Halloween is upon us, and if you follow our blog you know it is one of our favorite holidays. This year, we thought we would look at some of the classic stories that contribute to our ideas of Halloween and what is scary, particularly those tales that have stood the test of time and still permeate pop culture. In many ways, the celebration of modern Halloween is a Frankenstein’s monster in itself – a holiday composed of various parts dating back several thousands of years. It started with the Celtic celebration of Samhain, the evening before the Celtic New Year when the barrier between the world of the dead and the living was blurred and ghosts could roam freely for one night only. Then Roman fall festival elements were added, ties to the Catholic All-Saint’s Day on November 1st, and later other European myths and traditions, including versions of trick-or-treating. Throw in the classic monster tales of vampires, werewolves, witches, mummies, ghouls, goblins and modern bogeymen like Jason Vorhees, Michael Meyers, and Freddie Krueger and it’s quite the mix of scary stories. Here are the ones we wanted to delve into and discuss their legacy in pop culture.
My favorite books and stories come from the horror/sci-fi genre. My favorite author of all time is Edgar Allen Poe who is the original horror master. The reason I like these types of horror stories is mostly that there involves some form of reality, not a Freddy Krueger or paranormal type of scare. It usually involves the horror of mankind. Whether it be being buried alive or someone trying to play god. Along with Poe the short stories of Ambrose Bierce and H.P. Lovecraft also have some great writing and fantastic horrors. If I had a fourth selection I would have went with another H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man. I stuck with a theme for my three. All three could use a faithful film version.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) Robert Louis Stevenson
Like Dracula and Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde have been a pop culture reference for over 100 years. Still today people have taken this novella and put their own spin on it. In the 80’s I remember a ridiculous version, Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again. In 1996 Julia Roberts played Mary Reilly, a maid working for Dr. Jekyll. I even remember the classic Sylvester and Tweety cartoon lampooning it. It’s a great novella that can be scary. A seemingly good yet unethical Dr. Jekyll making a drug so he can experience self-indulgence and be a “bad boy” without anyone knowing it’s him. Doing the things he wants to do but can’t. Of course, playing god never turns out right and his other self is a monster who rapes and kills. It’s the good side that holds back inner man’s desire to be animalistic. I love the study of the two halves of man, the duality. Does a serial killer not have the “good” side in them? The ethics of the ability to pull out one’s good or bad side out can be scary and gives us the “evil doctor” trope. There have been many versions of this on film (123 to be exact) but I wish there was a really good modern version. Modern meaning “new” not set in modern times. Unfortunately, every director wants their own Tim Burton spin on it. Let’s make Jekyll turn into a girl, or a different race, or let’s give a back story and twist up the book, or lets set it in modern times. The novella stands on its own it’s great literature with a fascinating story, use the source material. The older films certainly did a much better job. My favorite may be John Barrymore’s silent 1920 version. Barrymore is fantastic in it, especially during the transformation sequences. It’s more faithful and scarier than the rest. Frederic March’s 1931 version earned him an acting Oscar and it’s taken from the stage play more than the novel, and the language is too stiff. In 1941 they remade this very film with Spencer Tracy in the role. As a film, it’s good as a direct recreation of the novella not so much.
Bonus: Maybe my favorite version, Men at Work’s 80’s song, Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive.
MG: I just read this novella again in the past year or so, and was struck by how dark it is. It’s a psychological thriller with a strong dash of Victorian morals and ethical analysis. Too many iterations of this story focus on the horror of the transformation element of the story, but in the book it’s not a focus, as Hyde’s monstrosity isn’t physical it is the mental state of stripping away civilized behavior and exposing the id. I would like to see another faithful rendition done of this on screen. Could make a good limited series.
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) H.G. Wells
Another book not considered perhaps a Halloween story, it does have horror elements in it. It’s a book along with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that I go back to reading often. The book is about Edward Pendrick a survivor of a shipwreck who ends up on Dr. Moreau’s island. Dr. Moreau is a doctor gone mad, he is working on making animals into humans. Another man trying to play god and mess with nature’s plan. It’s probably more of a sci-fi book but the animal hybrids are scary and the book does have horror-like tension as Pendrick discovers what the doctor is doing. It’s also a story over a hundred years old that film cannot get right. There are three main film versions that seem to get worse as they get more modern. The 1932 version The Island of Lost Souls is pretty good as a movie, it has Oscar winner Charles Laughton as Moreau and also has Bela Lugosi as one of the hybrids. It really doesn’t follow the narrative. I can’t stress enough why the source material isn’t used in the right way. In 1977 Burt Lancaster was Moreau in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Michael York played the Pendrick character. I remember this as a kid and it was pretty freaky but yet again not faithful and there is a love interest that cheapens the film. The leads are good though. In 1996 I remember being pumped for the new version only to be devastated by what appeared on the screen. It really had Wells spinning in his grave. I know there were issues with directors and actors, Brando and Kilmer being two, but it was ludicrous. There was a recent documentary about director Richard Stanley’s problems on set. I don’t understand why this great book can’t be filmed correctly. I would be extremely concerned that a poor CGI version is coming next. Use the correct names, show all the beasts, don’t add a love story, be faithful.
Bonus: One of the great parts of the book is the speeches that the Sayer of the Law gives when preaching Moreau’s teachings. The New Wave band Devo took a part of it for the debut album titled “Are We Not Men, We Are Devo”, minus the Devo part of course.
MG: I remember us seeing the 1996 version in the theater and it was just god-awful. Maybe watching it with a 6-pack now I could get some entertainment out of it. It is a bizarre tale at times, but an increasingly relevant cautionary tale of mankind messing with nature to disastrous results. With all the DNA-splicing and editing going on, a new well-made version could really resonate.
Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818) Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is as Halloween as ghosts or vampires. It’s amazing that the story is not that way at all and Frankenstein’s popularity stems from the Boris Karloff film. And we all know Frankenstein is not the name of the monster. Shelley creates a fantastic story of one man, Victor Frankenstein who tries to create life. Another man trying to play god. Some people say it’s an allegory for motherhood or abortion, I don’t know if that’s true, she wrote it on a party dare by other authors. I can’t believe she started writing it at 18. I love the framing of the book in letter form, the setting of the journey to the North Pole to open it. It’s a book like Dracula that never gets taught in school and I don’t think people realized how well written these books are. Sci-Fi and Horror classics have just as many themes as Shakespeare or Austin and in this modern world seem to resonate more with the times. There are so many Frankenstein films going back to the silent era and a tremendous amount of bad ones. The image of the monster is everywhere in pop culture, TV (The Munsters), cartoons, and commercials. Obviously, the most famous film is the 1931 James Whale directed film starring Boris Karloff. Although not very faithful to the book, it’s a very good film and the sequel, which also uses elements of the book, The Bride of Frankenstein may be better. Between these films and Kenneth Branagh’s version, none of the film versions were any good and I include Young Frankenstein despite a riotous portrayal by Peter Boyle. Kenneth Branagh directed the 1994 version of the story even calling it Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and it was somewhat faithful to the book but also took many liberties. So far it’s the closest. It was an ok film but still not the best it could be. I guess Frank Darabont claimed it to be his greatest script but a terrible film. If they could just make an adaptation where people did not expect a Boris Karloff type creature we may get somewhere. It’s too amazing a story not to get right.
Bonus: If you want to see more about Shelly check out Ken Russell’s 1986 film Gothic. Natasha Richardson plays Shelley and you see the fictionalized version of how she came up with her story. It’s bizarre, irreverent and very sexualized.
MG: You make a good point about these books not being taken more seriously in English classes, because they are well-written and have good themes. I never see my kids coming home with a book like Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde. The 1994 film was ok, but DeNiro was distracting and I just don’t think it captured the essence of the book.
A few days ago I actually had someone at a business wish me a Happy Halloween, which I returned and thanked her for. She asked me if I knew about its Celtic origins and I said I did (even if I had to later hit Wikipedia for a quick refresher). I love the hodge-podge of traditions associated with the holiday, most of which is no longer bound to any religion, and it’s a day/season you can choose to do a lot with (decorating, costumes, haunted houses, parties, movies, etc.) or you can ignore altogether. I’m not a fan of straight-up slasher horror, but rather I enjoy creepy tales that are more psychological and/or tied in some way to historical truth. Here are three books that have helped create the foundation of the scary mythology around Halloween.
Dracula (1897) Bram Stoker
Even if many people have not read this great novel, almost everyone knows the story of Count Dracula. Among the vampire characteristics, Stoker established are: biting necks and drinking blood, converting victims to vampires, sleeping at night in a coffin, burning by sunlight, unable to see their reflection in a mirror, etc. Some may also know the semi-historical origins of Dracula, going back to the Romanian Prince Vlad Dracula in the 1400s, who was known for his ruthlessness in battle and a propensity for impaling his enemies. Interestingly, Stoker never alludes to this legend, and some historians say he wasn’t even aware of the story, but Francis Ford Coppola includes some of the Vlad storyline in the prologue of his 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Early versions of Dracula include the 1922 silent classic Nosferatu (still pretty creepy after all these years) and Universal’s classic 1931 version with Bela Lugosi in the title role. The character of Dracula became less monstrous and a more campy, tuxedoed villain in subsequent iterations, and then vampires became something like cool rock gods in movies like The Lost Boys in the 80’s. Coppola and the screenwriters sought to do a film version that went back to the source material and brought back some of the psychological horror elements that Stoker first developed in his book. Some critics were mixed on the film, but I thought it was a well-done version of the book that effectively alluded to the sexual repression of the Victorian era and how Dracula’s animalistic sensuality stood in contrast to those morals. One could write a whole book, as I’m sure there has, about the sexual subtext of the vampire legend, but needless to say, it has fueled countless modern vampire tales from Ann Rice’s Interview With A Vampire saga, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Twilight, Penny Dreadful, and many others. Still, I think there is still room for another “definitive” film/series to be done based on either Bram Stoker’s book or the historical -based legend of Vlad Dracula.
DJ: I think part of the issue with Coppola’s version is the choices of actors were poor and tying it back to the real Dracula didn’t stick with it being the definitive version of the book. Another good book, a little tougher read than Frankenstein, but still worth a read.
The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow (1820) Washington Irving
Since elementary school, I’ve always been a fan of this story, based on the book (really a short story) by Washington Irving. I still have this tiny version of it I got when I was around ten – it’s like a 3-4″ square book. I’m not sure what draws me to it, maybe an empathy with the main character, social misfit Ichabod Crane who has to compete with town hottie & bully Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt (you just know anyone with a two-word last name that starts with “Van” is an a-hole – except Dick Van Patten). Washington is a popular American writer, but he actually wrote the story while touring Europe – where legends of headless horsemen were popular in Scandinavia, Germany, and England. It’s not an overly scary story, but the headless horseman has become a popular Halloween figure. The book was first translated to the screen in a 1922 silent film, but my first memory of seeing the story was the animated Disney version originally titled The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (later changed to the book title). It was made in 1949, narrated by Bing Crosby, and was a TV staple around Halloween when I was a kid. There were a couple of 80’s TV/movie versions (including a 1980 version starting Jeff Goldblum and Dick Butkus(?) as Brom Bones), but the one most people now know of is Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow. For the most part, I liked this film, although Johnny Depp in no way made a faithful Ichabod Crane, and turning the plot into more of a murder mystery was not a welcome change. More recently there was a Fox show called Sleepy Hollow which also featured a less-gangly and hunkier Ichabod Crane. Like Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde and maybe even Dracula, it’s a story that still begs for a definitive, faithful film version.
DJ: Easilly one of my favorite stories of all-time. I go back to it often too. Something about it draws me to it. For me the cartoon version is the best although could do without the singing. My kids refuse to watch it, too old. The Tim Burton movie is a travesty of a great story, I hate it. Although it brings a miscarriage of justice to Washington Irving and true history, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow was a guilty pleasure of mine. An Ichabod Crane dropped into modern times was fun. Still needs a real scary faithful film adaptation.
The Shining (1977) Stephen King
So you may not feel this belongs in a discussion about classic scary stories, but Stephen King’s The Shining is a story that has endured for over 40 years and earned its place in pop culture. I remember this book when it came out in the late 70’s – it had a distinctive silvery cover with an empty face. My parents read it, and maybe even my older brother and sister and seeing it around the house unsettled me because it was talked about how scary it was. I tried to read it when I was like 12 and didn’t get more than 5 pages into it. I was too young to see the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film when it came out in theaters, but I did see it a few years later on TV. Even the edited TV version scared the crap out of me. I know King reportedly was unhappy with the film at the time, but I have to believe he’s come around to seeing the brilliance of Kubrick’s vision, especially compared to the frequent poorly made adaptations of King’s books that came after. Kubrick created some indelible imagery in this film, and people know some of the key shots/scenes, even if they never sat down and watched it from start to finish (the scene with the twin girls has been recreated/parodied in many formats, not to mention Jack Nicholson breaking through the bathroom door and yelling “Here’s Johnny!”). Last year’s Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One had an intricate homage to The Shining that recreated some of the most iconic sequences. It’s a great horror tale not because of blood and gore, but because of the darkness of the human brain, it explores. For me the most chilling scene is when the wife, Wendy, flips through the pages of the novel her husband has been working on and instead of a text sees “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” repeated over and over. In that one scene, Wendy’s entire reality changes and her worst fears are confirmed.
King supervised the subsequent 1997 mini-series to make sure it stayed faithful to his book, but the result was mediocre at best. In 2013 King wrote a sequel book called Doctor Sleep, which I read and found interesting but not one of his best. The film version comes out this week, and though I like the casting of Ewan McGregor, I suspect it will fall far short of the original Kubrick masterpiece that is now considered the gold standard for horror films.
DJ: Kubrick’s The Shining is great. I never read the book. Haven’t been a big fan of Stephen King’s books, although always seemed to try reading his weaker fare. Maybe The Shining would be a good place to start. I respect King, so I don’t hate his stuff just not a reader of modern horror fiction.