This Is Not a Dream: John Carpenter’s ‘Prince of Darkness’ at 35

Horror

If I’ve learned anything from Trick ‘r Treat, it’s that you don’t disrespect Halloween. “I hate Halloween,” says Emma (Leslie Bibb) in the opening scene. She blows out the lone jack o’lantern and whines to her husband Henry (Tahmoh Penikett) about taking down the decorations on Halloween night. Moments later, she gets her comeuppance and becomes bloody and artsy décor on the front lawn. Her head is chopped off and her limbs hung with rope in the trees, a pumpkin lollipop shoved into her gaping mouth. Sam might be tiny, but he suffers no fools when it comes to the beloved holiday. It’s a gnarly image that drives home the film’s central theme: Halloween is sacred and should be treated as such.

With the long-awaited theatrical run this October, Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat remains an emblem for great anthologies everywhere and perfectly captures spooky season in all its glory 一 with Sam as its devoted icon. Courtesy of cinematographer Glen MacPherson, the film drips with shadows and mood, always playing on the unseen eye to send chills down your spine. There’s plenty of violence and gore, of course, befitting a slasher flick that causes “oh my god” and “ew” reactions in the audience. 

Four intertwining stories depict lives uprooted and destroyed from callous, reckless actions and blatant disregard for All Hallow’s Eve. And Sam watches from afar, a voyeur to the sick and twisted 一 even though the characters deserve what’s coming to them. In Mr. Wilkins’ (Dylan Baker) segment, a young boy named Charlie (Brett Kelly) topples numerous pumpkins from their perch, sending them crashing into and scattering across the ground. He proceeds to climb upon Wilkins porch and snag every single candy bar in the hollowed out pumpkin. 

“My dad taught me tonight is about respecting the dead,” Mr Wilkins tells Charlie. “All these traditions一jack o’lanterns, putting on costumes, handing out treats一they were started to protect us, but nowadays no one really cares.” A wistfulness glistens in his eyes, and he stops for a moment from carving a fresh pumpkin. Charlie rolls his eyes… and abruptly pukes his guts out all over the front steps. Another tradition, Wilkins points out, is you never forget to check your candy. Wilkins then drags Charlie’s lifeless body inside, lobs off his head, and helps his son Billy (Connor Levins) carve out the eyes. Charlie may have been a kid but his ignorance and naivety were his own undoing.

In “Halloween School Bus Massacre,” Macy (Britt McKillip), Sara (Isabelle Deluce), Schrader (Jean-Luc Bilodeau), and Chip (Alberto Ghisi) learn that bullying and othering a girl named Rhonda (Samm Todd) comes with equally-severe consequences. Much like Sam, Rhonda is a certified weirdo, obsessed with all things spooky. She has a knack for carving some wickedly cool pumpkins (her entire front lawn is littered with them) and knowing the history of Samhain. 

After Macy regales the tale about the school bus massacre, in which a bus-full of society’s outcasts are driven over a cliff to their deaths, Macy and her friends play a sick practical joke on Rhonda by pretending to be the reanimated corpses of the dead kids. It’s not as funny as they expected; in fact, it forever traumatizes Rhonda. And who could really blame her for freaking out一the “joke” was in poor taste. When the actual dead kids return from beyond the grave, Rhonda hops into the elevator and leaves Macy, Schrader, Chip, and Sara behind to be mauled and eaten alive in the rock quarry. She smirks and offers a chilling wave goodbye. Once again, mocking a tragedy and those who were just like Rhonda is contemptible and deserving of some oh-sweet revenge.

Despite having a very clearly different message, “Surprise Party” supplies an equally-exhilarating emotional return 一 the sexual liberation of women through a werewolf lens. It’s all a gas in the end and goodness, is it a blast. For his part, Sam looks on from a nearby log, the grisly screams and throaty groans filling the night air with delightful euphoria. Its response to revenge is less rooted in red-faced vengeance than it is about dismantling pressures put upon women in how they dress, carry themselves, and react to the world. Revenge is just an added bonus, really.

In another tale of revenge, Sam’s story comes into the picture in the finale as a way to connect the dots between chapters. Sam tracks down Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox), Mr. Wilkin’s next door neighbor 一 who, we come to learn, was the infamous bus driver who killed those kids and never had to face any punishment for his crimes. Well, Sam just can’t have that and attacks Kreeg in his home. Instead of killing him, though, Sam plants a lollipop in his lap, leaving him bewildered and greatly injured. It’s not enough to kill him outright; there would be little justice in that. But teaching him a near-death lesson should do the trick.

Trick 'r Treat Halloween 2

Sam is not only a wonderfully frightening pumpkin child doing Satan’s work but a surrogate for year-round horror fans一those passionately defending the genre and willing to die upon their self-proclaimed hills. You simply do not mess with horror fans. You don’t taunt them, and you can’t anticipate them. Whether it’s The Academy baiting fans with disingenuous platitudes about popular horror films or those hot takes claiming there’s no good horror being made these days, there’s a tendency to blithely shrug off the horror community.

Horror makes us feel safe. Sam makes us feel safe and seen. And invading those safe spaces is downright sacrilegious. As psychologists have suggested, there are numerous reasons people are drawn to and find comfort in horror. Horror elicits both fear and excitement, two contrasting emotional responses that are equally valid and ever present. “Fright can trigger the release of adrenaline, resulting in heightened sensations and surging energy,” a 2021 investigative report states. Researchers then break down several “protective frames” or ways in which we find safety in watching and experiencing horror, positing that feeling safe, having control over the situation, and detaching from the events onscreen fuels a desire to relive those emotional responses again and again. 

It’s no surprise then that a film like Trick ‘r Treat would become a comfort film for someone. I know it is for me. The blood splattering, the graphic vomiting, the severed head, the werewolf feast 一 it all gives me a charge. Perhaps, it’s because I have a stronger “sensation-seeking trait” and need to replenish that well to feel emotionally satisfied or maybe I’m somehow “not so empathic” as others (not true, by the way). Either way, there’s social bonding that also occurs in the process; i.e. why there’s a horror community in the first place. We all love horror, and Sam is the manifestation of that love, connection, and adoration for the spooky and the disturbed.

Trick 'r Treat Halloween movies

Sam wanders through the four stories as we wander through the year as horror hounds. We consume horror all times of the year, whether it’s snowing outside or sweltering with heat. Like clockwork, super casual horror fans roll out their goblins and ghouls to celebrate October. While that’s super cool and all, it often feels alienating, like an invasion of pod people coming to earth to wreak havoc on those who make horror their entire personality. Of course, not everyone will be as consumed by the genre as we are. The noted research also considers that those who rarely consume horror (or not at all) may lack a sensation-seeking trait or have a low presence of “the trait of openness to experience,” resulting in their avoidance of the genre outside of October. But we welcome those with open arms because the horror community is much better for it 一 to guide the proverbial younglings through unfamiliar territory, to allow them a glimpse of what makes horror the greatest storytelling medium, to bask in the shared experiences of the terrifying and the macabre.

Fifteen years later, Trick ‘r Treat is as relevant as ever. Through its themes of community, resilience, and committed reverence for All Hallow’s Eve, the film beckons the audience to confront, to question, to rebel against society’s archaic expectations and standards. It provokes as much as it delivers a damn fine piece of entertainment, drenched in grotesque imagery, frightening kills, and tension-burning atmosphere. Beneath the filmmaking technique throbs a story about what it means to be a year-round horror fan and how our society perceives those a little weird and different as the other 一 and with a film so bold, we witness delicious comeuppance on those who laugh at us. Such visceral catharsis is what great horror movies are truly made of.

And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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