“Everybody’s coming, leave your body at the door.” – Oingo Boingo, “Dead Man’s Party”
I always had a morbid streak. Long before I could write, I was the kind of kid who would draw pictures of bumbling demons and dinosaurs gorily slaughtering each other; I would make up stories in my head about the monsters in my closet, hulking furry things in rainbow hues and chattering, gossipy skeletons.
It helped that we were Halloween people. My mother had a flair for elaborate costumes and our house was always adorned with spiderwebs, pumpkins, homemade ghosts, and glass skulls. I even had a name for the glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton that hung in our living room window.
I never connected these objects to death. I thought of them as I did all fantasy creatures – amiable beings born in strange bodies, not the remains of former humans who had withered away to bare bone.
Not that I was totally sheltered. Coming from a sprawling Irish Catholic family, I attended many funerals of distant relatives growing up. But death was nebulous at that age; funerals were opportunities to see family, graveyards peaceful places to visit. With few exceptions, the heavy deaths – the surreal ones that you convince yourself you can undo if you just focus intently enough on rewinding the past – came later.
At some point, death became an omnipresent terror for me, as it does for most of us once we understand it. Yet I never lost my unabashed enthusiasm for the macabre.
In the old Celtic traditions, what we now call Halloween is a time when the boundaries between our world and the other are nebulous – hence the traditions of wearing costumes, carving jack-o-lanterns, and handing out candy to appease (and ward off) evil spirits. It’s also reflected in the stories we consume; except for the Halloween series, I’d wager most horror fans watch supernatural-themed movies on Halloween, rather than more realistic thrillers. Intriguingly, many quintessential Hallowtide films are actually horror-comedies: Hocus Pocus, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Addams Family, and most of Tim Burton’s oeuvre.
My favourite was Beetlejuice, Burton’s quirky tale of a “recently deceased” couple who invoke a poltergeist to scare off the new owners of their house. Looking back at that twisted movie, it’s Danny Elfman’s score – as wacky as it is spooky – that gives Burton’s bureaucratic afterlife an atmosphere of fun. Ditto for Corpse Bride (where jazzy musical numbers alleviate the dreariness of the underworld) and even The Nightmare Before Christmas (because what is Halloweentown if not some form of purgatory, its denizens ghoulish caricatures of who they had been in life? Just a theory.)
Elfman worked similar magic in The Frighteners and Tales from the Crypt, not to mention Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, where his lush compositions produce a carnivalesque effect as the viewer descends into an underworld refuge for the dead and damned.
Elfman’s been imbuing death with life since his Oingo Boingo days. The new wave band’s fifth record Dead Man’s Party is exactly what it sounds like: ghoulishly danceable music with manic rhythms and eerie lyrics. In the aptly titled, “No One Lives Forever” Elfman sings: “Let’s have a party, there’s a full moon in the sky / It’s the hour of the wolf and I don’t wanna die.”
(Interestingly, his 2021 solo album Big Mess turns COVID culture – lockdowns, conspiracy theories, and political polarization – into a demented funhouse ride.)
Some may call this “gallows humour,” but to me it suggests a slightly different impulse – finding joy in death.
Nor is this simply an eccentricity of 20th century goths. Catholic martyr St. Lawrence is (venerated as patron saint of comedians) is said to have joked “turn me over – I’m done on this side” while being burned alive in 258 AD. Art depicting the Danse Macabre dates back to the 1400s; one can find echoes of those frolicking skeletons in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations as well as films such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
Bergman was not insulting the dignity of Death when he portrayed the reaper as a smirking, inscrutable figure who was willing to play games (and even play the fool). In the film, a morally conflicted knight prolongs his life by playing chess against the Grim Reaper – and before losing, knocks over the game pieces to distract Death long enough for a young family to flee. The ironic dialogue and actor Bengt Ekerot’s wry delivery make it clear that Death has seen through the ruse: the family escaped only because they were never fated to die in the first place. Yet Death says nothing, allowing knight to meet his end believing he’s done something meaningful. The final scenes of the film show Death leading the knight and the rest of his travelling party into the afterlife, hands joined, music softly playing.
Death doesn’t always get the last laugh, but he certainly gets the last dance.
My 2021 book The Doom That Came to a Mellonville is a tribute to those 1980s Burton/Elfman collaborations. The story follows Isaac Plank, a globetrotting occultist who returns from the dead to reverse the curse he’s placed on his hometown.
Whimsical terrors – reanimated taxidermy, vengeful mummies, shrunken heads that bite – are juxtaposed with heavy conversations between Isaac and his long-suffering father. Like a Burton protagonist, Isaac is alternately maniacal and melancholy, a shit-disturber who revels in his ability to shock the neighbours while agonizing over whether he was a good son.
The only thing he’s not conflicted about is his status as a dead man; having seen the other side, he knows there’s nothing to fear. “The wonders of the world could never measure up,” he tells his father. “I’d go back in a heartbeat.”
In the end, he doesn’t. When we see him last, Isaac’s still wandering the earth, listening to “Clap for the Wolfman” in a local bar. One of my weaknesses as a writer is that I can’t bear to kill people off, even ghosts.
While making The Shining, director Stanley Kubrick argued to Stephen King that ghost stories are, at their core, happy ones, because they presuppose the existence of an afterlife. I don’t disagree. Sure, a lot of ghosts seem miserable, eternally repeating the same destructive patterns – but so do a lot of flesh and blood humans. Conversely, if life (perhaps I should say, consciousness) exists, it’s possible to find value in it.
The glib treatment of death in horror comedies and Halloween celebrations allows us not just to laugh at death, but to recontextualize it as something to be embraced, not feared.
No one knows exactly what the afterlife will look like, so what’s the harm in thinking of it as a party? As Oingo Boingo once said, “Who could ask for more?”
Madison McSweeney writes horror and fantasy from Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of The Doom That Came to Mellonville (Filthy Loot), The Forest Dreams With Teeth (Demain), and Fringewood (Alien Buddha Press). Her website is madisonmcsweeney.com and she tweets from @MMcSw13.