Tag Archives: halloween

Basement, 1989

We went to the movies today. We not only went to the movies, we went to the Chinese buffet place in the strip mall next to the movie theater. I loaded up on egg rolls and lo mein and these weird doughy buns sprinkled with powdered sugar that taste like oversized Chinese zeppoles.

A movie and dinner out is unheard of luxury for this family. We splurge on a few select days a year. Today is such a day. Today is Halloween.

We do this, rather than get dressed up and trick-or-treat, because my mom is currently a Jehovah’s Witness. Witnesses don’t do any holidays for various reasons, most of which relate to those holidays’ origins in either pagan ritual or jingoistic nationalism.

Halloween is tops on the no-no list, deriving as it does from scare-away-the-demons practices of ancient Celtic tribespeople. Witnesses don’t believe in hell per se (long story), but they do believe in Satan and his minions. They believe that Satan is actively causing mayhem on this earth. They also have the same Slippery Slope theory about demonic possession as law enforcement has about drug abuse. A cop will tell you pot leads to smack and crack. A Witness will tell you dressing up like a ghost on Halloween leads to actual devil worship, be it passive or active.

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A Slice of Halloween Programming from 1985

As I’ve said many times, I find few things more fascinating than entire blocks of captured TV programming from the past. They give you a glimpse of what a time was really like. It reminds me of picking up an old newspaper, sifting through the news items, seeing the ads juxtaposed against them. A block of video from any given evening was not intended to stand the test of time. Its purpose was to appeal to the fleeting sensibilities of that exact moment.

Due to the waning influence of TV networks and the general fracturing of media, an evening of television is no longer assembled with mass audiences in mind. All entertainment nowadays is aimed at smaller, targeted demos. When I was growing up, however, the eyes of an entire nation would be glued to one of three choices. Networks were aware of this and so they cast a much wider net, in a way that’s almost inconceivable now.

For a representative example, I present to you this chunk of children’s holiday programming that aired right around Halloween, 1985. The actual shows seen here are far less interesting to me than the context in which they are placed.

First of all, this serves as a reminder that kids’ shows were restricted to very specific times. Lucky kids with cable could watch Nickelodeon, but most kids got Saturday morning cartoons and maybe an hour of afterschool fare. That made “specials” like these true events. There was nothing else on TV during the evening that was meant strictly for kids. And if you happened to miss out on a block of “specials,” you were SOL for another month, bare minimum. Hence, why I taped so much of this stuff as a young lad. I was terrified of missing evenings like this.

Despite the fact that the shows were aimed at kids, networks knew the audience watching these shows would be large and diverse, age-wise. So the commercials that aired during the shows are all over the map. Sure, there’s some toy commercials, but there’s also car commercials, fast food commercials, and commercials for other network shows with little-to-no kid appeal.

There’s also more than a few completely terrifying news teasers that give you an idea of what it was like to live in or near NYC in the mid 1980s. Midway through this video, a local CBS anchor promises to give us an update on a “manhunt for a renegade cop” at 11. IMMEDIATELY after this, the first scene of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

You would never see such a thing on television nowadays, for a million different reasons. It is a perfect encapsulation of what both New York and TV was like back then.

And so I present to you, one hour of specials from a chilly October evening in 1985. This is intended to be viewed as is, in one long slab, commercials and all. I realize this runs completely counter to the internet circa 2013, and that no one will do this. That is my intent nonetheless.

The video quality is not fantastic, which is to be expected from a VHS tape that’s nearly 30 years old (which I watched 8 billion times). However, I believe the historic value trumps the visual deficiencies. Enjoy.

Pledging

I experienced an awkward moment at a PTA meeting I attended recently. This was something above and beyond the normal awkwardness I feel in a room full of people I do not know and whose only connection to me is having children who attend the same school as my child, as I struggle to form some cruel parody of conversation. “So, I hear your kid likes Justin Bieber?”

The moment came at the beginning of the meeting, when the PTA president insisted we all rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Once I heard this, I was gripped by a childlike but very real panic. I hadn’t been asked to do this seriously* since high school, and for a terrifying split second I wasn’t sure what I should do with myself.

*I include the adverb seriously here because the live Pee-Wee Herman Show I saw with my daughter opened with Pee-Wee reciting the Pledge along with the audience, which I don’t think counts, really.

The reason I wasn’t sure what to do is because I spent a good chunk of my childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness. Witnesses refuse the say the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t do a lot of things, due to their selectively literal interpretation of the Bible (or their translation thereof; it’s a very long story, the more you hear of the less you truly know). Being a Witness is almost like keeping kosher, but instead of worrying about what you eat, you have to worry about everything else.

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New Additions to the Halloween Wheelhouse

If I have a wheelhouse, it’s Cheesy Stuff From the Mid 1980s to Mid 1990s, whether it’s old ads, weird kids shows, or crummy movies. I like to think of myself as, if not an expert, then at least an amateur historian. My goal is to be the first person to get a MacArthur Genius Grant on the basis of studies into Heinz Homestyle Gravy.

That’s why I was taken by surprise this weekend when, while visiting relatives this weekend, my cousin squealed with delight upon hearing that Teen Witch was on TV. I assumed she meant the long running Melissa Joan Hart vehicle, but no. She was referring to an exquisitely 80s movie that heretofore floated under my radar. Which was bizarre, because if you read this site, you know I remember far more useless junk than any non-crazy person should.

Apparently, Teen Witch went the Office Space route: making barely any money at the box office, but finding a new life on cable. From what I can gather, it has built up quite a Cult of Cheese, one that I was completely oblivious to until now. I only managed to see a good 45 minutes of this masterpiece, but oh my, what a 45 minutes they were.

It’s not fair to try and recap all the singular weirdness contained in Teen Witch. The film is not really awful–I’ve seen much, much worse–but it does have several touches in it that simply do not make sense. My theory is, Teen Witch was made by someone with a very particular vision who was allowed to realize that vision completely. Or, it was passed through so many hands in Development Hell that it eventually became a Frankensteinian monster.

However, if you’ve never seen it, I thought you might “enjoy” this scene in which several very Caucasian teens engage in a “rap battle.” Really, it’s more of a “rap scrimmage.” But it remains an interesting artifact from the era when rap was considered both very hip and eminently easy to do. “All they do is talk over the music and move their arms and stuff. Just get some kids to do it. How hard could it be?”

After I tweeted about this, I received some online confirmation that I was indeed far behind the curve when it came to Teen Witch. I also received a link from @ryankelly for another bit of Halloween movie weirdness I’d never seen before. This is a clip from the British made-for-TV move The Worst Witch, in which Tim Curry performs a showstopping number “Anything Can Happen on Halloween.” God help me, even though the instrumentation is Casio-heavy and the lyrics a little silly, this song is not all that bad. Perhaps it’s the performance. Curry’s vocals make it sound like an outtake from Diamond Dogs. I’m not sure it isn’t, to be honest.

“Classic Scratchbomb”: Who Wants a Mini Three Musketeers?

slayer_pumpkin.jpgI spent a good chunk of my youth as a Jehovah’s Witness. I don’t talk or write about very often, because I don’t get into personal stuff on the site, at least not anymore (mocking sportswriters leaves me little time for navel gazing). I honestly don’t think about it too often, until I have to tell someone that I didn’t “do” certain things as a kid, and explain why. Only in those moments does it occur to me, “Oh yeah, that was really weird, wasn’t it?” Like I’m remembering that one year I was really into INXS.

But this time of year, it’s nearly impossible to not think of my more pious youth. Because Witnesses really do believe in ghosts and demons and pure, Satanic evil in a way that few other people do outside of the Black Metal community. I wrote all about this in a Halloween post from way back in 2006, which you can peep after the jump. Original post here.
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Who Wants a Mini Three Muskateers?

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.