Happy Halloween, Constant Reader!
No doubt, with all the litany of real world horrors bombarding us all, you’re enjoying the holiday by seeking comfort in all the fake terrors which pop culture provides us with. I love horror – I basically learned to read from Stephen King novels – but outside of a few rare and wonderful examples the scares provided by the genre aren’t actually terrifying. They’re not meant to be; the whole point is to provide a catharsis, to convert our real nightmares into something we can more easily process, to purge our fears rather than exacerbate them. Horror novels provide magnificent atmosphere when they’re well written, and can excite our imagination better than most anything else can, but we know full well that the monsters aren’t going to spring out of the pages and the bookbinding. With horror movies, even the goriest visions have a certain charm in terms of how those practical effects are realized; the make-up and gore effects have their own weird beauty to them. (I’ve got Return of the Living Dead playing on my DVD as I write this, and a better piece of 80s-era comfort food is not likely to be found.) And as for pop music? The songs that get played this time of year are either moody fun or kitschy fun, but they’re fun nonetheless. You might be moping to Bauhuas or dancing to The Monster Mash, but you’re almost certainly not scared.
There is, however, one Halloween song – by which I mean a song I’ve come to associate with Halloween – which has genuinely scared me. Which instills in me a feeling of sickening dread and creeping terror, which I cannot shake. Which disturbs me to the core even now. And that song is, of course, Glen Campell’s “Wichita Lineman.”
But Michael! I hear you disclaim. That’s not a Halloween song! And for much of my life, I would have agreed with you. But that was until the afternoon of All Hallow’s Eve, ten years ago today.
Two days after Superstorm Sandy struck.
Like most of us in this region, I lost power that day. In my hard-hit part of Long Island, I was ultimately without power for a total of eleven days. That meant no heat in the house, and no lights; it also meant that communications from the outside world were limited to what battery power radios could provide. To ensure that we could get news updates, we all had our radios turned to AM stations, the scratchy voices on shaky frequencies the only lifelines any of us had. Most of the time, it was the news updates that came through. But on Halloween morning, as I was sitting alone in a cold house and carving some forlorn jack-o-lanterns in a desperate attempt at maintaining normalcy, the format of the station I was tuned to changed for some reason. I couldn’t make out the call letters, and I couldn’t figure out what exactly the format was. But coming out of the static, I could hear, clear as anything, that Jimmy Webb-penned song from 1968.
It’s a disturbing song, if you think about it. It’s a portrait of loneliness, its lovelorn narrator out in the emptiness of the heartland, with no apparent relief. The song itself doesn’t offer you relief in its music – it never returns to its original tonic key, so there’s never a formal resolution. But there are those insistent high violins, doubled by an organ motif, simulating an electronic message of some sort.
Some message from a lost time, coming to me, alone, cut off by disaster from everybody else I cared about. Shivering in the cold. On Halloween.
And listening to that song, with no relief in sight, I felt a deep, numbing terror. There aren’t many of us here in my part of the world who lived through that event, who can’t tell you how that terror felt.
Here at the tenth anniversary of Sandy, we’re still rebuilding. There’s still infrastructure repairs taking place – which at this point are racing against the next inevitable weather catastrophe. (Thanks a lot, complete inaction on climate change.) And those repairs are taking place against a larger panorama of national terrors, some obvious, some unseen and unspoken, lurking in the shadows, waiting to plunge us into an unfathomable darkness.
It’s a lot to take in. Good thing it’s Halloween – I could use a good horror movie or something to take my mind off all of this.