Spooky But Non-Scary Pop Culture to Enjoy This Halloween
Happy Halloween, my friends! I would like to say that this is the last day of the year when we can live without the tyranny of every shop, public space or over-zealous neighbour adorning themselves in inescapable amounts of Christmas decorations, but alas, I’ve been seeing wreaths and stockings alongside pumpkins and skulls for about a month now. I can’t even celebrate the glory of hauntings, the supernatural and ceaseless fear of my own mortality without being interrupted by jingle bells and that abhorrent Live Aid song.
Still, for those of us who love the season, Halloween is less a day and more a state of mind. Then again, it’s not as if I need an excuse to watch classic horror, eat sweets and pray for the apocalypse. I do that shit on my own time, thank you very much. However, the day can prompt us to revisit the pop culture that makes the hairs of the back of our neck rise. The nights are getting darker and colder and nothing warms the blood like an old-school slasher movie. But that’s not for everybody. As someone who loves horror but is also a massive chicken, I’m aware that sometimes you want the mood of the genre more than the frights. With that in mind, here are a few horror inspired and non-scary pop culture recommendations for those still looking for Halloween entertainment. Turn off the lights and hide from the trick-or-treaters!
I’m a die-hard fan of video game designer Tim Schafer, one of the defining figures of the point and click adventure era of Lucasarts and now the head honcho at Double Fine. Few people in the field have managed to balance innovation, genuine humour and such an eclectic array of inspirations like Schafer does. While my favourite game of his - and my favourite video game ever made - remains Psychonauts, for Halloween I always go with Grim Fandango. The last game he made for Lucasarts, Grim Fandango was a critical darling that didn’t find a massive audience thanks to the decline in popularity of the point and click adventure game. It retained a cult audience for close to two decades until Double Fine remastered it, reminding us all of just how good it is. Imagine a Raymond Chandler noir inspired by Día de los Muertos. Manny Calavera, a grim reaper-slash-travel agent stationed in the eighth level of the underworld, must sell travel packages to the newly deceased to help them to eternal rest. Yet he soon discovers mass corruption that prevents people from everlasting peace. Everything about the game is precise in its style and tone, from the music to the dialogue. It’s also funny as all hell. While the interface of the original game remains divisive - the remastered edition fares far better - it’s still a delight to be so utterly immersed in this world. Play it if you haven’t, or at least watch a detailed Let’s Play. I have one on in the background while I write this piece!
What is there left to say about one of the funniest movies ever made (and yes, I think it’s funnier than Blazing Saddles, come at me)? What else can I add to the conversation? We could be here all day quoting the best lines to one another (‘What hump?’) or glorying in how pitch-perfect the film is as a pure homage to classic horror. It truly is one of the best looking films of its time, a pinpoint precise visual recreation of the Golden Age of horror that still manages to be its best parody. It was Mel Brooks himself that argued one must love the thing they’re parodying in order for the spoof to work, and there’s no better example of that than Young Frankenstein. Just don’t watch the musical adaptation.
Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?
If you’re of my generation then the double whammy kids’ horror anthologies of Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? played a massive part in your growing up and formation as a horror lover. In my school, the debates over which show was best continued for many years, long after both series left the air. As a lifelong coward, both shows freaked me out but I was always a bigger fan of the sheer atmosphere and set-up of Are You Afraid of the Dark? Who among us didn’t want to be a member of the Midnight Society? Watching both shows now is a major nostalgia trip and not scary in the slightest, but you’re sure to get a kick out of it. Fortunately, a whole heap of episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? are available to legally watch on YouTube!
Over the Garden Wall
This one is probably a bit spookier than my non-scary requirement would allow but I can’t not recommend it. This Cartoon Network mini-series is truly one of the best things the channel has made in years. It’s a surreal, melancholic and warmly appealing tale that would be the perfect introduction to spooky stories for any kid. Brothers Wirt and Gregory (the former is voiced by Elijah Wood) get lost in the woods and encounter all manner of strangeness, from a sarcastic talking bluebird to a strange harvest festival to an unnerving woodsman constantly warning them about a terrible singing beast. The way this tale unfolds is a sight to behold, even with its all too short running time. Warning: It may make you cry harder than you ever expected a show with a singing frog to.
Phantom of the Paradise
I know you were probably expecting The Rocky Horror Picture Show to be the musical recommendation here, but you don’t need me to prompt you to revisit that classic. Everyone can do the Time Warp in their sleep by now (and they absolutely should, of course). No, I decided to go with my other favourite horror inspired cult musical, the one that crosses Phantom of the Opera with Faust, glam rock, a satire of the music industry, and Jessica Harper from Suspiria. Director Brian de Palma throws everything and the kitchen sink at this production, one that perfectly skirts the line between high camp, gothic horror and neon glam.
For some reason, you can’t make all small children watch Twin Peaks, but at least we have Gravity Falls, Alex Hirsch’s impeccably executed animated homage to monsters, small-town weirdness and conspiracies. There’s a breezy quality to those early episodes that is so endearing and easy to watch that you completely overlook how utterly sucked in you’ve become by the series and its labyrinthine world by the time its way too short run is complete. What starts out as a child friendly mish-mash of David Lynch, The X-Files and The Simpsons more than lives up to the lofty legacies of that trio. There may be no more satisfying experience on this list than getting to see Gravity Falls for the first time.
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Header Image Source: Cartoon Network
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