The only time of year that I can tolerate Michael’s is at Halloween. I’m not saying that to demonstrate my machismo. I’m saying that because without that knowledge, nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.
Michael’s, during Halloween, is a different animal altogether. The Halloween section, anyway. I am quite sure that if you still needed to cross-stitch a barracuda onto a t-shirt, you could still find it, but the Halloween section is genuinely magical.
It was about 8 years ago or so that I quit rockin and rollin and whatnot and settled down with a wife and got a real job. It was early in our marriage, or late in our engagement, that my wife and one of her friends dragged me and another friend to Michael’s.
My friend and I perused the Halloween section, while our ladyfriends found the materials necessary to make black cat socks or something.
We heard a noise coming from the adjacent aisle. I remember it like it was yesterday.
The sound was a mix of tiny gears turning, tiny whirring little engines, and the distinct sound of tiny, muffled, human screams.
We rushed to the next aisle and found, under a huge piece of glass, Michael’s’s annual Lemax Spooky Town display.
Inside this glass dome was a whole little world. A Halloween Town that would make Jack Skellington smile. A little terrarium of spookiness.
Tiny gears geared. Tiny motors motored. Trick or treaters ran from ghosts. People were being tortured. A tree was eating a kid. In the town square, the annual Costume Contest was being held.
It was a world that I wanted to live in. A world where trick or treating was still dangerous, but fun. A world where Frankenstein had a pumpkin patch. And every house on the block was decked the hell out for Halloween.
I guess you could say it was a world where Halloween was as it should be, not as it really is.
To say I was captivated would be an understatement. My friend and I gawped at the town that seemed genuinely alive under that thin sheet of what was, probably, cheap clear plastic. I honestly could have stood there and just watched it do its thing for hours. Maybe all day.
See, I don’t care what anyone says, guys love tiny versions of real things. We also love tiny mechanical stuff. While the stuff that moved in Spooky Town wasn’t entirely mechanical, it was powered by little gears and levers, which was/is close enough for me. The whole thing was like a Halloween cuckoo clock, busily humming away in perfect time to give the appearance of tiny, creepy, life.
Really, it was more like a badass Halloween model train set, and if any guy tells you that they don’t enjoy gazing at giant model train sets, they are a bald-faced liar.
Personally, I’ve never had any interest in putting together my own model train set, but I do enjoy seeing them, accompanied by their retiree handlers in their conductor hats.
But this. This was something a guy could sink his fangs, and money, into. Because this wasn’t just tiny buildings and stationary families waiting at the depot. This was fences made of bones, this was the house that you were afraid to trick or treat at, but did anyway.
This was Fall.
I knew, then and there, that if I ever purchased even the smallest piece of Spooky Town, that it would be an extremely slippery slope into bankruptcy.
With all of that build up, I know you are expecting that, during Halloween, I have a whole room of different levels of tables set up with Spooky Town stuff.
But I don’t. For one thing, Spooky Town is expensive. A big piece, like a house, can be upwards of $65 or so. Even the small pieces, like Fall trees or skeleton fences, can run at around the $20 mark.
However, the main thing is space. I don’t have room to display the Spooky Town stuff I have now, so I have quit collecting. Besides that, Spooky Town has changed over the years.
It seems to have gone from “Town Populated By Humans that is Dangerous on Halloween”, to “Town Populated by Good Hearted Monsters Who Just Want to Have a Good Time”.
Gone are the “Torture Factories” of yore. The tiny, mechanical guillotines. The kids being chased and eaten by all manner of ghouls.
In their place, we have this:
While cool, a bunch of monsters friendly coexisting with humans, and riding a Merry-Go-Round with them, ain’t why I got into Spooky Town.
Nothing about this says to me, “Don’t you wish you lived here? Wouldn’t it be exciting to live in Spooky Town? Exciting, but kind of dangerous?”
This says, “Yawn.”
And unfortunately, a lot of the new pieces are like this (they introduce new pieces annually).
Monsters having contests, monsters giving out candy, ghosts chilling in the graveyard (not chasing anyone!), and what is almost worst of all: monster couples holding hands in a sarcophagus.
The edge is gone. The dark side of Spooky Time is lost. Whether the human inhabitants of Spooky Town finally got tired of having their children eaten and ran the spooks off is unclear.
What is clear, however, is that Spooky Town is no longer exciting.
Let me illustrate my point with a pic I just took of one of my favorite pieces from my personal collection. It’s a small, simple, piece, but it clearly illustrates what Spooky Town useta be ’bout.
As you can see, this trick or treater has met an unfortunate end at the limbs of a malevolent tree. His dog, Buddy, is trying his best to get the tree to let him go, but it ain’t gonna work. This is one trickertreater that won’t be separating his candy and inspecting his haul later tonight in front of the tv.
See what I mean? Spooky Town is spooky. Or was.
Let me give you a tour:
(photos by CNLH, my wife)
Here we have the local Spooky Town Cinema. It’s a one-screen affair that boasts, “Live Undead Movies ALL NIGHT”. Inside the theater, you can see that some monsters and ghouls are enjoying film. I picture the scene inside being much like the Gremlins watching Snow White. You can also vaguely make out the moon over the theater, not glowing for some reason, and a tree with its leaves turned, out front. There’s a zombie working the ticket booth.
This is honestly a newer sort of piece, but I got it because I love movies. You can’t really tell, but it makes shadows like a movie is really going on inside.
This is the Zombie Cafe. Nothing on it moves, but it lights up and is covered with zombies and blood and human body parts. Used to, the inside light would light up and you could see a bunch of zombies in there munching on arms and legs and torsos and stuff. I must add that this piece came out before Walking Dead and zombies were kinda played out.
The light no longer working illustrates another reason I quit collecting: as you can imagine, little buildings with little moving parts and tiny lights are fragile. Every year something else doesn’t work quite right when we get this stuff down out of the attic and my wife puts it up (thanks, C!). At over-$50 a pop, these things should be a bit more durable than a sack of empty eggshells.
This is a Saloon. It features ghost cowboys, gunshots, talking, and all sorts of moving parts, like a skeleton cowboy who struts out of the front swinging doors with pistols drawn. The vulture here does not come with it, but adds a good touch to it, I think (my wife did it). The Saloon is where any ol’ spirit might get a shot of the ol’ ectoplasm, then get in a fight with the ghost of John Wayne or the ghost of Clint Eastwood’s balls.
The next two pieces are my favorites in my meager collection, and they are coincidentally the first two pieces I got:
This is Goosebumps Manor (no relation to the books or tv show). It’s just a spooky house that has left the light on for the trick or treaters. This is the style of Spooky Town that I really like: it’s just a normal house, but with a genuine sense of foreboding. Like you just know that if you got up the nerve to ring that doorbell that something just awful would answer that door… and it might give you candy, or it might rape your soul.
This was the first piece of Spooky Town that I ever got, and I got it when my wife brought it home to me randomly. I had resisted getting into Spooky Town, knowing that once I started, I would never go back.
Like an alcoholic who had just been bought his first shot of whiskey in 30 years, I both loved this house and knew it meant trouble. I told my wife this, but for the moment we both just basked in the glory of having this one piece that epitomized everything I liked about Spooky Town.
You can’t really tell in this picture, but here is what is sitting out in the front yard:
It’s someone, or something, dressed up in a skeleton costume, sitting on a pumpkin. With a black cat. Does it get any more Halloween than that???? You can also see some fall leaves, part of the bone fence, and a Fall tree.
This piece is perfect. Why? Because like a lot of the early Spooky Town stuff, the menace and danger are implied. It’s very subtle, but you definitely know that if you were a trick or treater in Spooky Town, you would cross the street to avoid this mofo.
The next, and last, thing on this tour of Spooky Town is a genuine classic piece, and was the first Spooky Town thing that I bought with my own money. It has always been the centerpiece of our set-up, but when I originally saw Spooky Town in Michael’s on that fateful day, it was up on a hill, overlooking the town. And that’s how I’ve always thought of it: as a terrible place that exists outside of the normal day-to-day operations of Spooky Town. It’s a place that Spooky Town might send their petty criminals, a la Hot Fuzz, or a particularly foolhardy trick or treater might dare his friends to approach.
“Dr. Stretch-N-Pull’s Torture Factory”!!!
This thing is not only the biggest piece of our Town, but it also has the most moving parts. Through the front gate, a poor soul spins on a torture rack. Through the windows, you can see people strapped into diabolical devices of all types. Iron Maidens open and close, a guillotine drops its blade in infinite ghostly repetition, and over it all, Dr. Stretch-N-Pull’s maniacal voice cackles out warnings and puns like the madman he is.
You don’t actually get to see Dr. Stetch-N-Pull, but I hafta wonder what he would look like. Is he a mad scientist, obsessively rubbing his hands together while you sit strapped to his patent-pending 20-zillion-watt chair? Is he human at all? What exactly goes on in a torture “factory”?
This piece is dark. There is no denying that this is a vast departure from the Spooky Town of today, with its stupidly-grinning Frankensteins riding bikes, or Dracula waving from the window of a blood-red VW Super Beetle.
But it’s the pieces like this that initially captivated the macabre side of my imagination.
Like I said, Spooky Town used to be a bad neighborhood, but since then it’s been gentrified and, while safer, its soul has been swept under the rug.
I have no desire to live in the Spooky Town of 2013.