Friday was a raw, wet, overcast October day here in Boston. For me, it meant that fall has truly arrived in New England. As my wholly repetitive earlier posts about fall attest (here and here), this is my favorite and most nostalgic season.
The change of seasons from summer to fall is rooted in the equinox, an astronomical term. As explained by Wikipedia:
An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun. . . . The Astronomical Almanac defines it, on the other hand, as the instants when the Sun’s apparent longitude is 0° or 180°. . . . The two definitions are almost, but not exactly equivalent. Equinoxes occur twice a year, around 21 March and 23 September.
The month will culminate with Halloween, that most candy-coated of holidays. It will include a viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a childhood favorite that still manages to get me in the Halloween spirit.
But Halloween is about much more than empty calories and chocolate fixes. Its origins are grounded in religion and death. Again, from Wikipedia:
Halloween . . . is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, . . . the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. . . . Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” . . .
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, . . . with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. . . . Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Perhaps it was inevitable that ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses would eventually enter the picture!
I’m in the right part of the country for religion and the supernatural to mix. It’s a combination that goes waaay back. Rosalyn Schanzer opens Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (2011), a short, lively, fact-filled narrative of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century, with a description of the Puritan mindset of the day:
Yet with all their fine intentions, the voyagers had brought along a stowaway from their former home — a terrifying, ancient idea fated to wreak havoc in their new land. For the Puritans believed in the existence of two entirely different worlds.
The first of these was the Natural World of human beings and everything else we can see or touch or feel. But rooted deep within the Puritans’ souls like some strange invasive weed lurked their belief in a second world, an Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms in the air.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this New England milieu has produced legendary writers of scary stories such as Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft.
After polling friends on Facebook and elsewhere for their Stephen King recommendations, I bought a small bagful of his books (Pet Sematary, It, and Needful Things), all with Maine settings. This one is first up on my reading list:
In his new introduction to Pet Sematary, King calls it his scariest book, so much so that he believed it would never be published.
In other words, it’s a great choice for an October reading.
I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month I dug back to 1976 for a couple of really solid films.
Aces High (1976) (3 stars out of 4)
Although I’m a big fan of historical dramas, I somehow managed to miss Aces High until now. It’s an underrated war movie about British fighter pilots during the First World War. Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer, Peter Firth, and Simon Ward are the stars of an ensemble cast.
The movie features very good aerial scenes (no irritating CGI here) and interesting if sometimes cliched personal dramas. This film was a pleasant surprise, a random streaming discovery from Netflix. It stands well above two more recent WWI aviator movies, Flyboys (2006) and The Red Baron (2008).
The Omen (1976) (3.5 stars)
The Omen is one of my long-time favorites, a movie that first sent chills up my spine back in high school and continues to do so. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick co-star as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and his wife. They have a son, and let’s just say that he’s a young man of Biblical qualities, and not the good kind.
Yup, there are some plot implausibilities that are stretches even for horror film. But it delivers on goosebumps. Suffice it to say that after watching The Omen, you’ll be wary of surprise nannies, little boys with a head of steam, and priests bearing bad news.
Tonight I took a short break to watch an old favorite, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, one of the classic Peanuts TV specials. It’s funny, sweet, innocent, and clever. As a kid, I so wanted the Great Pumpkin to make an appearance! Nowadays, I especially enjoy Snoopy’s adventure as a First World War flying ace.
This particular appearance of the Peanuts gang means that we’re into the heart of October, and Halloween beckons. Ghosts and goblins are also part of the story. To get the supernatural atmosphere right, it helps to be in a part of the country that experiences genuine changes of seasons, and New England certainly fits the bill. Although today happened to be a tad on the warm side, we’ve already had several days of fall chill.
To help capture the season, I’ve included this photo of Joseph A. Citro’s Weird New England (2005). You see, in New England, that Halloween feeling is about more than simply the weather. This is an old part of the country, and old stuff tends to bring a lot of haunted spirits, or so they say. (By contrast, while I’m sure they have ghosts in Los Angeles, it’s just not the same.)
Halloween still has the power to bring out the little kid in all of us, so here’s to ghosts, Peanuts specials, and maybe a candy bar or two to top them off.
I was reminded how travel is one of the benefits of my work when I made a quick trip to Louisville, Kentucky to speak last Friday at a continuing legal education program sponsored by the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law.
It was my first visit to this historic old riverboat city, and I hope that I’ll be able to return for a longer one.
The conference was held at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in downtown Louisville. I’m sufficiently clueless about interior aesthetics that I rarely notice much about hotels I stay in, but the Seelbach is a beautiful place with lots of history. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time there and was so taken by it that he used the hotel as the setting for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding in The Great Gatsby. Prohibition era gangster Al Capone was a frequent visitor as well.
And as befits any classic old hotel, ghost sightings have been reported at the Seelbach. Local history expert Nicholas Howard writes:
The first ghost sighting was in 1987 when a cook spotted a woman in a blue dress with long dark hair walk into the elevator and disappear; the catch was the doors were closed the whole time. A maid spotted the same woman the same day. With some investigating, it is believed she is the spirit of a woman that died there in 1931. . . .
A guest in 1985 also called the desk saying she felt something rubbing her legs when she got into her bed; nothing was ever found in the room. There are also reports of guests TVs being turned on in the middle of the night, the air conditioners coming on and reports of an old woman roaming the halls.
I believe the first time I ever heard of Louisville was in connection with baseball bats. You see, “Louisville Slugger” is the name of an iconic brand of baseball bat, and the company still has its headquarters in the city. Walking along Main Street, you’ll see Louisville Slugger plaques and baseball bats making for the “Walk of Fame.” As a baseball fan, I got a big kick out of this!
The conference organizers hosted a lovely dinner for program speakers at the Bristol Bar & Grill, and the highlight for me was a local dessert known as Derby-Pie, which I can best describe as a sort of walnut & chocolate chip pie with a flaky crust.
Derby-Pie is one of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted! On a plate in a dimmed dining room, it looks like just another dessert, but after one bite…
New Orleans has a mythology, a personality, a soul, that is large, that has touched people around the world. It has its own music (many of its own musics), its own cuisine, its own way of talking, its own architecture, its own smell, its own look and feel.
-Tom Piazza, Why New Orleans Matters (2005)
At least during those five months of the year when it isn’t unbearably hot and humid, I can’t think of a more fascinating American city to visit than New Orleans.
I’ve been in New Orleans for a conference, and it’s my first trip to the city in 15 years. Obviously NOLA (as they call it) has been through a lot in the post-Katrina years, but it retains the unique look and feel that Tom Piazza wrote about in his eloquent tribute to the city as it struggled to recover from the storm and flooding.
Lately my vacations have been limited to extended weekend trips and add-on days to work-related travel, and thus I tend to explore places I visit in short stretches. Fortunately I can dig into a city like New Orleans, especially its historic French Quarter, even if I have only a couple of days to do so. For starters, I took a great walking tour of the Quarter sponsored by Friends of the Cabildo, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Louisiana’s history. From that tour, here’s a shot of the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest operating cathedral in North America:
Some of my college pals who read this blog know all-too-well how much our semester abroad in England and accompanying post-semester sojourns imprinted themselves on me. Ever since, I’ve welcomed opportunities to re-experience the adventure of youthful European travel, however briefly, and New Orleans allows me to do just that without need of a passport! Seeing artists displaying their work in Jackson Square reminded me of my first visit to Paris over 30 years ago.
Being the bookstore hound that I am, I had to seek out a few of the city’s bookstores. Here’s Beckham’s Bookstore on Decatur Street, a great used bookstore with piles of books next to filled-up shelves that, well, sorta reminded me of my condo!
Beckham’s comes replete with its own resident cat, who apparently commandeers whatever space is convenient in order to get in a well-earned nap.
NOLA is home to some incredibly talented musicians. Here’s a great jazz band playing on Royal Street.
They’re so good, I picked up one of their CDs, pictured here with the Piazza book:
NOLA’s history has its ghastly side that, not surprisingly, sometimes turns ghostly. For example, pictured here is the house of Madame Delphine Lalaurie, who is said to have committed horrific acts of torture on her slaves during the 1830s. Though some claim that she has been unfairly indicted in the court of history, the most authoritative book that I’ve encountered on the topic, Carolyn Morrow Long’s Madame Lalaurie, Mistress of the Haunted House (2012), sides with the accusers. Naturally, the house is a favorite stop on the countless French Quarter ghost tours, and though I didn’t encounter anything supernatural when I was clicking away with my camera, I wouldn’t be eager to spend a night there.
Not all of the historical offerings are uniquely local. New Orleans also is home to the impressive National World War II Museum, co-founded by noted historian Stephen Ambrose, who taught at the University of New Orleans and whose books about D-Day and the European Theatre inspired the HBO series “Band of Brothers.” The museum, which continues to expand, includes a large hall containing vintage aircraft. Here is a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” an iconic U.S. bomber plane of the era.
Of course, a visit to New Orleans typically involves good food. The city has a collection of fancy restaurants, but I ended up being a repeat customer at less expensive eateries, including The Grill, pictured here…
…and Jimmy J’s Cafe, whose wonderful cinnamon French toast is pictured here.
I think an order of French toast is a good way to conclude this blog post. Enjoy!
For a short piece on the psychology & law conference that brought me to New Orleans, go here.
All photos: DY, 2014
As a kid, Halloween was all about trick-or-treating. It basically involved the short-lived joy of my brother Jeff and I returning home with our bags full of candy, dumping our catch on the kitchen table, and sorting out the A list candies from all the rest. A couple of weeks and a few gazillion grams of sugar later, it was over.
Truth is, I always felt kinda dopey dressing up in a Halloween costume. But you gotta do what you gotta do to get the annual haul of candy.
There also was the annual viewing of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” It took a far second place to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but still managed to give us our fix of the Peanuts gang.
I can’t recall the last time I went to a Halloween party, and more often than not I’ve found myself teaching on Halloween night. This year, scary movies are my way of ringing in the Halloween season. Here are the three I’ve viewed so far:
The Haunting (1963) (**** stars) — An old house in a remote part of New England has a bad history, and four paranormal researchers descend upon it to learn more. A very scary psychological thriller, enhanced by the black & white cinematography, starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom.
Paranormal Activity (2007) (*** stars) — A young woman has been dealing with a paranormal entity for much of her life, and it’s not about to let her and her boyfriend (played by Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) settle comfortably into this otherwise perfectly normal San Diego house. A low-budget movie that delivers some real goosebump moments.
The Ring (2002) (**1/2 stars) — I enjoyed this more than I expected after reading mixed reviews. Naomi Watts stars as a Seattle newspaper reporter investigating the unexplained death of a friend’s daughter. It’s already a “period piece,” as the story is driven by a VHS tape and use of extensive videotape technology.
I hope to squeeze in two more by Halloween, a couple of high-touted oldies that I’ve never seen before: The Uninvited (1944) (starring Ray Milland) and The Innocents (1961) (starring Deborah Kerr).
Ghosts and “chicken skin”
I can’t say for sure that I’ve ever seen a ghost or an apparition, but I believe they exist. I’ve never gone on an actual ghost hunt, but I enjoy going on ghost tours in cities I visit and reading about local ghost stories and supposed hauntings.
Over the years I’ve been on ghost walking tours in London, Cambridge (UK), Oxford, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and Boston. I’ve also walked around parts of Hawaii, Gettysburg, PA, and Salem, MA, figuring ghosts must be hanging around. These occasional wanderings are supplemented by a small collection of books about ghosts and the supernatural that I enjoy dipping into now and then.
Technically, of course, none of this has much to do with Halloween, other than the general idea of scary stories. There’s a part of me that says you don’t wanna mess with this stuff too much, but I guess the “what if” is part of the fun of it all. It’s about what the Hawaiian folks call “chicken skin” stories, the tales that give you goosebumps.