Light up your Jack o’ lanterns! People often forget that Halloween, originally called “All Hallow’s Evening”, draws its origins from the Festival of the Dead. In keeping with the theme, our contributors have selected four oeuvres that deal with the Grim Reaper and his inevitable deed. Now, they say death is hardest on the survivors, but one wonders how they could possibly know…
They say art always functions with death as a backdrop. As such, I give you two recommendations, both short as if to underline the ephemeral nature of existence. The first is a short story by American author James Salter, whose prose has a quick, modernist flex to it and a lyrical quality that hasn’t been popular since before Hemingway. Published in 2002, “Last Night” tells of the release we think death may bring and what happens when it all goes horribly wrong. Death makes us human but not always better for facing it.
My second recommendation, which takes only marginally longer to watch than to read “Last Night”, consists of the first ten minutes of Pixar’s Up (2009). The short, silent montage says more about a life built together than many writers can in three hundred pages, but I selected it for its answer to the following question: then what? Without a firm sense of afterlife, do we just carry on, or do we hope for more? I can admire the craft in Salter’s story, but, now that I’ve got a daughter, I’d like to think the stance is more artful than true. Even in fiction, it’s harder to find hope in the face of death, and I’ll gladly tie a thousand balloons to my thin wisp of a home if it means I don’t need to read more emo-goth poetry.
The Lovely Bones
I guess my views on death have evolved along predictable lines. When I was a little girl, the song “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks made me weep for the potential loss of my parents; when I reached adolescence and fell newly in love, Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (1990) left me aching with the pain of never touching my boyfriend again; and now, as a thirty-something mom, the worst thing I can imagine is the loss of a child. This leads us to Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, about a murdered teen watching over her family and friends from heaven.
Yes, I realise Peter Jackson adapted the story for the big screen, but I could never bear watching the movie. As with Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, once the emotional rollercoaster had run its course, I couldn’t even think of revisiting it. Reading The Lovely Bones that first and only time was a moving experience though. All the while coming to terms with her own situation, our dead heroine, Suzy, narrates every transformation her loved ones go through as they fall apart and then slowly rebuild themselves into stronger people. The stages of grief from denial to acceptance are made so clear in the hearts of the characters that, in the end, I couldn’t help but feel like things happen for a reason, even the bad ones.
When it comes to video games, nothing makes death more fun than a first-person shooter. A good example of the genre done right is Gearbox Software’s newest release, Borderlands 2, in which players try to open a mysterious vault on Pandora and obtain its secrets. As with most shooters, the story isn’t really the big draw. The guns are where it’s at, and the sheer amount of pistols, rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers you can find in the game proves nothing short staggering. Which weapon should you use? Well, that all depends on the damage it inflicts, the accuracy, the rate of fire, and, of course, how cool it looks.
I love the disturbing humour in Borderlands 2. Consider the surreal mission in which players have to fight waves upon waves of bad guys to protect a thirteen-year-old girl having a tea party with her pet insect Sir Reginald, her doll Princess Fluffybutt, and the man responsible for her parent’s death tied to a chair. Sure, one could accuse the jokes of being incredibly macabre and politically incorrect, but, honestly, we’re talking about a game wherein the objective consists of mowing down legions with your sweet-looking arsenal. Oh, and, since there’s no friendly fire, your friends can partake in the carnage no matter how bad a shot you are. You know what they say: death is always more fun when shared among friends.
Halloween II (2009)
They say the slasher genre appeals to adolescents because it allows them to get in touch with their mortality. However, scary movies that deal with death rather than treat it as a plot device tend to do poorly at the box office. Consider Rob Zombie’s much maligned Halloween II, a dead teenager flick that defies expectations by exploring the ramifications of its monster’s gruesome outbursts. Set one year after Michael’s (Tyler Mane) killing spree in the previous film, the remake shows its heroine Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) plagued with terrifying nightmares and hallucinations; her best friend Annie (Danielle Harris) skipping over her youth straight into the role of disillusioned matriarch; and their would-be saviour Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell’s) collapsing under the weight of survivor’s guilt.
In short, Haddonfield is a town in mourning, its trauma expressed in a myriad of dysfunctions. I particularly like the scene in which one of the victims’ father confronts Loomis at a book signing. Of course, Michael inevitably returns, but, even then, Zombie focuses less on the carnage than on its aftermath, such as when tragedy comes knocking at the Sheriff’s (Brad Dourif) door. Here is a rare slasher bent on reminding us that death means something. Sure, they call Halloween II an insult to John Carpenter’s original, but, as we’ve firmly established by now, what the hell do they know?