anything mainstream and found nationwide. I cannot describe the excitement in second or third grade when we knew it was "Telltale Lilac Bush Day" and the volunteer from the library would be visiting to read a few of the tales.

     The stories were culled from around the state, basically written down exactly as they were told by the contributors, either personal, first-hand accounts of something spooky or an orally passed down story from generations ago. The informal, unsophisticated...yes, sometimes uneducated... and varying way the stories are delivered is a large part of the book's charm. Each one, many often just a paragraph or two, sounds like something you'd hear from an old neighbor while sitting on their porch. There's no pretension to be found, just dozens of fun, quick stories to try to give you chills. Stories that cover a lot of subjects, and that's how the book is broken up, by type of ghost or nature of the event described. There's a section on "Ghost Children" and "Ghost Wives", there's "Headless Ghosts" and "Weird Creatures", and since it's West Virginia, there's of course "Mine Ghosts". Bound to be something for the whole family.

     What I also enjoy is the personal connection I have as a native. As you might expect, being accounts or recollections of regular ol' folk and not those with a penchant for powerful prose, the stories when looked at objectively aren't terrific. But in addition to the casual nature they are presented, the other big hook (especially as a kid) is that they take place in towns and areas you've heard of. Or maybe live in! :O  Growing up about ten minutes outside of the city, whenever the family would be driving home on autumn evenings, on quiet unlit stretches of rural roads, my mind will always call up stories from "the hollers", picturing what it might be like to see "the white thing" come scurrying out of the treeline and cross in front of us.

     Lastly, not unlike "Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark", "Telltale Lilac" also had horrifying illustrations that went on to have starring roles in many an 8-year-old's nightmares.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Day 27 - Are You Afraid of the Dark?

     Remember that golden age for Nickelodeon? Are You Afraid of the Dark? was another one of the gems of that era. A "horror" anthology series structured around the idea of friends gathering in the woods and telling stories around a fire...already, even before any tales are being told, it's tapped into a very romantic idea for a lot of kids, having this dependable, like-minded group of cohorts that never really fights or has much "class hierarchy" and has the incredible freedom to escape their parents and sneak off in the night just to tell ghost stories. And beyond that, the notion of being members of a decades old, quasi-exclusive club-the Midnight Society. Didn't all kids think that was a cool idea?

     The tales proper were in the vein of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, more ironic morality lessons than full on horror. With a few exceptions, the kids usually found themselves arrive at a happy ending. In that, I find it an appropriate show to discuss when thinking about Halloween. Ultimately, Halloween is meant to be fun. Above all else, it's fun. You can have some chills and thrills, but it's safe and there's not any real danger. The guy with a chainsaw at the haunted house isn't going to kill you...the arms reaching out of the ground are fake, just like the tombstones they're in front of. And this is how AYAotD feels, it's directed with sincerity and there are plenty of genuinely creepy performances and scary moments, but we know that it's on Nickelodeon and the protagonists are kids so they're (probably) going to be all right at the end. So it's not that Halloween and the show aren't trying to be scary or that they try and fail, it's really the opposite. It's that given the context, that everyone knows there's a safety net under all of the proceedings, the audience kind of implicitly demands that there is, and is receptive to, much more effort put into terrifying them.

     But I'm getting a bit off point is, though some might feel the show is hamstrung by being on a children's network, I think it's the perfect way to create a show that compliments the playful spookiness of Halloween. The envelope can actually be pushed quite far because of these "built in rules" in our minds knowing the lines that can't be crossed. In the same way we know a haunted house actor won't grab us and chew our face off, we know the kids in the creepy house with the werewolf aren't really in mortal danger. This is the kind of "horror" I enjoy the most. I don't mind the occasional brutal, no-one-is-safe kinda scenario, but most often I'd prefer a Nerf'd experience where I can get some scares and rush of adrenaline without the trauma.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Day 26 - When cats become Halloween Cats

     Just to be clear, a Halloween Cat is that familiar, often silhouetted image of a cat with the arched back, hair standing on end and a puffed up tail. Unlike most other Halloween imagery, this is something that can, and frequently does, appear in our normal lives! It's a wonderful moment when your cat gets spooked, turns two dimensional like a flounder, every hair prickles and it keeps its eyes locked on whatever the, perceived, source of fright was. It's a decoration come to life! Right before your eyes!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 23 - "Halloweenies"

     The early 90s were a magical time for Nickelodeon, this seems to be when they really hit their stride and most would probably call it the golden age for the network. They'd arrived as a serious contender in the cable arena, but hadn't yet gotten too big to be corrupted by execu-think and the sway of advertisers. There was plenty of money for live action shows and the birth of Nicktoons, but creators could still be experimental and march to their own drum and their shows didn't have to be confined to any specific safe "format". So many of the shows at this time had such a quirky, surreal personality, and yet still very unique'd not accuse Clarissa Explains it All of being too similar to Salute Your Shorts. These shows managed to capture very well the voice of kids and teens without the actual adults writing and directing mucking it up and not just presenting "what they think kids would say" or "what I think kids should say and hear". This was a stark contrast to the family sitcoms of the late 80s/early 90s with their "very special episodes" or even Saved By The Bell which was really, when it was not being transparently preachy, just kid escapist fantasy disguised as a regular ol' show about school. Which is fine and enjoyable, but it's not realistic.

    The Adventures of Pete and Pete, on the other hand, was magnitudes more realistic and true to the experiences more kids had growing up. This might sounds ridiculous to some people, it's a show well known for it's absurd characters and ideas, but it's true. It didn't matter that Little Pete had somehow acquired a full arm tattoo, or that there was a town superhero...the heart and voice at the core was always 100% sincere. Probably largely because the show was often tinged, or thick, with sadness, vital for any attempt at  authenticity. Punches can't be pulled, truths can't be swept under the rug. Life is often sad, especially growing up and realizing you'll never be a kid again and some experiences are gone forever.

      One such transitional period revolves around the rituals of Halloween. There comes a point where you just can't trick or treat anymore. You have to let go of that part of the holiday and graduate to the more "mature" traditions. In the episode "Halloweenies", Little Pete wants to hold on to trick-or-treating just long enough to break the record for most candy collected and high-school-aged Big Pete has not only grown out of trick-or-treating but has also become cynical about the holiday in general and hopes that, due to the annual threat of the delinquents known as the "pumpkin eaters", this is the last Halloween for Wellsville. But when Little Pete's trick-or-treat partner is banned from participating by her father, Big Pete decides to come out of retirement one last time to help his brother achieve immortality, even if it means he's running the risk of being branded a Halloweenie.

     It's a tremendous love letter to the holiday. We're sympathetic to Big Pete, we all remember what it was like to grow out of something and compensatingly feel like you were too cool for it. We knew kids like the pumpkin eaters who turned to the mischievous path once they were too old to go door-to-door. It's easy to be on Little Pete's side and have the wisdom of a kid, and an adult viewer, to think, "Stop worrying about what other people think, don't be jerks...just have fun!". Not only does it nail the atmosphere of the day wonderfully, it does so from multiple age-specific viewpoints.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Day 22 - FAILURE

       Ahh, the spookiest, most horribly inevitable things of all! The universe punching you in the stomach as the understood international sign language translation of "Told ya so!", that rotten stench of a heartless, sneering laugh from I missed thee.

      Siiiigh...going away for a long weekend of fun fall frolicking combined with only thinking up this whole cockamamie idea on the first of the month combined with never quite having a full roster of entries and therefore always racing the calendar combined with being a generally awful, lazy and easily distracted person, it was bound to happen.

     But! I'm not done. There's still over a week left of spooky Octoberness. And I lied at the very beginning, I didn't rank this whole list, but I have been holding off on some of my most favorite of things for the home stretch. And at this late point in the schedule there is the high probability of sometimes getting TWO entries a day, I know the 6-8 people reading and the few who clicked on the blog entirely by accident are giddy at that thought.

Monday, October 21, 2013

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Day 13 - Costume Quest

     Time for another idea I find fun and attractive when it comes to Halloweeny stuff, the concept that Halloween is a magical time where sometimes the fiction part of the tradition and history can break through on this one night where the veil between worlds is thinner. Applying the fun, faux spookiness of Halloween to actual terror and conflict with ghosts or werewolves or boogiemen or whatever is something I'll always get a kick out of.

     Costume Quest just so happens to be one such example of this idea. It's a charming game by Double Fine Productions where kids have to fit defeating monsters and saving the neighborhood into their trick-or-treating schedule. Throughout the game, you'll meet kids that join your quest and acquire new costumes, each costume having special abilities and unique powers. The space man costume comes with a non-copyright infringing illuminated sword that's required to enter any dark areas, the robot costume has wheels and lets the player skate up ramps and jump over hedges. As I mentioned before, the situation isn't so dire that you don't have time to get candy, the monsters are at least that courteous, the candy serves as your "currency" and lets you buy new abilities. It's all quite cute.

     I don't mind really gory, terrifying horror movies sometimes, but I think I'll always favor ones with a duller edge, ones that feel a bit safer. That's what I like about Halloween in general, it's all play-scary, you know that it's just a normal guy under that mask(most likely) and nothing bad is really going to happen. I'm not overly interested in inducing nightmares. In game terms Costume Quest has a feel that's more like Hocus Pocus(foreshadowing foreshadowing...just kidding, not on the list), the kids find themselves in what would really be awful, frightening situations but you know because it's Halloween and it's a bunch of cute kids that everything will end well.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Day 12 - Candy Corn

     Surely this will be the most controversial item besides Ghost Hunters. Candy corn is one of those, "there are two kinds of people in the world..." subjects. It's either great or the most vile thing you've ever wasted precious time and energy chewing and swallowing. Obviously, myself, I'm a fan. Maybe it's a learned association thing, maybe everyone who likes candy corn has just had a certain neural connection fire and like it solely because it's a Halloween treat. I don't know, I'm not a candy/brain expert, but candy corn is a waxy, delicious quintessential part of Halloween

Friday, October 11, 2013

Day 11 - Roseanne's Halloween Episodes

     There was a magical time, called the 90s, when every moderately successful standup comedian was granted their own sitcom. Roseanne was one such comedian.The hook of her show was that the Conners were a typical blue collar family like many in America and dealt with real world issues like raising kids and struggling with money. And also they loved Halloween.

     Beginning in the second season, the Halloween episodes were some of the most anticipated episodes of the season. Much like The Simpsons' Treehouses of Horror(foreshadowing, foreshadowing...), they became a part of people's Halloween traditions, joining the likes of popular Halloween movies or specials like "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!". The episodes were a fun departure from some of the usual rigors of the show and mostly put dealing with issues or tackling something controversial on the backburner.

     They weren't entirely non-canon, the way Treehouse of Horror is, but the writers were a bit slippery with the logic and made some allowances for the sake of spooky good times. An episode a week prior might have been heavy, something like Dan gets laid off just a week before the family was about to make the last payment on a case of ramen noodles, and then in the Halloween episode they could somehow afford to make a haunted house in the living room complete with sound effects, lights, animated props and plenty of fake blood. Or make an elaborate decapitated Marie Antoinette costume with a huge period-looking dress and blood spurting neck stump. But we could give the show a pass one week of the year.

    Like the show in general, the Halloween episodes kinda sucked in the last couple seasons, but that's a small complaint...when that means we ONLY have five or six excellent holiday episodes that are great to rewatch. I'm looking forward to doing my marathon very soon.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Day 10 - Samhain from "The Real Ghostbusters"

Sculpted figure by Jin Saotome

     On the subject of ghosts...there were lots of cool designs in The Real Ghostbusters-the animated series based on the movie, not the animated series starring a gorilla...

...and Samhain, the Ghost of Halloween, was certainly one of the most memorable ghouls that Egon, Peter, Ray and Winston had to defeat. He has a simple but effective design, menacing pumpkin head immediately conveying is Halloweeniness and tattered robes evocative of his pagan origins. He was a ghost after my own heart, all he wanted was to make Halloween night last forever, I think the boys might've been too hasty with their proton packs in this case. But, he wanted ghosts to rule the world, not humans, so I guess he did have to be stopped.

     He also has the distinction of teaching a generation of kids the wrong way to pronounce Samhain. It's not 'sam-hayne', it's pronounced 'saw-win'. Seriously though Celts, you were just asking for that, who taught you letters? Also, while few kids might've been huge history buffs at the time, it helped perpetuate the myth that Samhain was the name of a deity that the Celts were praying and sacrificing to at their festivities when it was actually the name of the festival itself.

   Finally, I just can't let a Real Ghostbusters discussion end without bringing up the Boogieman. Samhain is the perfect choice for a Halloween list, but the Boogieman is probably the king of all RGB ghost designs, this disturbing combination of physical elements and Frank Welker's voice? God...terrifying.

Juuuuuuust terrifying.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Day 9 - Ghost Hunters

     Hopefully this won't be the point where I lose too many people. It's a show that's a point of contempt for many horror fans and fans or believers of the paranormal. I'll do my best to defend it's appearance on the list. 

     I'll qualify first and say I'm a quasi-believer in the paranormal. I'm a pretty easy sell because I think it's cool, I want there to be rare, interesting things going on beneath the humdrum day-to-day experiences of life. Like the Mothman. I want to believe, to quote a poster. And I think there have been enough experiences that otherwise sane, believable people have had where by reporting it they gain nothing but the risk of being labeled a loon, there's been enough that I feel perfectly comfortable in allowing for the genuine possibility of something strange in the neighborhood. I feel more comfortable with that than saying ALL of these people are stupid or crazy or lying or some combination of those. Some? Yeah. A lot? Probably. But all? I'll always be a healthy skeptic, but it's important for me to always remember that being a skeptic means questioning everything, not denying everything full stop.

     Secondly, Ghost Hunters has, maybe just cause I'm a sucker, a lot of sincerity to it. Though maybe more so in the early years before it become a commodity. Ghost Hunters came along in a magical time when "reality" shows weren't actually just cheap sitcoms with crappy writing and acting. Where having asinine, fake characters whose catchphrases you could stamp on T-shirts wasn't a prerequisite for producing the show. Seriously, reality TV is awful. The absolute worst. But not the point right now. *ahem* Unlike the shows the came out in its wake, Ghost Hunters does feel like real people doing investigations. They aren't spouting one-liners in the talking head segments and winking, each episode doesn't have an underlying, behind-the-scenes B-story that neatly fits into each hour. No, the show only focuses on the task at hand. And often that task at hand results with no convincing evidence. Regardless of what you believe and how you value their methods and credentials, at the least, what I'm watching feels like genuine people going about their business how they want and not being forced into wacky situations by TV executives. With all the members of the team, I believe that they believe in what they're doing, and that counts for something in my book.

     I mention that plenty of episodes are inconclusive at best, and to me that lends credibility to the show as a whole. I know what your thinking, "But that's the perfect plan, don't you see? You couldn't have every episode feature a free-floating, full-torso, vaporous apparition, that'd be too incredible! SciFi(I will never type SyFy beyond this single time) has to make it seem realistic, show them go on several dud hunts, sprinkle in some mildly intriguing video or audio evidence occasionally..and then hit us with a real whammy only a few times a season!" I admit that makes sense, but I think it's too clever and restrained for TV executives to commit to. I think, if the show was entirely fake or heavily manipulated, the allure of creating wowee-wow-wow episodes would be too much to resist. I also feel it would be impossible to have this many episodes and this many investigations all around the country that there'd be a slip up somewhere and beans would've been spilled on any fakiness. Like many conspiracy theories, the idea tends to fall apart when you factor in how many would be involved and would have to be compliant.

     So there's my defense. Looking beyond that now, I really enjoy the aforementioned straightforwardness. Hear a little bit of history for a location, go there and investigate, review their tapes and reveal what(if anything) they catch. Simple. I like getting to explore older buildings and properties and learn some of their story. The show has an eerie atmosphere without feeling like it's laying it on too thick. There have been more than enough impressive pieces of evidence over the years, short video clips or fuzzy EVP recordings, that when experienced fully within their context have given me jeebies as heebie as any good horror movie. In the end, that's what makes it worth putting on this list, that it's managed to consistently spook me.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Day 8 - Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

     Speaking of collections of scary stories.

     Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (from this point on, ScaStoTellDar) is like an analog Creepypasta. This would be the definitive aforementioned "sleepover book". Freaky little yarns that stuck in your brain and would make you want to leave all your lights on. There's a generation or two that this book had an enduring impact. I'd like to think it wasn't just being exposed at a young age that made it so memorable(though that certainly helped), I want to believe it was really something a bit more disturbing than teachers and parents were expecting and it slipped under the radar and was popular in elementary schools when maybe it shouldn't have been quite as readily available to kids that young.

     The stories in ScaStoTellDar aren't really all that bone-chilling...there's a whole chapter of "stories", imperative that they in particular are read aloud, that are just loose premises that meander and build up a modicum of dread and finish with instructions for the reader to simply scream at listeners...though there a few gems in there. Like Creepypasta in it's early state, this book is largely an aggregate of campfire stories and urban legends and serves as the introduction of them for many kids.

    So the stories themselves weren't particularly special, what was it that really made ScaStoTellDar and its sequels stand the test of time and keep people mentioning it decades later?

    The illustrations.

 The book was filled with these absurdly creepy drawings by Stephen Gammell. And it's not just that he was illustrating terrifying subject matter...

 These two are perfectly normal, non-mutant humans. They're the victims in the story, you shouldn't be horrified to look at them.

 This image was sitting mere inches away from "Where's Waldo?" and multiple Dr. Seuss books. 

It's like your nightmare had a nightmare.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Day 7 - Creepypasta

     Creepypasta is a site that began by collecting spooky short stories from around the internet and now is driven by user submissions. Think of it as the digital version of the scary stories collections someone would always bring out during a sleepover. The stories range from long, slow burners to quick gut punchers to tiny "horror couplets" that manage to pack a fright into a few words. It's hard to peg down exactly what a "creepypasta story" is, there aren't hard and fast rules that dictate what belongs on the site and what might not. Often though, the stories take the form of, "I heard this from a friend..." or "One night when I was...", something informally told from personal, or a degree or two away, experience, like a campfire ghost story. Some stories take full advantage of the internet and are told in modern epistolary format, existing in blogs written "in character" as the writer investigates or deals with whatever eerie impetus began the chronicle.

      A few creepypasta entities have escaped the site and gained notoriety in many corners of the internet, probably most notably the myth of the Slenderman, a supernatural entity recognized by his tall, thin frame and white, featureless face. Other popular stories are "Dead Bart" and "Squidward's Suicide", similar stories about "lost episodes" of The Simpsons and Spongebob Squarepants, respectively. Naturally, they are told from the perspective of, "I was an intern at the studio..." or "I heard from a writer...". Both stories discuss an episode being never aired or in some rough, early state of production, maybe storyboarded or animatics. An episode wildly dark and macabre in tone compared to the rest of their series, involving frank depictions of death and depression. Maybe the most gripping part, the aspect that makes the stories stick with you, is their eerie supernatural effect on those who created and even watch them, almost akin to the video tape in The Ring. Writers and executives become nauseous or deeply depressed, the passed around digital file even affects computers negatively! So not only are they a horrifying difference in what the series are known for, but the episodes seem to have tapped into some awful, dark magic force unbeknownst to those involved while writing and making them.

     What has probably helped make these stories more infamous is how readers have taken the stories as written and ran with them, giving them extra life. The latter two examples have been realized by video editors following the descriptions in the original stories and piecing together genuine clips from their series into an approximation of what the lost episodes supposedly looked like. And the Slenderman has become a full blown paranormal character in its own right through fan art and additional stories, YouTube series and even video games.

     I think this aspect is what makes Creepypasta most intriguing to me. The stories themselves are often told very casually and are hardly ever stellar examples of prose, they might be derivative of older folk stories or urban legends or tread on territory other creepypastas have covered, but they could be viewed as "open source" stories. The contributors of Creepypasta aren't trying to make money, just make you scared, so other readers can expand and build on the original works in exciting ways that the original writers might not have imagined. I doubt the creator of Slenderman could have envisioned the pages and pages of art featuring the character or the You Tube channel MarbleHornets which is a long form story told in "found footage" style.

    So if you find yourself with some free time and you don't mind the possibility of a couple sleepless hours, peruse Creepypasta a little. The amount of stories and variety of subjects is impressive, anyone should be able to find more than a couple that grips them and sends shivers down their spine.

Day 6 - The Mothman

     Time for another generally creepy, non-Halloweeny post.

     The Mothman was the central character in a potential cryptozoological/paranormal phenomenon that took place in Point Pleasant, WV from 1967-1968. It was a rather limited event and so the Mothman hadn't reached the same level of fame as, say, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster but it found some nationwide recognition with the 2002 movie The Mothman Prophecies. That this is the only exposure to the story for most people is unfortunate. I've only watched the movie once, many years ago, but I remember it being very bland. As if some clever movie executive read the book it was based on and said, "Yeah, this is some interesting, eerie stuff, but what if we go another way and change a lot of elements and make it forgettable?"

      While John Keel's book has been deemed a questionable account of events and Keel accused of being an unreliable narrator, it's still a freaky deeky read...and that's what's important for the purposes of this blog. The story begins when some young folks were driving home, probably from Point Pleasant's Makeout Lane, and saw a man size figure with enormous wings and great glowing red eyes. This figure proceeded to take flight and pursue their car for several miles. An unsettling way to end to their evening. For months afterwards, the Mothman made several more horrifying first impressions on various Point Pleasantites. The sightings never accounted to much more than that, a sighting. The Mothman never "spoke" or attacked anyone, content with just showing up to fuel nightmares and hysteria.

     This is the extent of the phenomenon that can be reasonably verified. Keel goes on to report about UFO sightings that happened during this period, mysterious threatening encounters with bizarre "men in black", residents having premonitions...all kinds of kooky stuff. The book's accounts ultimately culminating with the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge, the takeaway being that in the end perhaps the Mothman was a harbinger of doom.
    Or maybe the bridge disaster was a horrible, perfectly natural mechanical failure, and adding all that creepy filler and tying everything together with the Mothman as the backbone just makes for a better selling book. The most likely case. The book is, at best, filled with embellishments but its written with juuuust enough sincerity and with the format of a reporter coming to a small town and interviewing simple folks who are scared and don't have much to gain, that if you're in the right frame of mind its easy to get caught up in the craziness and enjoy the ride.

     Besides the local connection, growing up in WV it was neat to read about "our own personal bigfoot", what makes the Mothman stick in my brain is the lasting mystery. There are theories, most prevalent that a few people saw a sandhill crane and many others a barn owl or some other perfectly normal thing and panicked and succumbed to group hysteria. But we'll never really know what happened. The whole ordeal, if you count the collapse of the Silver Bridge as the nice convenient cap to the tale, only lasted about a year and there is nothing to look into besides eyewitness reports. There's no cellphone video, no photographs. There haven't been continual sightings for decades as there have been for Bigfoot or UFOs. It's remained an isolated event and the character has therefore not been neutered by years of scrutiny and permeation into pop culture. There's not been a Harry and the Hendersons type Mothman movie, Mothman doesn't get teased with beef jerky in commercials, there's no asinine reality show called "Finding Mothman".    
     Okay, there is a Mothman festival every year in Point Pleasant, its legacy is almost untarnished by sanitizing and commercialization.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Day 5 - Actual Pumpkins

      Imagine Halloween without pumpkins? What would you carve? Potatoes? Silly, the skin is too thin, it'd collapse within minutes of sitting on your porch. Leeks? Come on, be serious here, leeks don't have any pumpkin seeds to roast. Turnips? Nearly as silly as potatoes...though that's what the legendary Stingy Jack had to use for lanterns way back when, but only because Ireland wasn't lucky enough to have pumpkins. No, when it comes to large, hollow gourds to carve faces into and illuminate from within by candlelight, pumpkins are the obvious choice.

     I think what fascinates me about pumpkins, well, specifically pumpkin carving, is the ritual of it. Slicing open a squash, digging out the innards with your hands, carving a crude face into it, and then lighting it was a simple candle. It stands out among other activities as something that feels very ancient, like that it was once an animal sacrifice and has morphed over the centuries to something easier to do at a kitchen table and with less trauma for kids.

     Not that Celts were making jack o'lanterns at Samhain a thousand years ago and any animal sacrifice association I'm seeing there is a false one, but it's a reminder, for me at least, that some of these are traditions stretching hundreds of years into the past. Just the idea of incorporating something organic into the festivities-much like Christmas trees, Easter eggs or Valentine's cow hearts-seems a bit bizarre when you step back and really review the holidays. It seems remarkable they still have a place among the LED-lit, smartphone enabled, motion sensing paraphernalia. We might spend hundreds of dollars on elaborate animating, blinking, shrieking decorations but what is the single most iconic imagery associated with the day? The simplest, earliest adornment. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Day 4 - Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins

     Chocolate and peanut butter is the greatest combination of flavors yet discovered by man. Ergo, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are the best candy bar-type product in all of history. The seasonal Pumpkins have an even higher PBPSI (peanut butter per square inch) rating. Hence, whence and therefore, Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins are the most best candy bar-type product in all of history.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Day 3 - Midnight Syndicate and Nox Arcana

     One aspect of Halloween I've always thought was lacking, the only thing that might make the only other contender for king of holidays-Christmas-have a slight edge, is the music. The volume of carols Christmas can bombard you with in the car, in stores, on the sidewalk, or on TV is staggering. But what does Halloween get? Look at any cheap point-of-purchase Halloween soundtrack at the costume store and you'll have some co-opted movie themes-Exorcist...okay, fair enough, Ghostbusters...hmmm, not terribly scary-and pop songs of questionable appropriateness-Thriller...fine, Werewolves of, I, just..what?

     There is a smattering of "Halloween carols" out there, Kristen Lawrence is a kindred spirit and has made a few albums of carol-esque songs. Still though, there are lots of borrowed pagan or re-purposed folk songs on her CDs. And her works are far from being ubiquitous and a part of our hive song library. A+ for effort though, certainly. The closest we have, that fits in my perhaps rigid demands, to Halloween songs would be novelties like Monster Mash. Which is a fine enough song to get you in the spirit of the season...but ultimately, its just a novelty. What if the only Christmas carol we had was Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer? I'd love to have a catalog of songs covering the same variety of tone as Christmas has. Maybe a solemn song about the legend of Jack O'Lantern, a fun song about trick or treating, you get the idea.

    But alas, this world doesn't exist yet, so the next best thing for me is good, moody, unsettling instrumental music. Now I can already hear people saying, "This jerk whines about the Exorcist theme and now he's going on and on about how great instrumental music is for Halloween", but just hold on you punks. What bugs me about throwing movie themes willy nilly into a Halloween playlist is that they already have association built into them. You hear a movie theme and your mind thinks about...the movie. Not Halloween. I do keep some movie soundtracks in my Halloween collection, most of Danny Elfman's stuff is obviously begging to be played this time of year. I include those soundtracks with less distinct "themes" though, stuff you couldn't easily hum and recognize, Sleepy Hollow or The Wolfman, for example.

   That's where Midnight Syndicate's, and some of Nox Arcana's, albums come in. They're created with the same sensibilities of a soundtrack, but for movies that don't exist so no problems with pre-existing association. Most of the albums have a concept that the music is built around, a loose "plot" that gives them identities...vampires, an asylum, zombies, haunted carnival. I qualified Nox Arcana's discography somewhat because they have a few albums tied directly to existing source material, Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, HP Lovecraft's work, that has performed spoken word segments and don't work as perfectly and universally as I'd like. Not that it's a comment on the quality of the albums. Taken on their own, if a more specific experience was desired, they are great listens.

    You've likely heard both of these groups without realizing it in a Halloween store or while waiting in line at a haunted house, they've become the go-to guys for "more serious" Halloween ambiance and with good reason. It's very well crafted music, it bites into your bones like a cold night and makes you feel like you're living in a horror movie. And on a non-spooky tangent, Nox Arcana also has a few winter themed albums that would be perfect to play in December for a more secular, solstice-y celebration.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Day 2 - Welcome to Night Vale

      "Welcome to Night Vale" is a podcast. A podcast in the form of a regular community announcements in a small desert town. A small desert town where the dog park is under the control of a mysterious group of hooded figures and an ominous glowing cloud is president of the school board. 

    And so the tangential, non-Halloween (not even 100% creepy) entries have begun. Why did it make the cut? Eventually a recurring idea will become obvious, the mixture of terror and humor. Like complimentary colors or notes combining to make a chord or peanut butter and chocolate, its something that just works. "Night Vale" isn't necessarily taking a satirical approach to horror, nor is it black comedy. It's kind of hard to logline. Imagine a town where every eerie apocryphal tale or weird conspiracy theory was actually true, but this fact really had no effect on the day-to-day lives of the residents. All of it just the mundane things the townspeople have grown accustomed to.The threat of attack from a subterranean army no more of an ordeal than the headache of road construction.

     The humor, likewise, is very unique and a bit hard to explain in a few words. "Welcome to Night Vale" is like if Stephen King and Douglas Adams had a kid and the kid went to school in Twin Peaks where Christopher Moore was the English teacher who taught nothing but HP Lovecraft stories. And an ominous glowing cloud was president of the school board.

     The format of the show, a simple report of community events, everything being funneled through and delivered by, almost always, the lone narrator, is ingenious. It's not an overly complicated system with multiple actors hamming it up and portraying the various townspeople in a radio drama-type show. It's just one man distanced from the incidents and simply reporting what's he's been told, lending the show a feeling of believability. Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast comes to mind, if the alien invasion was treated instead as a minor inconvenience at most.

     What's exciting about the premise is that it's one with unlimited possibility. There's no budget constraint to consider, go ahead and write in a five-headed dragon that is running for mayor. There are very little rules to be bound by in the universe, there are angels, ghosts, cultists, floating cats, vanishing and reappearing mountains...the potential story ideas stretch far past the sand wastes and the scrub lands. The show has really caught on in the last couple months and found a passionate fanbase, and I'm very excited to see what the future holds.

Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale at iTunes

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Day 1 - The Halloween Paintings of Rado Javor

     A major part of what makes Halloween...Halloween! the "atmosphere", a gestalt of sometimes ephemeral, vague notions that can be hard to peg down precisely. As with Christmas, there are intrinsic qualities to it's spot on the calendar that seem essential, you need snow for a "proper" Christmas and you need the smell of dead leaves and just the right chill in the air for a proper Halloween. There's a certain muted color palette, a specific progress of deciduous death, dark shadows, wind whistling, bright full moons. More invisibly, like Christmas's almost tangible feeling of good cheer and merriment, Halloween demands some foreboding.

     And the frustrating thing is the only place this atmosphere comes together and really thrives is in our memories-it doesn't photograph well, it isn't fully appreciated second hand through retelling. Something is lost when trying to externalize and relate what's in our brains.

    Rado's paintings manage to capture the holiday atmosphere remarkably well. They aren't simply images of scary places with creepy monsters. No, they instantly, unmistakably convey Halloween. They do a wonderful job of drawing on and being enhanced by our collective memories of Halloween's past. Where flatly lit photographs of costumed kids in the kitchen fail to evoke the breadth of giddy fright and excitement, paintings like these are more successful as records of the emotional memories 

      The actual setting, a colonial era America, is largely irrelevant, though it is very evocative in its own right. It doesn't matter that none of us have lived and trick-or-treated in the 1700s...and we can look past the supernatural elements...we've experienced (or constructed the experience in our minds) foggy nights and autumn sunsets like these, we've seen (or believed we've seen) glowing flames and gnarled trees and ominous clouds like these, and so the response is still powerful. It's the fantastical lighting and colors that creates an image just slightly impossible and dreamlike, something more in line with how our memories feel. How we'd like our experiences to have been, even if it's not entirely accurate.

     I encourage everyone to check out Rado's galleries at DeviantArt and keep checking back for new paintings throughout the month, he has typically posted one or two each October. It's become one of my favorite Halloween traditions in recent years.

 Rado Javor at

31 Days of Scary Stuff

   All this month, there will be daily posts celebrating October and that most glorious of holidays, Halloween. The posts will be about a variety of things, mostly subjects with a strong connection to Halloween itself but also some random, creepy things just because they are creepy and that's reason enough to think about them this time of year.

    So don't expect complete conceptual cohesion, there may be some oddball entries. Nothing has been ordered and ranked, no long nights have been spent carefully arranging and rearranging this list in order of importance or fright factor. Its a simple, fun endeavor to talk about spooky things and maybe even expose Halloween fans to a few things they hadn't ever come across.