In third grade, prompted by a teacher who encouraged me to write and write often, I would compose scary tales in my head on the bus to school, which I’d formally write down during class.
It could have been the autumnal time of the year that produced my horror streak, or that I loved old black and white monster movies, not that these stories featured much in the way of vampires or the reanimating of the dead.
But the scary stories I liked had something in common with a book I’d later discover call Not Exactly Ghosts, from 1947, by Andrew Caldecott. These spirits might have been spirits, or they might not have been. You could kind of explain them away, but you also kind of couldn’t. The ambivalence thrilled me, because it brought you in as a reader, gave you a choice, a voice, a say. The art was engrossing, but also participatory as if it couldn’t have been what it was without you.
I liked Peanuts comics for the same reason. You were tasked with supplying your own interpretation of the little existential dilemmas that the likes of Charlie Brown and Linus hashed out at that brick wall of theirs. After I had completed my story in that third-grade classroom, long before the other kids who hadn’t come in with an idea rarin’ to go, I’d sit at the back of the room in this alcove on a bean bag, big book of Peanuts strips on my lap. They’re a supply of aphorisms for you at that age, if you’re pensive and bookish, Pascal for the recess-age crowd.
Snoopy was a rascal, the ideal dream of a dog for all children, save their own actual dog, who can’t be beaten; Charlie Brown softened the blow of what any child regarded as their failings, but I believe — and I felt this then — that there is a connection between how much a given person thinks, and how closely drawn they will feel to Linus. He was undoubtedly the first philosopher I read, which was neat, but he was also a true, questing individual, which was neater.
My world changed that year as I wrote my stories, but it also evolved as I dipped further into what Linus was up to, especially when it came to pumpkin patches. I was a New Englander, hence an affinity for a nice grove of gourd as it were; but the blue blanket-toter deepened that romance for me.
Beginning October 26, 1959, and continuing as an annual tradition, Linus, the large-hearted believer who also suffered no fools — but generally retained tact, unless a situation called for a mighty tantrum — began a search for the sorely underrated Great Pumpkin, second fiddle to the portly fellow at the North Pole.
In the opening frame, Linus is penning a letter. His sister, Lucy, as per usual, has arrived to dish out her latest serving of sibling teasing. Lucy trolled before there was trolling. And she trolled hard.
She asks her brother what he is doing, and Linus, not looking up — for he is busy with his task — responds, “Don’t you know?”
The smartest people ask questions that sound like statements containing multiple possible statements at once. What are some of those statements for Linus?
You could know. Maybe you should know. You have your own version of your passions and I will show one of mine with you. You can get in on this, too.
A lot of people would have just answered with a statement — “Eh, I’m writing a letter to a magical pumpkin, don’t bust my balls.” But Linus’s question brings Lucy into this particular mix, makes her an active participant, turns portraiture into a diptych. That means connectivity. Even if she’s going to josh him. She’s a part of this now, a discourse attendee, and as such the accusatory intent she has winnowed. She is not so much speechless — which Lucy practically never is — as she is in a position where she’ll listen. Once involved, people listen. They have a personal stake. It does not need to be the same stake you have, but it can end up being that, or more.
Linus pops up from his chair, and for the remaining three panels, he tells the tale of the Great Pumpkin, who rises out of the pumpkin patch bearing toys for those with the courage — that is to say, the individuality of personal belief. We all know Linus’s famous Biblical speech — sourced from the Gospel of Luke — at the end of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas — but this very secular pumpkin patch is the moment when he does what could be viewed as channeling Christ for atheists for and the devoted alike. Linus’s deity is personal wonder. It’s a good god to have — a godless god of the human breast.
The Great Pumpkin rises. Linus uses the word again and again. He uses it in the strips and in the 1966 TV special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. The Great Pumpkin is personal identity. And I think that’s why I loved the idea so much as a kid who was trying awfully hard to write stories, when that’s not what most other kids were particularly interested in.
Spend some time on a dating app and you will encounter thousands of profiles comprised of the same words. There is no variance in the bromides. On these profiles, people will cite their interests in shows, movies. It will always be the same two or three. There is a world of options out there, but we seem intent on all but cloning ourselves to the point that we have no personal predilections.
It is identity that helps us develop relationships, love fully, know and love ourselves. How many people do you know with an interest that no one else has, or few people have? How many people do you know are, say, a Civil War buff? A ravening devourer of Golden Age detective fiction? An amateur herpetologist?
Or do they just say they like The Office and Netflix? Or they care so much about various social justice causes when they had zero interest in those causes, which always existed, several years ago despite hardly anyone speaking of these things?
So why do we park our car in that one spot and never move it from that crowded lot again, until everyone use up and drives to a different lot?
We are talking of Halloween, so it’s appropriate that part of the answer is fear. We quake so much over the idea that someone will term us different, not a full-fledged member of an enormous pack that is all seething mass and no delineated definition, that we will pare away—we will forgo—our birthright, our great human gift, of individuality.
Linus was not going to let that happen. The Great Pumpkin rises because it needed to rise in the breast and imagination of this child who is an apt model for adults. The metaphor is that it is never too late to rise, nor too late for identity.
Identities are a lot like Great Pumpkins that way. Linus is not ostracized. Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, in fact, finds that her crush on him deepens with Linus’s own ardor for this sprite of the patch. Snoopy, a dog with much on his plate on a Halloween night—having to refight WWI aerial battles — shows up at Linus’s annual vigil to see what’s going on. Even Lucy keeps an eye on the clock, bringing her shivering brother home after yet another year of falling asleep on the cold, hard ground again. In all of the strips and animated specials, it is the warmest, most loving moment you see them have.
I was pretty confident, as I read at the back of the classroom, poised to transition to thinking about what I might write the next day, that the majority of kids would dig Linus the most out of the Peanuts gang, and a great many adults, too. Not because this would be the thing to do, but rather a resonance. He struck me as the kid you wanted to be more like, out in the open, because as you bore witness to Linus, you bore witness to things in yourself that jibed with Linus’s understanding of passion, what Linus would call “great sincerity.”
That great sincerity is the quality he believes, above all, the Great Pumpkin looks for when choosing a pumpkin patch to visit each year, is telling. He only visits the one. The Great Pumpkin isn’t even a Great Pumpkin; it is that which is unique to us and germinates in us with our assistance. The Great Pumpkin in Linus’s yard is the Dragon with a Hoodie somewhere in a city, or the Elf King in, I don’t know, Prague. Or, sometimes, the friend who comes to visit us, whom we did not expect.
The Curse of the Cat People is the Linus version of a horror film. I imagine that Linus’s experience, were he to watch it, would be like my own in observing Linus himself. It was released in 1944, produced by Val Lewton, who had overseen 1942’s Cat People. These films were made for RKO, a studio that Orson Welles had pushed to the brink of financial ruin, thus triggering a rebranding. Whereas Welles had been all about genius — or so read RKO’s press releases — the focus following his departure after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons was to be on showmanship. In other words, any yob out there could enjoy the upcoming movies, you didn’t have to be smart or arty at all, so come out and experience the product.
This was quite insulting to the audience and an artist like Lewton, but so it went. Lewton is one of those producers whom we discuss as a director. He’s hands-on, he’s the involved overseer, not just the guy who comes in at the end with “notes.“ The 1942 picture to which Curse is a sequel was directed by Jacques Tourneur and shot by Nicholas Musuraca — perhaps the ultimate director/photographer tandem of the decade — and starred Kent Smith as Oliver Reed, who falls hard for Irena Dubrovna, played by the luminous-and-still-primal Simone Simon. She’s an artist who happens to have a thing for cats. They make her possessive, they make her horny.
The Lewton team achieves its scares with zero special effects. It’s all lighting and the well-timed suggestive power of silence. Lewton pioneered what was called the Lewton Walk, where a character strolls wordlessly alone, away from people at night, the camera moving with them, the viewer ambulating as well, before laying the boom to both. Sometimes that took the form of a bus pulling up at its next stop, as with one of Cat People’s most famous scenes. (Of which there are two — the other involves a pool, and even if you haven’t seen the picture, you’ve experienced at least secondhand homages.) Bottom line is, Irena gets jealous, there are deaths, Reed has a new lady at the end — Jane Randolph as Alice Moore — and Irena is no more.
But not quite. When Curse starts, Oliver and Alice are married, and they have a daughter around seven or eight-years-old named Amy (Ann Carter as one of the most effective child actors you will encounter). She is teased and bullied by her classmates in ways that Linus was not. Those scenes are enough to make you ache from old memories of childhood politics. She loves nature and slaps a boy who accidentally crushes a butterfly he tried to capture for her. She never, of course, met her father’s first wife, Irena, and it must be said that Oliver Reed is a lesson in how not to parent in this film. He implores the child to make friends, faults her when she is unable to, despite her good-faith efforts. His heart is not in a bad place, but his directives are misguided, his parenting a form of victim-blaming. The girl, in her way, is confident. She continues to try. She’s also the kind of child who believes that placing birthday invitations in the hollow of a tree — a magic mailbox — will get them to their intended recipients. (Personally, I have always imagined the Great Pumpkin in the role of supernal courier.)
She wanders, just as Linus did to his pumpkin patch. Linus is a little older, but these are searchers, young people trying to better understand their identities, find their edges, and then work back towards a core. We meet, of course, many people in life, but we also meet ourselves, a dilatory process we can’t rush. Amy’s walks take her to an old house, the kind one is inevitably told is haunted, where she hears the disembodied voice of an old woman coming from a top floor window beneath a gable. A handkerchief tied around a ring flies from the window, a gift from the possessor of this voice — if indeed it has an earthly owner — that Amy concludes is a magic ring. It may well be.
Lewton wanted to call the film Amy and Her Friend but was overruled by studio brass. Robert Wise—who was Orson Welles’s film editor — handled most of the directing chores, the balance picked up by Gunther von Fritsch. The cinematography once more fell to Musuraca — the cinema’s patron saint of chiaroscuro — and if there is a more beautifully shot American film, I haven’t seen it. The picture has the dreamy sumptuousness of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Were one of our most highly personal nocturnal reveries to leap from the recesses of our dream-wave psyche for all to see, I think it would look like this. Amy’s friend, it turns out, is the returned Irena of Cat People. Or is it her ghost? Or is she an apparition of emotion — a haunting, but not deleterious specter — finding life in the mind of a lonely child, a youngster whose journey to embrace her identity involves this form of coping as a means of stabilization in the interim? Irena’s remit could well be that of spirit guide — the spirit of the individual.
She’s a version of Great Pumpkin — but the sort that actually shows up one of those Octobers, what Linus would see and no one would believe he had seen, as no one believes Amy. She cultivates a relationship with her new friend. This is a quite different Irena. Kind, giving of herself; there is no talk of cats. Simone Simone is backlit by Musuraca such that mahogany-blacks glow as if from a vestibule behind her shoulder blades, beams of white light irradiating the foreground, the edges of the frames—particularly in the forest scenes — draped in a sort of firefly bunting. We watch an internal world gain external expression. There is constancy from Amy on behalf of her friend, whom she also recognizes as part of herself. The loyalty is symbiotic.
In contrast, we have the relationship between the old woman—who is indeed alive and real — Julia Farren (played by Julia Dean), and her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), whom she refuses to acknowledge, calling her an imposter. Amy visits the old woman. The two develop a connection, which wounds Julia. Reality is suspended, paused, in Curse. The look of the movie reflects that cessation. We’re reminded of the time needed to figure out solutions for thorny problems, to work through issues of growth. Christmas carolers gather outside of Amy’s home, looking less like human beings, more like inhabitants of an animated seasonal card.
The carolers are welcomed into the home of the Reeds for hot chocolate, and Amy goes to get her coat. This is a movie in which she’ll later get lost in the woods, in the deep snow, in a dress, no less, fall asleep, emerge unharmed. Sobering points of reality are not the point. But as I watch her execute such a basic gesture — taking down that coat before stepping outside, into the backyard — I have a tendency to do this double-take, reminding myself that we’ve never left the real world because this is what is real for this child. That we bear witness to her form of reality is a manner of reality itself.
As the carolers sing “Shepherds Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep,” we’re roused along with Amy, who is now in her backyard, where Irena sings a descanting counterpoint for the same song, but in French, a multiplicity of valid, concurrently existing worlds.
Amy’s friend eventually departs, as I imagine the Great Pumpkin would after he had deposited his tranche of gifts and you had perhaps fired off a question or two about how he got the gig and his view of it. The film’s climax riffs on Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow mythos in surprising ways, complete with an enthralling, legitimately scary bridge-based set-piece, only sans fiery pumpkin head and devoid of the horse. Well, horse as we think of a horse. There is still horsepower.
Having wandered lost through the snowy night, Amy ends up at the house of the old woman who had first floated the ring down to her from the gable window. Julia, the old woman’s daughter, wants to harm this child whom she views as a symbol of the pain she has been made to feel, but a friend intercedes in a manner that shocks me no matter how many times I view the picture because the friend’s form of intercession—if she is even there at all—is in evidence only insofar as the child does what now comes naturally to her. She gives love to one who needs it — and, in a manner, herself.
That moment ends abruptly, but also subtly. One might think it ends cruelly or casually, but life is that way. That we have powerful connections does not mean they are lasting ones. Here, connection occupies the space of a single embrace, which is then shed. But as all Halloween spirits know — be they great pumpkins or former cat people — what is jettisoned is not what matters, when identity is held fast and grown. Take it from your Halloween friends Linus and Amy. •