By ProgBlog, Oct 29 2017 11:16PM
Something strange is going on in my local area. I’ve been around at home most evenings for the past two weeks and the fireworks associated with Diwali or the approaching Guy Fawkes Night have not featured at all. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from my neighbourhood, the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Addiscombe, from celebrating the victory of knowledge over ignorance but I wonder if burning money on brief flashes of coloured light and a banging noise has been abandoned this year, along with a misplaced acceptance of austerity as the Bank of England strongly hints of a rise in the interest rate.
Maybe I’m just going around with my eyes closed but it seems there’s also less visible evidence of US-style Halloween advertising. I’d like to think that this is a rejection of commercialisation and whereas encouraging the purchase of pumpkins is quite acceptable, it would be best if they were consumed as a seasonal fruit rather than discarding perfectly edible portions and turning them into Jack-o’-lanterns. Our local Co-op doesn’t appear to be stocking them this year but whether that’s because the harvest has been affected by adverse weather conditions in Suffolk or the store has finally employed someone who understands that there’s an unacceptable level of food wastage at the beginning of November (from either an economic or moral point of view), I’ll never know. The store is selling a limited range of Halloween-themed confectionary but even this involves some self-assembly, with scary monster forming components included with a packet of gingerbread biscuits. Perhaps because it’s expected or easy, my Saturday edition of The Guardian included a couple of Halloween items, the most interesting of which was in the Review section where a handful of writers were invited to put a spin on the traditional ghost story with tales set in English Heritage properties and Mark Haddon set his in the York cold war bunker; cold war bunkers were the theme of my son’s MSc thesis for his Historic Conservation course and as a youth I used to illicitly visit the civil defence bunker at Abbot’s Wood in Barrow-in-Furness.
Thinking back to my youth, Halloween wasn’t really an important fixture on the calendar and when you were old enough to look as though you were old enough to buy fireworks you could visit the local newsagent for an array of items which, if used incorrectly, could (and did) result in life-changing injuries; our fireworks were utilised on Halloween for some ridiculous purposes which we deluded ourselves into thinking were scientific investigation, like attaching bangers to rocks and dropping them in drains to produce a plume of water. Bonfire night used to be more of a social fixture, though after university (my hall of residence used to put on a party and firework display with professional pyrotechnics and I was responsible for the advertising posters which hung from the balcony of the refectory at Goldsmiths’) it became clear that subscribing to these things was not only uninteresting but an unnecessary expense.
Halloween customs have been influenced by Celtic folklore and beliefs and some are likely to have pagan roots, linked to the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or Parentalia, the festival of the dead. Its origins are most typically associated with the Celtic festivals of Samhain (Old Irish for ‘summer's end’), Calan Gaeaf (‘first day of winter’) in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, celebrated on 31st October and 1st November to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was believed that the boundary between the world of the living and the spirits overlapped at this time, allowing the Aos Sí (spirits or fairies) to enter our world. Respected and feared, the Aos Sí were appeased with offerings of food and drink or part of the crop at Samhain to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes seeking hospitality, a belief of ancient origins common to many cultures; throughout Ireland and Britain, the household festivities included rituals and fortune-telling games incorporating seasonal fare, apple bobbing and roasting nuts. Bonfires were also part of the rituals where flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have cleansing or protective powers.
In a tradition that goes back at least to the 16th century, the festivities of the Celtic communities of the British Isles included mumming and guising, dressing up as the Aos Sí, going from house-to-house in costume, reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. Also believed to be a protection from the souls of the dead, it’s likely that this behaviour is responsible for dressing up and trick-or-treating, the term ‘trick or treat’ first emerging in 1927. Throughout the centuries the power of the Church has enabled it to subvert and appropriate festivals from other, older customs and though we might sneer at a culture which believes that there are times during the year when the boundary between the spirit world and our world is less fixed, is it much different from the belief that there’s a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church Triumphant) and the living (the Church militant)? The difference is that the Church has used faith and superstition to impose a doctrine designed to preserve its own power.
Halloween fits into this narrative as an illustration of the monsters subsequently subdued by an adherence to the liturgy of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day; a story designed to frighten us should we stray from the path of righteousness. In his Guardian piece, Haddon suggests that much of literary fiction, not only ghost stories, explores a deep anxiety about how we come to terms with our own mortality. So do we like to be scared, and does this translate into other art forms? I used to watch Hammer horror films after returning from an evening in the pub when I was a student (The Devil Rides Out from 1968 was a favourite) but that was because they were ridiculous; Hollywood horror was very big in the early 80s but it became derivative and it wasn’t until The Blair Witch Project (1999) where fear of the unknown was used to generate heightened tension, reinvented the horror genre.
A recent Twitter thread and an older Progressive Archives forum topic concerned ‘frightening’ music and though we might class King Crimson’s The Devil’s Triangle or some early Van der Graaf Generator (White Hammer, Man-Erg, Lemmings) as disturbing, I think the crux of both discussion points was horror. The rise of the Fundamentalist Right in the USA makes heavy metal the genre easiest to associate with horror, because of their insistence that pro-Satanic subliminal messages were revealed when Slayer and Judas Priest records were played backwards. Backmasking, as it is known, was popularised by The Beatles on Revolver and even Pink Floyd didn’t escape accusations of inappropriately brainwashing youths through the technique. More likely, the satanic imagery used by Slayer was simply adopted for commercial reasons, and the Iron Maiden mascot Eddie, depicted as controlling the devil like a marionette on the cover of The Number of the Beast may have caused outrage amongst the Moral Majority but the resultant public burning of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue generated huge publicity.
The first prog-horror link I came across was the use of the Tubular Bells overture in The Exorcist (1974) which I watched at a screening in Leeds long before I was 18, visiting my brother who was studying medicine at the University. What I missed out on for many years, not actively researching Italian prog until 2005, were the cult classic gialli films of Dario Argento, with Profundo Rosso (1975) considered to be the best giallo film ever made. I’ve now seen Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin twice, the first time at the beginning of 2014 where they performed tracks from all their classic soundtracks: Profundo Rosso; Suspiria; Roller; Zombi; Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark; Tenebrae; and Non Ho Sonno. A year later I saw them perform the Profundo Rosso soundtrack live to a screening of the film at the Barbican and though the film itself may be critically acclaimed, it’s too psychedelic to be frightening, however good the music. It was hard to work out whether the audience at either of these performances was predominantly there for the cinematic or the prog- association. I was there for the latter but I think I may have been in a minority.
With roots in folklore, ghost stories and the supernatural should suit progressive rock but I can’t think of too many examples where this has been the case. Psychedelic prog-folk band Comus (named after Milton’s pagan sorcerer-king) channel a pagan vibe on First Utterance (1971) with material covering rape, murder, mental illness and sacrifice, and the music itself which varies from conveying primal malevolence to quiet, pastoral beauty, recalls the spirit of a independent horror film. I suspect that the best ghost-story album is Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing and Other Stories from 2013. You’d think the excellent Gustav Mahler-inspired Halloween by Pulsar (1977) should feature but the title was used because the band liked the beauty of the word and the way it evoked childhood, magic, fairy-tales and the imaginary, themes which are suggested in the music and lyrics.
According to a 2006 survey, the British hate Halloween and over half of British homeowners turn off their lights and pretend not to be home. 2017 looks like being a great deal worse for advocates of this celebration sponsored by confectioners and I know I won’t be answering the door to anyone on Tuesday evening. However, much more memorable than Halloween or the gunpowder plot is that Saturday 28th October is the anniversary of me seeing Yes for the first time, having been in London for less than a month....