Everyone, I’m sure, has some idea of when Halloween became “something” to them, if it ever did. On the one hand, I think of it as part of childhood and the fun of dressing up. Then there were a few times I attended the Halloween party at the PA Academy of the Fine Arts, those being the only time I partied at Halloween as an adult. So, in a sense, Halloween as the time to get freaky and make a statement has passed me by.
Though not entirely, as Halloween, like Christmas, has always been a child’s holiday. Halloween is all about the early awareness that there are things that frighten you and things that frighten adults too. The world is a scary place, and yet there’s a certain odd power that comes along with that, whether through accepting one’s fears or making a sort of make believe out of them. Then too, horror movies and tales of terror always have a certain corniness to them too, which comes with realizing that one’s own imaginings can be much worse that what can be depicted or described. It’s comforting in a way. And there’s also a collective sense in which we all support each other’s fears. It’s like “haunted hayrides” and funhouses—scariness, in all its morbid particularity, derives from folk consciousness, and I suppose the creepy stories I like best have a strong element of that. That sense of dread that comes from a place that seems accursed, since time immemorial, or of some “condition” in a family line that will out.
Halloween, as a child’s holiday, is a way of communing with your own kids as they navigate those realms—the dark and the light, the living and the dead . . . and the undead. With my kid, the thrill of, as it were, celebrating the dark side came along early. It became a holiday with traditions—of films, songs, stories, memories. And one of the songs of Halloween is today’s song, which happened to have been released the year my daughter was born. I got the album Juju a few years later.
At that time I knew the album of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ singles, Once Upon a Time (1981), and a handy little compendium of goth-pop it was. Siouxsie, compared to a band like Blondie, was New Wave with a vengeance. They had a distinct look, in Siouxsie’s make up and hair styles and punk-goth couture (though now we'd just say she looks like she walked out of a Tim Burton movie), and she had a voice that was very cool and also a bit frenzied. Where Blondie made you recall girl groups of the Sixties revisited, Siouxsie made you realize that there hadn’t been any glam bands with a female singer.
It was too late to be “glam” for real, but bands like The Banshees and Bauhaus and The Cure revisited those days and remade them, made them darker, inhabiting the place where the neurotic become erotic, the psychotic sexy and chaotic. There was often a trope of supreme maladjustment, of a kind of distress that went well beyond any definite context. It was apolitical in the sense that there was no implied means to alter things for the better. Psych-rock, you might call it, where everything—your folks, your friends, your job, your fun, your lives, your deaths—causes states bordering on breakdown, creates a general malaise that inspires a certain kind of acting out and dressing up and playing the game of signs.
Without going into the semiotics of subcultures, let’s just say that the outlook of Siouxsie et al. made them prime for a song celebrating Halloween—“trick or treat, the bitter and the sweet.” An easy enough rhyme, but one that supports what I’m saying about the holiday itself. It is both bitter and sweet, fun and threatening. The song comes at you with a sound of guitars like a swarm of wasps in your ear, an assault. And the voice, claiming it “murmur[s] like a gho-o-o-ost,” is a bit on edge, riding an energy that, you imagine, could propel you to some gathering where there will be ghastly reminders of things you’d rather not think about—“I wear my memories like a shroud.” “I try to speak but words collapse, echoing.” See what I mean, we’re always on the verge of breakdown and yet the music sustains us.
With that bit about “the ice-blue nursery” I can’t help thinking of one of my favorite Halloween movies, The Haunting (1965), directed by Robert Wise from a novel by Shirley “The Lottery” Jackson. Back there in my own memories is a viewing of it with my big sister when we were kids and it seemed everyone was asleep and we sat watching the late, late show, scared out of our wits but at the same time, not. I mean, even then we knew it was just a movie, and it even had commercials to give you a breather, but still. It left images in your mind that made a dark hallway suddenly seem the most malevolent thing in the world, a closet might have a life of its own.
“Of a childish murder of hidden luster and she cries”—who knows exactly what that means, but it sounds traumatic. Siouxsie’s “ohs” do a lot of the work in creating the haunted sense of the song, whether of someone unnerved or unnerving, or both. Reminding us that those who are certain they are in the presence of spirits or demons can be much more frightening than any celluloid horror. The mind, we say, plays tricks, and that’s no treat.
The carefree days are distant now