Monday, 31 October 2022

Halloween on Screen

I wrote this for Hero Collector in 2019, unsurprisingly for Halloween:

When Buffy, Star Trek and more do Halloween
(Originally written for Hero Collector, published 31 October 2019

Tonight’s the night that ghosts and ghouls come out to play, and TV shows embrace the occasion. David Black shines a light on things that go bump in the night and the world of genre.

The Twilight Zone
The Grave (1961)

Originally filmed as part of the second season of Rod Serling’s anthology series, The Grave was deemed a better fit for the Halloween period and was held over until the third. It’s a tale of regret and retribution. Hired gunman, Conny Miller rides into town to learn that his quarry, the outlaw Pinto Sykes, has been killed and buried in the spectacularly creepy cemetery nearby. Miller is disappointed and had hoped to kill Sykes himself.

The talk in the town’s saloon is that Sykes said if Miller “ever come anyways close to his grave, he'll reach up and grab you”, and this quickly turns into a wager. Miller must visit Sykes’ grave and stab it with a bowie knife borrowed from the barman as proof. Miller stabs the grave and promptly falls out of shot. Was he dragged under? Did he flee? We’ll never know. Serling himself says “You take this with a grain of salt or a shovelful of earth, as shadow or as substance. We leave it up to you. And, for any further research, check under ‘g’ for ‘ghosts’, in The Twilight Zone.”

Star Trek
Catspaw (1967)

The crew of the USS Enterprise discover fog, a haunted castle with dungeons, a trio of witches and a black cat all on a planet where they have no business being. The crew encounter a pair of aliens from another galaxy with seemingly limitless power to control matter and manipulate thought.

They attempted to tap into the crew’s conscious mind to learn more about them, but they missed and drew their imagery form the subconscious instead. They weren’t trying to frighten the Kirk and his crew, they genuinely believed that ghosts and witches were the norm in their civilisation.

This episode was the first filmed for Star Trek’s second season, but it was delayed so that it could be broadcast at Halloween. Kirk even says, “If we weren't missing two officers and a third one dead, I'd say someone was playing an elaborate trick or treat on us”, as a nod to the audience at home. Spock is unfamiliar with the concept of trick or treat, causing the captain to add “You'd be a natural.”

Quantum Leap
The Boogieman (1990)

Sam Beckett leaps into the body of writer, Joshua Rey, on October 31, 1964. As he, his fiancĂ©e and a young Stephen King organise a ‘Spook House’ to celebrate Halloween. In quick succession three people die, Al is of no help to Sam and a goat that only Sam can see keeps appearing and disappearing. It’s revealed that Al is not himself and Dean Stockwell’s performance is truly terrifying.

Quantum Leap fans are a superstitious lot. Many of them believe this episode is cursed. There were many reports of VCRs failing to record this episode and signal failures at local TV stations and cable companies during broadcast. They claim it has caused power failures, car breakdowns and job losses. It appears to be Quantum Leap’s Macbeth. It’s not uncommon to see this episode referred to as 'The Halloween Episode', 'Episode 3.5' or 'The Boogiem*n', rather than by its proper title. Sometimes there are so many asterisks in 'The B**giem*n' that it’s almost unintelligible. You have been warned.

Ghostwatch (1992)

This pitch-perfect horror mockumentary was first shown on Halloween Night in 1992. Presented as an earnest attempt to examine a haunted house in North London. Ghostwatch features familiar televisual elements of cosy studio fireside chat, phone-ins and outside broadcast interviews, but uses all of them to ratchet up the horror. A triumph of using the mundane to express the paranormal.

The banter of the first few minutes gives way to a much darker story. On the face of it this is the story of a family living with a ghost that they’ve nicknamed Pipes. There’s a possibility that one of the daughters is faking it all, but the sheer wealth of evidence makes that obvious possibility seems less likely than the supernatural alternative. Along the way we learn of a baby farm, cats eating the body of a suicide victim and a playpark strewn with canine foetuses.

Nothing is ever definitive in Ghostwatch. You are never certain whether you’ve actually seen Pipes on screen. So much is achieved with so little actually happening on screen. It’s a triumph of the power of suggestion. The four celebrity presenters playing themselves really sell the reality of the film. Michael Parkinson says at one point, “we don’t want to give anyone sleepless nights”, but that’s exactly what did happen as swathes of the United Kingdom were convinced that Ghostwatch was the genuine article. Children, who probably should have been in bed, were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, people called the number on screen in their droves and the BBC complaints department were kept very busy.

Ghostwatch is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The X-Files
Ghost In The Machine (1993)

It’s strange that for all the supernatural-themed episodes that The X-Files gave us, the only one that takes place at Halloween is the techno-thriller Ghost In The Machine and as such the ghost in question is technological rather than paranormal. The end results, however are much the same.

While the offices of the FBI are brimming with Halloween candy, a computer that regulates systems within a corporate building achieves sentiency and turns to murder. The artificial intelligence kills two people and makes attempts on the lives of Mulder and Scully. Ultimately, a computer virus programmed by the machine’s creator proves to be its undoing.

SeaQuest DSV
Knights Of Shadows (1993)

The deep submergence vehicle discovers the sunken wreck of the R.M.S. King George on the sea floor. The ship has been missing for 105 years, yet the lights are still on and there are improbably huge air pockets. Braving nitrogen narcosis, the seaQuest crew board the ship. They encounter bleeding doors with flaming handles, more skeletons than the ship’s manifest can account for and one of the crew becomes possessed.

The supernatural elements are not nearly as interesting as the more mundane ones. One of the 21st-century sailors takes comfort in naval superstitions. As soon as the ghost ship is sighted, he is spitting on the deck for good luck and pouring salt on the threshold to ward off evil spirits. All in all Knights of Shadows seems like quite a daft ghost story, but the question it poses is: is any of it real, or is it all some sort of bends-related shared hallucination?

Buffy, The Vampire Slayer
Halloween (1997)

Contrary to what you might expect, Halloween is apparently the one night of the year that vampires avoid. The Scooby Gang make plans to enjoy themselves on what Buffy defines as “come as you aren’t night.” However, this being Sunnydale the streets still aren’t safe. A costumier moonlighting as a warlock casts a spell that makes everyone become whatever it is that they are dressed up as. He calls it “the very embodiment of be careful what you wish for.”

The spell turns Buffy, Xander and Willow into a helpless fainting 18th-century lady, a marine and an insubstantial ghost respectively. They are out trick or treating with a group of children, some of whom change into little monsters. Willow is the only one who retains her memory and she spends the night trying to keep her friends both together and alive.

Defying convention, Big Bad Spike is stalking the streets looking for a neutered Buffy and an easy kill. Just as he is about to end her, Giles breaks the spell and everyone reverts to normal, including the slayer who kicks Spike’s arse.

The Curse of Frank Black (1997)

Frank Black tries to enjoy Halloween. He goes trick or treating door to door with his daughter but tastefully shot black-and-white flashbacks to his past keep interrupting him. The first flashback sees a trick or treating Black as a child confidently informing a World War II veteran named Crocell that ghosts don’t exist. Another flashback, from a few years later has Crocell committing suicide and Black’s gift for seeing things from the killer’s perspective is born.

He is subconsciously and repeatedly led to the Bible verse: “why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?” He encounters the ghost of Crocell, presumably shaking his youthful assertions on the subject, who attempts to persuade Black to give up on the Millennium Group.

Broadcast on Halloween night itself, the episode features many of the more benign features of Halloween, but all are twisted into something more sinister. It begins with the most graphic pumpkin carving ever filmed. When Black discovers teenagers telling ghost stories about him in the basement of his old house, he sneaks up on them in the dark and his sudden appearance scares the bejeesus out of them. He then throws eggs at his own home in a move that makes him seem unhinged. The episode takes a minimalist approach to its scares. There is barely any music and far less dialogue than usual. Lance Henriksen’s performance is much scarier than any of the ghosts or demons on offer here. Halloween is sometimes scarier for those that aren’t observing it.

Buffy, The Vampire Slayer
Fear Itself (1999)

“Creatures of the night shy away from Halloween, they find it all much too crass” says Giles and he’s wrong again. Take one mystical symbol and add a few drops of werewolf blood and suddenly a college frat party has accidentally summoned a fear demon.

Buffy and her friends attend the party in costume. Buffy as Little Red Riding Hood, Xander as James Bond and Willow as Joan of Arc, but the real contenders for the best costume prizes go to Oz for his God namebadge sticker, Anya for her bunny outfit and Giles in a massive sombrero.

This time, however, everything but the costumes change. The plastic skeletons, rubber bats and the peeled grapes posing as eyeballs are all replaced by the genuine article. The partygoer’s fears themselves become real: Buffy ends up alone with only monsters for company, as a result of feeling ignored Xander’s friends are unable to see or hear him, Willow worries that her spells will be too much for her to handle and Oz fears losing control of the werewolf within and hurting his girlfriend.

Ultimately, the demon is despatched very easily and this causes the immediate effects to subside. What’s really scary about 'Fear Itself' is that while the episode seems fairly trivial, the fears displayed by the characters here will have ramifications for them for the rest of the series.


The Honking (2000)

The Planet Express Crew attend the funeral of Bender’s uncle and the reading of his will. They are forced to spend a night in the family’s castle. This being Futurama there are robot ghosts that try to lure Bender to his death. They fail, but Bender is run over by a were-car and becomes a were-car when a virus was transferred through its “demonic headlights”. Bender is doomed to transform into a murderous automobile at midnight and will reportedly eventually kill his best friend. Fry is offended when Bender attempts to run Leela over instead and then flattered when he finds himself sat inside Bender being choked by the seatbelt.

The only way to free him is to kill the original were-car, which will “beam out the virus's uninstall program, thus ridding you of the curse.” The crew discover that the original were-car is an evil car named Project Satan, built from components of cars owned by Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Ed Begley Jr and Michael Knight. Project Satan is accidentally destroyed and so Bender returns to normal, whilst Fry was in the passenger seat. Somehow, he is unharmed.

As is becoming commonplace on this list, The Honking was produced for Futurama’s second season, but instead opened season three during Halloween week. The concept is obviously bonkers and each development in the plot sees it get stranger and stranger, but the oddest thing about it is that within the context of the episode and the world that Futurama presents us with, all of the events contained here seem fairly plausible.

Buffy, The Vampire Slayer
All The Way 

This year the Scooby Gang takes Halloween far less seriously. This time only Xander, Giles and Anya dress up (as a pirate, a wizard and one of Charlie’s Angels respectively). Willow goes on a big rant about wiccan stereotypes, until a tiny child dressed as a witch asks for something and she immediately about faces to “let's go fill your tummy up with sugary nibblets.” Halloween is really only presented as commercial opportunity and Giles’ Magic Shop is heaving with shoppers keen to prove it.

All The Way sets up an obvious candidate for a villain in Mr Kaltenrach, the weird toy designer with a fondness for big sharp knives, before wrongfooting us and making him the victim. This is a coming-of-age story for Buffy’s sister Dawn. She kisses her first boy and she slays her first vampire on the same night. Unluckily for her they are both one and the same person. Buffy can’t decide whether she’s more disappointed that Dawn was kissing a vampire or that was kissing someone she’s just met.

Look Around You
Ghosts (2002)

“Ghosts. You may know them as ghouls or demons or spirits or spirims or spictrims.”

So begins Look Around You’s module on Ghosts broadcast on October 31, 2002. It’s a relief to see the scientific establishment finally taking ghosts seriously. Where else would we see an experiment conducted under strict laboratory conditions that would conclusively prove that a summoned ghost could drink a glass of orange squash? Elsewhere in the module we learn that ghosts can’t whistle and that ectoplasm takes like pig’s milk. We also visit the Haunted Laboratory and learn that ghosts make terrible lab assistants. All in less than ten minutes.

And remember “in the end you too will die and become a ghost. It may be in 50 years, it may be tomorrow. It may even be today.” Write that down.

Life of the Party (2003)

The Buffyverse continues its biannual Halloween tradition. Angel Investigations has taken over the running of evil extra-dimensional law firm Wolfram & Hart. Morale among the evil employees is at a very low ebb. To combat this, Lorne throws a Halloween party.

In order to be more efficient at work Lorne has his sleep removed, without it his empathic powers start influencing the behaviour of others. He tells Angel and Eve to get a room and they have sex repeatedly. When Lorne tells Fred and Wesley they should be drunker, suddenly they are without having imbibed any more alcohol. After he tells Spike to be more upbeat, he is. He tells Gunn to stake out his territory and he finds himself peeing on everything in the office.

It also manifests itself as a massive lumbering monstrous parody of Lorne which kills a number of partygoers and goes after Angel. Fred returns Lorne’s sleep to him and the monster dissipates just as it is about to kill Angel.

This time the only costume is a demon called Devlin dressing as a “human bean” with an argyle sweater and a mask made of human skin stretched over his own face. Halloween is a different experience for adults.

Halloween Special (2010)

“The problem with Halloween these days is that people treat it like Christmas,” Nurse Kenchington complains as she pushes drawing pins into muffins ready for any unsuspecting trick or treaters that might visit. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith constructed Psychoville’s ‘Halloween’ like a portmanteau film. It’s made up of several vignettes inked by a framing story concerning a TV researcher exploring Ravenhill Hospital as a possible location for Dale Winton's Overnight Ghost Hunt. His guide is a young man still traumatised by his own childhood memories of the institution.

The two swap scary tales featuring familiar characters from Psychoville’s first season: the haunting of Mr Jelly by a pair of trick or treaters, a practice which he does not condone: “all this trick or treat, penny for the guy, Cancer Research. I don’t do any of it. Go and beg somewhere else.” In another, Joy Aston struggles to clean up after her Halloween decoration and the cracks in her marriage are revealed by her inability to comprehend her husband’s elaborate recycling regime. The third sees the blind Mr Lomax get a new pair of eyes, but he sees their former owner’s murder and finds himself involved in a web of intrigue. In the final story, two people who know too much about serial killers than is probably healthy find themselves in a car with a monster who acts like one.

These sequences are told with a hefty dose of unreliable narration, this permits the stories to be turned up-to-eleven. They can flagrantly ignore established continuity and be equally disregarded by subsequent episodes. It also means they can prove fatal for the series’ protagonists. The core of Psychoville’s Halloween is that it is a night with no consequences.

Inside No 9
Dead Line (2018)

Sticking with Pemberton and Shearsmith, Inside No 9 gives us a live Halloween special, but “by the way, it can’t actually be on Halloween night!” It’s a tale of a found mobile phone and a mystery that begins to unfold, but before long ghosts play havoc with the filming and broadcast of the episode. Sound issues and transmission breakdown cause the intended story to be abandoned and the behind-the-scenes drama begins to unfold.

The ghosts take charge and fill the screen with CCTV, elements filmed by the cast and found footage apparently chosen by the ghosts themselves. They reveal that Granada studios is built on a mass grave and that they want to be left alone. To that end they torched the studio in 1984, attempted to kill Bobby Davro in 1992 and successfully murder the cast of Inside No 9, not even the continuity announcer escapes unscathed, with the assisted suicide of Stephanie Cole being particularly shocking.

“Let us be.”

- - -

A confession: when I first watched the Inside No 9 Halloween special, Dead Line, on its initial broadcast and the live episode reached the transmission breakdown I was completely fooled and changed channel. I realised my mistake later while the programme was still being broadcast, but having missed a huge chunk of it, I had to catch up later on the iPlayer, cursing my attention span and feeling as though I had missed out on a real televisual event.

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