The Cardboard Ghost: A Salute to Artifice

Posted: October 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

[I guest posted this article on a horror blog a couple years ago for Halloween. Felt like a good thing to start off October with]

The Cardboard Ghost: A Salute to Artifice

Walking down the street or down the aisles of your favorite Halloween store, it becomes readily apparent that there are two breeds of Halloween decorators: the ones who seek to festoon their lawn with the most authentic severed limbs they can find and the ones that feel no shame hanging a cheesecloth ghost from a nearby tree. Most horror fans will find themselves endeared toward the dude with arms on his lawn. This guy means business. This is a guy we may feel like inviting over for some spooky margaritas and Lucio Fulci movies. He cares about Halloween. He cares about horror. I daresay this guy makes us resent the cheesecloth ghost and the cardboard skeleton a little. What kind of wuss puts up these cuddly, innocuous and lazy representations of monsterdom? Has this loser even seen a horror film? Is he actually at all interested in Halloween?

Realism and gore seems on the surface to be a truer representation of the genre than cuddly cardboard critters. Right? I love gore. Ichi the Killer, Zombi, Reanimator…this stuff is my bread and butter. There’s something amazing about arterial spray and tripes flying right at you. Reminds you that there’s blood in your veins and miles of guts inside you. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s kinda sexy. Lucio Fulci is a dude who you want to invite in your house for spooky margaritas and Lucio Fulci movies. Real blood. Real guts. Real horror.

But, where does that leave the cardboard ghost? Is it a rightful target for our resentment? The cardboard ghost does not confront us with real horror. The cardboard ghost does not rub our faces in our mortality. The cardboard ghost does not leave us fleeing in terror. Its artifice is readily apparent. It makes no claim to being anything but a Halloween decoration. On the surface, this is a colossal buzzkill. Way to kill the mood. No spooky margaritas for this guy.

But, wait. Maybe you’ve shut off that blender a little too hastily, friend. The cardboard ghost is not frightening, it might seem like it breaks the mood, but it should not be dismissed altogether. To do so is a dangerous line of thinking, one that mirrors how we deal with older, cheaper, less “scary” horror in this age of CGI, remakes and torture porn. The cardboard ghost is not real, it is not scary and it does not evoke a visceral response. So, what good is it? What good is Lon Chaney Jr. if he doesn’t look that much like a werewolf? What good are the less-than-cadaverous zombies of White Zombie?

To answer this question, I’m going to talk to you a bit about three of my favorite horror films, each of them possessing a sense of naked artifice. This artifice to me, embodies the spirit of Halloween, trick or treating, decorating one’s house and eating leftover candy at three in the morning: Mark of the Vampire, House on Haunted Hill and Bloodfeast.

Todd Browning’s Mark of the Vampire is not the most realistic film ever made. The plot of the film (involving, a fake vampire scenario that is less likely to occur than an actual vampire) is on the surface idiotic, several of the actors behave in a manner thoroughly dissimilar to any kind of human behavior anytime anywhere on Earth and barely goes a minute without showing us a very fake bat. Yet, it succeeds in creating a ritual Halloween space. Costumes are costumes. Vampires are actors. The set is a set. When you put up a cardboard ghost, it is not a real ghost. I cannot imagine the kind of godlike entity that could nail a real ghost to their door. But in putting up that ghost, you have put up a symbolic representation of a ghost, just as Mark of the Vampire presents a symbolic representation of a vampire that nonetheless takes you away if you play along. Bela Lugosi’s vampire claims he was realer than any real vampire. Perhaps this is untrue, but he has still created a world of vampirism and Halloween menace with his performance. A performance that is matched by Carroll Borland as one of the cinema’s most iconic vampiresses, Though the sets are clearly sets, they are welldecorated and they are in the spirit of horror and there is an undeniable energy. To discount this film for its lack of realism or its lack of scariness, is to deprive yourself of that energy and to deprive yourself of experiencing that world.

William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill also does little to convince you that it belongs to the real world. The artifice and the holes are apparent and quite shameless. It’s even set at a Halloween party, as unlikely a Halloween party as you could attend. House on Haunted Hill takes you on a journey through Vincent Price’s haunted house. This haunted house does not feel so much like a journey through a haunted house in the sense that 1408 or Legend of Hell House do, but more like a haunted house put on by local highschool students or at the fair. It is a series of simple jumps, ominous pretensions and unfulfilled potential. The film leads you on through Price’s menacing demeanor and Elisha Cook Jr.’s inescapable paranoia. It does nothing to conceal its artifice, instead celebrating it, a self contained Halloween party. Not scary, not graphic, but true to the genre’s roots and very enjoyable.

The last and my favorite example of a cinematic cardboard ghost is H.G Lewis’ gore classic Bloodfeast. This movie creates a Halloween space without the aid of realism but adds an interesting component:gore, not the gore of the severed arm on the lawn, but more akin in its gruesome silliness to the bowl of spaghetti witch brains from the old party game. Lewis’ blood oozes out to improbable degrees and has roughly the color and texture of pasta sauce. Perhaps you could pour some on your witch brains. The acting is over-the-top, the plot a paperthin excuse for violence and yet, like Mark of the Vampire and House on Haunted Hill, you are drawn into this macabre celebration. There is no complexity, no expense and not so much fear as slight revulsion and amusement. It’s a horror classic but one that is not shy about its staginess and its exposed and blatant artifice. If one were to scribble some blood on the smiling mouth of their cardboard ghost, it would be comparable to Bloodfeast, a treat which for me screams Halloween.

It’s easy to believe that the horror genre is always about actually invoking fear and about putting someone in a realistic and scary position, but it is the spirit of horror, the ritual and symbolic participation that really counts. So save one of your spooky margaritas for the guy with the cardboard ghost, he comes from a long tradition of cheap, blunt and festive Halloween parties waiting to happen.

  1. Lee Widener says:

    Hanging up a cardboard ghost is not meant for the seasoned gorehound. It’s meant for children, and it’s all part of the ritual celebration of Halloween, the one holiday that blatantly celebrates the dark side of our nature. If that simple sheet on a string happens to jump just as a wee one passes, your sure to be rewarded with a shriek, and the wee one has experienced a harmless fright, one that will be filed away in the memory box of life. You see, ghosts are not so frightening, are they, dear?

    Cardboard skeletons, bedsheet ghosts, stuffed dummies on the porch, leering jack-o-lanterns… they’re all manifestations of the darker side of humanity that we come to accept, just as we learn to accept our own darker sides.

    In this polarized age when things have to be either safe/good/Christian or evil/dark/un-Christian a lot of nuance is lost, and people don’t learn to welcome their dark side,embrace it, and make it part of their totality. It’s a great loss, on a personal level, and on a planetary level as welll.

  2. garrettcook says:

    A lot of that is lost in today’s horror.

  3. […] The Cardboard Ghost: A Salute to Artifice […]

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