Why We Like Halloween and Horror
By Matteo Di Giovanni
Spooky times! Fall is known for being the spookiest season of the year because it’s Halloween time! We celebrate the Halloween festivities in different ways whether it’s trick or treating, having costume parties, going to haunted houses, pumpkin carving or, binging horror movies to exhilarate the mood of the season. But why exactly do we love putting ourselves into those scary situations, particularly with horror movies? I wanted to know more about our desire for fright, so I decided to have a discussion with Dawson College professors Dr. Jay Shea and Dr. Kristopher Woofter to discuss the horror film genre, LGBTQ+ identity in relation to horror movies and popular Halloween traditions.
One aspect of Halloween I adore is that it remains so popular amongst young adults. At first, I thought this youth popularity towards Halloween tended to be more exclusive to our generation. However, as Jay points out: “I don’t think our generation, [which] Kris and I came from, gravitated towards Halloween any less. I think that there’s something kind of enduring about the attraction of Halloween, but it also has to do with [the] cultural context. When we were growing up, it was [all about] religious rights, candy scares and those [type of] things. The real horror shows were [things] like Pat Robertson saying that ‘Halloween is like Satan worship and that you shouldn’t do it’. I think that, combined with our parents telling us we should be extra careful, made us maybe want to do it a little bit more. So, I was thinking that there might be something [during Halloween] about an allowance for perverseness or doing something we’re not supposed to do or, not usually allowed to do”. Kris adds that: “I think it’s also about [the] argument that teenagers, younger teenagers especially, want to rehearse socialization with each other. They want to show [to other people] [that] they’re like ‘I’m strong and powerful’. So, others want to see how far they can take their vulnerability. You know, you’re testing identity and horror is a great way because it is constantly jolting and shocking you! There’s [constant] screaming [with] horror. It’s shock, scream & laugh, shock, scream & laugh”. He also states that the horror genre is one that “endures” regardless of generation.
When I asked if they felt rebellious watching horror, Kris jolted in agreement. He shares his own experience, while also laughing at its appropriateness for The Plant, and says that: “around the time I was discovering how much I liked porn, I watched my first Lucio Fulci film, “The Beyond”. And, when I would watch porn, I would feel a little guilty, as anyone does at probably any age, but I felt much more guilty watching “The Beyond” because that movie is just excessive in so many ways! I felt like I was doing way worse things than I was when watching porn. And I was like, ‘cool, I’m going to be the guy who watches this kind of horror film’”.
Since horror deals with such intense subject matter, I brought up Robin Wood’s statement that “horror is the most progressive of the movie genres”. Jay agrees with him but also believes that there are still plenty of “reactionary horror movies” with “conservative, misogynist and sometimes racist elements in [them]”. Kris later adds onto this by saying that the slasher film made women the target but at the same time, made female characters more powerful. Jay also wonders if horror has “opened up a space for women to be, yes, treated in pretty ugly ways but, also, to be the superhero in a way that maybe other genres haven’t done before”. In addition, they believe the idea that: “the slasher is a game of dress up. It’s a game of trying on a different identity, and a different perspective in the world and I think that is kind of what Halloween is all about, to some extent.”
To add onto the notion that the horror genre opened a space for female identity, I followed up by asking if they think horror has allowed space for queer identity. Kris and Jay, who both identify as queer, felt mixed on this question. They both believe that horror films have negative queer representation, but Jay also states that “so many of us who are in the community of horror studies … are queer”. Kris relates his queer identity with his experience to watching Creepshow by sharing that: “As a closeted queer kid, I think that being a fan of horror and making that part of your identity for me was an element of acknowledging that I was a ‘weird’ kid. For my other friends, they didn’t watch Creepshow for the same reasons I wanted to watch Creepshow. They watched it to scream at parties, but I liked it because it was so beautiful with reds, blues, and greens, it looked like a comic book. So, latching onto that for me was important because horror was about marginality, and I was marginalized! It’s something to think about”.
Focusing on the mood associated with the season, I asked them what they think about the overall feeling of Fall that draws us towards wanting to celebrate Halloween. Kris makes a very clever statement saying: “with the season, you start to be more aware of the decay and the death of the year” to which Jay adds on: “decadence in the sense of its true etymological sense of decay but, I also think it’s like a decadent chocolate bar because there’s something that’s rotten but at the same time there’s a beauty and a sweetness to it.” They go onto boiling it down into a few things and says: “it allows for a celebration of transgression and opening up of boundaries. We see that from the belief …that this is the time where the veil is lifted between the world of the living and the dead. So, there is that boundary that is breached and there’s a sense of openness and connectedness maybe to thoughts of the ghostly world, to thoughts of immortality to which both are like the quintessential double. It’s beautiful, it’s what we want because if those two live that means we can live on forever and maybe we’ll die but that also means that we are haunted everyday and that there are spirits and specters out there that may not have our needs in mind”. They conclude this with the idea of stranger danger being flipped upside down since we go door to door asking for candy “opening up our door to an Other”.
For media to consume this Halloween, Jay and Kris recommend: “Prince of Darkness”, “Phantasm”, “The Changeling”, “Suspiria”, “Friday the 13th Part II”, “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”, “Twin Peaks”, “Nosferatu”, “Channel Zero” and “Twin Peaks”.
And finally, Kris shares details about Montreal's horror community. He is currently putting together a group of teachers at Dawson to create a horror studies collective but for now, he is continuing his work with The Montreal Monstrum Society. Monstrum is a community consisting of teachers and professors volunteering their time to offer courses and lectures on horror in Montreal. Kris also hinted at possibly having Dawson Alumni and Indigenous filmmaker, Jeff Barnaby, coming to talk at The Montreal Monstrum Society. The first lecture releases this month & you can find more general information at https://www.monstrum-society.ca/ .