Here in the Lit Hub office, we love Halloween (actually, some of us in this office hate Halloween, and others are fairly indifferent to it). But many of us love Halloween. As we write this right now, two weeks before October 31st, our office dog Oliver is running around the room in his Halloween costume (he’s a dinosaur). As early as September, we placed a giant bowl of fun-sized candy bars on our central-most desk. Book Marks has been Instagramming a shot from a beloved 90s spellcasting-themed movie once a day for all of October. And CrimeReads being CrimeReads means that at least two of our editors are always talking about horror or serial killers or ghosts all year round anyway.
So, this year CrimeReads has decided to spotlight our entire office’s favorite Halloween content (everybody loves a crossover episode). Assembled for you are the things we love to watch and read during the season—because they’re the Halloween episodes of our favorite TV shows, or because they remind us of our childhoods, or because they’re amazing but thematically inappropriate to consume at other points in the year, or because they’re so incredibly scary that they’re totally worthy of respect.
Halloween is my favorite holiday, but I absolutely hate horror. (Yes, I’m a big chicken.) But don’t worry: I’ve still got a whole arsenal of seasonally-appropriate recommendations. I spend most of my October evenings steeped in The Twilight Zone. (Lights off, popcorn, the works.) It’s creepy in theory, but since it aired in the ’60s, the special effects aren’t too terrifying. (What is terrifying, however, is the freakishly timely episode “The Midnight Sun” which is about climate change.) On a lighter note: you might laugh at this next suggestion since it’s a Disney Channel original movie, but I stand by it. Halloweentown tells the story of a perfectly normal suburban family that turns out to be half-magic on their mother’s side. Their grandmother (Debbie Reynolds!!) visits once a year, on October 31st, when the portal between Halloweentown and Earth is open, but this time she needs their help to save her home from a mysterious and evil force. I realize how ridiculous this sounds, but if you were a ’90s kid, you probably also watched this movie every year and can cite it as the reason you were extremely disappointed when your thirteenth Halloween rolled around and you discovered you were, in fact, not a witch.
I also highly recommend (re)watching Hocus Pocus for the sheer magic of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as outdated but rather musical witches preying on the souls of children and virgins. Also: Beetlejuice. Come for Winona Ryder’s best role as the child of horrible people who befriends a recently deceased ghost couple and stay for the “Day-O” and “Jump In the Line” dance scenes. And last but certainly not least, I can’t recommend Practical Magic enough. It’s got everything: Sandra Bullock in cozy sweaters, Nicole Kidman singing Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” as she drives off into the sunset, magic, a curse, sisterhood, the (spoiler alert) murder of a Bad Man, demonic possession, and true love. (What’s scarier than that, really?)
—Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor
I am a moderate horror movie fan married to an extreme horror movie fan, so my consumption of all things spooky is pretty constant throughout the year. Still, I can’t deny that it’s just more fun to watch something bone-chilling in the chilly days of October. This month, I recommend you find yourself a cozy blanket and a moderately brave loved one and watch The Invitation, a horror-thriller movie that takes place at a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills (I know—and it gets even scarier)! A man and his new girlfriend attend a dinner hosted by the man’s ex-husband and her new husband, along with a few other friends. Things get even more intense than you’d expect, and the final of the movie is one of the most haunting horror ending I’ve ever seen.
Before you watch, you should probably make some stovetop popcorn (listen: if you’re still making popcorn any way besides just buying a bag of kernels and cooking them in a big pot on your stove, the true horror is you. I’m sorry). Add a little chili oil and thank me later. Also, candy corn is delicious and this is settled law, so pick some of that up, too. There you have it. Perfect Halloween evening.
—Jessie Gaynor, Lit Hub Social Media Editor
I’m not much disposed to supernatural or horror culture, much as I might like to be, much as my wife would love me just a little bit more if I were, but in October I’ll always dive a little deeper into the David Fincher canon and zero in on some of the more psychologically tormenting entries. My favorite of those, the one I keep going back to this month, is The Game, Fincher’s 1997 thriller about an old money San Francisco scion played by Michael Douglas, who finds himself half-willingly trapped in a game designed to mess with his sense of reality. The movie’s usually remembered for its highly specific concept and maybe also its contribution to that strange 90s golden age when Douglas had the most swagger of any movie star around. But what I love best is the neo-noir atmosphere and the way Fincher shoots the city right before it was thrown into a couple decades of dot-com growth and decline. There’s no particular reason you need to watch this one in October as opposed to some other month, but if you are sitting around on a cool evening with the windows open and your possibly coked-out brother recently arrived in town with that creepy wooden clown delivered to your house and the anchor on the nightly news starts talking to you about games and life and rules, this might just be the movie for you this Halloween.
—Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor
Ever since I found Katherine Anne Porter’s poem, “Witch’s Song,” I have been haunted by it. Its rhythm churns in my brain, getting particularly loud around Halloween, inviting me to revisit it, and revisit it:
“The lake is my friend—a witch and the water
Are bound with a tie—are mother and daughter;
But the Fire is my lover, and licks my bones
And the roar of his joy it covers my groans.”
The poem is about a woman accused of being a witch, sentenced to the “swimming test,” which is—regardless of her sinking or floating—a sure death sentence. The poem has stuck with me because it begins in incantation, chillingly detailing her bondage: “Tie my left great toe to my slim right thumb, / Tie my left slim thumb to my right great toe.” Porter’s use of mirroring here invokes a particular eeriness. But while it is gruesome as an image, Porter maintains a tone of playfulness, which prepares for the shift into the latter half of the stanza: “The water will bear me, I shall float . . . The winds will blow and I shall have breath— / Death by drowning is not my death!” It’s a threat! She confesses prematurely to being a witch to terrorize her accusers. Nature will save her, water will bear her she promises, and surely if she survives she will seek revenge, won’t she? Really, all this close reading is to say that I love how Porter marries the woman to the witch, and invokes the historical and mythological matrilineal kinship between Witch and Nature. The last striking element of this poem that I will mention is how it defies expectation: rather than a lament—as would be appropriate when a woman is about to be murdered—it is a “witch’s song” and that opens a whole new portal of possibility. Porter’s poem tantalizes me: Can anyone defeat the Witch?
—Eleni Theodoropoulos, Lit Hub Editorial Fellow
I honestly cannot tell you the last time I watched Hocus Pocus (maybe 2010?) but I’m pretty sure I could describe it scene for scene from memory. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najmy are a coven of witches invited to the present day by LA native and now Salem, Massachusetts relocated Omri Katz. By drinking young children’s blood, they can become immortal. It’s pretty creepy! Accompanied by his girlfriend and little sister (an adorable Thora Birch), Katz and a talking cat try to save the world. The fact that it takes place on Halloween makes it the perfect film to rewatch. Tis the season!
—Emily Firetog, Lit Hub Deputy Editor
Halloween is for eating candy and staying home to rewatch episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though as any Buffy fan knows, it’s actually the one day a year when demons traditionally take the night off, so if you have to run out to get more candy or something, you’ll (probably) be fine. The only question for me is which is Halloween-themed episode is better: “Halloween” (season 2, episode 6) or “Fear, Itself” (season 4, episode 4). Both are standout episodes in otherwise relatively meh seasons—and both are better, in my opinion, than the other Buffy-verse Halloween episodes, “All the Way” (season 6, episode 6) and “Life of the Party” (Angel, season 5, episode 5), though they all have their charms.
In “Halloween,” some demonic mischief leads to everyone actually turning into the costume they picked out for themselves—Willow becomes a ghost (thank goodness, because whatever Buffy puts her in underneath the sheet is fully terrible; I refuse to acknowledge that Oz likes it), Xander a soldier, and Buffy a helpless 18th century maiden of some kind. Only Cordelia, true to form, is left unchanged (she didn’t shop at the cursed store, you see. She would never shop there, gross). Fun is had with all the table-turning, but the best part is that everyone retains their memories, so the whole experience gives Xander some useful weapons knowledge later on, making him occasionally good for something.
In “Fear, Itself” the Scooby gang goes to a college party haunted house that—due to some accidental spellcasting by frat bros and a drop of Oz’s blood—ends up being actually haunted, and by their worst fears to boot. The best part of this episode is Anya in a huge fluffy bunny suit because Xander told her to dress up as something scary. The second best part is Willow and Oz as Joan of Arc and God. Unfortunately, Giles, the foremost father figure in the known Whedonverse, dresses up as . . . a Mexican, and then has the gall to call Xander tacky for taunting the fear demon (though Xander is also being tacky, to be fair). And unlike many episodes of Buffy, it all ends in giggles rather than tears (or uneasy returns to the status quo).
Finally, not for nothing, Halloween is also a good time to revisit “Band Candy.” Especially if you really want to fall back in love with Giles after that ill-advised costume. It’ll also remind you not to, you know, gorge yourself. Unless you’re into that.
—Emily Temple, Lit Hub Senior Editor
I’ve never been a big fan of scary movies (yes, I was that girl at the sleepover), and though I love that Halloween is an excuse to wear as much fake fur and glitter as I want, I also think everyone should do that year-round. But coming, as it does, in the middle of fall, Halloween does give me a perfectly-timed excuse to acclimate to the season by trying new recipes, including some that I might want to make again at Thanksgiving. Right now, that includes this brown butter spice cake, this mango pie from Samin Nosrat (adapted from Hrishikesh Hirway’s family recipe), this sweet potato bebinca (for a day when I have too much time on my hands), and as much apple butter as my New York City apartment-sized fridge can handle. With that, my family should consider themselves warned.
—Corinne Segal, Lit Hub Senior Editor
I suppose I haven’t quite gotten over my first viewing of Berberian Sound Studio (2012), the second feature from British director Peter Strickland. The great Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a diffident sound engineer who arrives at an off-putting Italian film studio sometime in the 1970s. Though Gilderoy believes he’s been invited to record for a movie about animals, the brusque staff, including a falsely jovial film producer named Francesco, ropes him into doing Foley work for a giallo, a particular genre of Italian film that integrates elements of mystery, horror, and psychological thrillers. Something is…off, about the studio and the people who run it, and the viewer suspects that Gilderoy has been made an unwitting accomplice to whatever awful conspiracy is going on behind the scenes. I wasn’t surprised to read that Strickland once directed his own theatrical adaptation of The Metamorphosis. Berberian Sound Studio feels like a collaboration between Kafka and David Lynch. The tragi-comic inability to communicate, for one, becomes a serious issue for the non-Italian speaking Gilderoy. The film is, of course, a kind of giallo itself, and Gilderoy becomes engrossed in the very madness depicted in Francesco’s picture. The recording session scenes are kitschy, disturbing, and at times quite stomach-turning (I don’t care to hear the sounds of watermelons being squashed again). The excellent soundtrack by the Birmingham-born rock band Broadcast synthesizes retro synth sounds and Gothic organs. Berberian Sound Studio is that rare thing—an innovative homage—which is genuinely frightening, to boot.
—Aaron Robertson, Lit Hub Assistant Editor
For me, Halloween is all about “cinematic Dracula and company.” The 1930s horror movies are so weird and interesting; I love the alternatingly lavish and low-budget sets, and experiments with special effects. Mostly I really like the weird ways these movies interpret their 19th century source texts. So, this Halloween, go watch any Dracula movie up to 1958. This includes F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, and Tod Browning’s 1930 Dracula (this is the Bela Lugosi one). Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula from 1958 is the absolute best Dracula movie (Christopher Lee is Dracula and Peter Cushing is Van Helsing and all the blood is hot pink), though its like six sequels are dubious at best. Also, despite starring Frank Langella, the 1977 Dracula is also super lame, so don’t even bother. Actually, with the exception of Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu (with Klaus Kinski as the vampire), all good Dracula content ends in 1958. It’s just a fact. I’m looking at you, Love at First Bite.
But if you run out of Dracula content, you can also go watch James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein (Boris Karloff!) or its 1935 sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester!). Or James Whale’s 1933 The Invisible Man (Claude Rains!). If you watch 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, you can see Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff *together* as well as Basil Rathbone! You can also go watch Karl Freund’s The Wolf Man from 1941, though it’s not as good. Jacques Tourner’s 1942 Cat People *is* that good, though. All of these movies have lots of weird, much worse spin-offs, and many crossovers, actually. Which brings me to the best Halloween movie of all time: Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a weird mash-up that pits the comedians against Dracula (Bela Lugosi, reprising his most famous role), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr. reprising his most famous role), and a bunch more villains. It’s charming and hilarious, and Vincent Price is also in it.
If these are too old for you to enjoy, may I redirect you instead to the 50s sci-fi canon (Invasion of the Body Snatchers! The Blob!), though actually that is matter for another post because I have to stop myself now. Also, I might actually love Halloween?
—Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow
I know I speak for everyone when I say that Halloween is quite obvious the best holiday of the year. Candy. Costumes. Dogs in costumes. CATS IN COSTUMES! What’s not to love? I usually spend the month of October watching spooky cinema, and to add to my adoration of this holiday, I’ve recently discovered the joys of horror film criticism, which, I’d hazard a guess, is the most enjoyable form of criticism around.
Part of this is because, to paraphrase Sady Doyle in her transformative new work Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, slasher films are so darned easy to write about—their symbolism is straightforward and *ahem* nakedly symbolic of patriarchal fears. But easy of understanding alone doesn’t explain the (relative to other works of cricism) massive popularity of these new pop culture bibles—from Men, Women and Chainsaws, to Torture Porn in the Wake of 9/11, to House of Psychotic Women, horror film criticism has THE best titles and THE most relevant debates. Just as literary criticism replaced philosophy as the best reflection of our cultural anxieties, so too have the film critics begun to supplant their academic forebears in delivering the most astute analysis of our cultural productions. So this Halloween, I recommend popping your favorite b-movies into the old VHS machine, then staying up all night finding out what something like I Spit on Your Grave or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre actually mean.
Here is the definitive Top 5 list of the best American teen horror movies from the 90s, all of which I will endeavor to re-watch over the Halloween season:
- The Faculty (1998)
Plot: The Breakfast Club meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Troubled teen misfits Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Clea DuVall, and Jordana Brewster realize that their school faculty has been taken over by aliens.
Best line: “I always thought the only alien in this high school was me.”
Best 90s song on soundtrack: Stay Young by Oasis/The Kids Aren’t Alright by The Offspring
- The Craft (1996)
Plot: Troubled teen Robin Tunney transfers to a Los Angeles high school and falls in with a group of misfit girls, led by (real life wiccan) Fairuza Balk, intent on using witchcraft to enact revenge on their tormentors.
Best line: “I drink of my sisters, and I take into myself… all the power of Manon.”
Best 90s song on soundtrack: Dangerous Type by Letters to Cleo
- Disturbing Behavior (1998)
Plot: Troubled teen James Marsden moves to a small island community on Puget Sound and befriends likable misfits Nick Stahl and Katie Holmes. Turns out the preppy popular kids have been experimented on by a sinister local doctor who is using mind-control to subdue unruly teens.
Best line: “You know the problem with America…is mankind’s abject unwillingness…to contribute to the delinquency of minors.”
Best 90s song on soundtrack: Every Little Thing Counts by Janus Stark
- Scream (1996)
Plot: Troubled California teen Neve Campbell, her misfit boyfriend Skeet Ulrich, and her acerbic friends Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, and Jamie Kennedy become the targets of a mysterious serial killer in a spooky Halloween mask.
Best line: “Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!”
Best 90s song on soundtrack: Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
Plot: Sexily untroubled teens Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Ryan Phillippe become significantly more troubled when they cover up a hit and run and are subsequently stalked by a hook-wielding killer.
Best line: “Nobody drives my car but me, you got that, shit smear?”
Best 90s song on soundtrack: Clumsy by Our Lady Peace
—Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor