Haunted Theater

By Joe Moore


Happy Halloween!

As far back as I can remember, Halloween was and is my favorite holiday. My first memory of All Hallows Eve is when I was 6 or 7 and was invited into a neighbor’s house where my two best friends lived. At one point, their mother showed me a small trap door in the ceiling inside a linen closet. She said that it led to the attic where Hector, their family ghost lived. As my friends and I sat around eating the candy we had collected earlier that night, I swear I heard something moving around up above our heads. Hector was my first ghost. There have been others.

Down through the years, I did my share of tricking and treating once the sun went down, and loving every minute of it. And the #1 reason (besides my never-ending hunger for candy corn) that I loved Halloween so much was that it was the one day of the year when I could be anyone or anything I wanted. I could take on a totally different persona and it was okay. Sometimes the real alter ego would emerge. Sometimes it would surprise my family and friends. Most times, it would surprise me. Interestingly enough, I’ve found a way to duplicate that Halloween identity switch every day. I became a novelist. Whenever I want, I can take on my characters’ identities and live through their lives within a world that exists only in my mind. What a cool job!

When our two boys were growing up and Halloween rolled around, I would take the day off from work and spend it getting the house ready for what we called Haunted Theater. I had a huge 6’ Sony front projection TV and an equally huge bay window. I would roll the TV up to the front window and move my big theater speakers outside. Each year we would show a traditional Halloween movie like Ghostbusters or Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy, and invite all the little ghosts and goblins to come back to our front yard after they had roamed the neighborhood. At our house, they could enjoy their sweet bounty while watching a great movie. We served Halloween spirits to the moms and dads from a caldron overflowing with dry ice fog. There were many years when we had 20-30 kids camped out on the grass watching that year’s feature film. It became a decade-long tradition.

Years later, when my wife and I would be out at the mall or a restaurant, we would often run into a stranger who would say, “Weren’t you the guys who showed the movies on Halloween?” It always reaffirmed that using up a vacation day each year to get the house ready was worth it.

So tonight when the knocks come on your front door and the shouts of Trick or Treat echo through the neighborhood, remember that Halloween is a night dedicated to kids and fun, and an evening that those boys and girls will remember for the rest of their lives. Make it special. Happy Halloween!

What about you? Any Halloween memories or traditions you treasure?

No monsters here. Just a witch having a bad hair day.

As empty nesters, my husband and I don’t usually decorate at Halloween. Our neighborhood, however, goes insane. Every year the McMansions along Ocean Drive sprout four-foot spiders that crawl up walls, mummified corpses that hang from trees, even cemeteries with body parts writhing from the ground. It’s a tad off-putting, in my opinion. The whole Halloween gestalt seems to have gotten a lot more ghoulish since I was a kid.

Because we’re not festive and we have a long, shadowy walkway, many of the roving herds of youngsters assume our house is “dark.” So every year I wind up with tons of leftover Snickers and M&MS, most of which migrates inexorably to my hips.

This year I decided to set out a pumpkin, just to let the kids know we hand out candy. So late on Halloween afternoon, I pulled into the local pumpkin patch. The manager was already closing up shop for the season. For five bucks I walked off with a magnificent display pumpkin. This gourd was a masterpiece, an intricately carved goofy face that could have been created by Disney.

Once I set the pumpkin out and put a candle inside, I got inspired. I rummaged through the house for anything scary-looking I could find. I turned up a large stone raven, an iron candelabra, and a red candle in a hurricane lamp.

It worked. By 6 p.m. we had a steady stream of Trick-or-Treaters. The thing is, our house didn’t look faux scary like our neighbors’. With candelabra blazing and a giant stone raptor glaring out the window, I think we looked actually scary. I knew I’d gone too far when a kidling ventured up to the door by himself. He seemed to be rooted to the ground in fear as he peered inside the entry.

“Happy Halloween. Um, you look startled,” I said, handing him some extra M&MS for his trouble.

The kid fled down the walkway to his waiting mom.

“No monsters there. Just a witch,” he told her.

Elvira signing books at ComicCon 2007
For the record, I wasn’t dressed up as a witch. But I was having a bad hair day. Maybe he meant a sexy witch, like Elvira. But I doubt it.

I should have spent the evening writing, not trying to palm off my trigger foods on the innocent.

Next year, no pumpkin, and no inferno.

And definitely no fright hair.

What about you? Any Halloween tales for the year? What about you East Coasters? We heard Halloween got cancelled due to snow. True?

The Most Frightening Thing. Ever.

It’s Halloween weekend. We’re writers, and we do stories. It’s story time. So tell me: what is the most frightening thing that ever happened to you?

I have a number of candidates from which to choose. When I was a kid I walked into a spider web with my mouth open when the owners were home and accidentally swallowed one. It didn’t give me spider powers but I was crawling walls for weeks. I was almost carjacked in the French Quarter a few years ago. Sobriety and a 9 mm. enabled me to put a stop to that. I was almost robbed in the French Quarter at midnight, walking toward Bourbon from North Rampart on St. Ann Street, with the same result as the attempted carjacking for the same reason. The one incident that stands head and shoulders above the others, however, occurred when I was but a wee lad of twenty-one years of age in San Francisco.

I was a FM radio DJ at the time — it was too much fun to call a “job” — and one of the perks was that it enabled me to meet any number of attractive women. One of the most attractive was a Chinese woman who we will call “Mei.” I was smitten with her, in great part, alas, because she was able to tutor my body in ways that it has not been schooled before or since. There was one problem — there is always at least one — and that was that Mei’s brother, who we will call “Max,” was the leader of one of the Tong youth auxiliaries. The fact that his sister was dating a white man did not sit well with him. This bit of information was communicated to me one afternoon when I walked out of Tower Records on Bay Street and found Max and a few of his friends waiting for me. He told me that I wasn’t able to see his sister anymore. Being young and full of myself, I told him to perform an impossible anatomical act and walked away. I mean, I was on FM radio. What was he going to do? Kick my ass?

The answer to that question was a definite “yes.” That evening, I mc’d a concert at a new, small music club on the edge of North Beach, on Columbus Avenue just off of Broadway. The concert was an unmitigated disaster, an event in itself that I may describe another time. For our purposes, let it be known that after a number of small near-riots the show concluded at 2:45 am. I stumbled out of the club and onto Columbus Avenue, took a couple of steps, and noticed Max and a somewhat larger group of friends about ten feet away. I did what anyone would do. I panicked and started running down Broadway, toward the tunnel.
I had reached the tunnel mouth and thought I was in the clear when I heard shouting behind me. I threw a glance over my shoulder without slowing down and saw a group of figures running toward me. Max. And his friends. I picked up the pace — I weighed exactly half of what I weigh now — and pounded through the tunnel on the pedestrian walkway. I frequently used the walkway to get from my apartment on Russian Hill to get to North Beach and knew that there was an emergency phone about halfway down the tunnel. This was before the days of cell phones and 911 and even cordless phones, mind you, so this emergency phone was quite innovative. Pick it up and take it off its cradle, legend had it, and police would come. I never found out. As I approached the phone, I saw the cardboard sign underneath it, bearing the professionally lettered legend “OUT OF ORDER.” An unnamed but aspiring comedian had scrawled an admonition in crayon right below those words: “RUN FAST.”

I started crying. And kept running. I thought of my parents and my friends and women that I loved and that I intended to and my dog in Ohio and knew I would never see any of them again because these guys were going to catch me and kill me. That was their reputation, something which had seemed quite remote when I saw them on Bay Street, a painting of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin on the wall behind us. And I wasn’t quite as full of myself as I had been earlier that day, if you catch my drift. I ran faster than I ever had in my life. I came out the other end of the tunnel and turned left, ducking into an area known then and now as the Tenderloin. It was and is a colorful but horrible place, a spider’s nest of the crazed and the drugged, where pain is the chief currency and waking up intact in the morning is a victory. I ran down alleys and tripped over sleeping, God-forsaken souls and in a sudden fit of genius hid in a trash dumpster until morning. I spent three days on the streets, Turk and Eddy and Larkin and some alleys I’ve forgotten the name of. On the third day I happened to see a friend coming out of an adult book store and approached him and told him what was going on. He had a little street influence. He got to Max and communicated my apologies and assurances that I wouldn’t see his sister anymore. I was permitted to resume the life I had been living, or a semblance of it. But things had changed. And not all for the better.

I moved back to Ohio a month later and started law school. I have no idea what happened to Max or Mei, or if we would recognize each other if we were to have an accidental, casual encounter on the street. I still have dreams about running through the Broadway Tunnel, however, dreams where I can never quite reach the end of the tunnel and make that left turn.

Witches, Zombies, Vampires, and Everything Nice…

So we’re coming up on my favorite holiday of the year: Festivus!

Oops, meant to say Halloween. And to celebrate the occasion, I’m offering a few novel ways (no pun intended) to pass the time until All Saint’s Day:

  • Sacrifice a goat. Or, read a book, depending on the availability of goats in your area. I recently hosted a witchcraft panel at a Book Group Expo, and consequently have three Halloween-appropriate recommendations. The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman just came out in paperback, and it’s a terrifying tale of witch hunts in old Europe. The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent portrays the Salem Trials through the eyes of a young girl whose mother stands accused. And The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry (don’t you just love that name?) is set in a more modern day Salem, focusing on two missing women. All were amazing reads, and perfect to get yourself in top Trick-or-Treating form.

  • Burn a Wicker Man. Or, rent Shaun of the Dead, IMHO the best zombie flick of all time. Because it not only stays relatively true to the genre, it’s funny and presents a nice depiction of how many people are already zombies, they just haven’t realized it yet. Genius. And who doesn’t love a film where the heroes take refuge in a pub as their last resort?
  • Bob for Apples. Or, if this always seemed strikingly unsanitary to you (it certainly does to me, that bobbing pit is like a cold, nasty, water-filled petri dish teeming with disease) Rent Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because it truly doesn’t get any better than Buffy. True Blood is okay, but let’s be honest: Buffy is still the gold standard. I never get tired of watching a young Sarah Michelle Gellar kick vampire butt. And the first season, when she’s still getting her sea legs, is classic.

And what will I be doing, you might ask? Well, here in the Gagnon household it’s eyeball pizza and grog night, where I simultaneously man the door against greedy little beggars who try to seize handfuls of candy while also valiantly guarding the well-being of my carved gourds. Wish me luck. And Happy Halloween!!!!

My Ghost Story

by Michelle Gagnon

I know, I know…it’s a little early for Halloween material, but what the hey, it is my favorite holiday so I’m starting the celebration early. I kicked things off this past weekend when our local Sisters in Crime chapter took the “Official San Francisco Chinatown Ghost Tour.” I’ll describe that experience in more detail next week, suffice it to say it was well worth the money if for no other reason than I learned the true origins of the terms “hooker” and “Shanghaied.”

We opened the evening sitting around the lounge of a deserted Chinese restaurant sharing ghost stories, something I haven’t done since Girl Scout campfire time. So today I’m going to offer my best contribution to the genre. It’s been a long time since I thought of this incident, years, in fact. But it still makes a chill go down my spine…

People often ask why my books are set in New England when I’ve spent the past decade in the more temperate climes of the Bay Area. Initially it wasn’t a conscious decision, but when forced to reflect back on it I can safely say that for me, New England is just plain spooky. You get a sense of a past there that doesn’t exist in land of split-level ranch-houses and shopping malls. Add to that the fact that I grew up in a two hundred year-old renovated farm house with a ramshackle barn on the property that could easily have passed for the set of a horror film, and you’ll get some insight into my psyche.

In that barn, from the day we moved in until my parents finally left twenty-some odd years later, there was an aged, yellowing calendar on the wall. Since July 1952, no one had torn off a month. We bought the house from an elderly woman who had literally spent her entire life there, and had finally decided to move to a smaller, more manageable house.

Eleanor Cockrell told us that her father, a furniture maker by trade, had died suddenly of a heart attack in that barn mid-July, 1952. Apparently it never occurred to anyone to remove the calendar, or any of the spooky pieces of broken furniture scattered throughout. You would think that as a kid, having a barn like that to play in would have been a treat. Truth is, we barely went in the place. There was just something about it, an undeniable dark energy there.

Not that the rest of the house was any less spooky. I started suffering from insomnia when I was twelve years-old, and was therefore treated to years’ worth of odd late night bumps, creaks, and groans. Footsteps, where there shouldn’t have been any. If I closed the closet door in my bedroom all the way, at some point, maybe a minute later, maybe an hour, it crashed open again with a resounding “thump.”

“It’s an old house,” my parents would say, rolling their eyes. “Just wood settling.”

Strange things happened periodically, lights left on in rooms no one had been in, strange buzzing sounds bouncing around the house in such a way that even my parents were at a loss for an explanation.

But this one event I believe is indisputable. It was right before my parents were due to move out, and I was back home with a boyfriend clearing out years worth of old report cards and movie stubs (yes, I am a pack rat). Most of these treasured items were stored under the eaves in our attic. The Cockrells apparently hadn’t used the attic much in the winter, and Henry had built a large panel that could close off the staircase so only the bottom two floors would have to be heated. For the twenty odd years that we lived in that house, that panel had never been closed, not once. It wasn’t locked, but was almost too heavy to move, so we never worried about it.

It was one of those roasting hot, humid July afternoons that New England specializes in. My boyfriend and I were filthy from crawling around in the accumulated dust and dirt, dripping sweat thanks to the 100+ degree temperatures. As we headed downstairs to take a break, he muttered under his breath that this was the crappiest house he’d ever been in, and he couldn’t wait to leave.

That’s when it happened. Out of nowhere, the panel that hadn’t moved for decades slammed down on his head, sending him tumbling down the stairs and nearly knocking him unconscious. Hard to say if it was Henry taking offense, or another resident—I always suspected we had more than one of them rattling around, it was after all a very large, very old house. My boyfriend survived, but refused to return to the attic. And needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out in the end. Maybe Henry knew best, after all.

I love a good ghost story, so if you’ve got one to share, let’s hear it…