As the third annual Midsummer Scream grows near, all the little witches, warlocks, monsters and madmen are stirring in anticipation. The event’s executive director, David Markland, and his team are on track to provide this year’s anticipated 20,000 guests with enough Halloween-related entertainment and other treats to make them forget that Halloween doesn’t come around for another three months.
This year’s festival, set for July 28-29 at the Long Beach Convention Center, features over 250 horror-themed vendors, an 80,000-square-foot Hall of Shadows (the event’s haunted theme park), film screenings, epic presentations and panels, interactive and immersive attractions and celebrity guest appearances. An after-hours party offers a costume contest, an 18+ magic show and a screening of Child’s Play with live commentary by the film’s writer-director, Tom Holland. In short, the event has everything that both neophyte and decently seasoned horror fans could want from a Halloween convention.
Master of horror Mick Garris will participate in a panel highlighting the 25th anniversary of Disney's Hocus Pocus, which he co-wrote and co–executive produced. Hocus Pocus producer/co-writer David Kirschner also will participate, along with actress Thora Birch, composer John Debney and make-up/”animatronic cat effects artist” Tony Gardner. While the Disney-produced film serves as a colorful and lighthearted entry into the canon of Halloween entertainment, Garris’ contributions to the genre have run the gamut from family-friendly content to some of the darkest material out there.
In advance of his appearance at Midsummer Scream, the Weekly sat down with Garris to get his thoughts on the Hocus Pocus anniversary, on working in a variety of horror milieus, and on the horror festival scene.
Garris reminded us that some of the scariest imagery in films has come from Disney pictures, starting with Bambi’s mother being burned alive in a fire. Then, he pointed out that the script he’d originally written (which later became Hocus Pocus) was less lighthearted than the final version. “I was the first of 12 writers on Hocus Pocus. Literally 12 writers. But my script is darker than the movie that was made, ” he explains. “Structurally it's the same and all of that, but it definitely feeds it.”
He lists the distinctions: “The original title was Halloween House, which was [producer David Kirschner’s] title … [and the final film is] more slapstick than what I'd written, although I knew comedy was an important part of it; it's much more broad in the movie that was made, and they made the kids older. I wrote a movie about 12-year-olds, which I think Halloween is kind of a nexus of your life when you're 12. Sixteen-year-olds, it's more about stealing your little sister's candy. Although these days Halloween is for every age, but at that time, it was a more potent thing as a 12-year-old, but Disney made the choice to turn it into teenagers, and commercially and iconically they were obviously right because here we are, 25 years later, talking about Hocus Pocus.”
On the subject of kids, Garris says, “We grow our attraction to the horror genre very early on. I think those are things that creep into our lives because we feel like it's a coping mechanism; it's a display of ‘these people are worse off than we are.’”
He also points out that foundational life experiences are amplified to children, thus making childhood the scariest time of a person’s life. “In my case — and a lot of the people I know who create horror films, write novels, painters, things like that — I was not a very social kid,” he recalls. “My parents split up around the time I was 12 or so, which coincidentally was the time I started writing short stories that are dark. But if you're not a really social kid, you tend to live inside your head a lot, and that can be a pretty dark place if shit like that is going on in your mind. And you feel like an outsider, and you identify more with the monster than the hero, you know. And so, I think that's not an uncommon place for genre fans to start.”
As the creator of the Masters of Horror TV series for Showtime and of Post Mortem With Mick Garris — a TV series that featured his interviews with important genre artists and creators, which continues to exist as a podcast — and various other projects, Garris clearly cares deeply for the genre beyond the storytelling of his films and novels. He sees horror entertainment as an important and safe way to play tag with your fears, to actually confront fear and not be hurt by it.
“It's the roller coaster theory, you know: You get on it, you're scared to death, and you know nothing's really going to happen to you, but it feels like it could, and then the ride is over and then you walk off and you laugh, ‘Oh, that was scary!’” Garris says. “The same thing can happen with horror movies and horror novels and things like that.”
He also points out that the most disturbing stories touch upon real-life horrors, such as suicide and the death of family members — issues he addressed in his adaptation of Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet. He names Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist as examples of horror films that succeed as works of social commentary, and points to the political commentary of “Homecoming,” which takes place during the Iraq war, as one of the segments of Masters of Horror that he is personally proud of. “President Bush was sending all these young men to their deaths; there was nothing [being said about] that,” he recounts. “It took our scruffy little horror show to make a show about zombie soldiers rising up from the dead to vote out the president who consigned them to their deaths, and it took the mind and wit of Joe Dante to make an entertaining, horrific, funny little zombie movie that was overtly about George Bush and the Iraq War.”
As far as the legacy of Hocus Pocus, Garrris says there is currently a television series in the works. He reveals, “It's not going to involve any of the original cast, which is a shame because they're all so great, and they all love the movie so much. I would be delighted to be a part of it, but who knows? You just never know. I'm a gray-haired guy now, and they like to go for diversity, so we'll see … but it would be fun to go back to the roots and be involved with that and help shape it again.”
Garris seems excited for his Midsummer Scream appearance but he is critical of some horror conventions, such as those featuring “pay-for-autograph parties.” Furthermore, while he doesn’t fault genre actors and creators who earn part of their living wages from doing such shows, he speaks disdainfully about successful celebrities who charge exorbitant fees from kids who have traveled across the country to meet their heroes. “It used to be more pure,” he says. “More about just the fans and the creators getting together and panels and things like that, and it's become such a marketing tool … and it's just not something I'm comfortable with. I've never charged for an autograph and never would — not that anybody would want to pay for it.”
Whatever feelings horror fans may have about the psychological impetus, effects and integrity of their favorite brand of entertainment, Midsummer Scream provides a respectable representation of its various aspects — especially those that center around Halloween — and, as the celebration for every ghoul, ghost and goblin’s preferred time of the year draws near, Markland beams, “We have really become the world's largest Halloween and horror convention.”
So, children of the night: Heed the call; pay homage to dark-themed entertainment in your own way; immerse yourselves in monsters and mazes; spend your money as you see fit; and, above all, remember to have fun. Halloween only comes a few times a year.