PORTERSVILLE, Pa. — The setting: a rolling patch of Pennsylvania farmland, about 15 miles from the little town where “Night of the Living Dead” was filmed. The moment: Halloween season 2020, a moonlit Friday night.
She strides up to the hayride, then beckons you to the dimly lit tent behind her. Her eyes are hollow. “Blood” streaks her nurse’s uniform. Across her forehead is a deep, oozing wound.
“This is the corona tent,” she says. “I’m Nurse Ratched. We’re gonna test you all for the corona.”
This is Cheeseman Fright Farm, one of those stylish Halloween attractions that emerge from the shadows in the United States of America when the leaves start falling and the days grow shorter.
On this night, it is the place to be: By 8:45 p.m., a line 400 strong — some wearing face masks, some not — waits, at $20 a pop, to be carted off into the darkness and have creatures in various states of decay leap out at them for the better part of an hour.
Good fun? Other years, sure. But this year — this 2020 of pandemic and uncertainty and racial injustice and sometimes violent unrest and unthinkable political divisions?
In a year when fear and death have commandeered front-row seats in American life and more than 225,000 are dead from COVID, what does it mean to encounter the holiday whose existence hinges on turning those things into entertainment? What happens when 2020 and Halloween collide? Can being scared — under certain, controlled conditions — still be fun?
There’s precedent. In 1931, when the Great Depression was at its height and American society seemed fragile, Universal Studios uncorked its first iconic horror films, delivering up Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster.
In the 1950s, when American life felt finite, with nuclear menace from without and subversive threats from within, science fiction produced “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing From Another World.”
But usually the fear Americans have chased is different than — though certainly related to — the fear in our lives.
“We have to process all this unpleasant cultural stuff. But it’s easier to do when you’re not looking at it too directly,” says David J. Skal, who chronicles the American fascination with horror and is the author of “Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. “I hope there is some kind of catharsis that comes out of Halloween this year.”
The question is, with so many Americans affected by this year’s events, is that the kind of release people seek?
“If you’ve been directly impacted by serious illness or loss, we’ve heard from people that this isn’t something that appeals to them this year,” says Matt Hayden, co-owner of Terror Town, an Old West-themed horror village in Williamsburg, Ohio.
That’s not the majority. Hayden reports record attendance this year, people who want to swap that dull, pounding fear for something cinematic. “They can come to places like this,” he says, “and separate themselves from this year and what it’s been.”
Even beyond COVID, there’s enough fear and death to go around. Among the year’s scares: What will happen on Election Day? What will happen to the republic AFTER Election Day?
Then there’s the racial reckoning fueled by centuries of fear and death visited unto Black people in America — and renewed by 2020’s convulsive events. As The Root wrote in October 2016, “Every day is Halloween for Black people.”
The HBO show “Lovecraft Country,” which ended its first season this month, played on that notion with a blend of fantastical horror and the ugly real-life terror of racism in 1950s America. The show got, instinctually, what Americans are absorbing in 2020: What we’ve been trained by Hollywood and Halloween to see as frightening might pale when compared to what’s around daily life’s next corner.
Are your finances uncertain? Unemployment might be your horror. Pre-existing health condition? As daunting as a murderer in a hockey mask. And if you are a young Black man who gets pulled over by police, the fear could be as dreadful as any seven-eyed monster with three-inch teeth.
Esther Jones, dean of the faculty at Clark University in Massachusetts, studies medical ethics, speculative fiction and African American literature. To her, 2020’s blurred lines are part of what’s making this Halloween unusual.
“Halloween, for one night, you know it’s coming. You’re going to immerse yourself in this fear and this release. And the next day you’re back to normal,” Jones says. But 2020 “has turned over the rock. It’s removed the mask,” she says. “Everything that we thought was so strong and resilient and would not change is changing in front of our very eyes.”
So right now, what do zombie mannequins in the supermarket foyer and hands clawing out from front-yard Halloween graves in the suburbs really give us?
Perhaps the fear itself isn’t what provides the release. Maybe it’s that the fear, consumed in bite-sized doses, comes to a measurable end. And when it does conclude, no matter what the rest of the world is dishing out, turns out you’re still fine after all. You’ve made it. Or, at least, you can pretend you have.
“The notion of survival — that we come out on the other side of this — has perhaps changed, but perhaps come out stronger,” Jones says. But “if there’s no end in sight for it, how do we exist with this threat?”
Back in 1968, that original “Night of the Living Dead” ended with the hero — a Black man — surviving the flesh eaters only to be shot by a police posse. Then came “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead.” Halloween will come and go, but those other horrors — they don’t end when the sun comes up the next morning.
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted
Ted Anthony, The Associated Press