Monday, October 31, 2011

Poker Face

Frank Jr. shuffled the cards. His monstrous hands made easy work of the task so no one ever argued. Who got to cut the deck, on the other hand, was another issue.

“Cut” he said, slamming the cards down in front of Drac who reached his spindly long fingers out to pick up the stack when a furry, clawed hand reached out and clamped down on the cards.

“No way, it’s my turn to cut,” Bob said, pulling the stack over to himself.

“Uh, excuse me- if it’s anyone’s turn it’s definitely mine,” Jack intervened, his long bony fingers reaching out towards the deck.

“Alright, that’s how you want to play it- no one cuts,” Frank said, slamming his giant green hands down on the table and pulling the deck back to himself. Everyone pulled back, less because Frank’s word was so definitive and more because when he got mad there tended to be a lot of property damage. This was their sixth poker table this month.

Frank flung out the cards like a well oiled machine, the small lacquered papers flying around the table and landing perfectly in front of each of the player. The overhead light swung slightly with the force of the air shifting.

“So, how go things over in whats-the-town?” Bob said, arraigning his cards ever-so carefully.

“Halloweentown,” Jack said, unable to keep voice from sounding irked.

“Yeah, there,” Bob said.

“Quite well. We’re going green, it’s really economical,” he said, smiling smugly.

“Green?” Drac asked, rolling his R the way only he could.

“Yeah- the green slime from the marsh? It glows so we don’t need the gas lamps anymore.”

“Hee, hee- green,” Frank said, lifting his hand to the group.

“Indeed,” Bob said, rolling his eyes which were barely visible underneath all the fur.

“Alright, here we go- 2 card stud, ante starts at ten,” Frank said, tossing a chip into the center of the table.

“You guys are in for trouble,” Drac said, tossing in his chip.

“Yeah, right,” Bob said, flipping his chip in so it spun briefly in the air before landing on the others with a clink.

“What?” Drac asked, sounding insulted.

“What do you mean ‘what’? You have the worst poker face,” Bob countered.

“I do not!” Drac argued, pulling his shoulders back to show the full force of his stoic disposition.

“Yeah, you do,” Bob said, gesturing to his right ear with a wave of his claw. “As soon as you even think about bluffing that ear of yours twitches."

“Excuse me, I am the undead master of darkness, thank you very much. My ears don’t twitch,” Drac said, chin up high.

“Uh, no offense, but you Dracula, lord of whatever, have twitchy ears,” Bob said. “Besides, everyone knows I have the best poker face.”

“Of course,” Drac countered, raising an eyebrow as he organized his cards.

“Look, I’m the wolfman, dude. I don’t do nervous,” Bob said gruffly.

“Your face may be covered in fur but your throat isn’t” Frank observed.

“What do you mean?” Bob asked.

“I meant you growl when you’re bluffing,” Frank said.

“I do not!” Bob argued, his claws digging into the table.

“Yes, you do,” Frank said, matter of fact-ly.

Bob hoisted his cards up in front of his face angrily. A low growl was audible under his breath.

“And I have the best poker face,” Frank added. “This is dead tissue, it doesn’t smirk,” he said, pointing a large, green finger at his face.

“Ok, Mr. Monster- that face may not smirk but those little electrode thingies on your neck move when you get excited,” Jack said with a grin.

“I’m going by Frank Jr, now,” Frank said without looking up from his cards.

“Really? Even after the whole ‘my dad tried to kill me’ thing?” Bob asked, looking over to his monstrous friend.

“Every family’s got issues,” Frank said, eyes focused on his cards which had been reordered several times over. “And my neck doesn’t move, nor does anything on it.”

“Uh-huh,” Jack said, smiling as he watched the small, round electrodes vibrate. “As amusing as all of this has been I think it’s time we give up the ghost. I am obviously the best poker player here.”

“You?” Drac said, spinning his head around to give Jack the best confused expression he could muster.

“Uh, hello- skull face? There’s nothing to move,” Jack said, referencing his face with his long, bony fingers.

“Look, Mr. Pumpkin king- that face of yours may be a skull, but it’s amazingly expressive,” Bob said, smiling a wide, toothy grin at him.

“Yeah, you light up like a Christmas tree when you get a good hand,” Frank agreed.

“I love Christmas,” Jack said wistfully.

A loud, crisp knock at the door interrupted the conversation and everyone looked to the sound. The door opened as if by itself and pair of sunglasses floated into the room.

“I was told you guys got a poker game going on. May I join you?” said a deep, raspy voice as the sunglasses were removed and came floating down.

“Hell yeah!” Frank Jr said, without looking to see if his companions agreed.

A low growling sound was heard coming from Bob’s direction.

“Stop your grumbling, we lost.” Drac said with a sigh.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

On Ghosts

Ghosts are, without exaggeration, the reason for the existence of Halloween. They are also the reason for all the various “Day of the Dead” celebrations that take place all over the world. They’re also the reason an extra place setting is left out at Passover, why the Chinese celebrate Ghost Day in August, why some Christmas traditions exist, why the Buddhists celebrate Ancestor day and why funeral rites are so incredibly elaborate. They are everywhere in history and part of the traditions of today.

It’s guestimated that roughly a third of people in this country (I couldn’t find statistics on other countries but I’d guess it’s even higher) believe in ghosts. This belief leads people to celebrate them, search for them, incorporate them into their celebrations and traditions, and take vacations with them. There are paranormal societies all over the place. Ghost Hunters, a show about looking for ghosts in various haunted locations, does a live search on Halloween and gets a huge number of viewers for this event every year.

Most families have ghosts stories and even if everyone doesn’t believe them they tend to get told and retold just like the oral traditions that started with the birth of language. It’s not uncommon for people to attribute unexplainable events to ghosts whenever something strange happens. They’ve been the favorite subject of horror movies since horror movies came into existence, more so than the whole of monster lore. They’re around all the time, but especially on Halloween.

Because on Halloween, when the veil that separates our world from the world of the dead is thinnest, they come back. And even though most people don’t know the druish rituals that lead to this great holiday they sense that Halloween is a time for things not of this world. It’s a magical time, literally. There is a feeling that pervades the day, like anything can happen. And if the ghosts can come out and have a grand old time of it then why can’t we?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The BIG Scare

As I’ve discussed, I’m pretty easy to get a jump out of. When I watch horror movies I scream at the cheap scares and the simple jumping-out-at-you bits without anything particularly extraordinary required to get that kind of reaction from me. So, when something particularly extraordinary does happen, I jump that much higher, scream that much louder. The first occasion I can remember is my first viewing of Psycho during which my dad grabbed my ankle right at the moment when someone gets stabbed. I jumped so high that I’m pretty sure my head touched the ceiling.

Well, last night, my environment seems to have turned against me to turn what would have been a frightening scene into a heart-stopping fright. We were watching Insidious. Without doing a full review let me just say that it’s one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in recent years. Without copying the home-movie look of the Paranormal Activity franchise it manages to have the same feel- that inside glance at a family’s world, contained in their seemingly simple suburban home. All the scare moments from the very beginning got me- that shadowy figure in the background, that face emerging from the shadow, that silhouette that shouldn’t be there. Every little glimpse got me to jump, yipe, and inch closer to my boyfriend for protection. It was scary enough all on it’s own, is my point.

But apparently scary wasn’t enough. It had to be heart-attack inducing. At least that’s what my house seemed to decide. Because, right near the end of the movie when all the lights are going out as the demons get closer and closer my kitchen light- all on it’s own- turned on. The light had been off, for the entire movie. And right at that scene when the tension is building so much that I already had a racing heart rate and was holding my breath that light turned on.

We looked over into the kitchen, and saw that not only was the light on but was flickering in an insanely creepy way, and my heart just stopped. I couldn’t even speak. My boyfriend, being slightly more reasonable, paused the movie and went to go over and check out why this light had spontaneously turned on. I grabbed him, not wanting him to go over to the haunted light. He assured me that there was some logical explanation beyond ghosts and/or demons.

After turning the switch on and off and concluding that the flickering was coming from a desperate need for the bulbs to be changed he hypothesized that the light must have been in the mid-way position rather than all the way down and that the vibration from the sound of the movie must have moved it to the on position. I took some convincing, thinking that the insidious villains from the movie were coming to get me. I spent the rest of the movie tucked so far under his arm that I watched the movie from beneath his sleeve. And I haven’t touched that light switch since.

Friday, October 28, 2011

On Halloween Treats

I am a baker.  I’m not a frequent baker but when I bake, I go all out.  Halloween is one of those times when it’s no holds barred for me in the kitchen.  Both because of my fondness for the holiday as well as the fact that Halloween treats are pretty special in their own right.

Monster’s toes.  Mini mummies.  Cheesy eye balls.  Ghoul’s grog.  What other time of the year do you get the chance to create delicious confections that look like disgusting monster’s body parts or ingredients in a witch’s brew?  One of my favorites?  The aforementioned monster’s toes that look like their name but taste like their ingredients- chocolate covered pretzels.  (The chocolate is green and the toenails are almond slices.)  They tend to go over well.
Usually, I display my baking abilities at my annual Halloween party.  This year, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t host one.  But I love baking and can’t skip the opportunity to make my favorite Halloween treats.  So I was up till super late last night making tons of sugary treats for my co-workers which I served at our monthly potluck.  And I did host in my office, since I covered my office in Halloween decorations at the beginning of the month.  And, because I do usually host my own parties, I had tons of left over Halloween plates and cups and napkins and my creepy lack-o-lantern tablecloth.
While no one was in costume, it was still a great little party.  And all my co-workers complemented me on the food, which is half the reason I bake anyway.  That and the fact that there’s nothing better than a big plate of monster’s toes.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Monsters

A monster is anything- a creature, a being, a person, etc- that incites fear in the eye of the beholder. The term was used to describe ancient creatures in Greek myths who had the parts of various animals and the overall appearance of something not found in the natural world. Over the years, monsters became more and more human looking and the term began to be used to describe people doing things that were considered “monstrous” therefore making the term synonymous with evil.

One of the most famous human monsters was Frankenstein’s monster, cited as part of the birth of the zombie franchise and a revolution for the idea of what a monster is. That monster (who never had a proper name but is often referred to by his creator’s name) was all human but so horrifying in appearance that people were too afraid of him for him to ever be able to interact normally with other people. Another thing that Frankenstein’s monster did for the genre was introduce the idea that monsters, how frightening their appearance, could have human emotions.

Nowadays, just about anything can be a monster. I credit horror movies and video games for pushing the envelope on fear-inducing creatures that challenge what we typically imagine monsters to be. Some of them are very much like their Greek predecessors in that they’re all scary appearance with little character. Others, the more human ones, are like Frankenstein’s monster in that they’re capable of human emotions and the struggle for the audience is therefore connecting with this creatures who may feel very familiar. (This is where vampires, werewolves and the like fit in). And, given the general nature of the definition, we now see serial killers and other people who are completely human but do evil things lumped into the category.

It’s easily arguable that Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without monsters. They’re in our costumes, our entertainment, our decorations, our celebratory activities, our music and everything else about the holiday. And because of this, Halloween is the great melting pot of archaic traditions, ancient religious rituals, old world mysticism and superstition, celebratory activities, Greek myths, horror fiction, literature, movies, video games, television shows, food, culture and uncategorized stuff that it is. Thanks to monsters, Halloween is the insanely fun holiday that I love most.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On Werewolves

Animals of various shapes and sizes have long been part of ancient religions and thus saturated the culture of many peoples around the world. There is no doubt that wolves have been part of rituals long before recorded history. However, werewolves are not wolves. They’re people, and they spend most of their time in human form, only transforming at a certain time of the month. That’s their trademark.

Given this parameter the first recorded case of people transforming into wolves comes to us from the Greeks (our first organized recorders of history). Greek mythology tells the story of Lycaon, a king of Arcadia, who decided to test Zeus by making him a nice meal of a child’s flesh. Zeus, terribly angered by this, punished him by turning him into a wolf. There are several different version of the story, some of which involve not only Lycaon but also his 50 sons being turned into wolves, but all involve Zeus’ wrath in the form of transformation into a wolf.

This myth lead the citizens of Arcadia to adapt an annual ritual called Lykaia which involved the testing of young adolescent males coming age by the offering of human flesh from a victim of sacrifice. It was said that whoever ate the human meat would turn into a wolf and remain so until they abstained from human flesh for nine years. Although this ritual and the myth it’s based on are presumably metaphorical and not literal the stories of such events tell that people actually turned into wolves. These early rituals and their stories paint the scene for much of the werewolf story common today: nocturnal transformation into a wolf, the consumption of human flesh, and the bestial behavior of werewolves.

In addition to Odin’s story of the Arcadia kingdom there also reports of men turning into wolves from Virgil, Pliny the Elder and Agriopas. From there, the mythos of the werewolf spread throughout Europe and the world through verbal tradition and mysticism.

Like zombies, vampires and witches the specifics of werewolves vary from region to region so you might get a different story about how a werewolf comes into being, how to identify a werewolf when not in wolf form, and how to cure or kill a werewolf. Modern culture with all the movies, stories, and other forms of entertainment where you find werewolves maintain these differences, illustrating the contrasting styles of depicting wolves as cursed or evil.

However you cut it they are part of the pantheon of monsters we hold near and dear, and therefore part of the scariest holiday and all that comes with it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Before the Storm

Well, it’s only a week away. NaNoWriMo 2011. 7 days. Not long. I’ve been so caught up with all things Halloween I didn’t even notice. But the day after Halloween, it’ll be time to write like the wind. I better mentally prepare.

After Camp NaNoWriMo in August I was so fried by the whole process that I didn’t even want to think about writing again (thus the severely small number of entries in September). And then, when I did allow myself to start thinking about writing I felt an extreme aversion. Why would I ever want to put myself through that again?

Well, there are a number of things that I am determined to do differently this November in order to make this- god forbid- enjoyable rather than yet another exercise in torture (which most of my writing activities are).

1) I will give myself permission to suck. And I don’t just mean, “well, it needs a lot of revision” or “that section’s going to have to be rewritten”. I mean so unapologetically horrible that no one other than me could possibly enjoy reading it. My last novel, which I continued to work on in August, was supposed to be a serious piece of literary fiction. I was supposed to examine some rather deep philosophical questions. It was supposed to be morally relevant. It was supposed to be an entertaining (hard to achieve) coming of age story. Trying to make it all of those made me extremely wary about what I wrote and padding word count with random observations was not something I did without feeling really, really bad. I can’t go through that again.

A friend of mine has said that she often spends the month of November writing fanfic. Taking her favorite characters from history or fiction and sticking them in random places during certain time periods so she can explore genres she likes. She has said that she is quite confident that what she’s writing is bad but she hasn’t cared because she knows she’s the only one who’s going to read it anyway. That’s what I need to do. I need to give myself free reign to write whatever the hell I want without trying to stick to some ridiculous ideal in my mind. I need to suck. (Which is, funnily enough, exactly what my college professor told me to do so many years ago and which I failed to do and subsequently why I switched majors. Ya-huh.)

2) I am returning to a fun genre: fantastical fiction. My last story, while fictional, was set in the real world. There were no magical creatures, everything obeyed the laws of physics, it was set in a real place that I knew from experience and remained relatively loyal to, and the characters were all human. Boring, and not fun to write.

In this story, my main MC is a centuries old vampire. Her sidekick is a shape shifter that doesn’t even follow the laws of commonly known shape shifters (he can turn into a tree as well as a wolf and just about everything in between- I haven’t decided the limits yet). They work in an X-Files type-of government operation that is super secret and underground (so they’re sort-of secret agents). There will be magic, strange events, a number of strange and fantastical races and creatures and the laws of science will be openly mocked. Fun!

3) I’m aiming for humor and drama rather than philosophical questioning on the nature of life and relationships. My MC from the last book was a giant pain in the ass. She had all the negative qualities that drive me crazy about myself and I had no one to make nearly enough fun of her. Amusing? Maybe. But not funny.

This MC, while being terribly introspective and serious will have a sidekick constantly pointing how ridiculously silly she is and making fun of her for brooding. They will banter. They will snipe. They will play pranks on one another. And in the end, they will develop a police partner- style bond that seems like it would be fun to write (it’s always fun to watch in cop movies, so I’m assuming). And while there has to be some drama because of the need for conflict and a story arc I will strive to keep it brief and spotted with many comments from my secondary MC to point out how ridiculously emo my MC is.

4) I will not hold myself to any set timeline of events. In the last story I had a clear end in mind. There were certain milestones I had to hit in order to come to that end. And I kept on writing more and more in between those milestones so matter how much I wrote (topped out at over 87k words in August) I still wasn’t finished. Torturous, like I said.

This time, although I do have an idea of what I want to have happen, I will not force myself to stick to some script in my head. If I start writing and the plot goes in a completely different direction I will force myself to abandon my previous ideas and just see where I go. If the charters seem to have a natural drive to do stuff I didn’t plan for them I will let them. If people I plan to kill off seem to want to stick around I will use them. If others I plan to involve seem like they kind-of need to die I will be cut-throat. And yes, this may cause my plot to burn out early, before 50k. And you know what? That’s fine. I’d rather have a short, finished story than a never-ending one.

Overall, I’m hoping for this experience to be drastically different than last year’s and this summer’s. I’m hoping to make new and unexpected mistakes. I’m hoping that it comes out jumbled, and incoherent and sucky and that I enjoy it anyway. I mean, yes- ideally I’ll let myself just write and somehow a masterpiece will magically emerge. But I’m preparing myself for it to suck really, really bad and for me to have fun with it. That’s the goal. Stay tuned.

On Zombies

There are a lot of similarities between vampires and zombies. They both originate from the same oral traditions in ancient folklore: undead creatures who eat flesh/drink blood (they didn’t distinguish between the two back then). References to them can be found in most cultures. They’re both considered infectious: zombies can make another zombie by biting them, vampires can make another vampire by biting them. And now, after years of literature, movies, and other forms of entertainment they’re both insanely popular in fiction.

And yet the differences between the two are striking. Vampires are suave, sophisticated, often handsome, hypersexual creatures with powers to seduce, bespell and enthrall. Zombies are shambling, decaying, mindless creatures that cause nothing but fear in the eye of the beholder. Vampires might be pursued by some for the purposes of romance, sex or just a wild time. Zombies are something you flee from and if you come into contact with one your only choice it to kill it. Vampires are (usually) limited to moving about freely only at night whereas zombies are not. Vampires tend to be solitary creatures and can often be found independent of other vampires. Zombies tend to travel in packs making them more difficult to kill and attacks more deadly. Vampires are rarely (nowadays) depicted as causing apocalypses where the entire population becomes infected and survivors are few and far between whereas zombies are usually solely depicted in this format.

I’ve already spoken at length about my fear of zombies and why they’re frightening while vampires are exciting so I won’t rehash that now. But I will say this: in terms of fear I would venture a guess that a lot of people agree with me. And possibly because of this zombies are an extremely popular staple of Halloween.

Monday, October 24, 2011

On Vampires

References to vampires (or entities like them) have been found in just about every culture in the world since the beginning of verbal traditions. Most of these early vampires weren’t vampires as we know them now- they were demons, zombie-like walking dead creatures, witches, and a variety of other things. The uniting factor for all of them was that they drank blood and that this action allowed them to continue existing despite the absence of normal human life.

Given the variances in stories and distinguishing characteristics between all these different groups of vampire-like creatures it’s no wonder that the idea of a vampire as we know it now didn’t exist. Back then, the folktales described drastically different creatures from area to area and none of them were identified by the term vampire. Still, the idea was planted long ago.

Fast forward several centuries and you start seeing reports of vampiric activity in eastern Europe. These stories are what lead to the modern-day idea of a vampire: a creature who looks rather human in appearance, rises at night to feed on blood, and is mischievous, charismatic and randy.

It was the late 17th century when reports of vampires first started popping up in small villages. The stories would go that someone in the village would die, somehow not stay dead, cause general havoc, and the villagers would have to take action. Staking and beheading as methods of killing started pretty early on and become the norm for trying to rid a village of its pesky vampire problem.

Soon after, the idea of vampires entered the world of fiction literature and there was a mad dash by writers of the time to expand on this genre. Starting in the early 18th centuries poems and books describing blood-drinking creatures of the night using the term vampire started being published. With the accompanying verbal tradition spreading the folklore the idea of the creature became common place.

So common place, in fact, that there was actually a bit of vampire hysteria much like witch hysteria had swept the continent earlier. It became a common occurrence for precautions to be taken during the burial right to prevent the rise of a vampire. These precautions varied from region to region but the thing they were trying to prevent seems to be similar.

There are a number of hypothesis to explain this. First, there is the idea premature burial wherein a person in a comatose state was improperly declared dead and buried before escaping later on to scare the locals. There’s also the scientific process that occurs in decomposition: dead bodies bloat seeming to grow in size and gain a sometimes ruddy complexion, the skin shrinks giving the appearance of hair and nails growing, and depending on the rate of decomposition a person might be exhumed several weeks after their death and look pretty well considering what people expected to see. Add in too all the very healthy folklore traditions with stories of revenants, demons and the like and you could see the fertile ground for the stories to take hold.

Needless to say, by the time the 19th century rolled around the world was ripe and Bram Stoker took full advantage of that. Although Dracula is nowhere near the first publication on vampires it remains the most well known, even all these centuries later. And by the 19th century vampires were their own genre and remain so to this day.

It is because of their nature as supernatural beings, their penchant for only coming out at night, their common label as evil things and most of all their ability to inspire fear that they are celebrated during this holiday.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The New Classics

Like most of the Halloween traditions I’ve reviewed thus far, horror movies don’t actually have anything to do with traditional Halloween as passed down from ancient times.  Regardless, it’s pretty common to find folks scheduling “scar-a-thons” wherein they sit down with way too much candy and enjoy a marathon of horror flicks as part of the holiday celebrations.

There are several different genres that one may choose in order to celebrate the scariest holiday.  There are ghost movies which, in my opinion, are getting better as years go by.  There are genre movies focusing on zombies, vampires, werewolves, mummies and other assorted creatures.  There are serial killer movies in which a psycho killer thrills and chills the audience while some smart person tries to prevent their next kill.  And then there are the classics: Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are all famous series involving guys who aren’t quite serial killers cause they’re already dead (well, Michael starts out alive but becomes very Jason-esque in the later movies in that he’s dead but still manages to kill horny teens) but aren’t traditional monsters, either.  No, they get their own category.  They’re slasher flicks.
Now, other movies have been placed in the slasher category because they involve the same basic principles.  Horny teenagers get killed by the dozens in the goriest ways possible.  That’s the basic premise.  The classics I mentioned above, however, take it a step further.  The Friday the 13th series is, at it’s heart, a revenge story.  Jason started off as an innocent little boy who drowned because the stupid horny teenagers were too busy getting laid to watch him.  The original killer was his mom, simply seeking revenge for her dead son.  It was until the 2nd installment that we were introduced to Jason as the undead monster he is.  The Nightmare on Elm Street series is certainly a slasher franchise, and yet involves the psychological intricacies of some thrillers.  The idea of dreams and how real they are is constantly questions by the teens trying to outsmart Freddie.  And Michael Myers, in the beginning, was just another normal serial killer- disturbed family environment, insanity, and homicidal ideation.  Like Jason, he later on became this undead killing machine.  But in the beginning he was just another movie incarnation of Ed Gein.
They’re also, let’s face it, campy.  So they’re fun to watch.  Plus there are so many hysterical kills you can’t help but high five your movie-going companion when someone dies in a spectacularly gory way.  And they’re not above the cheap thrills, either.  You still get random things jumping out at you and making you jump before the final kill.  And, because the world will never run out of horny teenagers, we’ll seemingly never run out of these movies.  Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse and the series were finally done, they revived them.  Michael got a new twist thanks to the twisted mind of Rob Zombie.  Freddy got a new flavor when Rorschach revived him as an evil pedophile.  And Jason got a whole new crew including writer, director and everybody else and started fresh with a new batch of kids at camp.  And why redo all these seemingly dead franchises?  Because they’re classics.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Skeletons

Skeletons, in addition to being incredibly useful in the study of anatomy, are traditional depictions of the dead. Just about every culture around the world uses skeletons in representing the dead. Death itself is most often associated with a skeleton dressed in a dark robe. Here in the US the most local culture is Mexico where the day of the celebrations incorporate some of the most elaborate skeleton based artwork ever imagined. And that’s just pictorial representations of skeletons.

Skeletons themselves- like, the actual bones- also play an important role in every culture around the world. They may be used in rituals for various purposes, placed in important locations in order to complete spells, or meddled with in some way to thwart a ghost. In fact, it’s hard to find a death ritual that doesn’t involve a skeleton in some way.

And because of their relative simplicity, they’re pretty versatile. They can be evil or they can be jolly. They can move independent of muscle or lie perfectly still for centuries. They can be associated with somber funeral rites or uproarious parties.

Much like a lot of the other things I’ve discussed- witches, harvest celebrations, and the myriad of traditions linked with this crazy holiday the full conversation of skeletons and their cultural significance throughout the world is far beyond the scope of this entry. For the history buffs out there I recommend you look into it further. But for now, I offer a shout out to those bony friends of ours who are so deeply embedded in the culture of my favorite holiday.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Haunted Houses/Attractions

Tonight I am attending my first haunted house/hayride/whatnot of the season. I go to these very year. Being just outside of Philly, there are a whole lot of them about. As I stated earlier, I enjoy being scared. So I pay to have people dress in elaborate costumes, hide in scary settings and jump out at me. It’s a yearly tradition.

It’s hard to get a clear answer on the origins of haunted attractions. According to my “Halloween Handbook” the most likely origin comes from ordinary Halloween parties wherein, in addition to dressing up, hosting games of bobbing for apples, dancing, divination and the like; hosts might set up “haunted” locations in their house. They might set up their basement to look like a catacombs. They might decorate their attic with creepy lighting and let the cobwebs take effect.

Add in the tradition of pranking which, up until 1930’s was far more common than trick or treating, and a picture starts to emerge: some neighbors get together in their house for a Halloween party. Their kids, wanting to prank and joke, set about making noises and spooky sounds while the adults are down in the basement telling ghost stories. Seems plausible, right?

Also, according to the history in this book, it seems like haunted houses might fit right in with the attractions that local townships might’ve encouraged in order to keep kids occupied so that they wouldn’t prank. The history goes that as the population grew more and more people came into more urban settings where, instead of your next door neighbor’s kid tapping on your windows and then running way, you’d have a kid from twelve blocks over breaking your windows and playing increasingly dangerous pranks leading to property damage. In order to keep kids from doing these things, organized activities such as Halloween parades, trick or treating and the like would be planned.

Organized haunted attractions where people would pay a price of admission are a more recent development with the first ones documented only popped up around the 1970’s. Like most of our newer traditions, however, they gained popularity and now it’s estimated that well over 12 million people in the US attend some sort-of haunted attraction every year.

Wherever they came from, I’m glad they’re here. Where else am I gonna see a life-like recreation of a scene from my favorite horror movies? Or get scared enough that I jump in a seemingly super-human way? Or have an excuse to scream loudly enough to break glass? All these things, in my opinion, are necessities for celebrating the season and part of what make Halloween the best holiday.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

On Spiders

Spiders are fascinating creatures.  It’s estimated that there are over 40,000 different kinds (and that number keeps growing) and they comes up with some of the most ingenious ways to hunt.  Seriously- humans aren’t this creative.  They’re also some of the scariest looking insects on earth.  8 legs, disjointed body, exoskeleton, many eyes, fangs.  Monstrous looking things.  The scare factor in and of itself fits them in the Halloween category. 
But, to increase the stigma, they’re also part of the massive hodgepodge of stories and myths in the Witch category.  They were rumored to be another type of witch familiar.  It was said they were a main ingredient in the deadly potions witches brewed.    People said they were witch spies: hiding in the corners and rafters of houses, collecting vital information, and then bringing it back to their witchy masters.  Plus seeing a spider, just about anywhere, was considered a bad omen.
Lucky for spiders, there’s way more of them than there are humans so they didn’t push the envelope of extinction like their feline friends.  Plus, several of those 40,000 plus species live in places where humans do not.  And that scare factor I mentioned earlier make a lot of people too scared to go near them let alone kill them.
I often wonder if they get confused when they see people purposely decorating their houses with cobwebs when they spend the rest of the year destroying theirs.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Black Cats

Black cats, like witches, got a bad rap.  Just as paganism was once the premier religion that everybody practiced and devolved into secret meetings and hidden agendas so too did black cats once start out being praised and ended up fearing for their lives.

Back in Egyptian times, cats were so highly valued for their vermin killing abilities that the Pharaoh declared them all demi-gods.  It was a capital offense to kill a cat.  And when they died they were given just as grand of funeral rites as the high-up humans.
Like paganism, cats spread all over and in their transition from Egypt the all black variation was bred.  They were out and about as pets, vermin-control devices, household staples.  Until some asshole decided to call that little old lady with all the pet cats a witch.  Pretty soon everybody with a cat was a witch.  And since that which was evil, that cat must be their demon companion (familiars, they called them).  So, just as they tried to rid the world of witches, so they tried to rid the world of cats.  And black cats were considered the worst.  The cat hunt was so bad that by 1400 cats were on the brink of extinction in Europe.
Thankfully, much like with the whole Witch history, people became less superstitious and more educated and stop killing cats.  And now You Tube viewers all over the world rejoice at their cuteness.  But you know how it is, there’s always some random asshole that won’t give up the ghost and every year some jerk gets his hands on a black cat and does something horrible.  Thankfully we have the ASPCA now and they don’t take too kindly to that.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On Witches

Imagine this.  Thousands of years ago a group of people got together and decided to make a soup.  They decided they would include in the soup all sorts of tasty and healthy ingredients and eat it all the time.  In fact, they would structure most of their time and activities around this soup.  The soup was so good, that people specialized in learning how to make the soup and devoted their entire lives to that practice so that everyone else could eat the soup.  The soup was so popular that pretty soon everybody and their grandmother was eating it.  And as its tastiness spread, some natural variations occurred.  People added their own spices, threw in some local vegetation, varied the cooking time based on the kind of fire they had to cook with.  All in all, it’s still soup but it tastes a little different depending on where you eat it.

Fast forward a bit and this group of people come around eating sandwiches.  The sandwich eaters think the soup eaters are just crazy- all those ingredients  is blasphemous.   There should be one main ingredient- the true ingredient.  The soup eaters don’t like the sandwich eaters for trying to take away all their ingredients, so they do their best to get rid of the sandwich eaters.  It’s a huge fight.
Then one day this king decides he’s gonna eat a sandwich.  He decides he likes it.  He likes it so much, in fact, that he decrees that from now on everybody has to eat sandwiches and those found eating soup are gonna be in big trouble.  This starts happening all over the place and now entire kingdoms are outlawing soup.
The soup eaters, not wanting to give up their tasty meal, start eating their soup in secret.  They go out into woods cause no one will see them eating soup there.  Even better, they do it at night so there’s definitely no chance anybody’ll see them.  The sandwich eaters become convinced the soup eaters are up to no good.  In fact, they think, they’re making poison soup!
Chances are some mean spirited folk did poison the soup, but most of the soup eaters just want to eat their soup in peace.  But now the sandwich eaters start saying that not only is all soup poisoned, but the soup eaters must be evil.  So not only will you get in trouble for eating the soup, but if you know anyone who does or if you ever asked anyone to make some soup for you- even if you only intended to give it to a friend cause they could use some tasty soup- you’re in big trouble.  The sandwich eaters become so intent to rid the world of soup eaters that they start burning them at the stake.  The practice of making soup becomes so obscure you wouldn’t even recognize the soup if you tasted it- virtually none of the original ingredients are there and it tastes totally different.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of paganism and witchcraft (metaphorically speaking).  And yes, I did just boil down thousands of years of human history involving religion, politics, culture, gender roles, the structure of civilization and a bunch of other key factors into a story about soup.
My point?  The story of soup- er- witches, is a fascinating history that is far beyond this little entry here.  But in terms of knowing why witches are associated with Halloween?  Well, all those thousands of years ago, people ate soup on Halloween.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Bats

I’ve already commented on Halloween being the source for all things scary. That’s pretty much the only reason that bats are associated with the holiday. In actuality bats are seriously cool creatures that do all sorts of incredibly useful things that help out us humans (like eating insects and pollinating plants). But, they still earn mention in my month of all things Halloween.

Bats, by their very nature, are kind-of creepy. They’re nocturnal and that by itself earns them ranking in the list of things that have historically frightened people. They are also weird-looking with their spiny wings, giant ears, snouts and fur. They live in caves and hang around upside down. They tend to travel in swarms. They can spread disease and therefore death. And, as if all that weren’t enough, some of them even drink blood (granted it’s only three breeds out of over twelve hundred, but still). All of that combined was enough to make prehistoric people scarred of them.

Because of this fear, there are a number of superstitions, stories and traditions associated with bats coming from different cultures all over the globe. They are said to be omens of death. They’ve been used as symbols of destruction and decay. They became associated with witches and witchcraft and were used in supposed black magic. It was said that witches could turn into bats, used their blood and bodies in black magic and even drank their blood to gain some of their powers. They became associated with vampires who were also said to have the ability to turn into bats and fly.

Perhaps it’s because they’re so associated with witches that they gained such a firm spot in the Halloween lineup. Perhaps it’s just cause they’re kind-of scary and have long been associated with death, night, darkness and all things of that nature. Whatever the reason, bats are part of the holiday and earn a shout out. Yay bats!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Apples For Halloween

Apples don’t actually have anything to do with Halloween. They, and all the traditions associated with them, are remnants of some of the really old religions that got passed down and combined onto this giant blob of stuff that is now part of Halloween.

Apples have been around for a really long time and therefore have been part of human customs for a really long time. They are one of the many crops that get harvested in the autumn and as such have always been pretty revered for their ability to feed people. Like a lot of the crops harvested, they serve many purposes- we use their skins, their flesh, their juice and their seeds in cooking, fermenting, flavoring meats, and just storing up for winter.

As most of the ancient religions were based on earth elements and the things that support life so apples too are associated with religious customs. I have no doubt that apples were part of even more archaic traditions done at harvest times well before the Roman empire came about but since we don’t have much historical record from that time the first organized mention of apples in religion came around at that time. Specifically, they are associated with the Roman goddess Pomona, the goddess of orchards and harvest.

The festival of Pomona took place every November 1st on the Roman calendar and involved (as with most Roman holidays) a large feast with a bunch of divination rituals thrown in. As the Romans adopted the Celtic traditions of Samhein, the traditions of the festival got mixed in and passed down as part of the package.

So it is that most of the apple-based traditions we do at Halloween time came from those customs associated with Pomona divination rituals. Most specifically, bobbing for apples. This was originally called “ducking” and looked pretty much exactly the same as bobbing for apples does now save that the person who successfully retrieves the apple doesn’t get a prize but rather is foretold to be the first person to marry in the coming year. Another tradition which is no longer practiced called “peeling” involved attempting to peel an apple in one long strand. That peel was then thrown on the floor and the cursive letter formed was said to be the first initial of the person you would marry. (The resulting peeled apples would then be used in all sort of tasty apple-based recipes.)

How, you may wonder, did this mating ritual come to be a kid’s game? Because as these customs were passed down they were most often used in adult party activities. Why? Because “dating” is a relatively new concept and young people didn’t have a lot of opportunities to meet and greet outside of holiday celebrations. So, at adult Halloween parties over the centuries these rituals would be performed. When Halloween became a more kid-centric holiday earlier in the 20th century, bobbing for apples became a game done for prizes at kid’s parties. And so, we now use this rather ancient tradition in modern-day customs thereby retaining the tradition of Halloween being a hodge-podge of rituals and traditions gathered from a variety of sources. Plus, apples are still delicious.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Apple Picking

Today we embarked on one of my favorite fall traditions (which has come to be associated with Halloween due to the timing and what is done with the supplies): apple picking. Every year I drag my boyfriend out to the orchards and make him haul around a bucket of apples. And every year I look up recipes for apple crisps or other fancy apple-centered desserts and then end up eating all the apples before I actually get around to using any of them in a recipe. But that’s all part of the tradition.

Orchards, in my opinion, are magical places. Seeing all the rows of trees looking all neat and orderly, lined up acre after acre is sort-of amazing. And the smell is just- oh! I know it’s because of fermenting apples but it smells like mulled cider with a little bit of freshly tilled garden-smell mixed in. And most orchards I’ve been in are on tall hills so the wind whips over them and carries that scent with it. Not to mention the apples themselves. My method of selecting the varieties I will take home is to pluck one of the branch, wipe it off, take a bite and decide if I want more. I eat a lot of apples in the process of apple picking and I love every bite. Plus we have sometimes been known to play rowdy games of kick the apple or apple bowling with the bigger ones. All in all it’s an awesome day.

Plus, because orchards get a lot of business in October, there’s always other activities. The orchard we’ve been going to for the past few year has live music, carnival-type food (those apple cider donuts are to die for, not to mention the caramel apples, fudge, fried dough…*drool*), and a farmers market where we buy fresh cider and apple butter. Plus there’s a petting zoo and a goat that we’ve come to call super goat because he climbs on this walkway they’ve built for him that goes out of his pen up to above the stage area. There’s a little bowl up there so you can send up food for him and watch him eat from way overhead. Plus the pumpkins, gourds, fall crafts like scarecrows and wreaths and a bunch of other goodies. For me, it’s paradise. And it’s a fundamental part of what makes this holiday, and this month, the best of the year.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Peepers

It was early Saturday morning and Sal was already in a bad mood. His gruff responses and furrowed brow let the others know to keep out of his way. But the process had already started, even without their annoying interruptions. He was on his way to a full blown hissy fit.

They stayed away, keeping themselves occupied filling sugar jars and ketchup bottles.

“God, I love coffee,” Earl said, taking a sip from his mug before returning to the work of filling sugar jars. Sal let them drink coffee in the morning even though it slowed down the pace. Earl swore it was the only reason he worked there.

“All coffee?” Cheryl asked, unscrewing another bottle of ketchup for a refill. “Or only special coffee?” She wasn’t actually remotely interested, but the conversation killed the time and kept her out of the kitchen where Sal was rummaging about, banging things and cursing loudly. Anything to keep herself away from that was a good enough distraction.

“Real coffee,” Earl said, pouring the sugar as if it were gold powder and any spill would amount in a net loss of hundreds of dollars.

“What’s real coffee?” she asked without looking up.

“This is real coffee,” he said, hoisting his mug like a Viking hoisting a jug of ale after a raid.

“Diner coffee?” she asked, unable to keep the slight disdain out of her voice. Waitress at a New Hampshire diner was not what she’d signed up for in life and her disappointment seeped out when she wasn’t keeping up the act of perky waitress.

“Diner coffee? Listen to you! You’d think you didn’t know what this stuff was!” Earl exclaimed, sounding horrifically injured.

“Oh boy, here we go,” Cheryl groaned.

“This,” Earl said raising the mug up high over his head, “is the glue that holds this great country of ours together. This is the very fabric of the American way of life. All other coffee has become corrupted with free trade regulations for international imports. It’s a political statement to order coffee anywhere else, an economic approval of trading regulations with Guam or Botswana or whatever third-world hell hole they’re importing their beans from. You can’t even get a large cup of Joe anywhere else. You have to order with fancy names like “Venti” or “Grande”. It’s a travesty of the American way of life!” Earl was the one who had initiated the vote for “French Fries” to be called “Freedom Fries”.

“Ok, so you like coffee,” Cheryl said. “Even though what you’re drinking is Columbian” she muttered under her breath. She had never known anyone to make such impassioned claims about food. On good days it was damned entertaining and she enjoyed riling him, but on days like today she regretted giving him the floor.

“Like it?” he said, pushing up from his chair to face her. “That’s what you get from what I said? Like it?!”

Before she could respond a yell erupted from the back and she made frantic motions with her hands for Earl to sit back down before the beast could emerge.

“Are you knuckle heads getting paid to work or to shoot yer traps off?!” Sal yelled, stepping out of the kitchen wielding a spatula like a weapon.

“Hey, we’re working” Earl said defensively, lifting a half-filled jar of sugar to him like a penance.

“Well I want to hear the sounds of the door opening for customers in no less than five minutes, got it?” he snapped as he retreated back into the kitchen, the heavy door flapping back and forth after him like the tail of a retreating dragon.

"I don't know why you're so anxious, you know the regulars won't be here before ten," Earl mumbled.

"It's not the regulars i'm worried about," came a growl from the kitchen. 

Earl shut his mouth, afraid to anger him further. Cheryl smiled to herself as she continued filling bottles.  Silence filled the room as Earl returned to his task, carefully filling the jars in front of him. He lasted about three minutes before being overcome with the need to speak.

“All I’m saying is coffee is as American as apple pie. Coffee is the scaffolding that holds up the stage on which we play out our lives. In fact, my greatest fear is living life without coffee.” He waited for a response, an argument. When he heard nothing he turned around to look at Cheryl. She was passing out bottles of ketchup to the tables, ignoring him.

“What’s your greatest fear?” he asked her, unable to abide her lack of attention.

Before she could reply “never getting out of here” an excited squeal from the parking lot made them both stop and look up.

Outside, a large SUV was unloading a group of tourists, heavily clad in knit sweaters and Ugg boots. They looked like a troupe of Barbie dolls dressed in cabin wear.

“Oh my God- look how cute!” one of them exclaimed, pointing to the diner. “It’s like a little figurine or something! Can’t you just picture this in one of those little toy villages they build around train sets?!”

“Do you actually think we can eat here?” another asked, closing her door cautiously while eyeing the diner like a botox clinic someone had suggested even though it was in a bad neighborhood.

“Oh shut up, this is all part of the experience,” said a third, passing her fellow travelers and leading the way to the door.

“Hello,” the head one said, knocking on the door and looking inside at Earl and Cheryl who stood stunned. “So, are you guys open or what?” Cheryl was about to move to unlock the door when she heard the kitchen door swing open.

Sal stood there, spatula still in hand, looking pale and sticken.

“Peepers,” he declared, and braced himself as a solider preparing for a battle he doubted he would survive.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Highway 174

“His headlights cut through the fog like… like daggers cutting through… something.”

“What are you doing?”

“Shh! I’m narrating.”

“Uh… why?”

“Because it’s not scary if we’re just sitting here listening to Queen, we need a creepy voiceover.”

“And why is it supposed to be creepy? I thought we were just going to a party.”

“We are, but we’re on highway 174.”

“It looks like a country road.”

“It is but it’s old highway 174. You know, like ye old highway 174. Like the place where that guy died on all Hallows eve- that highway 174!”

“I thought you said that was out at the edge of the county?”

“I did? No- I don’t- I don’t think we’re that far out. We’re just a little off the beaten path.”

“So we’re lost.”

“We’re not lost, we’re just taking a slightly different route at the off chance that we happen to see him- his misty figure floating along the side of the road, ghostly thumb out in the hopes that someone will pick him up and finally put an end to his eternal wandering. Ooo- that’s good.”

“So we’re lost and you’re going to narrate it.”

“We are not lost we’re- ooo! What’s that?”

“What?”

“That shadowy figure over there- could that be…?”

“I think it’s a bush. Wait for it- yep, it’s a bush.”

{grumbling}

“But it was a very dark and shadowy bush, so I can see where you’d be confused.”

“Whatever, Scully!”

“Well, since we’re calling names- Mulder- might I point out that when we did do research we never found any news stories about a hit and run out here and that your urban legend of the ghostly hitchhiker was- you know- disproved.”

“Ok, first of all, it’s not an urban legend if it’s true and secondly the internet wasn’t around back in the 70’s when this guy got hit. Ghosts don’t need the validation of the internet in order to exist.”

“Sigh.”

“Hey, do you want to see this guy or not? Cause I will turn this car right around, young lady!”

“I don’t want to do anything other than to go to the party which is where you claimed we were going before you got lost and tried to cover it up by pretending that you meant to drive us out to the middle of nowhere so we could spend all night doing 25 on backwoods roads looking for ghosts.”

“You’re just no fun at all, are you?”

“I just want to go to the party- it’s getting late and we’re gonna miss the costume contest and-“

“Fine, fine, we’ll go to the party. Jeeze.”

“Thank you! That’s all I ask.”

“We just need to get back onto 202…”

“I’ll look at my phone.”

“We’re not lost!”

“Uh huh, I believe you.”

“Grrr…”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why The Leaves Change Color

I always get a little awe struck when I watch the Discovery channel and they explain that that seemingly mundane phenomena that I observe every single day is actually a relatively complex physics process. Like the sun bursting with flares or the moon rotating around the planet. There are so many intricately weaved cycles relying on something we so take for granted.

Well, leaves are one of those things. To me, with my artistically minded right brain in charge, I tend to focus on the fact that the whole world looks like a painting come to life. I'm feeling more than thinking when I take a stroll in the autumn leaves. But I imagine a lot of people look at the leaves and see the science. Like "Boy, look at all the glucose in that tree" or something like that.

For those of us interested in the science part I'm going to run down the list and explain, as it's been explained to me, why the leaves change color.

Green: The reason we see green everywhere we look for the duration of the year is because those tress- those amazing oxygen-producing factories that they are- are busy doing photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which trees turn carbon dioxide, sunlight and water into oxygen (for us) and glucose (for the trees). Chlorophyll is the tree's natural fuel for this process and it's what gives the leaves their green color.

Red and purple: When the season picks up and the days get shorter the trees gear up for hibernation. So, they stop doing photosynthesis and start saving up their energy for the long winter. As the chlorophyll fades from the leaves all the other chemicals change their pigments. That bright red and deep purple colors we see comes from Anthocyanins which are chemicals that also lend color to cranberries, blueberries and the like. These colors are most commonly seen in oak,dogwood and sugar-maple trees.

Yellow, Orange and Gold: These colors come from Carotenoids which also come in carrots and bananans. They're most commonly seen in aspen, yellow-poplar and black maple trees.

All the different trees have different timing to begin their hibernation so you get a steady stream of color across the few (far too few in my opinion) months of autumn. In general, the more moisture the trees have gotten and the more mild the temperature change (i.e. the temperature gets cool rather than freezing) the more glucose gets trapped in the leaves. The more glucose in the leaves, the more brilliant the color.

There are, of course, a lot more variables to consider when looking at color- soil composition, local vegetation, amount of air pollution, etc. But you can watch the discovery for that.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It's Starting


As I've said, fall is my favorite season. It's not just the cooler temperature or the scent of harvested crops carried on the wind, or the apples or pumpkins or even the fact that Halloween is fast approaching. It's the colors.

It's like that painting that you absolutely love, tucked away in the corner of the gallery, that takes your breath away is suddenly everywhere you look. The entire world sets itself on fire with reds, oranges, yellows- everywhere you look. Just driving around town becomes a sightseeing adventure as you notice the beginnings of color peering out from the mass of green everywhere. It's amazing- it happens every single year and it still takes my breath away.

Right now is just the beginning. There are just bits of color hidden in the green everywhere you look. That giant tree has a spot- almost like someone took a picture and spilled ketchup on it. That new sapling has a tinge of purple that wasn't there before. There's a vine creeping up the side of that building that's bright red, but all the rest of its brethren are still green.

But day by day, the colors will spill out. That spot will turn into a large shape. All the saplings there will turn bright purple. Those vines will all light up, like Christmas lights. It's gonna happen fast.

And then, later on in the season, the ground will be littered with a blanket of browns and yellows and golds as the leaves fall and cover the ground. That field will be scattered with brightly colored leaves as they blow through the wind like glitter. The entire horizon will be an explosion of color- the sun reflecting off so many brightly colored surfaces you almost go blind when you walk out your door in the morning. It's truly awesome- in the original sense of the word.  And as I step outside and take a breath, my day gets just a little bit brighter.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Movie Night

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, holding the dvd case away like a father might hold a power tool from their eager child.

“Yes! Now would you just stick it in already!” she sighed, fluffing her security blanket around her in preparation.

“Ha! That’s what she said!” he laughed as he bent down to insert the disc. He didn’t see her rolling her eyes at him. “Now you know we can turn it off at any time if you get too scarred, ok?”

“Yes, dad. I’ll be sure to call you for a ride home if the party gets too rowdy,” she groaned.

He settled in next to her and clicked on the tv, eyeing her suspiciously. The screen flickered on and instantly a blood-curdling scream filled the speakers. She jumped beside him and he looked over with a grin.

“Seriously? Already?”

“Shut up!” she said, pushing herself over to snuggle up next to him. She tucked herself in behind his broad shoulder, holding his arm in front of her like a barrier against whatever had caused that scream.

He sat back, content that he’d made the right choice at the Redbox.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Joys Of Television

I am, if I’m gonna be totally honest with you, a tv addict. At the end of the day, when I’m tired and cranky and pissed off about work or just plain old fried I come home and sit down on the couch and turn on the tv. I don’t “snuggle up with a good book” or write or do anything else even remotely productive for my intellect. No, I sit on the couch and watch tv like a mindless slug.

Now, without being too defensive, I will say that a lot of the tv I watch is sophisticated tv. I’m not watching Jerry Springer all day. I’m watching The Wire. Boardwalk Empire. Mad Men. But at the end of the day, it’s still tv. I’d be benefiting more from reading. And I can’t help but want to punch people when they say they don’t own a tv.

But, since I’m accepting this fact about myself, I will freely admit that I am terribly fond of tv and would never willingly give mine up regardless of how my intellect might advance because of that.

One of the things that I love watching on tv is Halloween episodes. Many tv shows, not the sophisticated ones I mentioned but the popular ones that you can mindlessly indulge in, have Halloween episodes. Episodes in which costumes, decorations, and parties are paramount to getting the characters to do funny things. Episodes in which the writers were clearly looking for an excuse to shake things up in the regular line-up. Episodes in which my favorite elements or the holiday are emphasized by the characters I know and love.

My absolute favorite Halloween tradition celebrated by one of my most favorite tv shows is the Treehouse of Horror on the Simpsons every year. I count on that tradition like I count on candy and pumpkins- the holiday wouldn’t be right without it. I’ve been watching the Simpsons since it first appeared as a ten minute clip on the Tracey Ullman show and I’ve been watching the Treehouse of Horror since the first one aired in the second season. It was a staple of my childhood and has been a part of my Sunday night for my whole life. It is the best thing on tv around Halloweentime and I’ll be talking about it this year when it airs.

There are also a number of Halloween specials that air in the month of October. Like “The 100 Scariest Movie Moments” which counts down the top scares in scary movies. Horror movies are more abundant than usual and the classics (like Halloween) are on every year. The classic kid’s specials like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” and “Nightmare Before Christmas” are on every year. “Ghost Hunters” and “The Scariest Places on Earth” run marathons all month long and usually have live Halloween night specials. Not to mention all the made-for-tv movies that are on.

I, needless to say, lick it all up like whipped cream. Cause if there isn’t enough Halloween spirit in real life, there’s always tv.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Scariest Holiday

That’s what a friend of mine called Halloween. I never really thought of it that way but I can see where he’s coming from. Halloween is a time when all things scary are celebrated. They come out with new horror movies every October (the “SAW” series is well known, now it seems like “Paranormal Activity” is becoming a regular event.) There’s blood spatters in decorated windows, severed body parts laid out on tables and fake blood sold in every store. Haunted houses where people pay to have the crap scared out of them pop up everywhere.

I personally love all these darker aspects of the holiday but I can see where other people might not, and thus why it’s not more common for people to love Halloween. For example, I have friends who genuinely hate being scared. They avoid horror movies like the plague, make upset noises if you point out a macabre scene, and recount frightening experiences as traumatic events.

Fear is a pretty physical experience. The adrenaline, the tensed muscles, the hyperventilation, the cold sweat. We talk about it a lot in psychology as something to be limited or eliminated. So why would anyone choose to experience it?

For me, it’s enjoyable. Because I don’t live my life in a state of constant fear being scared is out of the ordinary. It’s something I consciously choose to do based on expectations. And the choice makes it fun. If I couldn’t control it- like if I had non-stop nightmares after seeing a horror movie like some of my friends do- I’m sure I wouldn’t enjoy it either.

I assume that if I was witness to a whole bunch of gruesome murders at the hands of some psycho serial killer in a hockey mask I wouldn’t want to go watch a movie about it. But my life is pretty stable so stuff like that is no more than idea- a fantasy. And that’s why it’s fun.

Plus, as my boyfriend must constantly remind me, zombies aren’t real. Nor are vampires, monsters, space aliens, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers or Freddie Kruger. (Which isn’t to say that if I went walking in the woods and stumbled into an abandoned cabin with a sign reading “Camp Crystal Lake” I would hang around, but you know what I’m saying.) All these fantastical things need a home. And that home is the scariest holiday.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Web Wars

A thousand times before the spider had meticulously weaved his web across the gap in the fence- connecting his silk row by row until the intricate tapestry was complete. And a thousand times before the man had destroyed it with a single swipe from a stick. Hours of work undone in an instant.

But the spider had only one task in his life- to catch prey and feed. And all the time spent in securing the trappings for this endeavor were never questioned, judged or considered futile.

The man had many other distractions, but never failed to notice the web. Every time his instantaneous anger lead him to pick up a nearby twig and undo the thing with a fierce whip of his wrist. The satisfaction was immediate, but brief.

And so the cycle continued. Time and again, the web was spun. And time and again, the man destroyed it. Spinning and whipping, locked in a constant battle.

Until one day, when the air had turned colder and the scent of harvest was in the air- there was a change. The spider had just finished his creation and was awaiting his first victim when the man came and beheld the web. He picked up a nearby stick and reached out to dash the obstruction away. Then he hesitated. He looked up his house- the pumpkins on his front step, the tombstones on his lawn. A spider’s web fit in quite well with the decorum; even he hadn’t chosen the location. So he put down the stick, walked around the pathway, and went inside.

The spider would never know why, for one month of every year, his web would be safe. But he sat on the side, awaiting his prey, and smiled.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hello, Cold!

There is something magical that happens this time of year. It’s a subtle thing, you might not even notice it at first. Your alarm goes off as it always does, you stumble into your clothes, brush your teeth in your half-conscious, zombie-like fashion, put in your contacts, and go downstairs. The puppy is vibrating with anticipation of being let out of his pen and can barely contain himself as you get your shoes on. You put his leash on, unlock the door, and step outside. You get halfway around the block before you notice it- you’re shivering.

It is so cold outside that not only is your light shirt not warm enough, but you need a jacket as well. And there’s a chill in the breeze, the kind that makes you want to run inside and hide under a nice, warm blanket. And those horrifically annoying cicadas which have been making a constant chorus of noise all day and all night for so long are gone. Replaced by the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves in the trees. You look up and you realize: fall is coming.

I love the cold. I love sweaters. I love jackets and scarves and gloves. I love that there’s a utilitarian purpose for knitting again. I love rosy cheeks and noses and needing to keep your hands in your pockets. I love that a cold breeze can draw a gasp from you. I love needing warm socks.

Fall is the best season for cold. The air is crisp, the sun is warm, the wind is blowing and there’s this scent in the air. Maybe it’s all the crops being harvested, maybe it’s the smell of the apples as they drop off the trees and get eaten by squirrels, maybe it’s all the baking that’s going on. All the icky discomfort of summer is gone but it’s still bright enough and warm enough to be outside. You may want a warm blanket at night as the sun sets earlier, but you know it’ll come out again the next day and warm you up.

There’s a feeling of peace that you don’t normally feel. Like a knowledge that you really are a part of this planet, this system that’s changing. You can imagine what it might have been like to truly live off the land, buzzing with excitement over all the bountiful crops being harvested. You can close your eyes and picture the landscape, forgetting all about the traffic jam in front of you or the massive to-do list waiting for you at work, even if just for a moment. I love this time of year.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On Things That Go "Bump" In The Night

And where would Halloween be without sound effects? I remember when I was a kid part of what made wandering through the cold, dark night in search of candy such a rush was the fact that, in addition to those older kids from down the block popping out from the bushes to scare the bejesus out of you, random screams and scrapping chains and a whole lot of other creepy sounds would erupt as you got closer to the houses with the best candy. (Cause the house with the best candy also had the best set up in terms of decorations and sound effects!)

You'd see that creepy red glow from down the block and the loud, piercing shriek of a banshee would let you know that there was something good waiting for you up around the bend. A frantic heartbeat. A squeaking dungeon door. A mournful howl. Maniacal laughter. The bubbling of a cauldron. Your whole body on edge, waiting for what will happen next. And then just as you were about to reach out and push the door bell that scarecrow in the chair on the porch jumped up with a "Boo" and outstretched arms. And you'd drop your pillow case and run for the hills. Yeah, those were the days.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Monster Mash

One of my favorite parts of the holiday is the music. Some people think Halloween music is hard to come by. I would argue that, if you listen, there's Halloween music everywhere. Michael Jackson's Thriller is clearly one of the best, and there's no way you can possibly argue that's not what that song was meant for. And Werewolves of London? Did they ever play that on the radio when it wasn't Halloween? And "Feed My Frankenstein"? When the hell else are you gonna listen to that? What about the "One Eyed, One Horned Flying Purple People Eater"? Think he thought that one up for Arbor Day? I don't think so.

For me personally I can't hear Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious" without thinking of Halloween. And good 'ol "Love Potion #9". And "They're Coming To Take Me Away" and "I was a Teenage Monster" and "I put A Spell On You" and "Abracadabra" and "Psycho Killer" and "Tubular Bells" and "Highway to Hell" and... it goes on and on. But my personal favorite? Monster Mash. Monster Mash may be my favorite song ever. Seriously.

I think because it is the single best known song of my favorite holiday and every single time I hear it I picture a bunch of monsters shakin' their groove thangs. There's a whole little animated mini-movie I can picture in my head- Dracula shaking his fist out of anger over the loss of his beloved Transylvania Twist, the zombies having fun along with wolfman and the crew, the crypt kicker five jamming all night long. I love it.

And I love the rest of the music that goes along with this awesome holiday. And I think there should be radio stations completely devoted to playing Halloween music throughout the month of October much the same way that massive amounts of radio stations morph into Christmas song brainwashing frequencies on November 1st. It's be a much better way to spend royalty money.

Monday, October 3, 2011

On Costumes

One of the best things about Halloween is the costumes. I personally have always been a huge fan of dressing up. One of the things I loved about my college were all the themed parties- 80’s dress parties, opposite sex parties (i.e. if you’re a chick you dress up like a dude and vice versa), dress up as your favorite anime character parties, Hawaiian shirt parties, prom… pretty much any excuse to dress up was a party worth going to. (And in fact- the selection of and getting into the costume was often far more exciting than the party itself.)

In short, costumes are great. It’s not only an opportunity to dress up but, to those who are really into it, it’s an opportunity to play a role. If you’re really devoted, finding the right costume isn’t just about what fits or what will look good on you, it’s about what role you want to play for that evening. The costume is a whole set of characteristics- speech, mannerisms, behavior- all of that changes when you put on the costume. A friend of mine in college dressed up as Silent Bob one Halloween. He said nothing all evening other than Silent Bob monologues collected from the movies. He would wait for the perfect opportunity and then bust out with one of his curse-laden mini-rants, returning to silence as soon as he’d finished. He spent most of the night staring intently at a cigarette he held in his open palm, attempting to force the thing to levitate. (Re-watch Mallrats if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) I had so much respect for the man I couldn’t even put it into words.

We all need a little pretend in our lives from time to time and we don’t get many opportunities to be people other than ourselves. If I can put on a costume and be more confident, aggressive, outgoing, gregarious, mysterious or just not myself for an evening than the whole night becomes that much more exciting. It’s an escape from the ordinary we don’t usually get in everyday life.

Plus, the history of the whole thing is just fascinating. The tradition, like most Halloween traditions, comes to us from the Celts. On Samhain, the Celtic new year, it was believed that the veil between this world and the land of the dead (called Tir nan Og) was at its thinnest. Spirits therefore could return from the land of the dead to visit with the living. For the most part this was a good thing and families would invite their deceased family members to the festivities by digging up their skulls, painting them festively, and seating them at the feasting table so as to be part of the celebrations. However, just as good spirits could return, so could evil ones. So, in order to protect their homes, some Celts would dress up in fearful costumes, make a menacing show of it, and parade away from the homes they hoped to protect by frightening away the evil spirits. (Like a big scary, dog might frighten away another dog by growling loudest.)

So costumes, and the role playing that comes with them, started as a necessity to protect oneself, loved ones, and home from evil spirits. Over the years and changes that have come from transferring to different cultures and continents it has eventually turned into the tradition we know today. But that idea of the power behind a costume to completely hide oneself is still there. And I can’t help but feel like some of that still translates in what we do today.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Time To Decorate

Decorations are one of the key ingredients of Halloween. Who doesn’t like an excuse to dress up their home? Hard-core devotees will go out- turning their kitchen into a mad scientist’s laboratory, their bathroom into a murderous crime scene and their living room into the creepiest haunted house around. I don’t go that in depth because I put up my decorations on the first of the month and as much as I’d like to spook the place up I still gotta live in it for a month. (Plus I’m pretty sure Buddy would eat up those fake spider webs quicker than I could place them and a dead puppy does not a creepy decoration make.)

My house is relatively subdued in comparison to- oh, I don’t know, Steven King’s house. But I’ve got a far share of pumpkins in my front garden, a Halloween wreath on the front door, and all manner of sign posted around my living room. There are some signs directing you to a nearby haunted house (or warning you of its proximity), sign of Halloween sweet shops where witches craft devilish treats or signs simply wishing you a happy Halloween. I’ve got a mini graveyard complete with several creepy tombstones and skulls and skeleton parts scattered about. I’ve decorated our corner tree with Halloween lights and garland. And there are pumpkins, skull bowls and other accouterments scattered about the tables. In the kitchen I’ve got Halloween pot holders, place mats, candy jars and bowls, cauldrons and a bat hanging from the overhead lights. And in the bathroom? Little Halloween hand towels. There is no corner that hasn’t been bedecked with something.

And, because I spend 40 hours every week outside my home (and because my boss gave me permission) my office is also decked out for the month. The walls are covered with pumpkins, skeletons, witches, vampires, ghosts, bats, cats and the occasional wish for a Happy Halloween. I’ve got a paper chandelier made to look like it was constructed of bones and skulls hanging from the ceiling. Orange pumpkin garlands overhand the doorway and a long black and orange pumpkin and bat streamer lines each wall. I can’t tell you how much better that’s gonna make every work day for the rest of the month!

And today, as I spent my time putting up all these great decorations, I played my favorite Halloween music. I wish the damned radio stations would get it through their heads and play Halloween music for the month. It seems unreasonable not to, seeing as they devote so many other stations to Christmas music starting November 1st. I know there aren’t as many songs specifically devoted to Halloween, but if you get just a little creative and factor in creepy songs as well, you’re more than covered. (The Police’s “Every Step you Take”, for example, is clearly about a stalker telling you he’s out to get you. See? Creepy, and totally appropriate.) Thankfully Pandora is smart enough to have made a station of these songs and since I have my phone with me wherever I go I’m set.

All in all- it’s been a good day. I am nothing if not excited for all the traditions, celebrations and activities coming up this month. Yay Halloween!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

31 Days of Halloween

Do you ever notice how time seems to speed up at the end of the year? The closer it gets to the new year, the faster the days seem to speed by. This is due mostly to the seemingly non-stop maze of celebrations and stress. Christmas starts at the beginning of November, nearly completely overshadowing Thanksgiving and turning the entirety of the last two months of the year into a never ending stream of commercials, overeating, family gatherings, themed songs and decorations known collectively as "the holidays".

The one thing that seems to be still sacred in this mess is Halloween. It's got enough hype of its own that the amorphous man-eating holiday blob is delayed until November 1st. As someone who counts Halloween as their favorite holiday I am incredibly grateful for this.

Grateful and determined to make every moment of the next 31 days count. So, to appease my own selfish needs, I am going to devote the next 30 days to all things Halloween. Activities that I’m doing to celebrate, reasons why the holiday is so great, some themed short stories, and some discussions of my novel for NaNoWriMo this year which, appropriately, is about vampires. For those of you who love this holiday like I do, stay tuned! (And for those who don’t, well… maybe I'll see you again in November.)