Taylor Hagood: The Love Of Halloween And The Fun It Brings
Their silent mystery suggests a way of being that is different from yet thoroughly tied to the way of being we know as humans. They carry a wonder that comes with childhood and youth, when the world’s shadows can frighten and thrill at once, which is the essence of horror and the strange hope and excitement it creates. It takes youthful imagination truly to apprehend and appreciate shadow puppets, hands forming shadow animals and faces, and shadows in a moonlit room that turn familiar things into unrecognizable shapes that might just harbor a secret or a threat.
There is a moment in the 1963 film The Haunting when a few shadows cast by an ornately carved panel seem to form a motionless face. As light from an unknown source dims and brightens, the face sharpens and fades against the menacing sound of a rising and falling voice. How often as a child did I myself lay in bed transfixed and chilled by ordinary, inanimate things coming alive through the accidental formation of shadows?
Or was it accidental? When I was a very young child, my father covered the walls of my bedroom with old posters of clowns. I found out later he was terrified of clowns, so I have no idea why he surrounded me with them, perhaps to make me so accustomed to them that they would not scare me. If so, his plan worked. But as night would fall and I would gaze at the clowns staring at me, I would notice that their smiling lips would seem to move. Nothing demonstrative. Just little twitches. Probably from infinitesimal changes in the dying light.
The clowns were not all. My father also somehow came by a mannequin, which he set up in his and my mother’s bedroom across the hall from mine. He dressed it in an outfit and put a hideous mask on it of one face clawing out of another. He also put an oscillating fan in the room. At night in my own room, clowns mouth-twitching all around, I would try not to be afraid of the open door to that darkened room where I could not be sure that intermittent suspirations were not actually the breathing sounds of that unseen monster come to life.
That mask was part of the larger operation of the haunted house my father created and ran during Octobers at that time. This attraction featured a long hallway where rubber-gloved hands brushed your legs as you walked by. In one room a head with no body sat on a table talking nonsense. In another room, a surgeon turned from a body on a table and brandished a bloody butcher knife at you. The final encounter of the tour featured a cage with a woman in it. As you watched, a peculiar change took place—her hair receded and her shoulders hunched as fur grew on her body. Before your eyes, she turned into a gorilla that rushed out at you. It was a good way to get the people out the door.
On some occasions, there apparently was no babysitter for me, and I was positioned in a little pitch-dark room right beside the gorilla finale. I say pitch-dark, but actually there was a dim red light from the sound equipment which was housed in this room. What an eerie thing it was to hear people screaming endlessly in the dark.
It should have scarred me for life. I should hate haunted houses and Halloween. But I love it all.
Orange and Black Affection
Yes, I love it. My favorite holiday because it can be anything. For some, it is an occasion of innocent fun trick-or-treating, of candy corn and pumpkins, of cheap masks and gag costumes. For others, it is a time to wear an outfit more revealing than they otherwise would, to celebrate pagan rites and wicked intentions, to breathe in the thin line between the living and the dead.
That spectrum has always fascinated me, and Halloween brings its ragged charm along like a familiar rhinestone-and-fringed coat long worn not only by myself but someone dear to me. Growing up in the home of a magician who loves horror makes for some interesting experiences. From earliest childhood, I can recall my parents decorating the house for the holiday. My father had old tin toys, little rattling soundmakers, black and orange horns, and even a “Halloween tree.” Halloween was a big deal for me and my sister. Santa might have come at Christmas, but we got a visit on Halloween from a goblin named Harkus and his lady, a witch named, well, Witchy. As the big evening approached, we were required to draw a picture for Harkus and Witchy that would encourage them to leave us a toy of some kind.
While still a young child I got to taking trick-or-treating pretty seriously. I have a few memories of wearing store-bought costumes, but I soon became interested in theatrical make-up, something I had learned about from my parents’ background on stage. There is a photograph of me having drawn some high cheekbones and pasted on a beard to be Abraham Lincoln, and my sister I had fixed up as a clown. I am still of an age to recall when the Sears magazine was in every household in the country, but also ubiquitous in our home was the Morris Costumes catalog, which was filled with the cutting edge of dressing up. I managed to talk my dad into buying a cyclops prosthetic from the catalog, and I pasted it on with spirit gum, smoothed out its edges with liquid latex, patted on the foundation, and added highlights in my crude child’s way.
I went on to fashion many more disguises: I am proudest of my interpretation of the red death, from Edgar Allan Poe’s famous story. A year or two before I created this costume, I had been in Venice during Carnivale, making my way on the wooden boards over the flooded streets, seeing the elaborately costumed people striking their graceful poses, their masks elegantly inscrutable. Before I left, I bought a white, blank Venetian mask, which I took home and painted red with quotes from Poe’s story on it. I donned 18th century attire and proceeded to a party. Halfway through the night I removed the mask to reveal a bloody face and no eyes, effectively a double masking.
Images, Sounds, Words
Halloween sprawls in images, colors, and noises. Black and orange flicker like the gleaming eyes and shadowy forms of jack-o-lanterns. Emerging from that background come the cheekbones of Peter Cushing, the strong jaw of Christopher Lee, the voices of Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Vincent Price. Price films have a color all their own, and it never insinuates itself more effectively for me than in House of Wax, which brings me fully into its moment of original 3D when the man greeting customers to the new wax museum with patter and a paddleball hits the white ball right at me.
Also . . . the colors of old Halloween postcards and decorations, Sivad on Memphis television announcing Fantastic Features, scenes from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space—Vampira, Tor Johnson (my father owned one of the original Johnson masks manufactured by Don Post). Bela Lugosi in his Hungarian accent saying, “Come . . . here.” Boris Karloff throwing the little girl into the lake because he thinks she is a flower. Elsa Lanchester emerging with her electrified black and white hair. Sissy Spacek covered in blood. Janet Leigh unblinking.
I love the words most, though. How I have cherished Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Before I could read, I learned about the headless horseman from the Disney cartoon narrated by Bing Crosby. When I acquired the ability to decipher words on a page and feel them take me into their world, I read Washington Irving’s original story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” No kid’s version for me: I had to read the real thing, drawn into its quiet, lazy, ghoulish atmosphere that Irving is so good at creating. Once in September as the autumn was letting everyone know it was coming, I was visiting friends in Brooklyn and rode the train up to Tarrytown. I took a cab from the train station to Irving’s house, and after the tour the worker in the gift shop informed me that there was a path through the woods back to the train station. I had to take that.
Off I went into those woods, expecting any moment to find a little fellow in antique garb calling “Halloo!” whom I would follow into a glen where his friends would be playing ninepins and where I would fall asleep for the next twenty years, just like Rip Van Winkle. It seems not to have worked out, unless I am writing this in my dreams right now.
Perhaps I am writing in a dream, for in a way Halloween has always been something of a dream for me, and not altogether a nightmare. For at least a month each year my head drifts away into a Ray Bradbury-esque October-land no matter where I am. In that realm time suspends, and I might be any age, any size, any shape. I like the license of Halloween. I love dressing up, and I love decorating.
In the past couple of years, I got the idea that adults perhaps should not get too jazzed up about Halloween, and I did not decorate as I usually do. Seemed like maybe I needed to get serious. I still loved the holiday, but I tried to tone it down. This year, however, I came to the conclusion that I just could not be a good adult, and out came the boxes of Department 56 houses, light-up plastic pumpkins, and other items. One of these is a reproduction bank shaped like a coffin; when you put a coin on it, a skeletal hand reaches out and draws the coin inside with clink. My father gave it to me several years ago, having had one of the originals as a child. It sits on the small bookshelf right by the front door. It is kitschy but beautiful—a fine emblem of the season and what I love about it. I might just leave that bank there all year.