Happy Halloween!

I’m back from Charlotte and the Novello Festival, which was a really, really good time. I got to hang out with some fabulous authors/illustrator–Nikki Grimes, Jeff Smith, Colleen Panatore, Eric Kimmel, Tony Abbott, Pat Mora, James Ransome, and Wendelin Van Draanen–all of whom inspired me and cracked me up in equal measure. I had time with old friends and made some new friends. (How very Girl Scouts motto that sounds…)

And, of course, I got to meet some of you guys, which was about 12 kind of awesome. Thanks to everyone who came out to the Charlotte Public Library, thanks for asking such terrific questions, and thanks to all the teens I met at the various schools I visited. And a big thanks for not taping a “Kick Me” sign to my back. It takes so long to get that tape off your clothes.

So, it’s Halloween! Hooray! My favorite holiday! I have already eaten my weight in mini-Almond Joys and Reese’s peanut butter cups, which are like the Oxycontin of candy, I swear. I could vomit and it’s not even afternoon.

Speaking of Halloween, http://www.moviefone.com has been running their Best Horror Movies of All Time list this month. I live for this kind of stuff. I love horror. A love a good creepfest. I started watching “Dark Shadows” when I was five. I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales horror comics as a kid. And I watched all the classics–“Frankenstein” “Bride of Frankenstein” “The Wolfman” “The Mummy.” I was addicted to the Hammer Horror films of the late sixties and early seventies, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, (the ones where the women all have beehive hairdos and black eyeliner–very Amy Winehouse–even though they live in 1800’s-era Europe…oy.) After school, I would curl up in a chair in our living room with some unnaturally-colored snack food and watch Vincent Price movies like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” (Yeah, this was back when you could come home after school and eat Twinkies and watch TV and generally be neglected by all adults instead of having to cram for the PSAT to the Tenth Power while also playing twelve sports and putting together a portfolio for middle school. That is just so wrong. More Twinkies, less pressure. That’s my war cry and I’m sticking to it.)

Anyway, back to my misspent youth. My favorite TV show for a while was something called “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” (not the cheesy remake but the original with the wonderful Darren McGavin) in which Chicago reporter Karl Kolchak was always getting mixed up in supernatural events. (If you’ve watched “The X-Files” and “Supernatural” you can see the influence.) I also watched Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” religiously. Sigh.

One of my favorite Halloweens involved spending the evening at the home of friends in Stonington, CT, reading ghost stories by candlelight. When Barry and I were leaving late that night, we had to walk out to our car down a dark, narrow lane shrouded in fog, and I really got why a lot of great ghost stories take place in New England.

I remember going to see “When a Stranger Calls” (the original) with my BFF and coming home to an empty house. I babysat a lot back then, and the movie scared the bejesus out of me. I’m in the bathroom brushing my teeth, and I heard this loud thunk on the other side of the bathroom door. I threw myself at the bathroom door and kept my weight against the door, and when I saw myself in the mirror, I was completely pale. I honestly thought I might pass out from fear. I didn’t leave the safety of the bathroom till my mom got home about thirty minutes later. I still don’t know what that noise was, though. Creepy.

To me, there are few things more enjoyable than sitting in a darkened movie theatre with your collar turned up (to keep your neck safe from the monsters), your skin prickly, and all your senses on alert, just waiting to be scared. So, in honor of Halloween, I submit my roundup of favorite horror movies, subject to change when I remember others, of course.

“The Omen”
This movie terrified me. Damien was so creepy. And Billie Whitelaw as the nanny had me needing a Depends. I remember thinking, okay, a serial killer you can run away from or outmsart. But how do you outsmart the antichrist? How do you fight the supernatural? That’s not a fair fight. This very idea informed a short story I wrote, “Bad Things,” in an anthology that’s out this month called, THE RESTLESS DEAD.

“The Exorcist”
Truth be told, I saw this first at the drive-in with my brother, so it lost a lot of its terror factor right there. Also, I’d already read the parody in MAD magazine. But then I rented it and watched it in my living room, alone, and I’m telling you, I couldn’t even go to bed afterward. I was afraid to move. I lay on my couch with one eye open all night, and even when it was morning, I still didn’t feel right. Stephen King once wrote a terrific essay in which he argued that “The Exorcist” was a reaction to the counterculture–to parents feeling as if their kids were out of control. “Possessed” in essence. I wonder if that’s why so many horror movies of the eighties featured hockey-mask-wearing guys hacking up snotty teens at summer camp. The parents’ revenge? “Better straighten up, kids, or the bogeyman’ll get ya.” Sort of fits the “Just Say No” era.

“Rosemary’s Baby”
I remember this being one of the times my mother actually said no to a movie. No way. Too scary. So the first time I saw this movie, I was already living in New York City and had seen the legendary Dakota, that tragic building, up close, and could really understand how creepy it was. The film offers great commentary on so many different things–marriage, motherhood, American ambition, society, religion, sex, politics. And Roman Polanski really knows how to get under your skin. (Years later, I read the book…while pushing my son’s baby carriage in the park. I’m sure that made for a happy snapshot.) Anyway, this is probably my favorite horror movie–the benchmark for all tingly movies.

Dario Argento’s masterpiece takes place at a school for dancers in Europe. The place is beyond creepy and is surrounded by a thick forest so that it’s virtually impossible to escape. It’s run by a real prison warden of a headmistress, played by Joan Bennett looking like a fierce drag queen. And what, exactly, is going on at night? And why are the girls all dying in gruesome, but extremely fashionable, ways? Because they’re Italian and fabulous! I don’t usually do gory, but the gore in this is pretty spectacular in terms of art direction. I think some of my inspiration for Spence came from seeing this movie.

“The Wolfman”
From the claustrophobic vaguely European streets to the foggy moors scenes and all the sexual undertones, this film still packs a wallop. And I always felt so sorry for Lon Chaney.

Still terrifying. I saw this in the theatre in Corpus Christi, TX, with my friend Donna Hoffman. When the alien popped out of John Hurt’s stomach, I actually laughed. I thought, “This is total cheese-o-rama.” Yeah, I ate those words a little later when I was nearly under my seat with fright. The sense of dread and paranoia that builds up is incredible, and that moment in the pod when Sigourney realizes she’s got a stowaway…gulp. I once participated in a live action game of “Alien” in London’s West End that scared the absolute crap out of me. I thought it would be a cheesy, “you are the crew” reenactment, and I ended up practically needing a pants change. At one point, that Geiger-alien stepped out and surprised me, and in my absolute terror, I fell backward off a bannister-less landing, falling about four feet, cracking my head on the concrete floor below. I probably had a serious concussion, which I ignored, because I was so terrified I could only run. *shudders*

“The Ring”
It doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you think about it afterward, but who cares about that when you’ve got the image of Samara to haunt your dreams? I swear when I wake up in the middle of the night I can still see her crawling out of that well, and it’s enough to make me pull the covers up to my chin and close my eyes really, really tight. Stay in the well, Samara. Stay in the well. And don’t play any strange video tapes, people.

“When a Stranger Calls”
If you have ever been a babysitter, this one strikes hard. The movie bogs down a bit in the middle, becomes too much of a character study, IMHO. But the first twenty minutes or so, when Jill the babysitter is in the house wondering about those freaky phone calls, and the shot where she gets the info that the calls are coming from inside the house? AHHHHHHH!!!!! (Once, I was house-sitting for some friends, and heard something coming from upstairs. And what did I do? Did I leave the house and call someone? Did I run screaming? No. I did what every stupid idiot in every horror movie does while you scream that they are stupid idiots–I walked up the stairs saying, “Hello? Hello?” Only I had as my trusty weapons a spatula and a frying pan. Like what the hell did I think I was going to do with those? “Oh, hi, Mr. Supernatural Serial Killer. How do you like your eggs?” Sheesh. It’s a wonder I’ve lived this long.

“The Shining”
Yes, those British twins are creepy. The dead woman in the bathtub, terrifying. The blood pouring out of the elevators, ditto. The scene with the kid on the tricycle where all you hear is the rumble of the wheels on the floor and the silence when he rolls over carpet and that camera angle in which you cannot see what’s around the next corner is almost unbearable. And of course, there’s Jack. But my vote for scariest scene? Here’s a hint: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…

“Don’t Look Now”
Technically, I’m not sure it’s a horror movie. Based on a Daphne DuMaurier short story, set in Venice, it’s more a meditation on grief, love, and the fragility of life. Well, what could be scarier than that? But it’s also super creepy, and I swear you will never look at raincoats the same way again.

Well, I can’t leave out Michael Myers, can I?

So, tell me–what are YOUR favorite creepfests? What makes you scared? And are you dressing up for Halloween this year?

Have a great Halloween. And don’t let the goblins get you…

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