Halloween is almost upon us. Obviously, the meaning of this day evolves as you move through life's stages, but it was only during my grammar school years in the 1970s that I looked forward to it with such anticipation. It would start when we'd get to draw a haunted house in art class. I loved drawing the ghosts, witches, bats and tombstones in the yard. Costumes? Sure, I liked being a cowboy, a pirate or a soldier -- any costume with a weapon.
But for me, it was all about going out after school to Trick or Treat. October 31st is an unpredictable weather day in Chicago, but the classic backdrop was overcast, drizzling and windy in a neighborhood covered in dead leaves and crawling with kids. While I loved candy in general, on Halloween I preferred to fill my shopping bag or old pillowcase with the good stuff -- anything with chocolate, caramel and peanut butter. I'd be slightly disappointed when I received hard candy, and downright peeved at getting a piece of fruit. Either way, I couldn't wait to get home, dump out my haul on the floor and start the sorting process, like a thief inspecting his loot.
But wasn't Halloween supposed to be scary? I mean with all the haunted houses, ghosts and witches? While it seemed there was a house on every block that just gave off a creepy vibe, and there was the ever-present "razor in the apple" urban legend to contend with, there was nothing inherently scary about Trick or Treating -- parents didn't even need to accompany their children. I always loved the prospect of spooky stuff, and the kid who sat behind you in class wearing a white bed sheet with holes cut out for the eyes just didn't cut it for me.
When I wanted to get in the mood for Halloween, I would start by watching "Creature Features" on WGN. Even the logo for the show was scary. I really loved watching some of those movies, like "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The show represented one of the first times I experienced the generation gap between myself and my much older brothers. My brother John noticed that I enjoyed these movies, and was excited when the original "Dracula" starring Bela Lugosi was airing one Friday night. I couldn't wait for it to start, but when it did I found it... boring. John was appalled. How could I prefer these "schlock" movies and not appreciate a classic? So, a few weeks later I watched "Frankenstein" starring Boris Karloff. I liked it a little better, but was still disappointed. First of all, these classics were in black and white. Secondly, I found the pacing and amount of action to be lacking. When you grow up with "Sesame Street" and Saturday morning cartoons, subtleties like suspense in a horror flick from the 1930s tend to escape you.
But hands down, the thing that could really give me the creeps was songs. That's right -- music. I had a little AM transistor radio and I loved listening to WLS and WCFL. I was a sucker for bubblegum pop and some of my favorites were "Hooked On A Feeling," "The Night Chicago Died," "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" and "Ballroom Blitz." So I'd be in my room, up past bedtime, with the transistor radio under the pillow, and then a song would come on that would freak me out.
The first was "Fame" by David Bowie. It featured a strange effect where he sang the word "fame" over and over, the pitch starting with a cartoon-like high note and descending to a monster-under-my-bed low. I don't think I fell asleep for hours after I first heard that. There were other songs that disturbed me for less obvious reasons. It could be the sound of a certain instrument, a lyric or a subtle effect in the background. "Riders on the Storm" from the Doors is one of those. It's not necessarily the "his brain is squirming like a toad" line, but the overall feeling the song gives me. While the Doors enjoyed evoking the dark side, the fact that "Fly Like an Eagle" by Steve Miller gives me the heebie-jeebies is probably a matter for therapy. But listening to any of those songs, up late in a dark and quiet house, would really get me ready for Halloween. I liked to be scared, to imagine that there really could be monsters and ghosts. I also liked to be reassured that there was no such thing.
Now, some 40 years later, I miss those old feelings and images. I still look for songs that can spur those emotions. The first time I heard the White Stripes, I didn't get spooked, but it did bring back those old days with the sound of garage band guitars and the timbre of Jack White's voice in the first two lines:
Dead leaves and the dirty ground
When I know you're not around
The "Creature Feature" series was on Chicago's WGN-TV.
"The Curse of Frankenstein" is a horror movie from 1957.
"Dracula: Prince of Darkness" is a horror movie from 1966.
"Fame" by David Bowie reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in September 1975.
"Riders on the Storm" is from The Doors album, L.A. Woman.
"Fly Like An Eagle" is a 1976 single from the Steve Miller Band.
Follow Tom Cramer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@70sKidCramer