What drives a man to dress his children as monsters, splatter them with homemade blood and share photos of the results with everyone he knows? Madness? Ego? Too much spare time? All apply. Of course, it’s also a chance to show off your kids, and best of all, to celebrate evil on the one day of the year that it’s socially acceptable to pose as the undead and extort candy from strangers.
Back in the Seventies when I was small, nobody cared about Halloween.
Not in England, anyway. There was no trick or treating. No fancy dress parties to do the Monster Mash. No wicked witch decorations to fill the house with. Nothing. Back then, I used to dream of living in America where, contrary to its preachy Christian leanings, every All Hallows’ Eve was celebrated with pure and wicked glee. God, how I envied them.
More fun than Christmas, more fattening than Easter, this high Pagan holiday inspired me more than every other day of the year combined, an unrepressed tribute to anarchic fun, mischievous thrills, sinful carbs and unbound imagination. It’s a day to confront our darkest fears, to laugh at them, and ultimately own them. It’s not about charity or brotherhood. It doesn’t involve prayer or thanks. It doesn’t judge us or tell us how to live. It just wants us to have some fun, to get a little fatter and not take life so seriously.
At least, that’s what it means to me.
Frustrated in childhood at my homeland’s shocking inability to get into the supernatural spirit of things, I dreamed of one day growing up, of becoming the master of my own destiny, and celebrating Halloween with maximum gusto.
Denied its pleasures as a kid, I was sure as Hell going to have my fun when I had youngsters of my own to share it with.
At the end of September 2001, my beautiful daughter Maia was born. Immediately I wanted to show her off to the world, and since Halloween was on the horizon, I decided to kill two birds with one stone. Three weeks on, there she was: tiny, helpless and dressed as a witch, propped up on the sofa with a homemade broomstick accessory. It took ages to get the right photo because she kept rolling over, and you can imagine the looks I got when I picked up the developed pictures (back in the dark final days before I switched to digital).
A few days later, bright and early on the morning of October 31st, I e-mailed friend and colleague alike my first Halloween greeting card, The Maia Witch Project.
The following year I thought it might be fun to shoot Maia’s dismembered head on a platter.
She hated doing it, sliding her head through a hole in a foil serving tray, but we got through it. Just about. It was a slapdash effort but effective in its own crude way.
For Halloween ’03 I had a fine new daughter to unveil, Phoebe, so gorgeous and untamed she looked amazing in pictures, though good luck getting her to stay still long enough to take one. One good picture’s all you need though, and so Phoebe’s debut as the Devil, striking a bargain for Maia’s immortal soul, was a roaring success. Between the flaming high chair and scorched contract, I felt I’d upped my game and was onto something.
Three shots in, this was officially now a family tradition.
The following year, Phoebe did another fine job invoking the spirit of John Hurt in Alien, with a chest-bursting, Care Bear accessory.
You might think she looks genuinely distressed, but the way I remember it, she just gave it her all. Maia’s reaction was particularly impressive in that shot, I thought. A born actress, she practised her expression for days before. I missed a trick by failing to splatter the floor with blood, but still, I managed to horrify quite a few people, many of whom ‘joked’ about reporting me to the NSPCC.
The following year I ditched the blood to pay homage to Wes Craven’s Scream, with Phoebe playing Drew Barrymore and Maia as Ghostface. I didn’t want to put Maia in a mask because part of the charm of these shots, for me, is seeing my girls grow up in them. I opted then, for face paint instead, and yes, I realise she rather looks like a panda. But a freaky killer panda with a massive knife, which is cool in itself.
By 2006 I was in the grip of a full-blown obsession.
Either possessed by the spirits of Halloween, or else just a very silly dad. With a pentagram painted on the kitchen floor, and Maia channeling a maddish sort of monk, Phoebe was sacrificed in this tribute to 1976 Hammer effort To the Devil a Daughter.
I love the humour, invention and gleeful gore of vintage EC horror comics.
Roy Ward Baker’s ’73 tribute, The Vault of Horror, was a cracking anthology film that included a story about a town of vampires who trap unwary out-of-towners and, rather than crassly snapping for their jugulars, suspend them upside down and drain them like barrels of wine, complete with tap. I always loved that image, and took particular delight in referencing something so obscure.
Glass of red?
The following year, I was chatting with my dentist about her favourite Irish actors, stalling for time before she began some rather unpleasant work on me. We talked about Farrell, Brosnan and Neeson, but eventually she had to get started so I was forced to button it. Twenty minutes of dentistry in, she gets this look in her eyes.
She looks at me and says, “There will be blood”.
I’ll tell you right now, that is not a sentence you want to hear from someone with a drill in your mouth. Seeing the fear in my eyes, she realised what she’d said, and quickly qualified it with, “Oh no! I mean Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s a great actor too!” It was at that moment that the mad dentist idea formed in my fevered mind. A horror movie fan herself, my dentist was kind enough to allow me the use of her surgery in the spirit of authentic location work.
Having played the victim four years in a row, Phoebe was eager to embrace her inner psycho and I hope you agree that in this, she looks like a proper nutter.
The question is, then, is it safe?
For years I’d wanted to shoot a full-on zombie scenario with my game and gorgeous girls, one chowing down upon the other’s steaming guts in a loving tribute to George Romero and Tom Savini.
I’m proud to say, of my own efforts, that I fashioned the blood and guts myself (search terms: Ballistics Gel and Kensington Gore). I’m prouder though, of Maia and Phoebe, for their sense of adventure, their tireless enthusiasm, and their ability to see the joke. Maia’s death stare is, I feel, particularly chilling. I remember explaining to her that sometimes when people die, their eyes remain open.
Now that’s good parenting.
It was cold. It was sticky. But by God (or the other guy), we captured something that year. I doubt I’ll ever shoot a better Halloween picture than this, though of course, I will try. It’s pretty much everyone’s favourite.
The year after our zombie triumph, I totally choked. We tried a million different ways to get this voodoo doll shot to work, but it never quite came together the way I hoped.
The thing with these pictures is, the composition has to be just right. Then Maia and Phoebe both have to have the perfect expression in the same shot. Also it has to be in focus. That’s a lot of pressure for a single photo. I ended up pasting two together and just about got away with it. Just about.
Ultimately, I tried too hard and stressed everyone out. That look on Phoebe’s face wasn’t acting.
A friend of mine, Emma Gillson, introduced me to corpsing. She and her brother, during long country walks, take snaps of one another dead in the forest and other wild locations. Inspired by her madness, we tore off to the local woods with a neighbour’s shovel and a bottle of Kensington Gore. Phoebe’s missing shoe is the detail most people appreciate best.
Also, check out that death stare.
We had no choice but to shoot this one in a public place, and when a local jogger happened upon us, he stopped dead in his tracks, confused and faintly fearful. Hastily we explained what we were up to.
From the moment he ran off, to the moment we drove away, I expected to hear police sirens.
For 2012’s shot, I wanted to go proper vintage. Black and white and everything. After settling on 1960’s Village of the Damned, it all came together quite quickly.
Phoebe, bewigged, nailed those spooky kids. And Maia’s look of hopelessness as she’s forced to cuddle the muzzle of a shotgun (actually two plastic tubes stuck together and painted black) really sold the whole mind control thing. I remember barking the single instruction, “Sadder! Sadder! Sadder!”, until she looked as though all hope was lost.
Good job it wasn’t a real gun as I think she might have shot me afterwards.
Recreating the poster for Kubrick’s The Shining was not as easy a task as I originally expected, but I love how it turned out.
Maia was a trooper for sporting itchy fake stubble, and Phoebe the very spirit of patience as I cajoled her into looking proper panicked. As that was a real knife in her hands, yelling “Terror! Terror! Terror!” at her until she delivered the expression I was looking for, there was a small chance that she might have tried to cut me.
But hey, I had the axe, so I figured she wouldn’t dare.
Our fourteenth offering was a tribute to James Wan and Insidious in particular, and classic, scary “Look behind you!” moments in general. Many thanks to my pal Jon Kestel, who helped, via the miracle of Photoshop, to finesse such details as the pupil, teeth, lips and gums. Boo!
Having grown up watching Universal’s vintage horror classics, late night double bills that I was sometimes allowed to stay up for at the weekends, I’ve long loved those movies’ stylings and sensibilities. James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are by far my favourite Universal Monster Movies, and with them in mind, my kids and I crafted this ambitious tribute. Ambitious, because I’d never attempted prosthetic make up effects before, from Phoebe’s scarred headpiece to the Monster’s iconic neck bolts, but it turned out rather well I think, with a background lifted from the first of Whale’s two Frankenflicks.
Human hunters stalking human prey is a theme that movies have exploited for decades. In 2016, we decided the time had come for us to pay our own little tribute to such fine exploitational efforts as 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game and 1994’s Surviving the Game.
As it had been quite some time since we’d gone properly bloody for a picture, I was eager for it to be as gross as possible and learned how to make a ‘gore box’, blending it with green screen effects to blow a massive hole through my youngest. I love that you can see her killer, Maia, through the wound – a nod to classic horror comedy Death Becomes Her.
My friend Jon Kestel, my nerd brother, contributed his Photoshop skills to help blend the elements together, and tie them all in to the industrial background. I’ve never been afraid to ask for help. As with film, these pics have become an increasingly collaborative process.
And so we come to this year’s offering, our seventeenth, a tribute to both the creepiness of Tarot Cards and also that hoary horror staple, the Harbinger of Doom, because there’s often that character in scary films whose sole purpose is to inform the cast that they’re all about to die. It was a trope I grew increasingly aware of watching the Friday the 13th films years ago, a role perfectly parodied in The Cabin in the Woods.
The gypsy spin was inspired by the likes of The Wolf Man, Thinner and Drag Me To Hell. Phoebe’s black-and-white make-up was a direct copy of Bill Sadler’s Grim Reaper in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
Besides Maia and Phoebe’s customary patience and posing skills, I’m grateful for many things this year. As she often does now, Maia did all the make-up, plus she helped enormously with the photography – something she’s studying at school right now. I also couldn’t have completed the picture without ace digital support from my pal Paul Manning.
Rather than find some stock background for our Death Tarot Card, we were drawn a vivid, fiery backdrop by my eldest, Martyna, complete with stormy skies and blood-capped Hell mountains. Martyna has often helped from behind the scenes, and I’ve never shared a picture without first running it past her. Her honesty, sharp eye and knack for colour and composition have helped many pictures, over the years, reach their full potential.
Phoebe’s 14 now. Maia’s 16. A while ago now, Maia asked me how long we’d be doing these photos. I said she could quit when she had kids of her own. Kids who will subsequently appear in her place.
I’m reasonably certain though that my daughters’ enthusiasm for our Halloween project is actually growing as they get older. They have strong nerdy tendencies, love scary movies, and neither are exactly crippled by shyness. If anything, they want to get more involved every year.
So either it’s enthusiasm, or else they’ve become institutionalised.
Either way, the adventure continues.
Follow Marshall’s adventures on Twitter: @MarshallJulius