Halloween art is at an apex when it taps into this spirt-vibe of the accidental and the incidental. I’m not advocating, of course, for the sampling of real life tragedy, but instead the fictional—or the quasi-fictional, as we shall see—that adumbrates real life emotions and truths. That’s the eldritch elision.
M.R. James did this as well as any writer. Note how many of the people in his stories have set out on a holiday or are embroiled in those acts of leisure we know that they’ve long looked forward to. A ghost locked out of another dimension would rattle us, I believe, all the more in our room at a Disney World resort, than in the forlorn New England cemetery at the spot where a Colonial child was rumored to have been hanged.
Fear has its chief value as an instrument that makes us aware of stakes we might not have considered as we live our lives. Fear grounds us, because it offers perspective and perspicacity, with one of its staunchest lessons being that the “ordinary” can represent death itself. Or life-in-death, which may be worse. Fear is a life coach. It rallies us. Hopefully its source will not be the actual death of us, but as hockey coaches like to say, fear is a top-level motivator. You might even conclude that fear—or the Halloween variant, which comes with that layer of “all-in-good fun”—is a type of buddy.
In this spirit and spirit, I turn to two short works of cinema—core texts of my annual Halloween viewing roster—that don’t officially present themselves to us as terror efforts, but which rattle our cerebral cortexes all the more for the horror they evince.
One is a nine-minute production from 1945 by the French nature filmmaker, Jean Painlevé, called The Vampire. The guise is the nature film. Nature, as we know, can be brutal. Who cannot recall the voice of David Attenborough narrating some tense drama of one beast stalking another, and then moving in—with the lightning strike—for the gory kill?
The violence of said kill is akin to an explosion. The crack of the rifle in the air, but in bodily forms. Horror feels both more allowable and more verboten within the construct of the nature film. After all, the world works the way the world works. At the same time, a director like Painlevé may have a terror agenda beyond documentation, which itself carries this notion of manipulating natural order for dramatic purposes. A bold charging ahead of the theatrical. A filmmaker’s foray into cross-genre vivisection.
Immediately, by dint of its premise and the foreboding it generates, Painlevé’s film makes us ill at ease. A guinea pig is staring into the camera in all of its trusting opacity. Facing this guinea pig is a vampire bat. The scene is total calm. The guinea pig, being what it is, appears to want to play, as if here was new buddy, and a somewhat furry one, too, which is perhaps reassuring if you are a guinea pig. One can’t imagine there’d be this same placidity were there a snake staring back at this humble creature.
A narrator informs us of what is happening as it happens. The bat is clinical, fastidious, efficient. An area near the nose of the rodent is numbed with a salivary agent, and then, as if the vampire doubled as a barber, hair is removed from the area for better access. The guinea pig apparently has no clue what is happening to it, which makes matters more chilling. We can’t intercede. We also don’t know how gory the procedure of the blood-draining will be. The film is in crisp black and white, but as anyone who has seen a work like Hitchcock’s Psycho is aware, blood can be more visually disturbing within this starker coloristic medium. Black gets corrupted to a charcoal-ruddiness. Liquid life force that makes itself apparent by existing somewhere between black and white.
In Ed Wood’s insane—well, let’s face it, bat shit crazy—1953 picture, Glen or Glenda, a raving Bela Lugosi—who remains our definitive cinematic vampire and, I think, vampire of any type—makes like he is the voice of fate, issuing directives.
“Pull the string,” he declares, and then repeats the words, screaming them, commanding far-away figures to march along the paths of their destinies. One imagines that voice here, impelling what is a naturalistic union of life and death, predator and prey, the macabre symbiosis of host and feeder. Painlevé is a string-puller. He’s the imp of the perverse who orchestrated this set-up, but the director could also plead innocence. “What?” he might say. “This is what happens outside, off-screen. I have simply put it on celluloid and you have sat for me, as the guinea pig sits for the bat.”
Therein is the horror. The passivity of the guinea pig parallels our passivity as onlookers. Something unfair is happening but also something fair. In one way, it’s so ordinary. So, damn, daylight-ish. The stage—if we might call it a stage—is well-lit. Horror has happened without meaning to. In the course of natural events. On a small scale that feels larger-than-life because life at the elemental root is being altered.
There is also an intimacy to this scene, a manner of coerced trust without consent. The guinea pig does not rebel. Does not shake or stir, save to blink its eyes a few times, as if it might sneeze. These two have a date together, but a curious variety, with a rape and a feeding.
The guinea pig is not killed. For all we know, it may be no worse the wear after a few days. The vampire has gotten what it needs. So where is the harm?
But that is the blood-sucking rub, because we feel like we’ve witnessed something unholy, but also as it should be. I think that is the terror with the sustaining charge. What all of the best makers of horror-related work are after. Fear is natural, and it is threaded through a natural existence, the status quo, the quotidian, the organic way of things.