Time Wasted
Ernest Mathijs / The University of British Columbia

Casablanca and the Cult of St. Valentine’s Day

If film cultism today is only what William Bainbridge and Rodney Stark ((Cowan, Douglas & David Bromley (2008), Cults and New Religions, Boston: Blackwell, 89.)) would call an ‘audience cult’ or ‘client cult’, and what Janet Staiger calls ‘visible fandom’ ((Staiger, Janet (2005), Media Reception Studies, New York: New York University Press, 125.)), if cult cinema’s current impulse is disconnected from the history of cultism, why do cult receptions of television and cinema not lose all of their appeal as a factor of resistance against the mainstreaming of culture?

Well, for one thing, there’s time. The previous two columns I posted here – on cultist uses of media during Halloween and the Yuletide season have attempted to single out specific viewing times as crucial to the kinds of experiences they are. And these are just two examples. This connection between idiosyncratic approaches to time-spending and cult run through the history of film, television and audiovisual media. ((To name what might well be the best known example, the significance of the specific time of Valentine’s Day for the cult of Casablanca – at the Brattle Theatre that started its cult or as far afield as Scotland where the a romantic pairing of the film and dinner costs only 29 pounds per person.))

It is the concluding suggestion of my three columns – and at this point it is really only a suggestion begging for more research, hence my trying it out on this platform – that (by and large), the cult viewing experience is still relevant because films and shows are turned into cults by viewers who refuse, or cannot afford to use the ruling models of the progress, conduct and governance of spending time with media; viewers who consume too much, not enough, or inappropriately when measured against the clock; viewers stuck watching horror films at Halloween, melodrama and musicals on television during Christmas, and watching Casablanca for Valentine’s Day; nothing original, nothing new, nothing distinguished, unproductive and not really classy. But, at the same time, free enough to do just that, and again and again. In his essay on Casablanca, Umberto Eco sees audience participation, especially their reciting of dialogue, as an example of how films that are turned into cults require the viewer to “break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole” ((Eco 1986: 198)). That means breaking out of time’s progress as well. Contemporary illustrations would be The Big Lebowski’s ‘dude’ or Ginger Snaps’ ‘goth girls’ – the dudes and goth girls from the movies as well as those in their audience.

The Dude and a Goth Girl

Eco’s remark is one of numerous similar ones found in literature on cult cinema, cult television, and cultist uses of the internet, which imply that media cultism has no use-value, no exchange-value, perhaps not even a Baudrillardian sign-value but only what Walter Benjamin via Karl Marx would call a fetish-value – a form of surplus immeasurable via tools designed to track the functional and proper ‘spending’ of time.

I am honestly unsure if this observation is – or should be – anything more than just a coincidence or if it relates to a deeper mechanism of how cultism retains a form of resistance against the relentless commodification of leisure time, or even more, a rebellion against the usage of time as an economic form of measurement at all. I’d love to believe such a relationship exists, and that it could be connected with philosophical approaches on the management of time.

Here is why I would love to believe this. One main implication of all the modes, tools and instances of media cultism, and indeed the purpose of the epiphanies cults chase, is the subversion of a steady progression of time. There have been many discussions, ranging from Stephen Kern’s historical study of the culture of time and space, over Henri Bergson’s, Gilles Deleuze’s and Eric Alliez’ philosophical discussions of the representation of the passing of time, to John Zerzan’s anarchist assaults on the construction of time that link films to questions on how the governance of time is a convention intended to support certain worldviews ((Kern, Stephen (1983), The Culture of Time and Space, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press; Deleuze Gilles (1983), L’image-mouvement: Cinema 1, Paris: Editions de Minuit; Deleuze, Gilles (1985), L’image-temps: Cinema 2, Paris: Editions de minuit; Alliez Eric (1996), Capital Times: Tales from the Conquest of Time, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Zerzan, John 1994), ‘Time and its Discontents’, in Running on Emptiness: the Pathology of Civilization, Los Angeles: Feral House, 17-41; Donato Totaro (2001):’ Time, Bergson, and the Cinematographical Mechanism’, Offscreen, http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/Bergson_film.html)) Cult media receptions are a reprieve from that convention by suggesting, through their own claims about how time works, that there is ‘another time’ (to quote the opening of Streets of Fire).

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJGo2rvfSuA[/youtube]

The trailer for Streets of Fire

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vWXS5nHdk4[/youtube]

Bubblegum Crisis doing Streets of Fire

I have mentioned elsewhere – during heated discussions about the relevance of cult cinema today where convictions can take over research findings (see CINEASTE for my role in this particular discussion) that cult films present discontinuities, repetition, time travel, or fragmented time – cult films are known for having their timing ‘off’, and watching them repeatedly is literally taking time off. The modes of the cult viewing experience turn this ‘off-time’ into a form of resistance against exhausted impositions of progress and a compartmentalization of time into “working hours,” “shifts,” or “deadlines”—culminating in “just in time” or “around the clock” economies. The discombobulated ‘future where you and I will spend the rest of our lives’ of Plan 9 From Outer Space, the eternally ‘forgotten and lost’ times of The Lord of the Rings, the perpetual ‘Tuesdays or Thursdays or any day for that matter’ of The Gods Must be Crazy, the ‘after hours’ of After Hours, the ‘time warp’ of ‘midnight movie’ The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the ‘killing of time’ of the continuous reception of Donnie Darko, the repetition of the Christmas Holidays – and Christmas Holidays’ viewing – of It’s a Wonderful Life, the numerous ploys around messed-up timing in Casablanca (“What watch? Ten watch. Such much?” – or the ‘romantic interlude’ signaling the passing of time when Ilsa and Rick spend the night together ((For an elaboration on this scene, see Maltby, Richard (1996), ‘A Brief Romantic Interlude: Dick and Jane go to 3 ½ Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema’: in David Bordwell and Noel Carroll (eds), Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Press, 419-433.
)), all suggest a refusal to adhere to demands for efficiency.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Th0G8rkhBqg[/youtube]

Playing with time in Casablanca

At the very least, they offer a suspension of ‘proper’ time for the duration, and hopefully a little beyond that, of a film’s screening length. Beyond that, repetitively celebrating a cinema whose misuse or abuse of ‘time proper’ exists through the inappropriate conduct of time in its reception can develop into an attitude of cultural rebellion. This can happen by breaking the conventions of the governance of time in film reception (watching films too often, and at other times than prescribed ((This also means ‘other times than midnight’ whenever midnight screenings are being incorporated into mainstream release (and thus time management) patterns))), by not letting the screen time run its course (using the remote to speed up, slow down, or endlessly repeat and pausing ((Consider, in this respect, this telling critical comment on the status of Scanners as a VCR cult movie (Cronenberg, 1981): “watermelon left in a microwave: the kind of scene where you go ‘yuck!’ and then play it over, in slow motion, about six times” (Pevere Geoff & Greig Dymond (1996), Mondo Canuck, Scarborough (ON): Prentice Hall, 39).))), or by making allowance for boredom and idling as positive viewing experiences – deliberately wasteful experiences, a waste while being wasted. It is in such uses that much of the reputation of cult cinema as cool and maudit is enveloped. Cult film celebrations pretend to challenge the continuity of time and, through that, at least give the impression they contest dominant ideology, rejecting the idea that things only get better, or refusing to believe steady progress is the only path.

I would like to see us link this reputation of cult cinema to the reputations of the groups of people it is said to attract, to the classifications of ‘class’ with whom cult receptions are said to share sociological, ideological, aesthetic and rhetorical links: vagabonds, tramps, squatters, bums, hobos, troupes, bohemians, anarchists, fellow travelers, Zapatistas, gangs, hooligans, mobs, crowds, masses, youths, cats, beatniks, rockers, mods, hippies, ramblers, ragamuffins, nomads, wanderers, renegades, outsiders, fanatics, weirdos, witches, queers, misfits, nitwits, meatheads, scum, punks, rastas, addicts, dropouts, losers, idlers, dazers, dolers, slackers, couch potatoes, slouchers, strollers, flaneurs, … what Kinkade and Katovich call, in relation to The Wizard of Oz and Freaks, the “little people’ ((Kinkade, Patrick & Michael A. Katovich (1992), ‘Toward a Sociology of Cult Films: Reading Rocky Horror’, Sociological Quarterly, 33 (2), 197.)) How would analyses of the spending of time stand up here?

Even if such links turn out to be casual and accidental, even if they would just be markers on a hub in the scale-free network of media cultism, which I do not believe they would be limited to, even then they would still inform a bond between types of viewers and films championing inefficiency, loss, waste, failure, and marginality, both attempting to “fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way” to cite Pink Floyd’s song ‘Time’.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYiahoYfPGk[/youtube]

Pink Floyd’s “Time”

It is in this sense that Andrew Ross’ observation that camp film relates to ‘surplus’ labor becomes most relevant ((Ross, Andrew (1989), No Respect; Intellectuals and Popular Culture, London: Routledge.)). From the perspective of the cultist viewer, it is a surplus labor that creates a cultural niche in which the refusal or inability to be productive, to have one’s labor (the labor of love, watching movies) ascribed a use, exchange or sign value, becomes something audience and film share –against the ruling times. And what better way to ‘perform’ this than through films that invite us to “have the time of our life”?

Subverting the sequencing of time and the steadiness of progress into ‘cosmic time’ (to use Eric Alliez’s term ((Alliez Eric (1996), Capital Times: Tales from the Conquest of Time, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.))) was certainly an aim of the original Dionysus cult, and of many cults since. The fact that violence and sex were among the means to achieve the abandon that would accomplish this accounts for a main reason why the term cult has been dismissed from cultural discourses so vigorously. In the form of the reception of films (often violent or sexually charged films), television shows such as Lost, Star Trek, or Robin Hood (all of which question time), and via ritual experiences that have sublimated shadow-representations of time-travel, cult has gradually made a re-entry into accepted culture.

Only in a few guises would any culture condone the myriad of ritual activities around the challenge of time without sanction. Film and television cultism is one of them. That might be exactly why cult media experiences are so appealing, and why they can continue to imply that they contain an epiphany or gasp that preempts, precedes and even precludes, ‘history’, ‘knowledge’ or ‘consciousness’. It is also why specific research into cult cinema receptions remains relevant –and if my suggestion is ever going to get mileage such research is indeed urgently needed. As any cultist knows who hears Ingrid Bergman say “play it once” in Casablanca: she means ‘play it again’. Once is again.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wo2Lof_5dy4[/youtube]

“As Time Goes By” from Casablanca

Image Credits:

1. Cassablanca and the Cult of St. Valentine’s Day

2. The Dude and a Goth Girl

Please feel free to comment.




Television and the Yuletide Cult
Ernest Mathijs / The University of British Columbia


Santa Jack Skellington, a Yuletide Christmas Cult figure

At one point in Meet me in St. Louis on Christmas Eve 1904, Esther Smith (Judy Garland) tries to comfort her younger sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). Their family is about to move away from their trusted, friendly hometown to a big, modern metropolis, and the prospect saddens them. Tootie wants to bring all of her dolls (“even the dead ones”). Esther assures Tootie that clinging to small, little things helps, and she sings… ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the yuletide gay’. In between Esther and Tootie spins around a rather creepy looking music box, and outside we see snow people (which Tootie proceeds to decapitate). The inanimate objects represent the feelings of a family about to be uprooted, and their nostalgic longing for the security of the past.

[youtube]http://youtube.com/watch?v=yudgy30Dd68[/youtube]

Another object, differently inanimate. At several points in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) struggles with an ill-fitted banister at the bottom of the stairs in his house. Capra explains the sight gag thus: “you see how we used it. You can explain the inner feelings of a man through an inanimate object” ((Poague 2004: 137)).

It’s a Wonderful Life’s inner feelings

It’s a Wonderful Life and Meet me in St. Louis have become such objects themselves. They are among the most visible Christmas cult classics, and their ritual broadcasts during the yuletide holidays are noted for triggering nostalgia. As cult critic Danny Peary remarks ((1981: 163)) : “There is no shame in crying while watching It’s a Wonderful Life, admittedly one of the most sentimental pictures of all time”. Or, as one of the tough inmates of San Quentin put it: “at the climax, I was ready-for-the-river” ((Smoodin 2004: 184)). Yet other objects prevail on TV. Meghan Sutherland’s Flow TV essay ‘Being on Television’ observes how characters from a fictional town in a soap opera are presented as a community not by getting together physically, but via the broadcasting of an invented Christmas classic, namely Christina Comes Home for Christmas. A montage of scenes featuring television sets with the movie on – inanimate objects – brightens the lives and/or homes of the characters.

How are these observations more than remarks about the use of props in media, and about the increased place of media objects itself as such props in our lives? Well, I believe they capture the role of classical Hollywood cult cinema (even its fictive re-imaginations) has come to play as a form of inanimate object triggering nostalgia (just like a banister, a doll, or a music box). In doing so, they have reinforced the cult status of beloved oldies from classical Hollywood. As the era of classical Hollywood ended, and network television became the quintessential form of family entertainment, television also became the medium classical Hollywood cults migrated to – films such as Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street. The major mode through which this transition has been perpetuated is what can best be described as the seasonal cult: the fervent cultism around specific, recurrent periods and dates in the year linked to cultist receptions – and to specialist television programming. The Halloween cult has a special significance for the horror film as a dedicated release date, but also as a slot for horror on television. Valentine’s Day too has, through Casablanca and other films, become a slot with cultist overtones. These modes of exhibition and reception have re-enculturated Hollywood cult classics.

Furthermore, through the connection between classical Hollywood cult cinema and the yuletide season, and in the recurrent adjective ‘little,’ television (that little medium) has unwittingly determined the size and function of that connection ((I am aware of the many debates surrounding the term cult with regards to cinema and television (I have been embroiled in them too: http://www.cineaste.com/articles/cult-film-a-critical-symposium), and I appreciate how contentious its use is in this context. But, I believe using it in relation to the religious overtones of the yuletide season is – in this case – appropriate. In spite Matt Hills’ well-taken claim that it is “absurdly insensitive” to the specifics of the medium film and its audiences (Hills 2002: 117) to claim a parallel between cult cinema/television and religious cults, there is a kinship between the traditions and rituals of the intense mode of consumption that is the cinema/television yuletide cult and what Cowan and Bromley have called ‘audience cults’ (2008: 89-90))). The avid following for the ritualized viewing of a group of classical Hollywood cults, such as Babes in Toyland (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers), The Wizard of Oz, Meet me in St. Louis, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, The Bishop’s Wife, A Christmas Carol, and White Christmas broadcast on television during the annual end-of-year celebrations – roughly between 20 December and 3 January – has enabled television audiences to create imagined, fabricated, yet real communities; communities who utilize films to construct or reshape shared memories and, hence, nostalgias to confirm their sense of… community. Put differently, there exists now a belief that the films themselves, their initial and long-term receptions, and their continued ritual television broadcasts during a particular time of year construct a sense of tailored nostalgia, a nostalgia both predictable and manageable, yet still real in its emotional authenticity and physically present in its expressions. Almost as if the inanimate objects have acquired some sort of intrinsic meaning.

Babes in Toyland

The time of year is right, of course. The festive and repetitive nature of the holiday season with its recurrent parties, gifts, banquets, dinners, and functions; its highly ritualized markings of the passage of time; the interruption of academic and school years for a pause in the rational pursuit of progress and education; the change in the rhythm of economic activity (one of holiday leave for some but increased activity for others, especially performers and hosts); the overall presentation of the period as a time for family, friends and small communities to renew their bonds; the forefronting of traditional and shared values; and the historical religious inspirations of the celebrations (especially with regard to territories whose cultures have been influenced by Christian traditions, with a midnight mass at their core) – all of these imbue this period with an atmosphere within which cultism is likely to flourish.

The films are right too. They provide mild criticisms of capitalist modes of consumption and distribution. New York, as capital of Capital, and modern technology, as the catalyst of capitalist acceleration, get a particularly rough rep in the stories. They share an emphasis on family union, intimate song and dance routines, and naïve beliefs in love and happiness. They are also characterized by the prominent presence of children in the story – It’s Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife even cast the same child actors. More than once, these themes are highlighted through time travel. The invitation to ponder, especially at the time of Christmas, alternative realities, has given many of the receptions of It’s a Wonderful Life a particularly open emotional quality. Above all, these films transcend cynicism (real or perceived) by highlighting maudlin sentiments; feelings of nostalgia for “olden days of yore”, as Esther puts it in ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. In his appreciation of Miracle on 34th Street, Danny Peary describes it thus:

“If a film discussion becomes too serious […] mention Miracle on 34th Street, and watch tense faces soften, eyes water, and smiles form, as if these film combatants just had their childhood teddy bears returned. […] Many of the toughest critics and most jaded film fanatics have a soft spot in their hearts for this picture they fell permanently in love with when they were youngsters themselves. Film history books ignore Miracle on 34th Street and many of us take it for granted […] but it’s vital to a happy Christmas season” ((Peary 1988: 131)).

Miracle on 34th Street and childhood memories

Note how any discerning cultist aspects of Miracle, and its significance for people’s sense of nostalgia, are explained through feelings triggered by an inanimate object (a teddy bear as well as Miracle). At the same time, Miracle, just like It’s a Wonderful Life, (and maybe one day Christina Comes Home for Christmas) is very much alive in its impact on the sentiments of audiences. So much alive, in fact, that much of the success of the musical stage version of It’s a Wonderful Life is owed to the use of elaborate screen projections of the movie.

Dare I suggest that, these days, the feeling of yuletide is – partly – dependent, vital to use Peary’s words, upon the broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life and its companions ((It is very, very difficult for newer Christmas movies to break into the canon they have established. The ones that do are often labeled as ‘unusual’: A Christmas Story (Clark, 1983), maybe because it is a Canadian co-production; Trading Places (Landis, 1983), maybe because it is too crude; and The Nightmare before Christmas (Selick/Burton, 1992). All three retain the mild criticism of capitalism’s modes of distribution and consumption. At the same time I wonder about the high number of war movies I noticed in television schedules across North-America during 2009’s Christmas season))? This adds ambiguity to the status of inanimate-ness of the object in question? In a comment on Sutherland’s essay, Jeffrey Sconce muses that perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life would have been unfit for insertion into a soap opera because the soap opera’s fabula is fictional while It’s a Wonderful Life’s yuletide reception as a film seen to be bringing people together has given the film such a totemic significance it can no longer cross over back into fiction ((Consider, for a moment, the ‘small town’ factor of It’s a Wonderful Life. Not just the fact Bedford Falls, the town in the movie, is small. But the fact that its cult status is largely the result of local and regional broadcasters being able to schedule the film because its lousy copyright status meant it was public domain. As Peary reminds us, in larger cities, broadcasts would be supplemented with fervently attended theatre screenings (Peary 1981: 162))). Through its place in the yuletide cult it has become too real, and too much of an anchor in how people manage their nostalgia.

That reality, to know you’re watching the same movie together with (simultaneously as) thousands of other people, is as heartfelt and genuine, and it serves as much as a construction for nostalgia and community, as sitting around a burning log. Maybe that particular inanimate object – the yule log video – can become the focus of further discussion on this status?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vf-4lCsLlpg[/youtube]

Image Credits:
1. Santa Jack Skellington, a Yuletide Christmas Cult figure
2. It’s a Wonderful Life’s inner feelings
3. Miracle on 34th Street and childhood memories
4. Babes in Toyland

Please feel free to comment.




Threat or Treat: Film, Television, and the Ritual of Halloween

Tootie says “I’m the most horrible”

“I killed him!! I’m the most horrible!”, yells Tootie, as she runs away from the Braukoff house, charcoal on her face. The scene is from Meet me in St. Louis. The film shows just how crucial the seasonal holiday of Halloween is to feeling at home or alienated in a community. In 1904 St. Louis, Tootie, played by Margaret O’Brien, roams her neighborhood after dusk, dressed up as a ‘horrible ghost that died of a broken heart’. She joins other unsupervised kids around a giant bonfire, and she scares the wits out of neighbor Braukoff, whom she suspects of ‘burning cats at midnight in his furnace’, and of having empty whiskey bottles in his cellar. Much of Tootie’s Halloween resembles our own, many decades later. But much has changed too.

In this, the first of three columns on cultist rituals, media culture, and senses of ‘belonging’ in what is best called – and limited to – ‘today’s Western world’, I am looking at the cult of Halloween and its appropriation by the horror industry. The next columns will address the Yuletide season, and Valentine’s Day. Each time, the stress is on the impact of today’s media culture on how ‘we’ (or I, at least) make use of seasonal and cyclical festivities and remembrances to help give sense to our lives.

Tootie’s adventure captures the essence of the Halloween holiday perfectly. It is a little bit frightening but it is also fun. It is a feast, a flaunting of social taboos, and an exercise in testing one’s fears. Halloween tests the boundaries of a community’s sense of togetherness and its ability to recognize strangers and predators. Through dressing up we check our capacity to tell true danger from fake scares, and to signal both our friendliness and test that of others – if we can be recognized as friendly even when we wear a mask we must be in good company (note how it is charcoal in the case of Tootie).

The function for the Halloween cult’s mix of fear and fun is threefold. The first is the commemoration of those who perished in the community’s tough Summer-labor of bringing in the harvest and preparing for the survival of Winter – hence the emphasis on imagery of death. Halloween’s second element involves an orgiastic bonfire consumption of abundance; treats are generously shared with neighbors. Finally, there is also an element of threat. The leftover harvest that cannot be stored or consumed needs to be destroyed, or it will attract predators. The community’s ability to distinguish between neighbors and predators, between friends and foes, is tested severely during the Halloween period – is that shape over there just an inebriated neighbor or a predator? Various customs have appropriated parts of Halloween… Many of these are important holidays, but they don’t carry Halloween’s exhilarating mix of thrills and fears.

John Carpenter’s Halloween

That mix is preserved perfectly in the horror movies that have become so ubiquitous for Halloween. In 1978, John Carpenter’s appropriately titled Halloween, set in a neighborhood not unlike that of Meet me in St. Louis, demonstrated that the holiday matched the concerns of modern horror cinema. At the time, the genre was going through a big transition. Stories about old-school monsters (counts from faraway castles) were being replaced by stories about the ‘horror within’, the evil amidst the community, among your friends and family. Surviving horror in those stories really became a test of knowing your friends from your foes – exactly the essence of Halloween.

The success of this transition catapulted what had been a subculture of horror into a massive industry, so much so that critics such as Lawrence O’ Toole and Robin Wood referred to the late 1970s as the ‘cult of horror era’. Propelled by Halloween’s massive success, the period between the end of October and the beginning of December quickly became a preferred release period for the renewed genre. Many of horror’s modern classics premiered around Halloween: from Evil Dead, Stephen King adaptations, and many of the Michael, Freddy and Jason franchises, via The Blair Witch Project, Ginger Snaps, Saw, to Paranormal Activity, … and even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller!”

“Thriller”

But something changed too. As seasonal activity became central to the success of the horror genre, Halloween became more popular as a cultural vehicle for everything from heavy metal album releases and horror fanzines such as Fangoria to video clips. Since the 1990s, television has taken a huge interest in the holiday, from shows such as Tales from the Crypt and channels such as Chiller TV, to sports broadcasts to animated comedy. The presence of bonfires and log fires on community channels are clear evidence that the interlinking between the original ritual and the media cult, between Halloween and Halloween, has dissipated. ‘Halloween’ now supports, and is supported by, a big chunk of the entertainment industry. It has become over-cultified. Its rituals are more those of media audiences than those of communities interrogating their cohesiveness and hospitality. Many of the horror films that set the tone for the transition have recently been re-born or re-vamped, and this cycle of recycles has created some form of overkill. Halloween is now a product, an image, and no longer an event.

Against that stand a few occasions that resist this detachment. Let me stress just one example. Last weekend I attended the Flashback Weekend Chicago Horror Convention, the longest surviving in the area. Sponsored by Anchor Bay, offspring of the cult of horror, and run by die-hard lovable showman Mike who have their roots in the drive-in business, it stresses the personable in Halloween’s rituals of feast, commemoration, and friend-or-foe testing. Above all, it carries at its heart a sense of direct contact, present most obviously in the meet and greet sections of the convention but also in the fake scares of the macabre costume parties and contests, and in what can really only be called a genuine sense of community – family, kids and all. And guess what, when Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell, Nightmare’s Robert Englund, Aliens’ Lance Henriksen, and the Ginger Snaps sisters show up, so do 2,000 fans, who party ‘till dawn.

Ginger Snaps Reunion at Chicago’s Flashback Convention

In the 21st Century, our thirst for testing who our friends and foes are has taken on new dimensions. The tightly knit communities of yore and even the suburban neighborhoods of Halloween are joined by a global village in which everyone is in touchpad reach of everyone, and in which “everyone’s a suspect”, as Randy yells out in Scream. These changes might become the ultimate test for the tradition: where does the cohesion of a community lie if every member is under suspicion? And what am I going to dress up as if everyone’s a ‘friend’ or acquaintance? As the ghost of evil corporations? Does it imply that, to paraphrase Tootie, the “most horrible” may indeed be me? Or does it obliterate the function of Halloween, reducing it to merely an occasion to ‘let loose’, as the punk band The Dead Kennedys shout in their criticism of the holiday?

I put my faith in Meet me in St. Louis. In much the same way traditions of tactility (by which I mean traditions in which people actually go face to face, and maybe even touch each other – from shaking hands to full embraces), refuse to be shoved aside by modern technology in that film there will always be a purpose for a cyclical seasonal festivity that highlights both evil and pleasure, both the horror of fear and death and sumptuous consumption, generosity and ‘lettin’ loose’. For that mix, the physicality of horror is perfectly suited. Donnie Darko-creepy-bunny-suited.

Donnie Darko

Image Credits:

1. Tootie says “I’m the Most Horrible”
2. John Carpenter’s Halloween
3. “Thriller”
4. Ginger Snaps Reunion at Chicago’s Flashback Convention
5. Donnie Darko

Please feel free to comment.