Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why I'm skipping Halloween this year

(Warning: I wrote this post after enduring a long and painful week at work that left me in no mood to deal with depressing things or depressing people. It was a gloomy weekend that forced me to think hard about what I really cared about. A couple days later I felt better, as you'll see in the next blog post after this one.)

The Little Theatre, Rochester's beloved arthouse, continued its Halloween tradition this year of hosting a 24-hour movie marathon of horror movies, preceded by a zombie walk. Whereas last year's marathon seemed devoted to well-worn chestnuts such as Night of the Living Dead, this year's lineup was a much newer crop including Shaun of the Dead, both Grindhouse movies, and The Human Centipede.

I was kind of looking forward to this, but when the date arrived, I found that I just wasn't in the Halloween spirit. The thought of walking down the street on a freezing October night making a spectacle of myself, covered in zombie makeup that I'd have to wash off when I got home, didn't sound all that fun. I didn't even feel like going out to see the films either, or doing anything else Halloween-related this weekend.

Paul Cornell, the acclaimed Doctor Who writer, once observed that when you're young, you love stories about darkness and sickness and tragedy because these things haven't happened to you yet; as you get older, and have actually had to cope with pain and loss and disappointment, you're not as amused by such themes in your entertainment.

I know what he means – as an adolescent I found it thrilling to discover films like Eraserhead, A Clockwork Orange, and Pink Flamingos, and so my younger self would probably have been game to see the Rochester premiere of The Human Centipede, a recent cult film in which three people are surgically forced together, ass-to-mouth, so that anything the first person excretes must pass through the two hapless victims behind him. But my adult self just isn't interested. In October 2010, it seems silly to pay $5 to submit to that kind of degradation when there are enough forces in the real world that will degrade me for free.

But there's a bigger reason why I'm kind of giving the whole Halloween thing a pass this year, and that has to do with how the world in general has changed.

The usual armchair-Freud explanation for our love of Halloween is that it's an escape from our ordinary, humdrum existence. Once a year we get to indulge ourselves, wear outrageous costumes, eat candy, and generally let ourselves go. Horror movies – which go with Halloween like peanut butter with chocolate – allow us to indulge our worst fears and our most forbidden desires.

Except that nowadays, the stuff we usually associate with Halloween is with us all year round. Pop culture is pretty much all about vampires, zombies, and serial killers, no matter what month it is on the calendar. Go to Vertex, or whatever the equivalent Goth club is nearest you, and you can see people in cloaks, capes and armor 52 weekends a year. There are several dozen sci-fi, horror, comics and gaming conventions all year (several within a day's drive of Rochester) that encourage cosplay. If you live in that world all the time, Halloween is just another unbirthday.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and trendiness breeds snobbery. I saw the Twilight movie with my vampire-loving ex, and like so many others I laughed out loud at the scene where Edward glitters in the sunlight. The reason I laughed, though, was because it was such blatant fan service to a female audience – he's the perfect man because he sparkles like a diamond, and as sexual fantasies go that's probably the equivalent of Rose McGowan being half-machine-gun in Planet Terror. But I gave Stephenie Meyer credit for coming up with a creative twist on the vampire premise – in her universe, vampires avoid sunlight not because it kills them, but because it exposes them as nonhuman.

To many horror fans, though, this is such an unacceptable violation of vampire lore that “vampires don't sparkle” is fast becoming as widespread a meme as “Han shot first”. This attitude strikes me as absurd – there is such a wide range of vampire fiction, with individual authors and filmmakers feeling free to pick and choose different aspects of vampire lore and modify it to suit their own dramatic needs, such as deciding whether vampires are affected by sunlight at all (the ones in BBC's Being Human aren't), whether garlic and crosses have any actual effect in their universe, where vampires came from in the first place, how new ones are created, and whether they have a supernatural or scientific explanation.

I don't actually care about Twilight one way or the other, so it's weird to find myself in the position of defending it, but I don't get why horror fans are clamping down so hard on this one infidel when the other 99% of fictional vampires who don't sparkle are still out there for their consumption.

I'm also sick of the silly arguments about whether fast-moving zombies are acceptable, or whether the infected folks in 28 Days Later or Pontypool should be classified as zombies. Once again, the fan mentality seems to be “Damn these original thinkers! Don't they understand that our genre is about cliches and conformity?”

Never mind that the original vampires of folklore were basically reanimated corpses, and that our romanticized concept of a vampire is mostly a 19th-century literary creation. Or that the zombie is a voodoo concept that was given a secular reinvention by low-budget filmmakers.

As much as horror aficionados try to define themselves as picked-on, marginalized monsters, to me they're seeming more and more like the torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mob who set out to destroy anything that's different. Their obsession with enforcing often-corny “rules” (just like the mainstream they claim to despise), rather than judging individual works on their merits, has, for me, leached a lot of the fun out of horror.

Is horror even supposed to be fun anymore? I often hear people rail against the mere existence of PG-13 horror films, as if the very idea of a horror movie that most high school kids could see in the theater without a parent is a bowdlerized abomination. One could point out that Poltergeist, a classic according to anyone I've ever met, was rated PG in 1982, or that older films from Nosferatu to Psycho still entertain fans today, or that many grown adults will admit that they were terrified of the Viacom logo, the 1970s Doctor Who theme, or the trees in The Wizard of Oz. One might also suggest (if one was especially brave) that their real objection to teen-friendly horror films stems from an unwillingness to a) admit to being old, and b) allow the next generation to have a childhood too.

But such arguments would miss the point somehow, because apparently horror films don't necessarily have to be frightening anymore; they only have to be “extreme” or “hardcore” in their graphic imagery, so that instead of being entertained you can just look down your nose at other people whose stomachs aren't as strong as yours.

It's possible to make a movie that's scary and gory, and it's equally possible to make a movie that's scary without gore. But I guess I still cling to the idea that the “scary” part is what actually matters, and that gore is just a stylistic choice, to be used as much (or as little) as an individual director deems fitting. To many modern horror fans, though, it seems to be the opposite – gore is what really counts (well, that and obeying the genre rules), and whether the movie is actually dramatic at all is not to be discussed.

We're living in the Twilight Zone episode “The Eye of the Beholder”, in which twisted freaks define what's normal and acceptable, and anything potentially beautiful or distinctive is considered deviant. I guess that's what it really comes down to for me – it no longer seems enjoyable to play with the dark side once a year. Not when we're forced to live on the dark side all the time, ruled by people whose only taboo is against fun.

Maybe next year I'll feel differently. But right now, Halloween asks me to celebrate all the things that I spend the other 364 days of the year losing interest in.

(Yikes! Fortunately I worked through these issues; click here to find out how.)

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