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Phantasmagoria

by on 23 October 2020

Thirteen Frights and Chilling Delights

Phantasmagoria

13 Frights of Halloween, Audiotorium! TTC on-line from 31st October

Horror Stories for Hallowe’en, The Questors, The Judi Dench Playhouse, 31st October

Preview by Thomas Forsythe

The nights are turning colder, but what caused that shiver in the warm room?  Was it the impending darkness?  The sinister ambience of the fading facades of the old building?  Or was it that you noticed the date at the end of October calendar?

Halloween always brings up conflicting thoughts.  Do you eat the centre of the pumpkin; (recipes galore are available!) or do you carve it out and throw the middle away (a quid for a vegetable this big is a bit suspicious)?   Is it another frightful transatlantic import; or am I just being a rotten spoilsport?   And is silly superstition; or is it dallying dangerously with the occult?

What gets forgotten is that the word Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, that is it is the day before All Saint’s Day.  All Saint’s Day is a celebration of those saints and Christian martyrs who do not have a saint’s day (and for those who do), those who have given the course of their lives, or have sacrificed their lives in the name of Christ.  It gathers up those saints we have missed, or never known, into a magnificent miscellany.   In contrast, and in preparation, Halloween seeks protection from the evil that threatens the faith.  It sweeps away the evil things to clear the way.   If we remember the origin of the term Halloween, we have the answer to the third question.

The concept of Halloween and of All Saint’s Day goes back to at least the seventh Century, and indeed may be related to earlier pagan festivals (as may Christmas, another secularised feast-day).  The present date was fixed in 731 as a triduum of Halloween on 31st October, All Hallows’ Day on 1st November and All Souls’ Day on 2nd November.  The festival also gives a chance to remember our loved ones who have died.  So clearly Halloween predates America as we now know it, if that answers the second question.  Probably Halloween came to the United States via German and other middle European settlers.  However, in this country most of us older generation so miss our Guy Fawkes Night, which came to replace Halloween since the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (before we were born I hasten to add).  It was certainly the autumn highlight of my childhood.  Perhaps this is why we oldies resent this “new” interloper, Halloween.

Fireworks though and, particularly in the case of Halloween, candles feature in these autumn celebrations.  Let’s light the gathering gloom of coming winter.  At Halloween the idea traditionally is to frighten away evil spirits.   In Finland they light so many Halloween candles, including votive candles on graves, that it is called valomeri, meaning whole seas of light.  But here, one candle in a pumpkin suffices.  In mediaeval times it used to be in a turnip, the so-called Jack o’Lantern.  (This is also an aka for Will o’the Wisp the eerie flames seen over marshes: actually bring methane from decomposing vegetation.)   The pumpkin nevertheless is (together with tomatoes and potatoes) an American import.

This leads us back to the first question.  What to do with the middle bit.  Pumpkin must be one of the most versatile of vegetables.  It can make sweet or savoury goodies, pumpkin soup or pumpkin jam, pumpkin pie or pumpkin puree pasties; even pumpkin hummus.  Eat a pumpkin chip and you won’t go back to potato chips with your battered cod.  For the sine qua non there is Michelin-starred chef Pascal Aussignac’s Jack-be-Little pumpkin barigoule

While we are busy cooking barigoule and chips, the children are donning their macabre togs, about to be transmogrified into monstrous spooks, vampires, ghosts, skeletons, witches and the latest frightful Disney baddies.  Let it rip and them have their fun, but remind them, preferably before midnight, that good overcomes evil.

Meanwhile before the witching hour (and here is where all this is relevant to a theatre critic) you could settle down to Audiotorium!  (Teddington Theatre Club’s brand-name for its new podcast series).   It kicks off on Halloween with its spooky 13 Frights of Halloween, a dozen stories from Victorian or Edwardian fright-masters and granddaddy scaries from the Brothers Grimm.  Plus, in order to trump the self-satisfied Twelve Days of Christmas, it throws in a spine-tingling original tale, 1001 Nights, written and read by Caroline Ross.   13 Frights of Halloween producer and director, Nigel Cole says, “It may be a cliché to say that the pictures are better on the radio but so often it’s true. You just need to stimulate the listener’s imagination.”  In other words, he going to scare the *!#*s out of us!!  

As a one-time BBC sound engineer Cole knows how to layer in all the effects to have the hair on the back of the head fairly jumping out of its follicles.  (Expect creaks and groans and howling winds … or something more subtly disturbing.)   Will it be a trick or a treat?  Well, as a taster, he has given us the opening of The Girl without Hands, one of the Grimm chiller-thrillers, read with unnerving inevitability by Lara Parker. 

If you really want to test your nerve at Halloween, the you can go into a real theatre that evening at The Judi Dench Playhouse in Ealing, where The Questors are presenting their Horror Stories for Hallowe’enThe surroundings may be masked, sanitised and one-way-ed, but remember in a theatre, you are in the dark.    The producers promise “three terrifying tales of monsters, madness and malignant forces. Let’s hope it’s not a full moon…!”   You can be really brave and ask for a single seat, with no-one around you … yes, no-one to hold your hand. 

When you go out on the night of 31st October, All Hallows Eve … Halloween, know that of the most fearful of all the evil spirts that you will need to frighten away goes by the name of Covid 19 !  Stay safe and God bless you.

Thomas Forsythe, October 2020  

Photography by Woodchester Mansion Trust, Fra Angelico, Juha Heinonen, Club Gascon, TTC and Questors

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