Halloween Die-ary: September 21, 2018

Tonight was specially planned. It wasn’t a major plan, but it was specially planned. Which is an important nuance. You can order a pizza spontaneously and enjoy that pizza, but if you plan for that pizza all day and then have that pizza, it’s a special pizza. And that’s what tonight was. A special pizza. Why am I a writer.

Our plan for this Friday night was to launch from the shackles of 9 to 5, light the candles and hit the on switches of our Halloween decorations, watch the 1983 Disney/Ray Bradbury flick Something Wicked This Way Comes, make Halloween cookies, and then spring the severed head of a child on my family. Like I said, special pizza.

I love the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes. Partly because I love the book so much that even a one-man clothes-optional play under an overpass based on this story will get my ok. Say what you will about its slow pacing and outdated effects, this movie nails the feeling of the book. And it nails the themes. And it nails the feeling of a Halloween adventure—and does so without the crutch of a single jack-o-lantern. It does a lot of nailing.

Maybe it was Ray Bradbury’s script (although they did things to it he wasn’t pleased with). Maybe it was good old Disney magic (during a rare time when it was trying to darken its children’s fare). Maybe it was the dead-on casting (who makes a better Mr. Dark than Jonathan Pryce and a better Charles Halloway than Jason Robards and a better Dust Witch than Pam Grier?). Maybe the story is just universally translatable.

My kids have never seen the movie, and I was a little trepidatious showing it to them. I mean, I don’t care if they like it. I’m not that parent who shoves his past and his obsessions at his children with the hope I make empty little clones to help me indulge my passions. But watching movies through the eyes of an eight-year-old and a four-year-old can really damage your favorite stuff. And I didn’t get the best omen when, after watching the trailer with my youngest, she said, “The movie’s better than that, right?”

This story—whether in movie or book form—grows with me. When I was younger Jim and Will were all that mattered—finding adventure and my own footing in a confusing, changing world. As I’ve gotten older and had children, Charles Halloway was all that mattered, an adult father dealing with regret over a life less lived. Watching it tonight was particularly poignant for me in a whole new way.

See, I’m in my forties, and my wife was sitting next to me watching this movie so laden with child that I have most of the digits of our hospital already typed into the phone. I really will be Charles Halloway at some point, gray-haired and too old to throw a ball to or rescue my child from a river. And in your forties, you really start hitting your prime regret years, I’m finding. Goddamn I love this story. It’s really what most kid stories miss these days. The ability to mature with their readers.

They say that no matter how many times you watch a movie, you always learn something new, and, for me, tonight’s discovery was that Will looks an awful lot like Scarlett Johansson and Jim looks an awful lot like Phoebe Cates. It’s uncanny in certain scenes, and really makes me want to see a gender-flipped version of this story.

But the big reason I wanted to introduce this movie to my kids was because I wanted to show them a severed child’s head.

For whatever stupid, random twists that the universe throws at this planet to keep itself entertained, I happen to own the head of Will Halloway. Like, the actual physical prop. It’s from the scene where he and Jim are running from the carnival at night and come full stop at a small guillotine that beheads a version of Will right in front of them. The severed head prop was created by Rob Schiffer, a famous Disney make-up artist who was responsible for turning Jonathan Winters into a pumpkin in the Halloween Hall of Fame show and a dog into a monster in the original Tim Burton short Frankenweenie. He also worked on such properties as The Black Hole, TRON, and Escape to Witch Mountain, as well as movies for other production houses. I mean, he did the makeup on everything from The Wizard of Oz to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

I was waiting the entire moment for that scene, and as soon as that severed head hit the basket, I slammed the pause button on the remote control with both hands and feet, ready to whip the head out of a cabinet beneath the TV and really imprint weird old daddy on my kids' consciousnesses.

But before I could grab that prop, my eldest pointed at the screen and said, “Don’t you have that, Dad?”

She remembered it. I haven’t had it on display since she was five (I’ve kept it in a closet since then because it really is a disturbing little artifact), but she remembered it back when I used to wrap a cloth around its bloody stump and pretend it was a bust instead of a severed head. Not wanting to be robbed of my moment, I still made a big show of pulling that head out and holding it up against its past self freezeframed on the television set.

“Yeah, I remember that,” she continued. “You told me it was the head of my older brother, and that he just wasn’t a good fit for the family.” For the record, I don’t remember that conversation, but it really would be a remarkably effective threat. She’s a good kid, and now I think I know why. Why am I a parent.

But my youngest was appropriately fascinated, wanting to look into its glass eyeballs and the bloody stump and touch the discolored but still soft latex of its skin. Even my eldest finally got into it when I explained that this wasn’t a reproduction or a toy, it was the actual head they were seeing on the screen, just 35 years later. Nobody else had this. They'll get it when I die. It was their legacy. The sum total of their legacy, probably.

After that we had pumpkin and caramel apple cookies from Pillsbury and finished the movie. Both girls made it all the way through without seeming to get bored. That made me happy.

It was a good night. I hope they remember it. Because I’m not ever topping a severed child’s head. I’m just too old.