A crisp gust of wind catches you slightly off guard as you step out your front door. The sharp sting slaps your face and sends chills up your bare arms. Shivering, your pace quickens as you walk to your car. An unexpected crunch beneath your feet startles you and the world becomes alive with sound: the tinkle of nearby chimes that hang from an old tree, the swish of a cat maneuvering though the bushes, and the creaking of the wood on your front porch. Instinctively, you glance around to make sure that you are still alone, a thought you would not have worried about in the past months of sunny, cloudless days.
Another step leads to another crunch and you realize it is only the sound of the first brittle leaves smashing beneath the soles of your shoes. Relieved that you aren’t living out your own horror film, you realize that the only thing sneaking up behind you is autumn.
As September creeps into October, we enter the time of year noted mostly for a distinct atmosphere rooted deeply in our senses. With the first day of fall comes the desire to throw on a sweatshirt, eat a popcorn ball, and watch a scary movie. Our wardrobe colors change from bright pinks and blues to black, brown, and orange.With these exterior changes also comes a mental change. There is an excitement about the upcoming holiday season that is mixed with a slight edge. It is this edge that makes you look twice to make sure no one is following you. It is this fear that makes us double-check the locks before bed. This “edge” culminates in the first major festivity of the season, Halloween. This beloved “holiday” may only happen once a year but it lives in our minds the minute the days begin to grow shorter and the cold, dark nights set in.
As human beings we thrive off emotions and the drama that creates them. We would not feel extreme happiness without being utterly disappointed. We would not enjoy the comfort of feeling safe without the drama of being brushed by fear. Perhaps this is why the beginning of autumn and the month of October bring an atmosphere of unprecedented paranoia and apprehension that we absolutely love.
The success and popularity of the Halloween season thrives off of this desire for fear. Long standing traditions of haunted houses, scary movies, and gory costumes would not exist with out something about the human psyche that desires this drama. As a society we are brought up to embrace Halloween. At any other time of year, a person may be considered a bit of a freak for wanting to dress up like a serial killer, but on Halloween this is considered perfectly acceptable. This seems to support the notion that we all have a little bit of a freak in us. Halloween serves as the way for us to get a little drama out of our system.
Perhaps the number one way we let out this “inner freak” is by succumbing to the fright and excitement of horror films. There is a direct correlation between the atmosphere of Halloween today and the cliché horror film atmosphere we have come to expect. While Halloween clearly came before the horror film, it is safe to question whether the roles of influence have switched. While the popularity and myths of Halloween surely influenced the creation of the horror genre, it can be argued that today’s Halloween has been changed very much due to the films.
In an era of postmodernism, it makes sense that horror films would have a significant impact on us. A characteristic of the era is one which argues that art struggles to distinguish between reality and unreality. Whether you are a fan of gore-driven horror flicks or suspense films, there are key atmospheric elements associated with both that can easily be twisted and translated to our own lives. Common fear factors in both films include: sudden sounds, isolation of the main character, the woods, masks, theme music, and blood. Even if the flick is about a paranormal creature stalking its prey, there will still be aspects that our minds twist into reality.
The use of sound in horror films is one of the most important factors in creating a haunting atmosphere. The timing of a creaky door, footsteps, or just a simple thud can cause you to jump out of your seat and even keep you from sleeping that night. Then there is the contribution of the musical score to a movie’s mood. Horror films such as Psycho (1960) and Halloween (1978) have such unique scores that they are completely identifiable with the killer in each film. The spine-tingling piano theme of Halloween can creep up in your mind just when you least expect it. As with other audio artifacts in horror films, they are like souvenirs from the film. They will follow you home.
Location in horror films is also key. Halloween takes place in suburbia, which adds another reason to feel a little uneasy when you pull up to your “comfortable” middle class home at night. More recently, The Strangers (2008) takes place at a weekend home in the woods. The old cliché of “the woods” never seems to get old. From the Blair Witch Project (1999) to The Village (2004), the feeling of isolation that comes with a mysterious, dark forest adds to the experience.
This leads directly into one of the scariest elements of horror in general — the fear of being caught alone. Film after film will place the main character in a dangerous situation which is amplified by the fact that they are completely on their own. This corresponds well with the desolate feeling of autumn as you, the viewer, will have more time to contemplate your own vulnerability.
Perhaps most synonymous with the idea of a horror film is the presence of blood. Whether the film is a violent “slasher movie,” like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or a classic horror, like Psycho, the viewer can expect to see some form of it on screen. Over the years this has directly affected Halloween costumes everywhere. Gone are the days of dressing like pirates and princesses. Today you can expect to see 15-year-old Freddy Krugers and mini zombies covered in fake blood.
Horror films succeed because they find a way into the deepest crevices of your mind. Halloween is more exciting because of the fear horror films have instilled in us. Both are machines for excitement and drama that have changed the way we view the season of fall.