Monday, November 2, 2009

Reviving Halloween

Since Halloween was on a Saturday this year, some celebrated the hallowed holiday all weekend long. For me, that's not long enough. I celebrated Halloween all October long, planning a haunted house at work and reviewing Halloween-oriented comics over at my funnybook review blog A Comic A Day. This year, my varied observations and experiences about Halloween intertwine and in some cases have implications or undertones that transcend the holiday, as any annual celebration should, so, like a child separating his favorite candies after a successful night of trick-or-treating, permit me this indulgence in organizing these thoughts, lest they linger like Haunted House cobwebs in my brain.

Bloody dancers, Mother, and superfluous terror on the War of the Worlds set.

First of all, at the beginning of October, some friends, my girlfriend, and I went to Universal Studios' Horror Nights. Yes, every year, my favorite holiday and my favorite theme park have a baby, and it's possessed, and we paid to see it puke all over the room. With the rights to some of the world's most memorable monsters, and the addition of the latest icons of dementia like Freddy Kruger and that creepy Saw puppet, the event is a comprehensive tour of terror, especially the backlot tram ride, where every fanboy's dream of walking up to those classic cinematic facades comes true -- at a price, unless you don't mind chainsaw welding freaks getting in your face on the front steps of Norman Bates' house. The War of the Worlds crash site is definitely the highlight of the tour, as if the grim sight of an airplane's carcass isn't enough to make your skin crawl in this post-9/11 age. Afterward, I found myself grateful to have my feet firmly on the ground, and six feet above it, to boot.

A few weeks later, following my experience as a fortune teller, I was in Arizona for the annual Arizona Treasure Hunt and caught a news story about a haunted house in Tempe suffering from neighborhood complaints of traffic and noise, so I just had to see what the commotion was all about. My girlfriend looked up the address and we swung by on Sunday evening to find the gentleman, Richard Stoudt, setting up props in his front yard, and when we told him we'd seen the news story, he chuckled humbly and allowed us to tour what he'd already built. The multi-room haunted house spanned his front yard, backyard, and garage, with years' and thousands of dollars' worth of props creating a feel as authentic as anything I'd seen accomplished on a professional level, and frankly I was both jealous at its scope and thankful that the similar events I've hosted these past several years were comparable, if only on a smaller scale.

From Stoudt's set-up.

Unfortunately, like most good things, local politics have threatened Stoudt's annual event, which has attracted over 2,000 in recent years. Yes, traffic and noise are apparently an issue for his neighbors, undoubtedly keeping them up all hours of the night as any real ghosts and goblins would, but the city as a whole also takes issue with his tip jar. I understand the dilemma, because just the suggestion of collecting funds transforms his obsessive hobby into a small business, but after meeting the man, I find the antagonism tragic, because he is obviously only a man that seeks to share a passion with other appreciative people. I hope he finds the capital to rent space next year and take his haunted house to the next level. The thought that homemade events like his are endangered in this day of age scares me more than anything.

With Universal Studios and Stoudt on the brain, interestingly each on either end of the corporate haunted house spectrum, I prepared my own eerie event at work for the kids in our community. Traditionally, I like to host this event on Halloween night and provide a safe place for kids to come and uniquely experience the holiday in their own proverbial backyard, but weekend events of any caliber are difficult when families are conditioned to utilize us after school only, so my staff and I opted for Halloween Eve, Friday night. One of the keys to a structured haunted house is deciding themed rooms, to focus one's shopping for props when a seemingly endless array of thematic props is available. In past years, I've built dungeons, demented doctors' offices, graveyards, and pirate ships, some of which I've documented before, but this year my staff wanted to try something different: a scary circus room, a freaky fast food room, and a gypsy room. With this in mind, and a Michael Jackson's "Thriller" theme in mind for our outdoor graveyard, we went to work.

My thrilling beauty, the freaky fast food room, and scenes from the scary circus room.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans. Our event was scheduled from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and by 7:20, we had a line of 40 or more people waiting to get in. As the tour guide, I took groups four to six at a time, and the interior rooms took about five minutes to explore. Toward the end of the night, kids started to tour for a second or third time, and feeling more at ease, they started to tear things down. Outside, they were worse, kicking dirt at and taunting our faux Michael Jackson, who just so happened to be my girlfriend. I've never had problems like that, perhaps in part because I opt to host haunted houses on Halloween, when our event is just one stop among many in the neighborhood, and kids' hands are too busy protecting their candy to wreak havoc. As much as everything looked good (and how 'bout that zombie Jacko, eh?!), the lesson is clear -- forget about ghosts, goblins, witches, and monsters. Unattended children are the real terrors.

Halloween is truly the only holiday where bumping into pirates, ninjas, robots, and superheroes is commonplace, and I love to spread the cheer as much as possible. At my favorite local poetry reading Wednesday night, I read this favorite old blog post, and on Thursday, a coworker and I went to karaoke hosted by Alice Cooper (complete with dead babies, pictured above), which was actually a little more creepy than this Halloween karaoke scene sketched by my buddy Brent. On Halloween itself, my girlfriend and I had breakfast in our witch and fortuneteller costumes, respectively, and the wait staff at Norm's were dressed up, too, so we blended right in. That night, Batgirl and I hit another karaoke venue and to honor the resident Karate Kid costume, I sang Peter Cetera's "The Glory of Love" from the Karate Kid II soundtrack. To my delight, and perhaps one of the highlights of my karaoke career, when I sang the line, "Like a knight in shining armor from a long time ago," I stood next to a knight in shining armor from a long time ago! What happens on Halloween can only happen on Halloween!

Batgirl never looked so hot, Mr. T never looked so white, and a knight has never had better timing!

I can think of no better way to end the Halloween weekend than by watching the undead haunt the waking world on the big screen. No, I'm not talking about Zombieland (though that's a great flick, too), but Michael Jackson's This Is It. Indeed, watching Michael post-mortem attempt to revive his career through a patchwork of beloved hits has a certain Dr. Frankenstein quality to it, but we enjoyed the film and in spite of our observations couldn't pinpoint evidence of Jacko's drug use. If he was as strung out as they say, I expected my cynical eye to find some lack of lucidity, but at worst This Is It is the story of an eccentric performer, which is what we'd expect from a king of pop anyway. Appropriately, "Thriller" is the film's centerpiece, though the high notes of "Human Nature" were haunting in the context of Michael's life and untimely death. If concert footage can have a subplot, it's these performers' inability to experience this highlight in their careers. Make-up and special effects aside, what This Is It could've been is truly a ghost among us.

Now, like every year, Halloween itself is the ghost, long dead in the shadow of the impending Christmas season, haunting the 50%-90% off shelves at Target and Wal-Mart. As much as I love it, that's just where it should be, because you can't get too much of a good thing. Still, throughout the year, whenever I hear "Thriller" on the radio, or I see something that could easily be bloodied for a haunted house, or I reminisce about my favorite candy, Halloween creeps into the dark corners of my brain, like those persistent cobwebs in the corners of the attic. No blog post can clear those webs away.

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