Vintage Nightmares and Transistor Rhythms: My Nostalgia For Fear (A Halloween Celebration)

“…there is, unseen by most, an underworld; a place that is just as real but not as brightly lit, a darkside…”

For the month of October, in order to get into the Halloween spirit, my family and I have been watching horror movies whenever we’re all together at night, only a couple of which have actually turned out to be scary. Watching the recent film version of Stephen King’s “It,” I was struck by how the producers had tried to cash in on the popularity of “Stranger Things,” the hit Netflix TV show, changing the childhood years from the ’50s to the ’80s, and even casting one of its main young actors. I can’t help but dig the theme music of the wildly popular show, which more than anything, mainlines the nostalgia straight to the cerebral cortex, pumping a vintage synthesizer sound that practically compels me to jump on a BMX bike and find the nearest videogame arcade to play some Galaga. Most sci-fi/horror movies and sci-fi/horror anthology series of the period attempted to channel fear and dread using synthesizers like the ARP Odyssey, Sequential Circuits Prophet 9, and Oberheim OB-8 with varying degrees of success.

When I was a kid in the ’80s, “Tales From The Darkside” was a show that was only on during the weekends after prime-time, usually midnight or later. As I sit here now, I cannot for the life of me remember what a single episode was about, but for some reason this intro scared the shit out of me, with its gloomy synth theme, (reminiscent of John Carpenter’s ‘Laurie’s Theme’ from “Halloween”,) an innocuous depiction of a lonely rural countryside, and eerie voice-over narration. I would always get the chills when the voice said, “But there is, unseen by most, an underworld; a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit, a dark side,” in that menacing gritty tone while the framed desolate landscape turned to a solarized negative image. During the credits, too, the voice would remind us, “The dark side is always there, waiting…” This had the effect, no matter how silly and cheesy the episode, to remind me that something darker lurked just on the edges and around the corners of my suburban bliss and somewhat-happy childhood. Even if I had been tired and ready to go to bed, I could not fall asleep, and would stay up talking to my brothers, with whom I shared a bedroom, attempting to cheer each other up and forget what we had heard.

Like countless others I also loved The Twilight Zone, the original late ’50s/ early ’60s run, and as a child, watching endless re-runs or binging on marathons during Fourth of July, I thought their opening was simply mind-blowing. The classic has proven popular among generation after generation, the theme music, created by A French avant-garde composer, is iconic, and Rod Serling’s visage and voice was, to my young Catholic mind, like some all-knowing yet sinister God overseeing the fates of the hapless and doomed. Though we’ve all probably seen and heard this a million times, I’ll post it here again:

But how many people remember the first ’80s re-boot of The Twilight Zone? (We won’t go near the early 2000’s quasi-metal theme and intro.) Like “Tales…” the intro is scored by synthesizer, starting with a kind of hammered throbbing chord setting the atmosphere into all manner of filtered bleeps and bloops, punctuated with percussion to signify a kind of retro-future noise. Gone is the Rod Serling voice-over but the imagery of this opening may be even spookier, as it unsettles with psychological precision: the earth becomes a fetus at one point, at another there is a nuclear explosion mushroom cloud, reflecting Reagan-era Cold War anxieties. Serling is still there, but only as a fleeting ghostly blur during the montage of imagery as if to gesture that he still presides over these uncanny proceedings, even from beyond the grave:

The last creepy anthology show whose theme music I’m reminded of, aired originally on cable TV giant, HBO, long before they ushered in the New Golden Age of Television with the creation of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” The show was “The Hitchhiker,” and it would air Friday nights at 11 p.m. after the new movie premiere of the week. It would begin with some ruggedly handsome guy wearing jeans and a leather jacket, carrying backpack out in the desert, who would then walk up to the camera to break the fourth wall, introducing a character or situation that was about to unfold in the story the viewer was about to see, similar to Rod Serling in “The Twilight Zone.” (Also, like “Zone” before, it would launch the careers of dozens of actors who would go on to fame later.) “Hitchhiker,” however, was rated R, and I’m sure my parents would’ve flipped out had they known just what me and my brothers were watching after the family movie of the week. There were adult situations we probably never understood, with illicit drugs and a lot of sex, that at some point always turned, culminating in some terrifying consequence or curse for an ill-fated protagonist. The theme started with a familiar electronic pulse combined with electronic kickdrum and percussive clicks run through delay followed by a pitchbent drone and then a haunting familiar melody.

Now Halloween is just days away and everything seems beautiful and new again. Sure, Halloween began as a celebration of the opposite; it marked the end of summer, the end of the harvest, and the beginning of the descent into winter. But now, especially with my little family, this is the magic time, and Halloween returns us to our childhood, when the monsters are out, strange is normal and the darkside haunts the day. Maybe I’ll make a mix of all these creepy themes to play through a bluetooth speaker when we go trick or treating. I already know what all of these must begin and end with: John Carpenter’s “Halloween” theme.

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Author: aetheroreblog

A family man, musician, writer, and raconteur prone to jags of logorrhea. Lover of vinyl records, books, movies, baseball, basketball, and beer.

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