When I was a kid, I got a copy of Orson Welles’s radio play adaptation of War of the Worlds. I had heard of it before and wanted to hear it myself. For those not aware, this was a 1938 Halloween production of H.G. Wells’ novel. Orson set it in the modern day, and the first half of the play was presented as a news report breaking into a radio show to tell the tale of an alien invasion. Due to the authenticity of the production, listeners who came in late thought that aliens really were invading New Jersey and people across the nation panicked. It was one of the best-documented cases of mass hysteria and crowd delusion ever.
Since then, there have been other shows that have used the live broadcast method to tell their story. Most go to great lengths to remind the audience that they are fiction. But even with this effort there will always be people that believe they are watching something real.
One of the most infamous of these was the BBC’s 1992 production Ghostwatch.
Ghostwatch was a 90 minute broadcast on Halloween, and was presented as a live investigation of a haunting. The producers’ intent was to create an experience much like the one Welles inadvertently created 54 years earlier. The show was listed in the Radio Times as a drama with a cast list, and there were credits at the beginning and end.
The story was that a team of ghost hunters and journalists were doing a live on-air investigation of a reported haunting in a London suburb. While the team on site was doing the investigation, back at the studio the evidence was being analyzed by a skeptical psychologist and the BBC host. A phone line had been set up so that the viewing audience could call in with their own theories.
Most of the first half hour was interviews with the family and backstory, with not much happening. The young girls in the house were terrified of a ghost they had named Pipes, due to the fact that their mother had explained strange noises as just being the pipes. As the investigation goes on, events start happening that unnerve the investigators, including an attack on one of the girls that requires her to be rushed to the hospital.
Eventually the investigation learns that the house was owned by a 19th century child murderer, and it is his ghost haunting the house. The attacks get worse, and one of the ghost experts realize that by broadcasting the investigation live they have created a massive séance that has supercharged Pipes. He proceeds to drag one of the Journalists, Sarah Greene, into a cubby hole, with the implication that he has killed her. Pipes escapes the house and appears at the BBC studio, with the suggestion that he can enter any home watching the show. He creates havoc in the studio and the final shot of the show has him possessing the host, Michael Parkinson.
While the BBC did take steps to promote the show as a drama, a huge portion of the viewing audience thought they were seeing a real event. Several factors played into this.
Due to a program overrun on another channel, a large percentage of the viewing audience tuned in late, thus not seeing the opening letting them know this was a drama, instead of a real event. The show also had a call-in number for people to use to share their own theories about the haunting. Once callers got through, they were reminded that the show was fictional, but encouraged to share any ghost stories they knew. As the show got more intense, more people called in, resulting in many callers getting a busy signal.
The way the show was shot was brilliant for the theme, and also added to the realism. They had an actor on set named Keith Ferrari who played Pipes. Ferrari was made up to be scarred and missing an eye. He would at times be in the background of a shot out of the camera’s focus range, or he would be standing in a corner when a quick pan occurred. Since the camera never focused on him, people who did notice him were sure they had seen the ghost.
But the main reason people believed it was real was that the cast included real BBC presenters playing themselves, including Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, and Craig Charles. To give context for an American audience, this would be the equivalent of having Anderson Cooper, Matt Lauer, Ann Curry, and Al Roker star as themselves. And yes, this show was produced after Red Dwarf premiered, but Craig Charles’s career on British Television included being a frequent presenter, so his presence did not seem odd.
I suppose it goes without saying that there was a public outcry when the BBC, in response to viewer concerns, pointed out that the show was a drama. There were several complaints filed against the BBC, including one claiming that an 18 year old with severe learning disabilities had committed suicide after seeing the show. The complaint was dismissed, although the BBC did issue an apology. Due to the controversy, Ghostwatch has never been rebroadcast in the UK. It is available on DVD, however. Last month, a documentary¸ Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains, was released in the UK on DVD, interviewing most of the participants in the original broadcast.
In spite of only being aired once, Ghostwatch is credited with being an inspiration for shows that blur the line between fact and fiction, such as The Blair Witch Project and modern ghost-hunting shows. The latter is due to the fact that even though it was a fictional program, Ghostwatch presented investigation techniques, such as night vision cameras and thermal imaging, that have become standard fair today.
So there you have Ghostwatch, a little-known gem that really does deserve a wider audience.
As we enter the final stretch of the Halloween season we now turn our eyes to the origin of the holiday, Samhain. And since this is Fanboy News Network I am going to tie it back in with geek culture by the end.
Before I even get into what Samhain is/was/isn’t/whatever I want to tackle one of the trickiest subjects of all, how to pronounce it. You see Samhain is a Gaelic word and so its pronunciation has nothing to do with how our eyes accustomed to modern English see it. When you look at it I am sure that you assume it is pronounced Sam (as in the common first name) hane (rhyming with bane). And you would be wrong. In fact it is pronounced Sow (like the pig) in (as opposed to out).
We will get back to fun with pronunciation later.
So what is Samhain and how does it relate to Halloween? Well to answer that we need to look to our old friends the ancient Celts.
It’s easy to think of the Celts as a superstitious people who spent most of their time painted blue and hitting things, but really they were a very practical people who incorporated their spiritual lives into their everyday lives. Due to this a lot of their holy days tended to line up to practical matters like planting or harvesting. It is also good to keep in mind the harsh climate they lived in. Finally you have to remember that they did not look at seasons the same way we do. To them there were two seasons, summer and winter.
So for Samhain, the first thing to know is that its literal translation is “summer’s end”, meaning it was when they marked the beginning of the winter season. Or to put it another way, it was the Gaelic word for November. The festival of Samhain was the feast that they would have to mark the occasion. It was also when they would bring in their livestock from the summer pastures and slaughter any animals to provide food for the winter. Due to this last bit it was sometimes known as the blood harvest.
On the spiritual side of things it was a time when the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead were thought to be thinnest. Many traditions that we think of as Halloween traditions were born out of this belief. People would dress in ways they normally didn’t to confuse spirits that meant harm, turnips were craved into frightening faces to scare off evil spirits and offerings were left out for the beloved dead. Thus we have costumes, Jack-o-lanterns, and trick or treating for candy.
For the Celts Samhain was the beginning of their year and the festival of Samhain their most important holy day.
I’m sure some of you are now thinking “But haven’t I heard of an actual mythological character called Samhain?”
I’m sure you have, and let me take this time to explain why this is wrong.
In the 18th and 19th centuries in England the practice of armchair academics was very popular. These were amateurs in various sciences who would do research and get published without any actual field experience. I have always held the belief that the kind of people that did this would be what Monty Python would refer to as an Upper Class Twit.
One such individual was Col. Charles Vallency, who wrote a 6 volume set of books in 1770 that attempted to prove that the Irish people once came from Armenia. This work has the first reference that can be found naming a god called Samhain.
This concept would be picked up by Godfrey Higgins in 1827. Higgins wanted to prove that the Celts originally came from India. Now today there is scientific evidence that backs this up, but the field work that proved it had not been done yet in 1827 and Higgins needed something to prove his theory. In his research Higgins came across Vallency’s work and picked up on the idea of calling a god Samhain. He found a Hindu God named Samana, and figured he had his hook. But he needed a mythology to go with Samhain to make this work. Finding reference to the blood harvest it was an easy step to go from a sensible practice to survive the winter to a festival of ritual sacrifice to appease a pagan god. And the belief of the dead roaming the land made Samhain a god of the dead, terrorizing the people as the cold set in.
And this BS is what stuck in a lot of people’s minds. For years if you did a search on Samhain on the internet all you would find would be references to a “Lord of the Dead”. Fortunately decent research in more recent years has drowned those pages out and most information you find is in the neighborhood of accurate.
Well unless you are talking about mass media, then all bets are off.
It seems that when you want to do a TV show or movie involving Samhain that last thing you want to do is actual research, especially when the BS is so much more fun.
One example that I always think of is an episode of the TV show Supernatural. Now this show has always had its issue when it comes to research. Don’t get me wrong, I like this show, and watch it regularly. When they are working from a mythology they create no problem, but whenever they try to work in any existing folklore, not so much. Let’s put it this way, my sister and I have a game where we predict when the other is going to start flailing at the screen because they got some piece of lore wrong. When they did their Samhain episode she actually called me and said “are you yelling at the screen yet?” The answer was yes by the way. They basically took Higgins’ story and used it whole cloth, adding that Samhain was helping bring about the apocalypse.
Another is the otherwise really fun horror movie Trick r Treat. It’s iconic character is Sam who looks like a little kid in a pumpkin mask, but is in fact Samhain who acts as the spirit of Halloween.
But really it was the cartoon the Real Ghostbusters that solidified the use of Samhain as the spirit of Halloween. In multiple episodes they had a pumpkin headed baddie called Sam Hane who wanted to make every day Halloween.
As for shows that get a bit closer to the facts, even they can have issues.
True Blood for example almost drove me to drink. They did great on the Samhain mythology, but their pronunciation was like fingernails on a chalkboard. They pronounced it Sama Hane. I have no idea where they got that extra A from.
Another show that was not annoying was the show Reaper, about a guy who ended up stuck working for the Devil. In one episode the Devil lamented that he missed the festival of Samhain, and nailed the pronunciation. His mythology was a bit off, but better than most.
The one show I can cite that nailed it on the head was American Horror Story last season. They opened their Halloween two part episode with a character accurately describing the old Samhain traditions, getting both pronunciation and history correct. The best part was that since the story was about ghosts, they were able to take the accurate information and make it relevant to the plot.
So there we have it, a look at what is and isn’t true about Samhain. So when you go out this year, remember that there was no blood god wanting sacrifices, just a people getting ready for winter and honoring their beloved dead.
This weekend marks the start of Halloween Horror Nights, which I count as the official kick off of the Halloween season.
For those not in the know Halloween Horror Nights is an annual event held at Universal Studios at their Florida, Hollywood, and Singapore locations. Basically afterhours during the five weeks leading up to Halloween the parks convert over to a Halloween event.
Now a lot of theme parks do this. As you get closer to Halloween the parks will have events that range from a very kid friendly one at Disneyland to very well respected event at Knott’s Berry Farm. But this is Universal Studios, who created most of the horror images that are now an integral part of Halloween. So in 1991 at their park in Florida they decided to do the event, which was called Fright Nights during its first year. The next year it was renamed Halloween Horror Nights and expanded to both Florida and Hollywood.
It’s worth mentioning that while Halloween Horror Nights happens at all Universal sites, Florida is usually considered the bigger one, with Hollywood being a little brother and Singapore only having just started doing it last year. All three sites have their own development team and while they may have similar themed houses and scarezones they are not usually developed in tandem.
Originally the event was mostly Halloween themed shows and a traditional haunted house maze. Then performers called scarectors were added who wandered selected areas of the park called scarezones. The number of houses increased, each with its own theme. These would grow to Florida having 8 houses and 6 to 8 scarezones. Hollywood now has 6 houses, 4 to 5 scarezones, and a scary tram ride.
One noticeable difference in the houses and scarezones between sites is that Hollywood is more likely to have them themed based on an existing movie franchise, where Florida is more prone to creating original house themes and stories.
In 2000 a feature was added the really made Halloween Horror Nights stand out, the creation of the event icons. Really this was started a few years earlier when the event was hosted by the Crypt Keeper from HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. In 2000 however an original character was created to be the events host in Florida, Jack the Clown. Jack was not only created visually but was given a fairly detailed back story. Basically Jack was developed enough that he could have been the main character of a horror movie. But instead he was used as the main character of the event with a house and scarezone both themed after him. Since then every year except two in Florida has had an Icon. Hollywood will also use Icons, but has never developed an original one, either using one of Florida’s or an existing character from a film franchise such as Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
To date Halloween Horror Nights has created the following Icons:
Jack Schmidt aka Jack the Clown (Yes they did his last name on purpose): A murderous clown who leads the demented Carnival of Carnage. Jack is the most popular icon and has been used more than any of the others. In 2001 a new Icon, Eddie was supposed to be introduced, but after the 9/11 attacks he was deemed not appropriate and Jack was brought back and a toned down Eddie was made his little brother and minion. As Jack is partly inspired by the Joker he has another sidekick, Chance, who is reminiscent of Harley Quinn.
Albert Cain aka The Caretaker: Cain was a former surgeon turned mortician who would capture people and experiment on them. Originally Albert was meant to be a background character to the events original Icon, his disturbed daughter Cindy. However a string of child abductions in the Florida area led to Cindy being pushed back and Albert being developed as the main Icon.
Paulo Ravinski aka The Director: An Eastern European film maker who would actually kill actors on film in order to capture the realism of their deaths.
Elsa Strict aka The Storyteller: An old woman who would tell stories of horror from an ancient time, known as Terra Curentas. Originally the Terra Queen was meant to be the Icon, but there were development issues with her and the Storyteller was created for promotional materials and commercials. Her lack of a backstory is unique amongst the Icons and has been played up in subsequent appearances.
Dr. Mary Agana aka Bloody Mary: A psychiatrist who through her research into fear transformed herself into the Bloody Mary of folklore. Mary had an extensive history developed, second only to Jack’s. The Halloween Horror Nights’ website had a multimedia game set up prior to the event that would allow people to uncover her story.
Julian Browning aka the Usher: A strict movie usher at a 1920’s movie theater. He was killed after a scuffle with a patron, and now haunts the theater and enforces his rules beyond the grave.
Fear: Literally the embodiment of fear, often called Fear Himself. He was the Icon for the 20th anniversary and brought Jack, the Caretaker, the Storyteller, the Director, and the Usher with him as his Heralds.
Lady Luck: The embodiment of bad luck. If you gamble with her and lose she will devour you. She is second only to the Storyteller in lack of back story.
Besides the Icons there are other story elements that have appeared repeatedly.
Legendary Truth: An organization formed in the 50’s to investigate the supernatural. An online game based on a hunt for Bloody Mary treated the players as Legendary Truth agents. A similar game was set up for the 20th anniversary to uncover the source of the monsters. There has also been a house that was themed as a Legendary Truth investigation gone horribly wrong.
Shady Brook Rest Home and Sanitarium: A mental hospital that briefly held Jack the Clown. It has been the setting for four houses and a part of the 20th anniversary online game.
Carey Ohio: Carey, a town in Wyandot County Ohio, is the hometown of one of the creative directors of Halloween Horror Nights. Both the town and the county have been the setting for several houses over the years, to the point that this year there is a house based around all the weird things that happen in Carey.
The Chainsaw drill team: Every year at least one of the scarezones is based around a group running around with chainsaws.
But all the great backstory in the world isn’t worth anything unless the houses are well executed. And this is where having a movie studio behind the theme park really comes into play. The craftsmanship behind the designs of the houses and the costumes and makeup on the scarectors is high. A lot of thought goes into Halloween Horror Nights with some park employees working year round to put the event together.
My wife and I attended the 20th Anniversary event in 2010. I’m picky about haunted houses as I use to work in what was at the time the leading haunted house in the Seattle area for a few years. I am also hard to impress because I am not a person who goes around nervous at a Halloween event because I know I am safe, so I am impressed when someone can get a jump scare out of me. At Halloween Horror Nights only one house failed to jump scare me, and even then I was impressed with how well the set, costumes, and sound was handled. Most other houses got me to jump scare at least once, and one got me five times. My wife had to remind me that I could not high five the people who got me to jump.
I was also impressed by a lot of technical details. In one house they used scarectors on wires behind a cheesecloth screen painted to look like a wall to create the effect of translucent ghosts flying by. Two of the houses used hanging items like strips of plastic or cloth in doorways and hallways to disorientate guest. You would have to reach up and brush them away and this gave scarectors a chance to sneak up. One house took advantage of the fact that your eyes would grow accustomed to the dark. A flame effect would go off when you entered a room, wreaking your night vision and distracting you so that you would not see the person hiding in the shadows.
For a break Halloween Horror Nights always has a Bill and Ted live show that makes fun of whatever was big in pop culture that year.I expect the Avengers to have a big part this year.
There is usually another show as well, but those rotate. The year we were there it was a magician that did gory tricks. This year it appears to be a circus geek show.
I did learn that there is one big difference between the Florida and Hollywood events. My sister went to the Hollywood event the same year I went to Florida. The difference is in refreshments. In Hollywood there is no alcohol available. In Florida not only are there places to buy alcohol but they had women dressed as nurses with IV bags containing Jell-O shots roaming the park.
Overall this is a fun event. If you like haunted houses you will love Halloween Horror Nights. So if you get the chance to go I would highly recommend it and I hope to go back one day myself.