Others may prefer their witches and warlocks, their vampires and zombies, but I contend that the truly frightening Halloween stories are those that gain their power from the depravity of the worst of human behavior. Just take Ray Bradbury’s “The October Game.”
Bradbury sets this short story in a middle class household in Anywhere, America. There’s a mom (Louise), an 8-year-old daughter (Marion) and a dad, whose deepest inner thoughts are shared by the narrator. The women are abuzz, preparing for the annual neighborhood Halloween party at their home – decorations, games, themed food and drink. Just a little harmless fun – the kind we have all experienced with our families.
I know that when my sons were young, Halloween was a major holiday. We decorated up the front of the house with fake spider webs and a cauldron of smoking dry ice; played eerie sounds out the windows. I dressed as a green-skinned witch with a wicked laugh, and dared the little ones to walk up to the house to collect their candy. The boys helped with the tableau once they returned from their own trick-or-treating. Great memories.
In the story, different kinds of memories are shared – frightening ones, as foreshadowed by the opening lines:
He put the gun back into the bureau drawer and shut the drawer. No, not that way. Louise wouldn’t suffer. It was very important that this thing have, above all, duration. . . . How to prolong the suffering.
It seems our suburban dad has been harboring ill-will for his wife for years, made worse by the fact she gave birth to a daughter – not the son-and-heir he wanted. His moods darkened seasonally. . . spring giving way to autumn that foretold a long winter
. . . filled with horror, year after year. . . . to think of the endless months mortared into the house by an insane fall of snow, trapped with a woman and child, neither of whom loved him.. . . He had been crying quietly all evening.
Behind his mask, the dad plays an eerie host to the families pouring in the front door. Other parents comment on the authenticity; that he never breaks character and how the children loved to be scared. There is food and frivolity and then, the much-anticipated trip down a makeshift slide into the cellar – the “tomb of the witch.”
Once there, all of the lights are turned off and a fake shiver goes through the room, a few shrieks. Our dad, the host, orders “quiet,” followed by laboratory sounds; the clinking of metal, the scraping of crockery. “The witch is dead,” he declares and begins to name and pass around the dismembered body parts.
There are squeals and mock horror; one boy claims the slippery items are chicken innards from the icebox. A girl declares, “Hush you will spoil everything.”
Louise speaks up: “Marion, don’t be afraid; it’s only play. . . . Marion? . . . . Are you afraid?” . . . Where’s Marion?”
But I shall stop there, with only the reference back to my original theory. It is not the wraiths and demons but the real life horrors that scare the bejesus out of us.
— Jonnie Martin