Paul Schrader (director/screenwriter, mastermind behind Taxi Driver and buncha other awesome movies) grew up in an extremely strict Calvinist household, one in which any form of idleness was an expressway to damnation. He wrote about going to see a film in a theatre, sweating, panicked, absolutely convinced that this simple act would send him to hell. But he was so transfixed by the experience–obviously realizing that this was his calling–that he couldn’t tear himself out of his seat.
I still get that doomed but defiant feeling whenever Halloween comes around, at once resisting its trappings and wanting to dive head first into it. Growing up, my mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. As I’m sure you know, they celebrate very few holidays for various reasons. In the case of Halloween, the reason is: They think it’s evil.
Ironically, I bet very few people who “celebrate” Halloween truly believe in demons and witches and whatnot. Witnesses do. This is odd, because they don’t believe in Hell, and they don’t have same idea of the Soul that you find in most Christian sects (it’s due to their unique interpretation of the Bible, which would take way too much time to get into). But they do believe in Satan, that he has minions at his beck and call, and that he could sic his cronies on you if you took him too lightly. “Taking him too lightly” includes dressing up as a sexy nurse, somehow.
That’s why, to this day, I have seen very few horror movies. Witnesses believe–no, for real–that anything depicting the occult, the devil, demons, etc. etc., can actually serve as a gateway for the Horned One to enter your mortal vessel. It’s almost like the DARE argument against pot. “Yeah, sure, you think A Nightmare on Elm Street is innocent enough. Then you move on to Friday the 13th. Then it’s Hellraiser. Pretty soon, you’re painting pentagrams in blood on your basement floor! And smoking crack with ghetto people!”
There is a certain age bracket during which you’re anxious to see Retarded Horror Movies. It’s more or less ages 12-16; for some people, it’s longer, and for others, it never ends. See these kinds of films at the aforementioned impressionable age, and they will imprint themselves on your psyche. But if you don’t see Retarded Horror Movies during this period, you will probably never see them, because if you watch them for the first time as an adult, you’ll realize how unbelievably stupid and poorly made most of them are.
At least that’s been my experience. Scary Movies were verboten in our household, for the same reason as Halloween itself, so I’ve always been curious about them. But for every honestly terrifying, well-done piece of Bone-Chilling Cinema, I’ve seen ten flicks that temporarily lowered my IQ 10 points and just left me laughing and scratching my head. “This is what they thought was gonna doom my Christian well being?! I could see the strings on the monster’s mask!”
Most kids have a battle plan on Halloween: what costume they’ll wear, which houses they’re gonna hit, what other kids they’re gonna go with, whose houses they’re gonna destroy with shaving cream and toilet paper, where they’re gonna hide out afterwards. Our family had a very different battle plan. It depended on whether the Evil Day fell on a weekday or a weekend. But in either case, the goal was: Get out of the house. Don’t be at home when trick or treaters arrive. Because we didn’t want to have to answer the door empty handed and face the consequences. Those consequences might be the “trick” portion of “trick or treat”. But mostly, we just didn’t want to be exposed and shamed.
I should note that this was not Standard Witness Procedure. You were all but encouraged to be home, so you could explain to the little tykes who rung your doorbell why you didn’t have any goodies for them. And if that sounds like an invitation to an egging to you, then you understand why my mother decided to skip town.
But beyond that, it wasn’t in my mother’s nature to stick out, to look odd, to not fit in with other people. Her default emotional setting was “out of place”, and she felt no need to invite further potential ridicule on herself or her family. Of course, simply being a Witness demanded of its adherents that they be “in the world but not of the world”. So the faith wasn’t particularly conducive to my mother’s desire to remain unnoticed, which should explain why she eventually fell out of The Truth (as they humbly refer to their theology).
The Family would usually go to a local mall, see a movie, then probably enjoy some fine dining like Pizza Hut or an all-you-can-eat $6.95 Chinese buffet joint. It was a treat, because these weren’t things we did with any kind of regularity. Nothing to do with religion on this front. We were just broke. For most of this period in our lives, my father was only intermittently employed, and my mother worked at a picture framing factory. An outing like this put a considerable dent in mom’s pocketbook, but the investment was worth it simply to avoid the tiny ghouls and goblins converging on our house.
Of course, we couldn’t stay away from home forever. We’d always get home after dark, which was usually late enough to avoid most of the trick-or-treaters in our scaredy cat neighborhood. But there was the occasional hardliner–either really determined kiddies or older punks looking more for trouble than treats.
So for the rest of the night, we’d hole up in the basement, watching the little TV that could only get three channels and eating ice cream in the dark. Our basement was only partially underground. Behind our house, beyond the backyard lawn, were woods that seemed to go on forever. Through a back window, you could see the moon lighting up the gnarled branches of the already bare trees, scraping the sky and bowing in the breeze.
And every few minutes, another person would ring our doorbell, looking for candy. We’d stop moving, sometimes even hold our breath. There’s no way somebody at the front door could have heard us in the basement, but we’d get as silent as if we were hiding from actual demons and goblins.
I spent most of my school life hoping not to get Found Out. There was a time when I truly believed, had faith the same way my mother did. But even so, I was afraid like her of seeming different. I was already a Fat, Weird Dork. I didn’t need to be the Fat, Weird Dork who Didn’t Celebrate Halloween For Reasons That Would Confuse The Average Junior High School Student. If asked, I never lied. But I tried to make sure I was never asked.
And so we all hid in the basement, the only light coming from terrible, flickering TV reception and the moon outside. Hemmed in on one side by the endless woods and on the other by hordes of sugar-jacked zombies seeking sweets. And though none of us believed in it, at that moment we all felt like we knew Hell.