Sunday, October 26, 2014

Halloween Wins!

How the most rag-tag of holidays became the most important of them all.

By Lars Trodson

As Orson Welles so famously said, “That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian, it's Halloween!

By which Orson and I mean to say that it is now Halloween all year long. As children, we were admonished to keep the spirit of Christmas in our hearts everyday of the year. But no one is that cheerful. We barely celebrate the spirit of Christmas for an entire day anymore.

As it turns out, it’s much easier, perhaps because it more closely matches the dark heart of the world, to celebrate the dead and the undead. You would not be paranoid to believe that there is death all around us. The name is also great. Look at it. Look at the letters strung together. Halloween. We say it and see it so often that we forget what the word actually looks like. But if you take a second to actually read it, it seems even stranger still.


No holiday has so thoroughly taken over our sensibilities. We have zombies and vampires walking all around us and, finally, murderous clowns taking center stage. Everything has gotten dark. The bizarro world that Tim Burton created for Batman 25 years ago was not dark enough — he had to become even darker. The bad heroes win over our sensibilities — think Tony Stark — while those superheroes that are too lily-white — think Captain America, think Superman — struggle to gain our attention in the 21st century. They're boring. Superman stands for "truth, justice and the American way." I defy anyone to tell me what each of those three sentiments means today.

We can't. And because they are not definable, because we've been let down for generations by those who have promised us a better life, we've finally said "Fuck it. The world is dark. I'll embrace it."

We’re overwhelmed with TV shows that celebrate the grue and the gruesome: “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story” and countless others. "American Horror Story" is masterful at depicting the fractured take we have on our own reality, with the real and the unreal, the dreamt, the surreal, and the madness that we all sometimes feel cascading all around us. Today's audience is the result of two generations of self-help and clinical analysis that has told us to face our fears. And so we are.

Welcome, Twisty the Clown! The clown business is deader than Jacob Marley, as it should be. Anyone with a half a brain new that clowns were never funny. They were always, always creepy.

Even our mainstream shows, almost all of them, have dark settings: “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Following,” — all the forensic shows — you name it. Recent cinematic adaptations have deepened the darkness of the fairy tales that had been glossed over by Disney for decades. It’s as though we’re retreating to a medieval sensibility.

All of this seems counterintuitive. Mass audiences have traditionally turned to escapism when times got tough. In 1920s Berlin, when they were in the midst of a deep economic depression, the city turned to sex and drugs and booze for relief. In America, when our Depression hit, we turned to bathtub gin and Hollywood musicals. In the 1940s, during the war, we turned to jingoism and entertainment that had such a high shine it still glistens.

While the Christmas tree is a powerful sumbol of a wonderful time, it does not compare to the jack o'lantern. You decorate a tree, but you carve a pumpkin. There's something much more primal about that act of gourdian evisceration. Out of all the iconography of all the holidays throughout the year, it is the jack o’lantern that remains compelling even as we emerge from childhood to adulthood. Easter bunnies and tooth faries fade quickly and completely. But there is something about the sight of that flickering visage, with its gnashing teeth and unfocused eyes and that dull orange glow that gives us pause even as adults. The sight of a jack o’lantern comes with it the sound of dead leaves scraping across a road or a field, that rustle we are almost all familiar with. It was and is a lonely sound. We hear it most clearly when we are alone or part of a group walking silently down the street, from house to house, from door to door, wearing some strange costume.

It is this time of year that I always think of one of my favorite poems, a little-known poem, by a poet named Walter de la Mare. I first read this (or had it read to me) when I was very young. It affected me, and not just as a writer. It left me (to this day) with the impression that some mysteries are best unsolved. It is more romantic, and much more unnerving, not to know the cause of things or to always know why things happen. That is why George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” remains the template for our cinematic nightmare. He gives no reason for those animated souls. They just appear, as so many terrors in our lives just appear out of nowhere.

But we still, deep into our scientific and diagnostic age, look for motives and causes in strange and violent events, because it will give us some comfort to know the why of it. But the paradox here is that whenever a motive or explanation is put forth, it never seems to be enough.

It reminds me of a brief, mystical poem tucked inside the sunshine and light that is the movie "Mary Poppins." At one point in the story, Bert The Chimney Sweep (Dick Van Dyke), recites this odd ditty to the children:

"Winds in the east, mist coming in./ Like somethin' is brewin' and bout to begin./ Can't put me finger on what lies in store,/ But I fear what's to happen all happened before."

When I first heard this as a five or six year old, I realized that there were always some things we could never fathom. It is the same with that old Christmas standard, "The Carol of the Bells." Written by Mykola Leontovych in 1904, this tune is often used as the soundtrack for clinking wine glasses in front of Christmas trees, but there is something inherently violent about its tempo and tune, which many contemporary artists have explored. "The Carol of the Bells" is not a sweet, poetic interlude in the parlor, it's a Ukrainian Sleighride. You could say the same for Krzysztof Penderecki's "Symphony No.2 "Christmas Symphony." There's nothing festive about that piece of music.

These are the very reasons why “The Listeners” is one of my favorite poems. It is eerie in setting, and so much remains unexplained. There's just enough detail to put you on edge.

Walter de la Mare was English, born in 1873, and was for a time a clerk for Standard Oil. There is a society that bares his name, and a website devoted to talks and events about his life and work ( I’m not terribly familiar with his other writings, but here’s what I say about any artist: If you come up with just one classic, you’re way ahead of everybody else.

Here is Walter de la Mare’s beautiful, unsettling classic, “The Listeners.”


The Listeners
By Walter de La Mare

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,   
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses   
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,   
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;   
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;   
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,   
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners   
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight   
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,   
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken   
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,   
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,   
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even   
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,   
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,   
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house   
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,   
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,   
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Source: The Collected Poems of Walter de la Mare (1979)