I’ve developed a practical philosophy about Halloween decorations ever since I bought a house and gained a front porch canvas on which I could present my annual nightmare tableau.* While I believe that everyone is entitled to live the way they want to live (so long as nobody gets hurt), where Halloween decorations are concerned I am a fashionable fascist. Transgressions of style, taste, and originality in Halloween trimmings are unforgivable sins. While I’ve written about this subject before, I’d like to revisit some of my biggest no-no’s about decking the Halloween halls with boughs of horror
I can’t remember when I first saw an inflatable decoration endomorphically undulating outside someone’s home. Most likely it was an inflatable Santa or snowman, I probably saw it, chuckled, and then drove on.
I CAN remember the next time I saw an inflatable decoration—a leather-jacketed Santa Claus on a motorcycle. I remember it because it filled me with seething hatred at its utter purposelessness and forced theme. While I adore the bizarre and out of the ordinary, there’s a vast difference between uttering “What the fuck!?! “and “Why the fuck!?!” Why is Santa riding a motorcycle and wearing a leather jacket? For a certain marketing segment it’s undoubtedly “fucking cute as hell,” with enough macho panache for those whose masculinities are threatened by a beneficent St. Nick.
When inflatables started turning up at Halloween, I was livid. I find inflatables lazy. It’s a means of filling up space quickly, showing (whether one means to or not) little investment in embellishing one’s home for the holidays. It’s comparable to writing “HALLOWEEN COSTUME” on a shirt and wearing it to a friend’s party. It lacks heart and wit. Moreover, the softness of inflatables removes that all-important element of horror from your decorating. Jack O’Lanterns can be cute, but when you reach the point of making the Grim Reaper and his steed kind of cuddly and gelding Dracula, all is lost.
“Blah! Blah! I impaled 10,000 Turkish men, women, and children along the banks of the Danube! Blah!”
2. Movie Merchandising
Hollywood unwittingly entered the Halloween decoration business with the old Universal Studios monsters. When James Whale designed Frankenstein’s Monster’s square head, he had no idea Karloff’s puttied noggin would turn up on people’s doors and windows clear into the 21st century. I know I’m revealing a nostalgia bias when I promote the display of the old cinematic monsters, but they’re classic icons of horror, deeply rooted in literary and folk tradition. They may not be the haints and faeries of Celtic mythology, and maybe we’re not afraid of the Monster, Drac, Wolfman, et alia anymore, but they still say “boo!” in a classy way.
Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Chucky, however, say, “My taste in horror is deeply rooted in the VCR in my 80s dorm room.”
I’ll allow that a mannequin made up to look like Mr. Voorhees or Mr. Myers, standing silently on the porch, waiting for the little ones who dare approach, can be effective. What usually happens though involves the decorator taping a poster of one of the aforementioned cinema killers in the screen door. Even worse—and I’ve witnessed this twice—dressing a skeleton in an off-color striped sweater and fedora and hanging it from the balcony. Never mind that Freddy stopped being scary with the second installment of the series, when you pose the monster in a way that removes its threat, you remove its potency.
My biggest quibble is that the movies these monsters represent are not for kids. Trying to cross-over adult horror (which I love, by the way—even some of the stinkers) with a children’s holiday is loathsome. Child’s Play should not intersect with actual child’s play.
3. Cutesy Goofiness
“Hee, hee, hee! That’s MY candy! Also, my tormented soul knows no rest! I welcome the black embrace of Hell!”
Unless you have easily frightened children—I mean ones who freak the shit out at the sight of Santa Claus and Elmo—living in your neighborhood, there is never any excuse for excessive cuteness in Halloween decorations. To be fair, Jack O’Lanterns, once intended to ward off evil spirits (and originally carved into turnips and rutabagas—which are creepier than you’d think), invite adorableness. Pumpkins are so round and orange, you can’t help but give them grins rather than grimness. Where the system falls apart is when everything ghoulish gets lobotomized.
This literal defanging has gone on for a very long time. It’s in the American character to reduce horror, rather than deal with it head on.
“I stand for pure science run amok, unmitigated by morality and fostered by ego. I am also made of rotting human corpses.”
“I display the hypocrisy of Victorian social mores and personify the aristocracy feeding off the life of the working class. Also, I drink blood, for Christ’s sake.”
4. Security Tape
This is a fairly recent development, and one that I have no problem with if done properly and in good taste. I say in good taste because there’s a difference between creating a sense of fun menace, and telling the trick or treaters “ALL ARE DEAD. STOP BY FOR SOME TREATS!” In fact, in a big city like Chicago, ringing your front yard in CRIME SCENE—DO NOT CROSS tape is a poor and tacky decision. The ambiguity of CAUTION and DANGER tape, however, is more acceptable, if done right or in conjunction with other decorations.
I’ve seen homes where the only decoration was a strip of yellow security tape across the door. Even worse, and somewhat more disturbing, I’ve seen places where there was nothing BUT security tape covering the doors, wound through the fence, ringing the trees and bushes, and just sort of blowing about the lawn. No monsters, pumpkins, or anything else. I began to wonder if, when they said “Keep Out”, they meant stay the hell away? Disturbing can become unnerving, whether you mean it or not.
A few years back I wandered the neighborhood on Halloween morning to see what my neighbors had set up. Most made do with a skeleton hanging from the door and a few carved pumpkins on the porch. Two or three went nuts with amazing graveyard sets strewn with zombies, spiders, bones, bubbling cauldrons, and so forth. One thing I miss about living in Logan Square was our yearly walk down the street, where a wealthy gentleman fronted his Chicago manse with an insane display of animatronic mayhem. Either/or, whether you’ve got animated demons gibbering on the porch or a calm, classic collection of paper decorations, you can make a display that reminds folks of the scary reason for the season.
On my walk, however, I came across something that I thought was, at first, just a messy front yard strewn with plastic toys. On closer examination it turned out to be… How would I describe it? Really, I was dumbfounded. If I had to give it a title it would be something like “Bloodbath at Care Bear HQ/Castle Grayskull/GIJoe Headquarters.” Maybe I should just show the pictures.
It may be the kids had a hand in decorating this year, in which case I’m a big meanie. Elements like the gardening tools and spatters of blood, however, tell me that Mom and Dad were part of the crew. Points for originality, but I’d like the five minutes back that I spent trying to process what the hell I was looking at.
* To be fair, it’s more like a disquieting daydream tableau. I want it to be spooky without scaring the bejabbers out of the toddlers.