Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Haunted Front Porch

One skill I've been honing is the art of genuinely scaring people. I don't mean what people nowadays call "scary"- huge, loud, in-your-face screaming bloody murder with gore everywhere, eliciting a knee-jerk response- I mean real, honest-to-goodness FEAR.
You see, most modern horror movies I've seen- as well as most elaborate Halloween decorations and haunted house attractions- seem to think that the more screams you get, the scarier it is. Well, I suppose in the broadest sense, that sort of thing IS scary... but some butt-ugly brownish-red heavy metal album rubber mask jumping out at you and making loud noises is about as subtle as saying "Boo!". Also, it seems like your easiest target is teenage girls, who scream at the slightest thing, and your core audience is people who have become numb to the scares and bloodthirsty for a morbid thrill.
What the horror genre today lacks most is subtlety and atmosphere. Fear is a primitive emotion- one that takes control of the simplest of creatures. It's a rather strange formula that I've conjured up, but once you wrap your brain around it, it makes sense: Since fear is primitive, the things that scare you most are primitive. In order to be subtle, you must be minimalist, rather than over-the-top. Think about what scared you as a child: strange, uncertain noises, dark shadows, blood, sharp objects, aggression, isolation... all of these are the forbidden, the primal, the unexplainable, the seemingly impossible, the unknown. What happens nowadays is that people focus on the payoff- the scream- so everyone believes that they must make it louder, crazier, more precarious, more extreme in order to have louder screams in larger quantities.

Therein lies the problem- the scream is the RELEASE. Screaming relieves the tensions built up after waiting for something to happen. This is actually something I figured out after watching The Tingler. Fear is actually an anticipatory feeling, and the scream isn't the fear itself. That, my ghoulish friends, is what I focus on when I work in the horror genre- creating an atmosphere that suggests that something is terribly wrong and is about to jump out and get you. I kind of let my "victims" decide what to scream at.
Since the horror genre tends to be in a visual medium, I've had some difficulty doing it in prose, although I seem to do well in poetry. But I really shine- even if I do say so myself- when I decorate for Halloween and dress up.

Halloween, to me, is a time to indulge your naughty side a little bit. I don't mean sinning, like dressing suggestively or glorifying violence- I mean your inner mischief maker. Making a little bit of harmless trouble- that is, scaring people and delighting in macabre humor- is what Halloween is all about for me. It's all about fun!
As you may have guessed, I'm a traditionalist for the most part when it comes to the horror genre. I like my vampires Bela Lugosi-flavored, and my werewolves beastly. My family takes this approach when we decorate for Halloween- our house is becomes a good old-fashioned haunted house. We've tweaked, developed, and finely-tuned the way we do it over the years, and you know what? It works really darn well. A little too well, in fact.

We start with the larger elements, and one of the key ingredients is something that my mom came up with years ago: spiderwebs made out of black crepe paper rolls. We put it up a couple of hours before dark, so the wind will shred it up a bit, but not too much. Some of it dangles down towards the trick-or-treaters to brush up against their faces.

Next we add a bit of nature to the scene: going all around the corner, we gather as many dead sycamore leaves as we can, and sprinkle them all over the porch and all around it in a naturalistic manner. My mom buys a bouquet at least around the beginning of the month specifically to let it die and whither, which we then spread on the porch. Leaves, twigs, and other miscellaneous dead plant bits give it a woodsy look, and the trick-or-treaters will step on them, making them crunch. Sometimes we pick things that'll give off a smell- although scented candles or incense does just fine.

For several years we made our jack-o'-lanterns with pre-made designs, which tends to be dull because everyone else uses them. After that, we went on to pop culture references that nobody would get. Finally, we've recently decided to stick to totally original designs in a traditional style- which means triangular eyes and jagged teeth are the norm. The emotion of the faces are very important, and must reflect the frightening look we're aiming for. Coincidentally, we've wound up making one passive, and one aggressive, sort of like the comedy and tragedy masks- one tends to be mean, angry or devious, and the other tends to be sad, scared, or in deep trouble. For example, a couple of years ago one had a Tim Burton-esque wicked grin, and last year the other was wailing as its face was melting. It's also important that the pumpkin you choose has the appropriate shape for the proportions of the face, and even the emotion you're depicting. Think of your pumpkin as an actual head, rather than a canvas.
(Of course, many artists go far beyond that and treat the pumpkin almost as if they were blocks of marble, creating very elaborate pumpkins. That's all well and good, but we don't have the carving abilities to do that, and we prefer to make a simple statement.)

Lighting is very important, too- normally jack-o'-lanterns are enough to give that dim, German Expressionist effect, but we also include some flickering skeleton light garlands, and more importantly... a green porchlight. We only turn it on once a year on Halloween night, giving the scene a ghastly green glow. Every element is important, and must add to the effect.

The smaller details give the trick-or-treaters something to look at once they've approached our door. These are mostly toys and small props we've collected over the years. Most of them are skulls or skeletons and spiders. That happened entirely on accident, but it's nice to have a theme, don't you think? On the door itself hangs a cardboard smiling skull with the caption "Trick or Treat!" under it, which we figure is something of a cutesy reward for making it all the way to the door.

Finally, what quite possibly tops it all off is the sound. Many people use sound effects or music CDs to enhance their decorations, but more often than not they sound artificial and are one step away from being a Ghostbusters video game. We prefer to be naturalistic, and we achieve that by using a recording of real live wolf howls.
This recording came off of a LP that our grandparents currently supposedly own, and was primitively converted to a cassette tape. Not only does it include some chilling and very deep-throated howls, it has pups playing with each other, and the crunching of a pack enjoying a meal. This was what we used for many, many years, and it suited us just fine. The trouble was that cassette tapes degrade rather quickly, so a lot of extraneous noise and hum appeared over the years.
This problem was solved once we converted it to a digital file and removed all the noise and hum with Adobe Audition- it hasn't sounded so good in years! We burned the final result onto a CD, and that's what we use now.

So once you knock on the door and yell "Twick or tweet!", what do you get? Well, our mother has taken over the treat giving duties, and she dresses up for the occasion. She's "the mistress of the house", a ghostly pale-skinned elegant woman with a dark dress and jewelry, inspired mostly by Morticia Addams. She opens the door and smoothly says "Good evening", and this tends to be what makes the kids scream and run away for some reason.
Do you remember that payoff I mentioned? Well, here the kids will release the tension built up by our decorations by screaming, if they're effected enough. Luckily this only happens two or three times. If they stay and are actually wearing a costume, they get the candy.
We try to give away the best candy on the block. Although we certainly can't afford full-size candy bars or boxes of fudge, we try to get only the good stuff, and we always get a wide variety- hard candy, chewy candy, and chocolate. We don't give away apples or raisins or peanuts or pretzels or any of that stuff. Halloween is indulgence time, for crying out loud! I mean, what's Christmas without milk and cookies?

Now, the problem today is that there seems to be two camps of young'uns. The kind that's pampered and wimpy, surrounded by cute and safe and Casper the Friendly Ghost- and then there's the kind that seems to be uncaring and dispassionate, possibly because they were taught to be bitter and cynical far too early in their lives.
What happens is that far too often we've seen children pass by the house, sometimes almost as if we were invisible. We can't always understand why, but occasionally it's clear that it's because our house is too scary. I don't know how much of a reputation we have with our neighbors, but based on every trick-or-treating trip we've taken, I can safely say that we're the scariest house on the block. We tried standing outside and inviting people in, and even turning the lights on inside, but nothing really increased traffic. I think too many houses decorate with cutesy smiley brightly-colored stuff, with smiling happy ghosts and Frankenstein monsters and whatnot.
Even more frustrating is that a lot of kids, especially young teenagers, seem to have no holiday spirit and just go around demanding free candy. They're not wearing costumes, they don't say "trick or treat", they don't say "thank you". There are rules to this game, people! Santa doesn't give gifts to naughty children! You gotta put at least a little bit of effort and wear a rubber mask or throw a white sheet over your face, and then we're supposed to reward you for your adorable/scary costume and, in our case, your bravery for coming to the door. Where's the fun in going around the neighborhood at night if you're not playing pretend? Don't you want to indulge in a little bit of fantasy for once in your life? You're better off just buying a bag of candy and sitting on the couch to eat it instead of walking around the block for like forty minutes.
Maybe it's the word "free" that gets people off their butts at all.

If being asked "Aren't you too old to be trick-or-treating?" weren't bad enough, you just have to making staying home a letdown, too, huh? Anyway, this frustrated and depressed our mom quite a bit, especially when one cruel parent started laughing at their screaming and crying child, so we've decided to not decorate this year. I'm not sure if we'll do it again unless we have proof that the local kids have shaped up, or move someplace else with more enthusiastic/braver children.

In the meantime, we'll make up for it by going to Disneyland this year. I wish I could wear a costume, but only small children are allowed to do so, and adults can only wear them if they go to a special event in California Adventures, which we can't afford. It'll still be loads of fun, I'm sure, but we won't have a chance to immerse ourselves in a fantasy of our own creation- one that we've become so proud of, but no one seems to appreciate.

Boy, this entry turned out to be a downer, didn't it?

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