What is Halloween, anyway? It’s long been one of my favorite holidays, and it exercises a stronger hold on the American cultural imagination than any other. Yet it bears little resemblance to what it once was. It’s been sexed up and tamed down until it feels almost entirely divorced from its roots. A Frankenstein’s monster, if you will, that instead of barging off into the wilderness has gone for a well-lit stroll down cultivated garden lanes.
Dia de los Muertos celebrations are closer in many ways to the original European All Hallows Eve than our current trick or treating. Halloween is rooted in Samhain (“sah-win”, meaning “summer’s end”), which marked the end of the pagan year. The Celts of the British Isles believed it was the day spirits were closest to our world–just as the people of Mexico have long believed that this is when spirits not only come close to our world, but come back specifically to be reunited with their loved ones. There remains a pervasive sense of otherworldliness about Day of the Dead celebrations, whereas Halloween has become all too worldly.
It didn’t start that way. Catholics, back in the 800s A.D., tried to turn the pagan Samhain into All Saints Day and held a vigil the night before. Called All Hallows Eve, this is what became our Halloween. It got a bit smushed up with another Christian holiday (All Souls Day) as well as old Roman days of the dead, and the roots of the modern holiday–costumes, trick or treating, bobbing for apples–grew out of a variety of traditions that immigrants brought to the New World.
Halloween proceeded to spend much of the 20th century evolving into a secular holiday, and the 21st devolving into commercial-dom. And yet there’s still some kernel of the original intent: using treats to placate mischievous children is not far off from using them to placate spirits, and Halloween still serves as a marker between the season of plenty and the season of wither. Half-bare branches and the scuttle of dry leaves in the gutter are as much a part of the holiday as jack o’lanterns and candy bars.
Costumes today may not be intended to confuse demons, but the trend towards satire does convey a sense of cultural exorcism. And then we have aspirational costumes–superheroes, royalty, pop stars–which seem uniquely and almost touchingly American. They suggest a world where everyone is encouraged to dream big and rewarded when they do.
Our Halloween may not be spooky. It’s no solemn reminder, as it once was, of the thin veil that separates us from eternity. It is a glittering daylight heartthrob vampire, not the monster you run from in darkness. Still, it’s a time to celebrate strangeness, to get a peek at what scares or amuses those around you, and to look at lots of extremely adorable small children.
I would like to see a return to honoring this liminal time. This Halloween, take a moment to think about our year sliding towards darkness. Watch a scary movie and feel how close you are to panic at any moment. Wear a mask to the grocery store to understand the mask you wear every day. Wear a “vote for Trump” button. Make Halloween weird* again.
*Suggesting something supernatural; unearthly.
‘Sounds emitted from the bushes: weird uncanny sounds made by unknown animals, for all sorts of things lived in forests.’
Vampires actually aren’t my favourite paranormal theme: I much prefer ghost stories. The trouble is that ghost stories made into films are usually rubbish, in my experience; there are a few notable exceptions, such as The Others, but on the whole they’re a disappointment unless done tongue-in-cheek. I’ve never found werewolves a particularly appealing theme either, again with the occasional exception such as An American Werewolf in London. Vampires are the reverse–often (although not invariably) dull in fiction, but frequently excellent as subjects for film stories. As supernatural/paranormal type films go. When I was a teenager, The Lost Boys (1987), (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) were the best recent offerings of the genre; after that the focus seemed to shift to ghosts and all the horror films inspired by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Saw (2004). There were the Underworld and Blade franchises, and the occasional silly or incredibly dark vampire film (Van Helsing, 2004; 30 Days of Night, 2007), but while Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were going strong on television, there was a bit of a dip in production of films about vampires.
Then came Twilight. Love the series or hate it–I’m closer to the ‘hate it’ end of the spectrum, although I did read all of the books in a single binge during a fit of depression–Stephenie Meyer did bring vampires back to the forefront of pop culture. The first book in the series came out in 2005; in 2006 there was a sudden burst of vampire films, and the vogue has remained in effect since then, dominated, of course, by the film adaptations of the books. Lots of these films are dross, of course, but there have been a few gems in the flood.
Let the Right One In (2008) was in theatres at the same time as Twilight. Everyone I knew went to see Twilight; few people I spoke to had even heard of Let the Right One In, which I felt to be a crying shame, because it’s an excellent film regardless of genre, and so much more interesting than its more famous rival. Most vampire films incorporate some element of sexual attraction in their vampires, or else make them horrific, repellent creatures (Coppola’s Dracula manages to do both); Let the Right One In takes a different approach, telling the story of a lonely boy who befriends what he thinks at first another similarly lonely child; the sweetness of relationship between the two makes the child-vampire Eli’s predatory nature all the more eerie. The two kids in the lead roles, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, are brilliant–Leandersson is currently studying theatre and seems intent on pursuing acting as a career, but Hedebrant seems to have abandoned acting for music, which is the film world’s loss but, I presume, music’s gain.
Byzantium (2012) flew even further under the radar than most of the artier vampire films. I remember reading a review of it and thinking I wanted to see it, but somehow I got it into my head that it was a tongue-in-cheek vampire story about a girl’s boarding school. (I have no clue where I got this idea. All I can think is that I was reading a preview or review of American Horror Story: Coven, which started at about the time Byzantium would have been released on dvd, and I conflated the two in my memory. It wouldn’t be the first time my mind has played such a trick on me.) I forgot about it until I noticed it playing on one of the film channels and recorded it; even then it took me a couple of weeks to get around to watching it. I particularly regret this–it’s one of those films that would look particularly good on a big screen.
Byzantium isn’t tongue-in-cheek in the slightest, but neither is it a blood-and-guts horror film. It’s a little like Twilight in being at its core a romance between a vampire and a human, but it’s also an engaging, if flawed, thriller. This time the tension isn’t between vampires and their human prey; it’s between the race of vampires, here a sort of eternal Victorian men’s club a la Boodles or The Athanaeum, and the only two female vampires in existence, who are being hunted down for violating the rule of the order (i.e. that only men should be vampires). It’s a feminist vampire story, something that, to my knowledge, is entirely new in the genre, unless you count Buffy. It isn’t perfect; Gemma Arterton’s and Sam Riley’s characters are well-acted but inconsistent in their aims, and their respective about-faces at the end of the story, though necessary for the conclusion, make little sense psychologically. Saoirse Ronan and Caleb Landry-Jones, on the other hand, are pretty much perfect. (Landry Jones, unprepossessing as Banshee in the X-Men franchise, is absolutely magnetic as the terminally ill Frank, and would be worth watching even if the rest of the film were terrible.) The film also features Thure Lindhardt and Jonny Lee Miller being evil and Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy being cluelessly human. Its greatest weakness is its title–Byzantium is ostensibly the name of a bed-and-breakfast in a small coastal resort town in Britain, which presumably opened some time in the sixties or seventies. I can’t imagine an English family opening a B&B called Byzantium in any decade, even the swinging sixties. A bar, maybe, but not a B&B. Interesting and evocative as a title for a vampire film; completely at odds with the tone and locale of the story that the film unfolds.
The best and most recent of my favourites of the genre is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which features Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous lovers (Adam and Eve), Mia Wasikowska as Swinton’s wayward (well, possibly psychotic) younger sister, and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe. (The Christopher Marlowe.) There is some existential angst and fear of a mysterious plague that is killing vampires, but mostly the story is a snapshot of what Adam and Eve experience during the course of one of their rare reunions, on this occasion interrupted by Eve’s younger sister Ava. There really isn’t much in the way of gore or terror in this one; it is instead littered with a wealth of cultural references and gorgeous cinematography. It is the most accessible of Jarmusch’s films, and the most elegant of Tom Hiddleston’s–well, except perhaps for his turn as Henry V in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (swoon). I’d like to add a superlative for Tilda Swinton, but when is she not unheimlich and beautiful in a performance?
There are certainly other excellent vampire films, but if I covered them all we’d be here all day. (If you haven’t seen The Hunger, do, because–well, David Bowie is in it, do you need another reason?) Also, if you’re looking for a novel dealing with vampires that is not modeled on either Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer, I strongly recommend Lauren Owen’s The Quick–a bit steampunk, a bit literary, all kinds of awesome. And of course there is the original, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.