Ouija boards, caramel biscuits and a Liverpool footballing icon.
It’s funny how some of the traditions that we still embrace today hark back to things we discovered as kids. For me, one of my regular Halloween habits is to give the classic horror movie Witchboard a look. My first experience of it is engrained into my psyche from one trippy night as a 13 year old kid. It was 31st October 1990, and a night of teenage Halloween hijinks was about to take place at my best friend Matty’s house. He was quite a ghost freak, and an avid listener to the Tony Schaeffer radio show on a Sunday evening, as was I. For the uninitiated, Tony Schaeffer was a British actor who presented a radio show on BBC Radio Manchester that was broadcast to the majority of North West England each Sunday night. The highlight of this show was Tony’s ghost story, a ten minute piece where he’d recount one of his own experiences (he was an amateur ghost hunter) with great dramatic effect. Recently he had described a Ouija board incident in chilling detail and described it as the most frightening case of his career, so much so it scared the living shit out of us. That Halloween saw the coincidental hiring of Witchboard on VHS, so with the subject of Ouija boards dominating the evening the level of trepidation was immense.
In the meantime though, some trick or treating was necessary for the acquisition of sweets and such for the movie’s duration. Back in 1990, the Halloween market was yet to really blossom in the UK so cheap plastic masks were donned and off we went. It was a fairly fruitless exercise with a staggering amount of unopened doors and those that did answer were ill prepared. Whilst knocking on one ominous property the door was answered by the Liverpool footballing icon Ian St. John. To meet a legend is always a great moment, but to do so in a Frankenstein mask held on with an elastic band, an oversized raincoat and school pumps whilst begging for sweets wasn’t ideal. In today’s terms I’d say it was akin to meeting Steven Gerrard whilst dressed as One Direction. The Saint was staggeringly polite and summoned his wife while they mulled over what they could offer, with the result being one supermarket brand caramel biscuit. In awe we thanked him as if he’d given us a signed shirt, the realisation of such a meagre offering only dawning on us as we walked dazed back onto the main road.
Such triviality aside, we took our haul back to the house and settled down to the hotly anticipated movie. If you’ve not seen it, Witchboard is actually a really decent horror. Directed by Kevin S Tenney, the force behind the awesome Night Of The Demons (1988) and the recent guilty pleasure Brain Dead (2007), it starred character actor Todd Allen and foxy siren Tawny Kitaen (Gwendoline). Its plot is the fairly rudimentary “woman becomes intrigued by Ouija board, decides to play about with one”. That said though, this simple storyline benefits the movie immeasurably and just lets the board do the talking.
What makes the movie so scary is the fact that you can re-enact it yourself, either by heading to eBay or the local magic shop, hell – even make one yourself. Many horror movies tend to scare you whilst at the same time providing you with the comfort blanket of knowing that the events portrayed could never happen to you. With Witchboard though, the blanket is removed and you’re faced with the horror of something that you yourself could actually manifest.
Weirdly, the use of Ouija’s in horror movies has been somewhat restrained. There’s Long Time Dead, Paranormal Activity and a few low budgets, but generally it’s been a rarely used tool. With regard to personal use, that period in 1990 terrified me so much I’ve rejected any involvement in Ouija practices since (I remember it being a regular pastime at Uni). As for that 13 year old kid back in 1990, Witchboard scared the bejesus out of him, and it’s the reason it’s my pick for Halloween tradition. It takes me back to a time of innocence, when you treated horror movies with genuine fear and trepidation in the days before adult cynicism became the overpowering emotion.
In a weird turn of events, I’m sat here watching and reminiscing about Witchboard, whilst a few hours ago I shared morning greetings with the legend Ian St. John – he walks his dogs where I walk mine. All I need is a supermarket brand caramel biscuit and twenty three years later my Ouija board horror is relived and fully re-enacted.
Postscript: Here’s the north-west’s premier ghost hunter, Tony Schaeffer, re-telling one of his experiences.