Christmas flaunts Santa Clause, Easter has an anthropomorphic rabbit and Valentine’s Day sports a pudgy toddler armed with ironic hunting gear, but Halloween has long lacked an iconic spokesperson. So thank filmmaker Michael Dougherty for gifting October 31 with Sam, a “child” dressed in weathered burlap who punishes the ignorant for violating the hoary traditions of All Hallows’ Eve.
Dougherty introduced the character in an animated short he completed in college before unleashing him (it?) to the masses in the beloved 2009 horror anthology, Trick ‘r Treat. The adored film united Dougherty with Brian Cox and Anna Paquin, who he’d worked with when scripting X-Men 2 alongside director Bryan Singer, who also helped produce his colleague’s creepy new love letter to October 31st.
Though distributor Warner Brothers shafted Trick ‘r Treat to a limited release two years after it wrapped, the project has clawed its way up from the grave into the hearts of Halloween fanatics. Reveling in Midwestern nostalgia and pulp horror excess, the film presents four interlocking tales of the supernatural invading a small Ohio town (Dougherty’s a Columbus native) when the veil between the dead and living is at its thinnest. Filled with vibrant red, orange and blacks, the feature offers a gorgeous, funereal ode to the holiday whose beauty far surpasses what one might expect from a $12 million budget. Most importantly, Dougherty displays a genuine ardor for the season that’s as horrifying as it is touching. Sam stands at its nexus, brandishing a sharpened lollipop to enforce the old ways of a day celebrated as much as it’s misunderstood.
This month, Dougherty banded together with Todd Casey and Zach Shields—his fellow writers on the macabre yuletide yarn Krampus —for Trick ‘r Treat: Days of the Dead. The new comic anthology explores Halloween’s roots (sometimes literally) as they wrap around the centuries from ancient Ireland to the Manifest Destiny West and hard-boiled ‘50s LA. Like a much bloodier relative of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, Days of the Dead charts a legacy and all of the political and religious context that’s attempted to suffocate it, illustrated with verve by Fiona Staples (!!!), Stephen Byrne, Stuart Sayger and Zid and scripted by Marc Andreyko. (Fun fact: Shields was also one half of the spookified folk group Dead Man’s Bones alongside Ryan Gosling.)
Paste chatted with Dougherty, Casey and Shields to discuss the comic, expanding the mythos and how it ties into the upcoming film sequel, Trick ‘r Treat 2.
Paste: Michael, Trick ‘r Treat started far before 2009 with your animated short, Season’s Greetings, that you produced in college. After all of these years, you’re still creating in the universe, even given the bureaucratic issues you had to deal with in distribution for the first film. What makes this universe and Sam so resonant for you?
Michael Dougherty: I have a deep-seated love for the holiday itself. I feel like it’s the one holiday where people actually get to be themselves, even as they’re dressing up as other people. It’s the one time of year when everybody’s watching horror movies and eating candy and dressing up in costumes, and it feels like life is as it should be. That’s the upside, and the downside being that it’s one night of the year. So it just became this thing to look forward to growing up, and then that lead to researching it, and finding out that it’s not new—Halloween’s been around for a really long time. A lot of the beliefs and customs that we take for granted have very strange, mystical pagan roots.
It’s a rabbit hole. Halloween’s a rabbit hole and the more you look into it, the more cool and interesting it gets. I fell down that rabbit hole and never left, and I feel like I’ve been pulling people in with me one after the other.
Paste: In the intro to Days of the Dead, you mention your affinity for pagan demons, having filmed Krampus as well. Having gone to a Catholic high school and featuring a story here with an antagonistic priest, what are your thoughts on Halloween’s place in pop culture and religion?
Dougherty: [Laughs] Oh man, you’re going right for it. It’s interesting because I think there’s a very spiritual side to the holiday. It’s original intent was a night to honor the dead—to honor your ancestors, the people who died up till now. It was much more of a candlelight vigil kind of thing. It wasn’t like it was a solemn holiday, it was a night where you would celebrate those who had passed on. I think when you look at it and you look at its roots like that, again, it adds a layer of legit spirituality to the holiday that most people probably aren’t aware of. People think, I dress up as a sexy nurse to get laid. Well, no—there’s more to it. I think that it’s interesting that some organized religions have come out staunchly opposed to it without bothering to look into what’s it really about.
Trick ‘r Treat: Days of the Dead Interior Art by Fiona Staples
In that sense, I think it catches a bad rap. You read about schools or other places trying to ban it or change it, but that feels like a knee-jerk reaction to what they think the holiday is to what it really can be, which is meant to honor the dead.
Paste: So what are your guys’ favorite horror or Halloween comic books?
Todd Casey: It’s from a long time ago and I still can’t tell you what the plot is, but I’ve always loved Batman: The Long Halloween.
Dougherty: I grew up reading horror comics like the Creepy and Eerie books. I inherited a big stack of those as a kid, and they had a huge influence on me because up until then I’d only been exposed to superhero comic books. Here comes Creepy and Eerie and they’ve got monsters and zombies and blood and guts and everything else. It felt like that bad kid you weren’t supposed to hang out with. That was a turning point to be introduced to horror comics as a kid. That was a huge influence on the movie.
Paste: So is Sam basically the avatar of Samhain?
Dougherty: Yes and no. I know that sounds so cagey. I feel like a presidential candidate that’s trying to dodge some serious political question. He’s definitely an embodiment of the spirit of Halloween. Would you want to give him a proper name like that and call him Samhain? I wouldn’t go that far, necessarily. I don’t like the idea of revealing what his origins are, because I feel like that takes away from the mystery and power of the character, which is why I’ll never do a story that says, flat out, here are his origins. I’ll never say he was some kid who got killed on trick ‘r treat, and Sam is his ghost. That would be stupid. I like to leave it purposely vague and just say he’s the spirit of Halloween.
Paste: One thing I liked about the comic—besides the fact that it spanned centuries—was that we also saw new genres like western and noir. What inspired the time and genre shifts?
Casey: We wanted to take advantage of the fact that it’s a comic book, and regardless of where we set the story or what elaborate costumes or period piece was required, it didn’t actually cost us anything else. We had some especially talented artists and we were able to do a western or a noire, or something set in 17th-century Ireland.
As for genres, we always wanted to do an anthology, but we couldn’t quite zero in on a ‘let’s do it this night’ four stories. We decided, well…let’s go all over the place.
Zach Shields: We wanted to hint at a deeper mythology as we see it and its history, like Mike said earlier. So tracing it through the ages and tracking its origins from Celtic traditions to the traditions we have today, we followed that line of history as best we could with four stories. We chose Ireland in the 1400s and we chose the states during the time of western expansion and we chose LA in the ‘50s, and we tried to pick these areas that appealed to us. What was Halloween like at the time? We used a little bit of creative license, but that was a big motivator creatively—how did this holiday come to us now, because we love it so much?
Dougherty: Like I said before, Halloween is such a great rabbit hole. Once you fall down, it just takes you on this journey. One of my favorite things to get lost doing online is looking at old Halloween photos, and just seeing how costumes have evolved over the years is so interesting. The holiday leaves this little trail of breadcrumbs, and if you follow it, it takes you all the way back to ancient Ireland, pagans and genuinely interesting and weird rituals, that all had these quasi-spiritual belief systems. It just made sense to tell stories that followed that candy trail. Following it back to its source, its roots, and showing how it migrated to the states and got us to how we are now. It’s a fascinating journey to see a holiday last that long and evolve with a culture that much.
Trick ‘r Treat: Days of the Dead Interior Art by Zid
Paste: Were there any time periods you were close to including but weren’t able to fit in?
Casey: I think at one point we were circling the Salem witch trials era, and decided that was pretty well-worn territory.
Dougherty: [Laughs] We’ve seen plenty of paranoid villagers accuse each other of witchcraft in many forms, but I think something we felt like we hadn’t seen was horror western. That key moment when American culture and tradition butted heads with Native American culture and traditions and what that moment might have been like, and what kind of similar monsters and legends that they might have had in common. That suddenly felt so much more interesting, fresh and original than another Salem witch trial story.
Paste: The credits list all three of you as the writers with no delegation for individual stories; what was the collaboration process like for this anthology?
Casey: We broke down stuff in Mike’s living room one day. We talked out the four stories we wanted to tell, taking down notes. And then [scripter] Marc Andreyko went to draft based on our stories, and then when those came back we literally sat in the same room together passing scripts around and passing our computers around going over everything. That may have come from how we worked on Krampus. We were just used to it. There’s one voice to us for that reason. We’re all putting our hands on everything—it’s not like you do this one, I’ll do this.
Dougherty: It’s a party. One of the best parts of the process is hanging out as friends first, and then naturally it segues into a lot of what ifs and brainstormings and one idea topping the other. It’s a really fun experience.
Shields: One really nice thing about that is when you’re making something, trying to put your imagination into creativity can be a lonely experience. It’s nice to share the confidence of what you’re doing and to share the fun with people that you care about.
Paste: It was nice to see Fiona Staples again on the book. What went into the process for deciding the artists?
Dougherty: We really tried to find artists whose styles fit each story. Each story is so unique and the setting is so different than the other, that we really scoured high and low trying to find people who fit that. Fiona was an easy one, because she worked on the original Trick ‘r Treat book. I know it was one of her first jobs, if not her first job. That felt like homecoming. Obviously, it’s been great that she’s gone off and become this well-known artist, so we felt honored that she said yes and wanted to come back. It really felt like that story, on “Seed,” was a romantic but tragic tale. There was an elegance and beauty to it. Her style just fit that notion, versus Zid, who did “Monster Mash,” which was meant to be a much more traditional story. Zid’s style matched that. It’s beautiful and lush, but it’s much more traditional.
Casey: On the “Corn Maiden,” I love how sweet Stephen Byrne’s art can be, because there are children and bonding in the story, then when scenes of graphic violence happen, it’s so much more shocking because his art has this sweetness to it.
Trick ‘r Treat: Days of the Dead Interior Art by Stephen Byrne
Dougherty: That’s a really good point. Stephen Byrne is someone who we discovered online. Actually it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer that brought him to us—he did this brilliant fan-made animated opening title sequence. It was beautiful. We followed the link from that to his online gallery, and it became a very quick decision to ask him to come onboard. I don’t know, guys—I feel like in short, we threw a halloween party together and invited some of the weirdest, but most creative, people we could think of.
Casey: Stuart [Sayger]’s work is particularly weird and dreamlike. His dark high-contrast, moody surrealist stuff worked for the noire story because the character is very much losing sight of what’s real and what’s an illusion or supernatural around him. His artwork is perfect for that. You, the reader, are put in the dream alongside the character.
Dougherty: At a certain point you ask yourself what the fuck is happening?
Another inspiration I forgot about were the old Hellraiser comics from the ‘90s. I started with superhero comics, then went to horror comics. and then from horror comics into Hellraiser adaptations and then the Dark Horse comics. That’s where it felt like the artwork really started to flourish. It went beyond your typical pen and ink style into full-on acrylic and oil painting. Those comics were willing to experiment more, and try different kinds of artists and styles, but using the graphic novel format.
I think that was the intent when we went to gather our artists—find people who were willing to color outside the lines more.
Trick ‘r Treat: Days of the Dead Interior Art by Stuart Sayger
Paste: Is Days of the Dead going to serve as a roadmap to the upcoming movie sequel at all?
Dougherty: I don’t think it’s a roadmap as much as it can enrich the experience of watching the films. It’s not like you have to read these books to enjoy the movies, but the hope is that with the next film there will be elements or characters that harken back to this book or the first film—that loose connective tissue that might make you enjoy it more.
Paste: Will the next film feature completely new stories?
Dougherty: They’ll be completely new stories, but again with loose threads that will connect them to the books or to the first film.
Paste: Out of curiosity, was the Halloween parade from the first movie inspired by Ohio University’s Halloween Parties at all?
Dougherty: It was a mix of Ohio University’s party in Athens, but also a mix of The Circleville Pumpkin Show and then, of course, Greenwich Village parade. Those events were the first time I’d ever seen Halloween celebrated as a mass outdoor celebration. Up till then, I only knew about it as trick ‘r treating and maybe some parties. To see hundreds of people gathered at a street, towers of pumpkins and people stumbling drunk down the street. That was an eye opener as a kid. Very much so.