Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Review of The Magic Eightball Test

Here for your reading pleasure is my review of my friend Lint Hatcher's latest offering. Lint is the founder and former editor of WONDER Magazine, as those of you who've read the posts below are aware, and a fine writer. Visit him at Hambangers Junction Gazette or Excuse Me, Ghidorah, or go on over to lulu.com to see the book (with Lint's own graphic design work on the cover).

Enjoy! And a Happy Halloween to one and all!


On the cover of the first edition of Lint Hatcher’s The Magic Eightball Test: A Christian Defense of Halloween and All Things Spooky, the reader is greeted by the author’s own sketch of a strange gathering of fictional characters, including a traditional-looking, long-nosed, pointy-hatted witch with a pumpkin cauldron – but on a second look, she’s holding the cauldron by a handle over the open top. It has chevron eyes and a zigzag mouth on the front, and my brain can’t resist the urge to morph the cauldron into one of those plastic jack o’lanterns that children use for trick-or-treating. Then there’s an Orc-looking/imp-like fellow next to her, and a fairy princess modeled on Disney’s Cinderella, and a small being (a child? E.T.?) underneath a sheet with eyeholes cut in it. The group is fronted by Batman’s young sidekick Robin sporting an inordinately serious expression, gravely holding a large black orb – our titular Magic Eightball. Towering over the other characters from behind is the more familiar figure of Frankenstein, with an incongruously cheery, grandfatherly grin spread across his wide face. [Note: This illustration is on the cover of the first edition; the current cover above is different, but also cool.] I get the feeling that though the subtitle introduces the book as “a Christian defense of Halloween”, this won’t be heavy theology – Hatcher doesn’t seem averse to applying a sense of humor to his subject.

The chapter titles include evocations of classic Halloween kitsch (“Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House”) and wry twists on pagan propaganda (“The Ancient Art of Pop-O-Matic”). Hope rises in my heart that I won’t be drenched with a firehose stream of Biblical prooftexts and platitudes that sound like they were uttered by a talking head with horn-rimmed glasses and a blonde bouffant hairdo. I plunge in.

Hatcher begins his ambitious project by describing the attraction that the season of fall has for him:

It’s a kind of music. For me, it’s built into reality and it’s saying something good to me. Just as “the heavens proclaim the glory of God” in a manner that is aesthetic, almost musical, rather than prosaic, the coming of autumn says something romantic and pure to me. It sings about Nighttime, and Winter, and the liveliness of Death, about truths too difficult and painful to accept any other way – except, perhaps, through the words of some great poet.

And because autumn is a kind of music, Halloween is a kind of dance.

He then discusses the various aspects of Halloween as we experience it in America: 1) the autumn festival, 2) a night of “make-believe”, and 3) a celebration of all things spooky. He gives a brief history of the holiday’s origins, being careful to distinguish between the Celts’ worship of nature and the celebration (or veneration, if you will) of the creation that we engage in at harvest time. He tells a funny but tragic story of dressing up like Cornelius from Planet of the Apes one day and going to school – a day that unfortunately was not Halloween, but rather a balmy day in March. He writes: “I remember suffering a lot throughout the day, horribly burdened by a growing realization. ‘What kind of world is this’, I thought, ‘if you can’t go to school dressed up like a gorilla?’ The question haunts me to this very day.” As well it should all of us.

For Hatcher has uncovered a very important aspect of our humanity that has been forced to lumber off and hibernate in the face of rationalism’s and cynicism’s encroachment into its territory: our sense of awe and delight in God’s creation, in who we are as God’s creatures, in all of life’s glorious possibilities that an active imagination makes available to us.

Hatcher is careful to draw a bright line between the type of occultism that is actually practiced by serious believers in dark powers and the “pop” occult trappings of our modern Halloween celebration. The means of distinguishing the two (again referring to the book’s title) is The Magic Eightball Test. He contrasts the familiar Magic Eightball toy with the Ouija board and asks:

When people place their trembling fingertips on the triangular planchette of a Ouija board and ask a question, to whom are they speaking? “The spirits.” Whether a person believes or not… they formally address their questions to the spirit world. Thus, some creature may answer – and in fact it may make very little difference to that creature whether he is believed in or not.

Okay. When a person asks a question of the Magic Eightball, who are they talking to? Who do they know darn well that they are addressing?

That round piece of plastic there. The one with the number eight painted on it. The one full of blue liquid and, hey, why don’t we break it open to see how it works, huh?

…[W]e ply it for answers… like a Pop-O-Matic dice roller. If we don’t get the answer we want, we shake it up again.

This is the heart of Hatcher’s argument and defense of Halloween and its spooky accoutrements – things like Dracula costumes, trick-or-treating, and decorating one’s house with black cats and gravestones are simply responses to the idea of the spirit world - cultural echoes of real encounters, perhaps, but no longer conveying the reality of the things they signify. They are “make-believe”, an experience of “playing pretend”, like a father playing with his children by growling like a lion and chasing them around the living room. They allow an acknowledgement of evil and the “spooky aesthetic” that hangs about certain creatures, but not a participation in an actual experience of it.

In Hatcher’s description of his friends’, family’s, and schoolmates’ reactions to his creative flights of fancy and his interest in things that others find distasteful, I can’t help but notice a quiet exasperation, a tiny bit of resentment, a touch of sadness in his tone. I find myself asking: Where does our childlike sense of wonder go when we cease to be children in the physical sense? How can we tap into, or perhaps recover, our ability to sense the thrill of an encounter with the supernatural – what Hatcher calls “the spooky gene”?

This is where Hatcher draws on the expertise of English journalist and poet G.K. Chesterton to provide “Deep Background” for his worldview. He reprints Chesterton’s essays On Holidays, The Spice of Life, and The Nightmare, all of which further explore ideas of culture and experience, and lend solid support to his position. Chesterton apparently was also possessed of the “spooky gene”, as he describes in the closing paragraph of The Nightmare:

Therefore I see no wrong in riding with the Nightmare tonight; she whinnies to me from the rocking tree-tops and the roaring wind; I will catch her and ride her through the awful air… I will ride on the Nightmare; but she shall not ride on me.

Also reprinted in this volume is Hatcher’s essay Wunderkind, a fictional diary of a young man traveling the pathway of popular culture and rediscovering his childlike sense of wonder through a renewed sacramental understanding of the world. An engaging personal autobiographical note closes the slim volume.

On a personal note of my own, I had the privilege of attending a Halloween party once with Lint Hatcher, his family, and about 50 other revelers in a tent at a Christian music and arts festival. You may think this an unlikely place for a Halloween party, but trust me, the time was just as unlikely as the venue – Fourth of July weekend. The theme of the lecture series taking place at the festival was “Days of the Dead”, including Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos, with lectures and discussions of their cultural and religious contexts. Hatcher was a speaker at the event and delivered “The Magic Eightball Test” as a short speech before the party started. He was well received by the assorted zombies, ghosts, mummies, Goths, and vampires who had gathered for the festivities.

I had carefully planned my costume – in honor of St. Francis of Assisi and his Canticle of the Sun (mentioning Brother Sun, Sister Moon, etc.), I had come to the party as Sister Death – all gothed out in black from head to toe, in whiteface with big black eyes, and blood red lipstick with a trail of stage blood dripping from a corner of my mouth. Just as the dance was getting going, I was in a corner of the tent putting the finishing touches on my makeup when Hatcher and his son Nick came over. I heard him say, “Oh, man!” and looked up, and he met my wide grin with one even wider than mine – extended (by a creative makeup job of his own) at one side to reveal several bare teeth, a bony jaw, and a grotesque vermilion border – reminiscent of the expression of the title character in William Castle’s classic film Mr. Sardonicus. Together we rejoined the crowd and cheered for the band as they kicked into some high-energy surf-rock with horror-show parody lyrics.

Lint Hatcher “gets” Halloween – whatever it once was, whatever it may be to some, it’s definitely wonderful fun.