It’s that time of year again, when the mildest of people are wearing their Nightmare Before Christmas T-shirts in banks and doctors’ offices. In my weekly Zumba class, a soft-spoken man who always stands near the back of the room had covered his head with a blood-splattered pillow case. Everyone, it seems, loves the chills and thrills of Halloween. Latin Americans have the right idea in their celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, a day in which to conquer one’s fear of death by mocking its excesses and remembering its victims. In L.A. it’s easy to find grinning calaveras (skeletons) and sugar skulls, along with candles and eccentric altars dedicated to loved ones who are no more.
My former boss, B-movie maven Roger Corman, made much of his reputation on classy (though low-budget) horror films like House of Usher and The Tomb of Ligeia, based on the scary stories of Edgar Allan Poe. He also detoured into horror comedies like Little Shop of Horrors and Bucket of Blood. Some of his modern-dress horror films, like 1959’s The Wasp Woman and 1963’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes addressed one of the period’s genuine fears by focusing on the dangers of science run amok.
In fact, as horror-movie scholars (yes, they exist!) have pointed out, horror films succeed best when they capture the dread lurking within the public mind. Just as each era has its own bugaboos, it has its own preferred approach to horror. Just after World War II, which had ended with the unleashing of atomic power, horror movies naturally reflected a general fear of the A-Bomb. Such films as Godzilla (1954) explicitly tied their unstoppable monsters to fallout from the Atomic Age. The Fifties were also a time when the need for social conformity seemed to be spreading its own kind of poison. That’s why Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) resonated with the public at large.
By the 1960s, with social unrest on the rise, it’s no wonder that Night of the Living Dead (1968) struck a chord. Filmmaker George Romero has always said that the casting of a black actor in the chief good-guy role was not intended to send a social message. (On Romeo’s ultra-low-budget production, Duane Jones was simply the best man for the job.) But the fact that Jones’ character, mistaken for a zombie, is shot dead by cops trying to re-establish law and order spoke loudly to audiences in an era marked by interracial stand-offs.
In 1978, horror found a new home. The horror film had long been associated with creepy castles, or else with gritty urban environments. But in John Carpenter’s Halloween, horror invaded white-picket-fence suburbia. The message (as reiterated in later films like A Nightmare on Elm Street) was that no one is safe anywhere.
When I was Roger’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons in the early 1990s, vampire stories had come into fashion. (See Coppola’s 1992 Dracula and our own To Sleep with a Vampire, among others.) And why not? AIDS was raging, and the vampire’s bite suggested symbolically a disease transmitted through blood. Now, at least on television, we seem to be back to zombies. I’m not quite sure why they’re the horror story of the moment. But (without casting any aspersions), I suspect that those poor bedraggled souls flooding into Europe from the Middle East must appear -- to those who don’t know their story and don’t speak their language -- as a mindless invading horde. For refugees like these, I guess, Halloween is a daily occurrence. Without, of course, all the candy.
And boo to you, too!