I know it sounds kinda scary to say, but Halloween is my favorite American holiday. Or at least it tops the list of Holidays-With-No-Purpose — that is, celebrations that we all celebrate for no reason other than celebrating something. I mean, does anybody really care what Halloween’s all about?
I realize there are lots of explanations for why we “blockheads” carve pumpkins, dress up in costumes, and parade around the neighborhood doing tricks or getting treats (just click here or here, for examples). But knowing these facts has never really enhanced or impeded my, and now my kids’, enjoyment of this annual to-do. It’s not like the 4th of July or Thanksgiving (my favorite among the authentic holidays, by the way), where it’s as equally important to know the story behind the holiday as it is to celebrate it. But Halloween? Who gives a dead cat what it’s all about? You don’t need to. Just put on your William Shatner mask, go get some candy, and have fun.
That’s part of the attraction of Halloween, too. There’s really nothing to it, other than planning what to wear and doing a little decorating — in fact, it’s the only holiday where you are encouraged to show off, rather than hide, all the cobwebs and dusty furniture in your house. That’s basically it, though. There are no gifts involved (unless you count being “boo’d” by relatives). No big meals to prepare (though we like to wolf down “pigs in a blanket” before trick-or-treating). No guests to receive or clean up after (except, of course, the parade of friends, neighbors, and other kindred spirits stopping by briefly for a handful of whatever it is you have to offer).
What’s the main reason I enjoy celebrating Halloween? It’s simple: I like feeling spooky. I suppose I have a preternatural affinity for the supernatural. I’ve always thought it weird how much I am drawn to the inexplicable and weird (even the word weird). As a boy, for instance, the first thing I turned to in the comics was the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” And I devoured as many Hardy Boys and other similar books involving mystery and suspense as I could find; later, as I got older, my tastes ranged from the sublime, such as the adventures of Sherlock Holmes (especially, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”), to the bizarre — stories like “Hop-Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe or “Skin” and “Lamb to the Slaughter,” by Roald Dahl.
My afterschool TV-watching habits followed a similar pattern: reruns of “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” held me rapt — though I always needed to watch an episode of “The Addams Family” as an ooky, kooky antidote (RIP, Vic Mizzy, we will miss thee). Even dopey episodes of “The Munsters” offered enough of a taste of the (though campy) macabre. Anything, I suppose, to avoid doing homework.
Perhaps that’s the most beguiling aspect of Halloween for me: participating in an activity that involves very little activity, for no real purpose — like sitting in the near-darkness, conning over a scary story by the flickering light of a freshly carved jack-o-lantern, with a bit of creepy music playing in the background and a glassful of some tasty fall beverage in hand.
If that sounds like the recipe for a fiendishly fun evening, then read on. Following are some suggestions — a grab-bag of new, adult-strength goodies, really — for enjoying Halloween the Scribbleskiff way. Enjoy!
Something to read:
Vampire Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These days, when it comes to pop culture, vampires are the new wiz kids. Harry Potter and his sorcerer friends have been superseded by a series of books, movies, and TV shows — from Twilight and The Vampire Diaries to “True Blood” — that prove it’s cool to be a ghoul. But vampires were not always depicted as handsome, brooding teen heartthrobs with a dangerous overbite. In fact, as shown in this new collection of stories — most written before Bram Stoker had unearthed his infamous caped Count — the blood-sucking undead were anything but appealing and didn’t always take human form. Conan Doyle’s vampires include a heat-draining Eskimo spirit, a botanical monster, a reanimated mummy, and a parasite, to name a few. Better known as the author of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle reportedly wrote many short stories involving supernatural and occult forces that were published but not very popular in his day. This book brings together nine of his lesser-known, though no less entertaining, vampire stories, including several featuring his famous detective (“The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” is my favorite) that will please fantasy fiction fans and Conan Doyle loyalists alike.
Death Becomes Them, Alix Strauss. This entertaining new volume of social criticism, subtitled “Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious,” takes an up-close and personal look at the cult of celebrity suicide by examining the deaths of some of the most influential cultural figures of the past 100 years. By honing in on the final days in the lives of people as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, Ernest Hemingway, Abbie Hoffman, Spalding Gray, and Kurt Cobain, Strauss can explore society’s morbid fascination with the act of suicide in general and provide an intimate portrait of the sad and troubled lives each of them lead. I suspect that, if he could, Conan Doyle would have this book on his night stand.
Something to hear:
Embryonic, The Flaming Lips. The “Flips,” as they are affectionately known among fans, are back with another offering of their unique brand of freaky/funny/funky/fearless psych-pop, and Embryonic may be their most inventive and disturbingly beautiful releases in awhile. If nothing else, it’s certainly the best Halloweenish album of the year — from the unsettling “childbirth” imagery on the cover to the wide-ranging weirdness of its output. It’s a heady witches brew of styles and sounds: I can hear traces of everyone from Isaac Hayes to Iron Maiden, Meddle-era Pink Floyd to The Doors, Animal Collective, and Sonic Youth, along with natural, found, and otherwise strange sounds, such as singer Wayne Coyne clearing his throat or that annoying, clicking interference cell phones cause on loudspeakers (I thought it was me at first). Sometimes all this occurs at once, as on “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” and “See the Leaves.” But the band’s experience and talent guide them through this seeming maze of loose band-jams to find the right balance between the cacophonous and quiet moments, the manufactured noises and the delicate melodies, producing one of the most engaging, various, and enjoyable records to greet my pointy little ears this year. Be sure to splurge for the deluxe version, which offers, among other things, four bonus songs (including “UFOs Over Baghdad,” which is one of their tenderest since “Yoshimi…”) that serve as a sort of counterpoint to the chaos.
“My Body’s a Zombie for You,” Dead Man’s Bones, Dead Man’s Bones. I also want to mention this single, from a self-titled collaboration between actor Ryan Gosling, his friend Zach Shields, and several groups of musicians — including the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir here. Sounding a little like a clash between Roxy Music and The Mouseketeer Club, it’s a fun, seasonally appropriate doo-wop romp about supernatural love that will have you cheering “Z-O-M-B-I-E!” along with the kids at the end.
And be sure to check out the latest Scribbleskiff playlist at 8tracks.com (just click here and open in a new tab or window). It’s a Halloween-themed mix of 40 songs, old and new, designed to leave you bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
Something to drink:
The Great Pumpkin, Clipper City Brewing Co., and Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Weyerbacher Brewery. Despite the (growing) number of pumpkin ales on the market, I’m still not a fan of this style of beer. Many of the ones I’ve tried were thin, bitter, and dominated by only one or two spices (think cinnamon-flavored light beer). But these two royals are the best of the patch. Both are brewed with pumpkin in the mash, instead of a flavored additive, along with heaps of malts and hops, to produce a bold (8%-plus alcohol), hearty, warming tonic that looks and smells as sweet as pie. I’d also recommend Punkin’ Ale from Dogfish Head, which is slightly subtler and great for sipping as you sample your little urchins’ haul. Another noteworthy candy accompaniment is hard cider, which I reviewed in this space last year.
Other malt-based beverages that are eerily good this time of year include “Kentucky Mulled Cider,” using this recipe I received from Maker’s Mark, and a snifter of Sortilege, a liqueur made from Canadian whisky and maple syrup that I recently got as a gift (it’s like candy in a glass). I’m also dying to try an Obituary Cocktail, which features the E. A. Poe-approved elixir Pernod Absinthe and is, I hope, almost as alluring as amontillado poured straight from the cask.
So, there you have it, a half-dozen recommendations for spooking up your Halloween night. They may not help explain why you should celebrate this ancientest of holidays, but they should help make it more spirited if you do.
As always, tell us what you think. Do you have your own Halloween rituals? What’s your favorite spooky story or song? Is pumpkin ale the best drink for washing down a mouthful of candy? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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Originally published October 27, 2009.