It would be an injustice to the season and my family not to make this week’s installment of Only Noise all about Halloween, the greatest holiday on earth. The only holiday that you aren’t required to sit at a large table with family you may or may not enjoy being around, stuffing yourselves with unnecessary amounts of food, or packing into a cheesy restaurant to eat a pre-fixe menu priced double the everyday value, or pretending you are extra in love with your partner.
On Halloween you can be vulgar, clever, “slutty” (whatever that means), non-participatory, an adult-child, and more importantly, anything you damn want to be. In 1989, my parents got married on Halloween, only 15 days before I entered this mortal coil. My dad didn’t do it up for the holiday, donning slacks and a tweedy sports coat, while my mom wore an emerald green tunic with florid gold embroidery at the chest. She topped it off with beads, fake gold jewelry, and a dangly chainmail headband. It wasn’t a costume per se, but it certainly wasn’t a wedding dress. But the piece de resistance of their wedding in my humble, nostalgic opinion was the cake. It was a black cake. A black bat cake, with orange icing script.
Growing up I never equated my parents’ anniversary with Halloween, but now thinking back it makes a little more sense as to why they celebrated the day with such zeal. Halloween seemed wildly more important than any other holiday in my family, even more so than Christmas, which to many of the evangelical occupants of our rural town, must have made us seem like pagans. Maybe we were.
My parents, sister and I would spend days vandalizing the house with lengths of cotton fiber “spider webs.” We’d hang a sheer, fine mesh net from the ceiling and toss plastic spiders and centipedes into its canopy. We’d make a big paper tree to go up the wall adjoining the living room and kitchen, and affix bugs to that as well (bugs went on pretty much everything). Stuffing my father’s gardening clothes with newspaper, we’d prop a carved jack-o’-lantern on the makeshift scarecrow to greet guests.
With the help of a children’s cookbook entitled Gross Goodies – one of many finds at the school book fair, my mom and I would belabor an enormous menu of foul-looking treats such as “Pumping-Heart Tarts,” and “Open Wound Teacakes.” The party was a potluck, but the menu was exclusively Halloween-themed, putrescent looking food. Our table’s centerpiece was a miniature guillotine made by a family friend. Lying upon it was a decapitated Barbie doll – not the first in our household. She wore a green gown, with red nail polish encircling her open neck. Her blonde head rested in a basket before her.
But what is a party without music? In the same way the Christmas season makes some people want to go caroling, Halloween made my family want to do “The Time Warp.” My mom, a longtime fan of the 1975 musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, made it an annual tradition that when the clock struck midnight, all guests would meet in the living room to reenact the synchronized dance moves for the film’s most famous song. I didn’t actually watch Rocky Horror until I was in fifth grade, which is a strange age to take in something like that with your mom, but I knew every wink, step and bar of “The Time Warp” since before I can remember. I don’t recall being taught it, just doing it.
Our playlist often found inspiration from other movies as well; cuts from The Nightmare Before Christmas (my mom’s motivation for leaving the Halloween decorations up until X-mas), “Jump in the Line” by Harry Belafonte for its association with Beetlejuice, and the bizarre numbers from a beloved little claymation flick from the ‘60s called Mad Monster Party. The film’s voiceover cast includes Boris Karloff, Phyllis Diller and Ethel Ennis. The songs are odd to say the least, but the animation and performances are ace.
In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve been to a Halloween party as kickass as the one’s my parents used to put on. Not even in New York, where Halloween invokes top-notch competition (like with everything else), and costume contests turn into battles of wit, obscurity, accuracy, and outlandishness. I remember my first Halloween here the entire city was frenzied with a Hitchcock theme. I saw several Tippi Hedren’s in the skirt suit and pillbox hat, eyes jabbed out by the fake sparrow on her shoulder. Even better was the man dressed as Psycho – who rigged up a bloodied shower curtain around his seemingly nude body.
Maybe it is just the adoring lens a child sees her parents through, but I still really think they did Halloween the best. But even after the parties ended, Halloween continued to be the supreme holiday in my life. I always knew what I wanted to be November first, and would count down the 364 days between my costume and me. These days I have less time to obsess over costume details as I used to, but the excitement is still there. I still spend October watching as many horror movies as possible (The Exorcist is always on heavy rotation) and listening to the likes of Bauhaus, Nick Cave, Throbbing Gristle, The Cramps, and just about anything spooky I can get my hands on.
In the few times I’ve lived abroad, I remember being thoroughly bummed that Halloween was not really a thing in Europe or the U.K. It was a classic case of not knowing how much you’d miss something until it was gone. In the same week that Hurricane Sandy was revving up to rip New York a new one, I was in Milan, cutting class to work on my Halloween costume for the tiny, American-filled party my roommate and I would be hosting. In was such an insignificant little party, held in a country that didn’t really give a fuck about Halloween, and that made it all the more important. I spent hours hand sewing fake intestines, a heart, a liver, two black lungs with real cigarette butts stitched on…I was some semblance of the internal organ system, with a brain sewed to the top of a bowler hat.
The party lacked decoration, the only autumnal thing being the mulled wine I drank too much of. It was a far cry from the all-out parties that my parents used to throw, but it was a stab in the right direction. So even if you’re nowhere near your ideal Halloween this year – I will be spending mine at a wedding – here’s a playlist to spook you through the greatest day of the year.