It’s Halloween, Kids … Scary Stuff! Mwuahahahaha … BOO!

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True story: As a kid, I was unnaturally obsessed with monsters.

I would read or buy anything I could get my hands on that involved the classic characters, especially Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster or Mr. Hyde.

Looking back now on that time from the perspective a parent, I’m sure my own parents were a little concerned.famousmonsters131vgf

I partially blame my obsession on Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which combined with MAD magazine pretty much explains why I write the way I do.

Every month Famous Monsters featured as many stories as you could possibly wring out of every monster movie ever made. Pictorials featured background stories on the movies and – most importantly to me – stories about the makeup.

So important, in fact, that at one time I actually considered becoming a makeup artist as a career. It was a nice idea and led me into one really cool high school job, but what I was missing was the “artist” bit.

My interest in monsters also led to to a period of masterful (if I do say so myself) construction of Halloween haunted houses in the spare attic over my parents’ garage at our house in Summerville, S.C.

Fortunately, I had equally bored, weird and enthusiastic friends who would help me in their own masterful ways to pull these off. The other (more normal) neighborhood kids would come and drop a quarter a pop to walk through and be frightened by old spook-house gags like grapes as human eyeballs. a glow-in-the-dark ghost suspended from a beam by black fishing line and one friend apparently being sliced open by a giant pendulum blade.

Yeah, we were those kids. To the parents of the neighbor kids who paid to see our horror shows, I apologize for any therapy your youngsters had to undergo.

So now I’m living Halloween as a 45-year-old, and I can’t help casting my mind back to those days. We did a lot of improvising as far as special effects and materials. The giant pendulum was cardboard spray-painted silver and embellished at the blade edge with red tempura paint. We pillaged my dad’s spare lumber and used tools that these days,¬†should I suggest that my son go off and build something with them, would get me arrested for child endangerment. There was lots of simulated gore (usually ketchup or red food coloring) and always – always – a record or cassette of spooky sound effects (thunder, groans, cats, evil laughing, etc.) playing in the background.

But should my kid want to do the same thing today, an entire industry exists to support him. Round about Sept. 15, Halloween shops pop up like mushrooms in otherwise vacant strip mall storefronts, packing in every single effect that we wish we had back them into a few thousand square feet, readily for sale to anyone with the wherewithal to pony up the cost. That cost, say those who track such things, is rapidly approaching what we typically spend on Christmas decorations.

Animated, full-sized talking monster mannequins. Smoke machines. Light effects. Everything you need for excellent make-up and costumes. Bony, motorized skeleton hands that rise from the earth and is guaranteed to make children under the age of 7 soil their pants and run away screaming. The spooky sounds, meanwhile, are available via download so you can freak out anyone anywhere with just your iPod.

It’s depressing, not because it’s too much, but because it’s everything I ever wanted and never could get my hands on.

My wife has hinted around that some year she’d like one of those giant inflatable Christmas decorations to go on our lawn. I say let’s take the money and invest in some really kick-ass Halloween decorations.

Santa chasing reindeer in an eternal loop of yuletide kitsch? Nah. Scaring the pants off the neighbor children? Yeah, that’s money well spent.

Feel the Music

Music, much like smell, is a powerful memory trigger. Just as a whiff of a lover’s old cologne or perfume can ignite an encyclopedia of emotions, music carries with it the ability to draw a person back to a particular time, place or emotional state.

Personally, I think everyone has a time during their life when they’re especially susceptible to an imprint tied to music. And because an important key in being an effective writer is being able to tap into real emotions, music can be a tool for that.

For me, one of the first moments I recall music directly tied to emotion was as a pre-teen in the late 1970s. Disco was at its height and somewhere out of my field of vision punk was percolating in New York City and London.

But because I was living in a small town near the coast of South Carolina, my exposure to anything other than what was on the local Top 40 AM station was pretty limited. Consider that the first time I heard the Beatles was around that time period when a friend hoped to cure me of my ABBA fandom with a copy of Revolver. Thankfully it worked.Revolver

Still, a few bits of excellence filtered through on the airwaves. And while I, at that age, could have already told you that Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” was an abomination, I was able to pick out some gems that really stuck with me. Part of that is directly related to the fact that I was feeling the first pangs of late-grade school infatuation with members of the opposite sex.

So it should come as no surprise that a couple of standout songs from that period were “Is She Really Going Joe Jackson 1978Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Cruel to be Kind” by Nick Lowe. Both spoke volumes to what I felt was a cargo ship full of unrequited love I was going through at the time. Now, when I need to tap youthful heartbreak, it helps to cast my mind back to how those particular songs seemed to capture everything my much less cynical younger self felt.

Much like a Method actor, who uses real-life experience to tap into what emotions a character in a film or on stage might be feeling, as writers we are called to do the same things with our stories. Think about the songs during your life that have coincided with highly emotional events or have somehow captured the way you’ve felt about a person or situation and don’t be afraid to use them (and the feelings they recall) in creating genuine, rich and layered emotions for your characters.