Well, it looks like it’s that time again… the leaves are falling from the trees, the Government’s mucking about with the clocks again using those shady Scottish farmers as their scapegoats, and Tesco’s is full of pumpkins. Yup, it’s Halloween, which means I’m getting besieged by researchers from BBC and Five news desperate to interview someone, anyone, yes that geek with the horror films website will do, about horror.
But my problem is that Halloween isn’t really up my alley. It’s just too… well, too American, if I’m honest. And yes, I’m aware that it’s a Celtic tradition which originated in the UK etc. But Halloween as we know it today is all Trick or Treat. It’s something we used to do, forgot about, let the Americans have, then got all excited when they let us have it back. Like Ricky Gervais.
There is also the very simple fact that the stuff I know about – the British Horror Film – doesn’t really have any connection with Halloween. I have racked my brains trying to come up with a name of a British film which features October 31st as its main plot device, and I honestly can’t think of one. So frankly, as an “expert discussing Halloween” I’d be about as much use as Anton DuBecque giving advice on how to keep a career in the media. Or Jordan giving advice on how to live a quiet and dignified life away from the media spotlight. Or (insert hilarious topical reference here). In other words, not much use at all.
My earliest memories of Halloween as a young boy growing up in Staffordshire was that we “didn’t really do it”, but Charlie Brown did, with tales of dressing up as ghosts, bullying people into giving you sweets, and the “Great Pumpkin”. As time has gone on, this part of American culture has inveigled its way into our culture as something we seem to put up with more than actively enjoy, but it has definitely kept its American roots. So when we dress up for Halloween, we dress up as Boris Karloff as (Universal’s) Frankenstein’s Monster, Bela Lugosi as (Universal’s) Dracula, the Scream bloke, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Freddy Kreuger, Jason Vorhees… all those strangely cuddly serial killers American cinema has given us over the years. No-one ever really takes up the British horror baton when working out a Halloween costume… and with good reason. We don’t really “do” family friendly, instantly recognisable, psychotic icons in British cinema. I can only think of two. One is Pinhead from the Anglo-US goreathon Hellraiser (British writer, filmed here, someone re-dubbed everyone with American accents therefore making it quite un-British), and the other is Alex from A Clockwork Orange (which I mention because Bart Simpson once dressed up as this character in a Halloween episode of The Simpsons, but let’s face it, it is still a reference few people would actually get, and who wants to wander around their estate looking like Liza Minelli in Cabaret wearing a white boiler suit and enormous codpiece? Also, Alex in A Clockwork Orange is a devious teenage tramp-beating rapist, and pretending to be that kind of character in today’s “broken Britain” can only really lead to trouble).
Are there any examples we could use from the large pantheon of British horrors? Well, Hammer gave us some iconic monsters, but they had basically nicked them all from American cinema, so they’re out. You could don a big fuzzy wig, mustard roll-neck sweater and tweed jacket and go as Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man, remembering to set fire to a passing policeman as you go from door to door. Or, ladies – why not borrow dad’s chamois leather and go as Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC? Oh, go on. Please. There’s Ingrid Pitt in Countess Dracula (although people might mistake your costume for The Queen Of Hearts from Alice In Wonderland, rather spoiling the idea), or an undead biker from Psychomania (although you really need a bike to pull this one off). Or how about asking your mate who works at Comet if you can borrow his work uniform, carry a cricket bat and pretend to be Shaun from Shaun of the Dead? Actually, that’s not a bad idea. He might be a bit annoyed when he sees the ketchup you’ve splashed all over it though (“You’ve got red on you…”).
Or you could just not turn up at all and pretend to be the terrifying invisible force from The Haunting. But perhaps that’s just the kind of thing I’d do, miserable party-pooper that I am.
As usual, I have digressed. I said at the beginning that there wasn’t really any reference in British horror to Halloween, but I was lying. There has been one genuine example, and it was so terrifying that it was only ever shown once, led to a huge outcry in the media, and even, allegedly, one suicide. And that groundbreaking, pant-pooping televisual experience was something called Ghostwatch.
In these days of Most Haunted taking over the telly for the entire week (week!) before Halloween, you young ‘uns might be surprised to here that it was parodied, surpassed and forever eclipsed years before it actually appeared. Back in 1992, in fact.
Ghostwatch was shown by the BBC on Halloween night as a “live” event, hosted by proper TV personalities. The premise was simple – they would present live from a supposedly haunted house, and record what happened there. But this being a “mockumentary” (as opposed to the grounded scientific fact-based modern example of Most Haunted, ho-ho) what starts off as a simple tale of fake poltergeists and naughty children becomes something much more sinister, as the crew discover there is a genuinely terrifying force at work in the house and surrounding area.
I saw Ghostwatch on its original transmission as a supposedly worldly-wise 22 year old, and even though I knew it was a drama, it absolutely scared the bejesus out of me and has burned images onto my brain I will never completely remove. Unlike 99 per cent of the UK population, I have also seen it since – in 2002 the BFI brought Ghostwatch out on DVD, I got it as a Christmas present that year (cheers, love) and I still find it hard to watch. It is a deeply unsettling experience.
Also, for anyone who enjoys the dubious delights of Most Haunted (and who doesn’t?), there are some interesting parallels between the two shows. Ex Blue Peter presenter doing all the hard work? Check. (Yvette Fielding now, but back then it was the much more attractive proposition of a young Sarah Greene). Ineffectual husband of said star lurking in the background? Check. (Insert tasteless joke about Mike Smith’s helicopter here). Faded chat show host doing all the links? Check. (Michael Parkinson in Ghostwatch, and Paul Ross on Most Haunted. Well, his brother’s a faded chat show host, so that counts). Sadly, Most Haunted doesn’t appear to have room on its cast list for a former Red Dwarf star, but Ghostwatch did – its roving reporter was a far too perky Craig Charles.
Ghostwatch also makes use of all the technology available at the time – CCTV, portable cameras, motion detectors, temperature sensors … erm, that’s it. But you get the idea.
But Ghostwatch is a drama, and Most Haunted (allegedly) isn’t, so where Ghostwatch scores over its successor is that things happen. And those things are terrifying. The children in the house claim to be haunted by a ghost called “Pipes” who lurks behind their bedroom curtains, (so called because he makes a knocking sound on the house’s central heating system), and we do eventually get to see him… in a series of almost subliminal shots. The word “Pipes” still terrifies me to this day.
Scary noises can be heard getting louder and louder, and by the end at least one much-loved children’s television star is brutally killed and it looks like the entire nation is about to be taken over through their TV screens. All very Quatermass, and essential viewing for anyone with a love of genuinely scary TV.
I don’t want to give too much away, but if you do get to see it, keep an eye on the crowd behind Craig Charles, the corner of the bedroom by the curtains, and the understairs cupboard. And try not to kick the cat afterwards.
Now then, I’m off to switch the lights off and hide behind the sofa so the trick-or-treaters can’t see me. We don’t do Halloween. Christmas, that’s when we indulge in scary films in this country!