The great irony of Halloween is that in subjecting ourselves to scares of the kitschy seasonal-grocery-aisle variety, we somehow inoculate ourselves, for a moment, the IRL horrors that so consistently plague us each day online in the news each day. But horror movies and other October-end entertainments aren’t necessarily always simply a distraction. Just as often they’re an honest expression of universal human anxieties, dressed up in a foul-smelling rubber mask from the ad-hoc aisles of your local Spirit Halloween retail outlet. (Seriously, what’s up with the inside of those masks? Gross.)
Point is: scary movies are both fun and—in some weird way—necessary. Particularly as the evenings begin to dim and pumpkin spice flavonoids start to invade any and all commercially available foodstuffs. But! There are nearly as many different shades of Halloween comfort-viewing as there are of autumn leaves.
Whether you’re an unabashed gore-hound with a taste for ultra-intense indie horror or a comedy nerd with a soft spot for trick-or-treat silliness, you no doubt have some sort of perennial Halloween viewing ritual. What are some of ours? GLAD YOU ASKED. Let’s take a look at this month’s Must-List to find out:
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (Episode: “Fear, Itself”)
Why we love it: October is the ideal and most obvious time to revisit Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though each Halloween episode of the series is wonderful in its own way (shout-out to sexy-ghost Willow), it’s “Fear, Itself” (Season 4, Episode 4) that I still watch every year. The Scooby Gang finds themselves trapped inside a fraternity house of horrors, as fear demon “Gachnar” exploits their deepest anxieties (It fans will enjoy meditating on this theme again, sans clowns). I appreciate the too-real exploration of how the things that scare us most are intrinsically tied to the things most important to us. Sure, the episode has zombies, witchcraft and werewolves—it is Buffy after all—but “Fear, Itself” (first aired in 1999) marks a major turning point in the series, where it moved beyond monsters-of-the-week in favor of bigger existential questions about good, evil and everything in-between. It’s also one of the funniest episodes of the series. What are you waiting for? Watch it on Hulu! Look: Giles wears this hat in the episode. COME ON.
IT’S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN (1966)
Why we love it: A Charlie Brown Christmas usually sucks up all the love, but my preferred Charles M. Schulz-brand holiday export is 1966’s Halloween-themed It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Directed by Bill Melendez (who directed several Peanuts programs throughout the decade) the CBS special finds the iconic cartoonist’s coterie of melancholic tots—zigzag enthusiast Charlie Brown, football-based tormentor Lucy, kid sister Sally, chair-hating pianist Schroeder, disconcertingly filthy Pigpen, “Peppermint” Patty, et al.—engaged in various angst-riddled Halloween shenanigans. But the two plot threads that really stand out are “flying ace” Snoopy’s totally imagined battles with WWI-era aviator villain “The Red Baron” and poor, mixed-up Linus’s quixotic dedication in waiting for an appearance by the titular Great Pumpkin—a Santa-esque seasonal figure of his own creation. The results are heartbreaking, wistful and adorable in equal measure, in that nostalgic bitter-taste-of-childhood way that the great Mr. Schulz was always so deft at creating. I dare you not to love it.
Why we love it: When I was in college, I signed up to take an Asian-horror cinema class. But nothing could have prepared me—or my eyes—for Audition, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike’s gruesome, startling, even nauseating thriller. If you’re looking for a cutesy Halloween-themed movie to watch with friends over candy corn and hot tea, you’re in the wrong place. Audition starts out slow, but methodically builds to a moment of utter monstrosity. No spoilers here, but if you’ve seen the film you definitely know exactly what I’m talking about. This film explores themes of revenge, trauma, repression and shifting power roles—at first quietly and subtly, eventually leading to the big payoff moment towards the end of the film. To say there’s “memorable imagery” is an understatement. Check it out—or don’t!
THE WORST WITCH (1986)
Why we love it: I probably haven’t seen this since the first George Bush was President, but for several years during my brain’s most formative stage of memory-making the go-to VHS tape in our house around Halloween was The Worst Witch—HBO’s 70-minute 1986 adaptation of Jill Murphy’s supernatural YA novel of the same name. Though my memories of the program are pleasantly foggy in that fuzzy-childhood way, the thing that mostly jumps out in my mind is that The Worst Witch was TOTALLY Harry Potter before Harry Potter. A young Fairuza Balk plays Mildred Hubble, an underachieving and unpopular student at something called “Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches.” Eventually (spoilers!) poor Mildred is redeemed, singled out for her extraordinary qualities—what they are, I don’t quite recall—by visiting “Grand Wizard” Tim Curry. Shot on dicey ‘80s-era video and featuring charmingly corny visual effects, The Worst Witch is indeed as delightful as it sounds. You won’t regret checking it out.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Why we love it: I grew up in a woodsy town in southern New Jersey. And when I first watched 1999’s cult classic The Blair Witch Project, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. I never saw the place the same way again. What was truly terrifying for me was the film’s minimalism; the lo-fi found footage aesthetic that just made everything seem so real. The majority of the film is just darkness. A single flash, a woman face—that’s all you needed to completely freak me out. The sound of the footsteps creeping around the tent and the screams Heather makes when she’s looking for her friends? To this day it gives me chills.
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