Heavens, I miss Halloween. As a kid in the Midwest, the holiday pulverized my senses: the potpourri of rotting leaves and Sunday barbecues, the whispers about the mysterious neighbor who never opened their door, and my friends with prosthetic gashes across their faces and plastic aliens bursting from their chests — what a sight.
Where did it go? I suppose there’s no clearer sign that I’d grown up than when Halloween became just another excuse to drink and eat candy I’d never ever eat any other day. (Have you ever actually read the ingredients of a Butterfinger?) After I moved to Texas in my thirties and went full boring adult, my favorite holiday became little more than a reminder to get serious about saving money for Christmas gifts.
So a few years ago, out of disappointment and boredom, I sparked a new tradition by creating a Google Calendar for October, assigning myself one Halloween-friendly film or TV show per evening. I finally made time for monster-movie classics, and recaptured a fraction of that Ray Bradbury brand of October energy. Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with making and respecting the calendar. And with COVID-19 keeping me indoors this Halloween, it’s become a fixation.
This year, I’ve decided to share the calendar with y’all. Hell, I’m already doing the work, so why not? Every day in October, I’ll reveal a new film, TV episode, or online video for you to stream. Since you have a trillion choices, I’m arranging the entries in themes, each film complementing one another. I’m also providing some context to illuminate the experience. For example, I’m starting the calendar with “unconventional ghost stories.” The ghost story is surprisingly popular among film auteurs who otherwise overlook the horror genre. The appeal of spirits connects directors from the Australian New Wave to Southern Gothic to, well, David Fincher.
If you’re following along with the viewing choices on this calendar, I strongly encourage you to share them with a friend, even if you can’t watch the picks in the same room or at the same time. One of the pleasures of great horror is its ambiguity, the empty space it leaves for us to insert ourselves and our own anxieties. It can spark epiphanies and conversation we might otherwise avoid. And what better time for us to communally process fear and trauma than right now?
Be sure to share your favorite Halloween-time favorites in the comments, too. Happy Halloween month!
UNCONVENTIONAL GHOST STORIES
Thursday, October 1st: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
On Valentine’s Day of 1900, a large group of schoolgirls and teachers travel to Hanging Rock, Victoria for an afternoon picnic. A band of the girls decides to ascend the rock. Atop the cliff, exposed fully to the Australian sun, the young women enter a trance and disappear into its crevices. The incident is filmed in languid shots of the teachers and students basking in sunlight that nearly blows out the picture. It’s like taking a mid-July hike on general anesthetic, the world blurry, the sound echoing, reverberating, and distant. Time is frozen, and in this brightness, the girls appear to be already dead. To the handful of men in attendance, they’re angels. But in their own absence, they become ghosts.
In the film’s second half, we get the fallout of the missing girls. The memory of them, and the accompanying guilt, haunts the classmates and townspeople who can’t make sense of how a few young lives could seemingly disappear.
If you like Picnic at Hanging Rock, you might also like The Leftovers. The HBO show about a fraction of Earth’s population disappearing, and how the survivors respond, borrows heavily from Picnic at Hanging Rock, along with other films by its Australian New Wave director, Peter Weir.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is available to stream on Criterion Channel.
Friday, October 2nd: Eve’s Bayou (1997)
It’s early October, which means 85-degree highs in the southern parts of the United States. Temps will drop as the month rolls on, but for now, I’m working my way through some of my favorite sweaty-hot horror films. Is there a better Southern Gothic pic than Eve’s Bayou? Of course not — the film’s preserved in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
On its surface, Kasi Lemmons’ debut is a domestic drama about a teenage girl who catches her father having sex with a family friend, and has to carry the emotional burden of that secret. But Lemmons sows threads into the narrative, giving it texture and profundity. The title references the family’s origins: they’re the descendants of Eve, a slave, and the master whose life she saved. On land gifted to Eve, the heirs seem both blessed and cursed, like Greek gods, their lives brimming with parties, booze, sex, but also prophecies, curses, and tragic fates.
Eve’s descendants are all haunted by their pasts, sometimes literally by ghosts, but most often by memories they can’t forget, no matter how they try.
Eve’s Bayou is available to rent or buy on Amazon.
Saturday, October 3rd: Zodiac (2007)
Let’s ease into cold fall weather with a trip to the Bay. In 1969, the Zodiac killer commits his first murder in broad daylight in Vallejo, CA, but this isn’t a slasher film pivoting on the serial killer’s horrific personal attacks. It’s worse. Zodiac is David Fincher’s terror opus, examining how our fear of the unknown and desperation to impose order over chaos can consume our lives, isolate us from our loved ones, and detach us from the fabric of time, until we wake up one day playing Atari in a houseboat, wondering what the fuck went wrong.
The Zodiac killer kills a few people, but over the course of his reign of terror, he destroys the lives of others by wheedling into their brain with dopey puzzles and elliptical clues. The journalists and cops at the heart of the movie feel they must stop the killer to save lives, not recognizing that the quest will consume them in return. Catch-22.
Midway through the film, the journalist (Jake Gyllenhall) and a cop (Mark Ruffalo) go see Dirty Harry, the Clint Eastwood film inspired by the Zodiac killer. In that film, Eastwood plays a rogue cop who defies the rules and kills the villain. Reality can’t be so simple, but it proves no less cruel.
Zodiac is now available to stream on Netflix.
Sunday, October 4th: Poltergeist (1982)
Director Tobe Hooper is best known for 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I have a soft spot for his brief and unhinged foray into Hollywood filmmaking, beginning in 1982 with Poltergeist, and ending three years later with his follow-up, Lifeforce.
Poltergeist was supposed to be Hooper’s flashy entrance into Hollywood. The film told the grim tale of a family who moves into a nondescript home in a SoCal suburb, where a gaggle of ghosts kidnap their daughter and carry her into an alternate dimension. Silly as the film sounds, it’s grotesque. The film actually received an R rating from the MPPA, which later bumped it down to PG after Hooper and Spielberg protested the label. (This was before PG-13.)
Yes, Spielberg was a producer on the film. And a co-writer. And has long been rumored to have helped direct the film without credit, since he was currently under contract with rival studio Universal to complete E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It feels like a Spielberg film, all close-ups and wide eyes. Then the family falls into a muddy pit full of skeletons, and it’s all Hooper, a creator who’s never met a prop corpse he couldn’t milk for horror.
If you like Poltergeist, you might also like Lifeforce. After the Poltergeist hoopla, Hooper went on to direct one more big, expensive Hollywood film, the sexy-space-vampire horror-thriller Lifeforce. Watch it for Patrick Stewart’s performance alone.
Poltergeist is now available to stream on Netflix.
And up next:
Monday, Oct. 5: The Frighteners
Tuesday, Oct. 6: House
Wednesday, Oct. 7: Hubie Halloween