#Pumpkingate or Why Halloween III is the Definitive Halloween Movie for Our Times

Halloween III: Season of the Witch reflected the early days of "Satanic Panic" conspiracies, mass delusions that still plague America to this day.

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Halloween III: Season of the Witch reflected the early days of “Satanic Panic” conspiracies, mass delusions that still plague America to this day.

A recent seasonal gift to myself was the recent NECA figure set honoring that most misunderstood of 1980s horror movies, Tommy Lee Wallace’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch. A decade ago, it would’ve been unthinkable that horror freaks could go to Target and purchase toys decked out in the infamous Silver Shamrock pumpkin, skeleton, and witch masks. The film has become a cult classic and (more so than even its 1978 predecessor) has come to symbolize the Halloween season.

Part of its recent cult status is the centrality of the actual Halloween holiday to the movie. The film explicitly deals with trick or treating and the holiday season more than most other Halloween set horror films (Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat being the rare exception). Another reason is the film’s ridiculous plot which is among the strangest of any mainstream horror film. 

In the Screen Rant article “Why Halloween 3 Has Developed a Cult Following,” Marian Phillips points out that much of the 1983 film’s rise in popularity is due to a Stranger Things fueled rise in 1980s nostalgia. I think Phillips is close. Nostalgia is a huge part of Halloween III: Season of the Witch’s cult status, but I think it’s a dark nostalgia for the days of the “Satanic Panic”, where millions of Americans believed, with 100% certainty, that devil worshippers were seeking to snatch children for nefarious occult purposes. Unfortunately, the Satanic Panic has been given a makeover, and that too makes Halloween III relevant to modern horror audiences. 

“The Night No One Comes Home”

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983, dir. Tommy Lee Wallace)

John Carpenter’s plan for the Halloween franchise was to move it away from Michael Myers’s killing sprees and use subsequent films in the series to tell different stories set during the Halloween season. Halloween III: Season of the Witch was the first (and last film) in this new direction. The film tells the ludicrous story of the Silver Shamrock novelty company which by day manufactures fake dog poop and vomit but by night is secretly a Celtic druidic cult led by the company president Conal Cochran. If this wasn’t odd enough, Cochran also has an army of androids at his disposal. 

For nebulous reasons, Cochran has stolen a block of Stonehenge and hidden shards from it in Silver Shamrock’s new line of Halloween masks. The masks will activate upon hearing a signal from the Silver Shamrock sponsored television airing of the first Halloween movie. Each child who is wearing a Silver Shamrock mask will have his or her brain transformed into a portal to hell. It is up to our film’s heroes to stop Cochran and prevent millions of kiddies from having their noggins transformed into piles of snakes and bugs.

The Silver Shamrock magic pumpkin death signal from Halloween III: Season of the Witch

For most of its 37 years, the film was neglected. It was known as the Halloween film made with the terrible decision to not include Michael Myers. It was, at best, in the “so bad it’s good” category. There is no denying that the film’s story (crafted by British horror legend Nigel Kneale, creator of Professor Quatermass) is ludicrous and many of its “scares” unintentionally goofy. Halloween III, despite its uneven tone, does not deserve to be lumped in with films like Uninvited and Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2. The film is one of the most interesting and well-made films of any of the major horror franchises

Director Tommy Lee Wallace was one of John Carpenter’s earliest (and greatest) collaborators. Wallace was the production designer responsible for creating the grimey space craft of Dark Star, the urban decay apocalypse of Assault on Precinct 13, and the cozily familiar yet menacing locales of Halloween and The Fog. Wallace brought a designer’s eye to highly stylized sequences such as the opening android attack and the infamously grotesque “Test Room A” scene. 

Thanks to Dean Cundey’s cinematography, the movie is able to maintain an eerie atmosphere despite its absurd plot. Cundey was Carpenter’s director of photography for Halloween and The Thing. The rich colors, deep contrasts, and evocative shadows which he brought to Carpenter’s two greatest films are also present in Halloween III. Additionally, Tom Atkins, the greatest of all 1980s horror stars, gives the preposterous tale a believable tough-guy protagonist. 

The movie’s visuals and unique (to put it mildly) story help make Halloween III one of the more interesting entries among horror franchise films, but it’s themes and perpetual relevance which make it the premier Halloween film for nearly four decades.

The Devil’s Playground

Halloween III: Season of the Witch gave us a preview of a growing concern in Evangelical Christian circles. In 1986 a book called Turmoil in the Toybox was published. In it pastor Phil Philips made the case that popular 1980s toys such as Care Bears and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe were indoctrinating children with vile Satanic messages. Much of the book’s content was drawn for a series of talks Philips made in 1984. In these talks Philips likened the “care bear stare” to a form of diabolical mind control. As we shall see in the Satanic Panic’s future incarnations, a legitimate critique regarding the market’s influence on children’s development is replaced with baseless fear mongering rooted in lies and urban legends. Halloween III: Season of the Witch depicts the silly yet nightmarish world where the wizards and witches are hiding in the toy aisle. The premise of Phillip’s book is laughable but it was part of a larger movement which still lingers on to this day. 

Phil Philips explaining the evils of Skeletor to Christian broadcaster Gary Greenwald

More than any other horror film of the decade Halloween III: Season of the Witch reflects the bizarre world of the “Satanic Panic,” a mass delusion which left an indelible mark on American Halloween celebrations. While the Panic may have its roots in a backlash against the popularity of faux-occultism in the 1970s, the social phenomenon truly begins with the publication in 1980 of Michelle Remembers by Lawrence Pazder. Pazder was a psychiatrist whose patient Michelle Smith remembered shocking tales of Satanic ritualized abuse while under hypnosis. These included incredible accounts of cannibalism, torture, and frolics with dangerous snakes and spiders. Later investigations into Pazder’s methods and Smith’s memories proved that the story was as fictional as Silver Shamrock’s killer masks. Unfortunately, the book had a massive effect on the American psyche and its fabricated tales of deviltry had dire real world consequences. 

The “McMartin Case” is the most well known of the legal cases fueled by the Satanic Panic. The controversy began in 1983, the same year of Halloween III’s release. The case involved allegations of ritualistic murder and sexual abuse against the family who owned an operated McMartin preschool. The case went through over three years of investigations and various trails from 1987 to 1990. In 1990, the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence after millions of dollars and the complete ruination of the McMartin family. 

An advertisement from 1986 showing Oprah hyping the hysteria.

Two years after the McMartin case was dismissed, Dan and Fran Keller were sentenced to prison for supposedly running a Luciferian house of horrors in their Texas day care center. They were accused of the standard Satanic ritualistic abuse in addition to sex trafficking and forcing children to swim in pools filled with dangerous sharks. Despite their conviction, there was no actual evidence linking the Keller’s to any of these atrocities. Journalists and reasonable politicians spent years advocating for their release. In 2013, the Kellers were released after 22 years in prison and given $3.4 million in restitution from the state of Texas.

Halloween in the time of COVID and Q

Halloween 2020 is threatened by an invisible enemy, but unlike past Halloween scares, this enemy is all too real.  Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC has officially advised parents to forego door-to-door trick or treating. The CDC also advises against hayrides, indoor parties, and “trunk or treating.” Spirit Halloween stores have disclaimers that masks of Freddy Krueger, Twisty the Clown, and others do not offer actual protection against the virus. While most Americans understand the importance of wearing a mask during the pandemic, a very loud yet influential minority sees a plot with shades of Conal Cochran’s sinister plans from Halloween III. To them, the masks are not a common sense safety precaution, but a scheme hatched from sinister powerful forces to enslave and subjugate honest, God-loving Americans. It is one of the more harmful examples of conspiratorial thinking, but it is not unique.

An example of an anti-mask meme. This one was made famous by Donald Trump Jr.

Born from the darkest and dankest recesses of social media, there was a recent movement to change the #SaveTheChildren hashtag to “#SaveOurChildren.” Save the Children is a legitimate organization which has done actual work to stop the very real problem of child trafficking in the United States and abroad. The Facebook and Instagram users calling for the change to “#SaveOurChildren” cite Save The Children US’s work with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Gates is at the center of many right wing conspiracy theories, many of which involve his supposed inclusion of microchips into future COVID-19 vaccines. The Gates foundation is also named in many of the various offshoots of the Pizzagate and Qanon conspiracies.

The #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren hashtags have been used as a way for Qanon and Pizzagate theories to worm their way into the mainstream. These far-right belief systems center on groups of elite liberals who partake in nearly identical revels as the fictional Satanists of the Satanic Panic. Beloved Hollywood stars like Tom Hanks and the cast of Friends are thought to secretly be in devilish cahoots with Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. To the true believers of Qanon, there is only one thing standing in the way of these fiends: Donald Trump. Like the Clintons, Trump was a known associate of Jeffrey Epstein, but these facts do not deter the followers of Qanon. Even though many elements of the conspiracy make the Silver Shamrock mask plot seem downright quaint, social media phenomena, such as the “#SaveOurChildren” controversy, have allowed this bizarre belief system to seep out from fringe Facebook groups and into the real world. There have been instances of Qanon and Pizzagate related conspiracies inspiring violence and negatively impacting our already fragile political institutions

Halloween has always been a time for conspiracies to run rampant. Since 2001, whispers of ill-defined terrorist threats have been an October fixture. Fears of poisoners and cultists leftover from the 1980s and 1990s still abound during October. It’s only fitting that Halloween 2020 ramps up the paranoia. The nether regions of Facebook are filled with COVID denialists proudly flaunting the CDC’s guidelines against trick or treating. Oddly enough many other right wing pages are filled with various Q-tinged warnings about nefarious Samhain celebrations, mixing the hot new conspiracy with the tried and true tropes of the Satanic Panic. 

A sampling of recent #SaveOurChildren Halloween-themed posts

“It’s Almost Time, Kids…”

Recently a series of posts from Facebook and Instagram accounts detailed disturbing allegations regarding Troll and LOL Surprise dolls. Once again, facts were contorted and a panic was created. Like Turmoil in the Toybox, toys are once again suspect in a vast conspiracy. This is but one example of why Halloween III: Season of the Witch is the Halloween movie for our times.

Would it be that surprising if a GOP member of congress tweeted about Bill Gates hiding monolith pieces in anti-COVID masks? Would we really be that shocked if a #SaveOurChildren Facebook post with a half-a-million shares warned us that witches had infiltrated Fisher Price and were trying to turn our children’s brains into spiders and crickets? Halloween III satirizes these types of conspiracies while also showing us a reality in which they are real. That reality may seem scarier at first glance, but it is ultimately comforting.

By showing us a reality where the conspiracy is real, Halloween III gives us heroes that are trying to stop an actual threat and not descending into madness. Reality presents a much starker picture. In the film, the heroes are able to confront Cochran at his factory and destroy his occultic broadcast devices. For the conspiracies of 2020, there is no one place to travel. They have no location because they do not exist in our reality.

Tom Atkins in the famous final scene of Halloween III: Season of the Witch

At the end of Halloween III, Tom Atkins’s character is able to get most of the stations to cease broadcasting the Silver Shamrock signal, but the film ends ambiguously as to whether or not he is successful in stopping the final station. There is no ambiguity to the results of recent attempts to stop the spread of Qanon and COVID denialism. They have failed. Qanon, pizzagate, and anti-mask crusades are with us for the foreseeable future. These issues define 2020 but they are fueled by 1980s throwbacks such as the Satanic Panic and Donald Trump. It is only appropriate that another 80s throwback, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, becomes the definitive film for Halloween 2020.

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